B1 Intermediate 78020 Folder Collection
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"Huang" and "Wong," "Kwan" and "Guan," "Lee" and "Li,"
these Chinese American last names may have different spellings, but they're actually the same.
Take my family for example, my great aunts and uncles spell their last name "Lee," but my parents spell "Li."
Let me explain.
First, remember that Chinese has hundreds of dialect variations that all sound pretty different.
For example, "let's eat" in Chinese can be
And that's just three dialects.
So what happens in a country where everyone is speaking a variation of a language and not everyone understands each other.
Chaos. Well, sort of.
Back in the day when Beijing was still known as Peking,
China hadn't yet fully adopted Mandarin as its official language.
In the 1940s, most government officials used Mandarin but many other dialects were also alive and well.
(Various dialects)
Because there was no one dialect that everyone used,
there was also no agreement on how to translate Chinese characters into Roman alphabet for Westerners to pronounce.
Couple of British dudes did create a phonetic alphabet to understand Mandarin called the "Wade-Giles system,"
but was never officially recognized in the country.
As a result, the earliest Chinese immigrants to the United States wrote their last names based on the dialect they spoke,
say "Kwan" if you spoke Cantonese or "Guan" if you spoke Mandarin.
But then Mao came to power, and he strengthened Mandarin as the national dialect, making it the standard language of education for all of China.
(From now on, the official language is Mandarin.)
He then got one of his own guys to create phonetic alphabet and that became known as "hanyu pinyin."
Once China had an official alphabet for spelling,
"Peking" became "Beijing," "Nanking" became "Nanjing," "Canton" became "Guangzhou."
The city's actual names in Chinese do not change, just the Western spelling.
By the way, China aside, Taiwan still uses a mix of "Wade-Giles" and "pinyin" spelling
while Hong Kong still speaks Cantonese and uses Cantonese spelling.
All this brings us back to Chinese names in the U.S..
Based on the spelling of those names, it gives you a clue about the origin of the family.
Like the Lees who emigrated from China before 1958, they spell their last name "Lee,"
but my parents who emigrated from China after the pingyin alphabet, they spell their last name "Li."
Same goes for many others such as "Lam" and "Lin," "Chou" and "Zhou," "Ng" and "Wu."
Same family, different spelling and now you know.
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What's The Difference Between “Lee” And “Li”?

78020 Folder Collection
張玉聖 published on April 7, 2017
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