Carolyn Wing Greenlee

The Meaning of the Red Word

Some people have asked me what the red word to the left of my name means. It’s my dad’s chosen last name. In Cantonese it’s pronounced “wing,” but it means “eternity.” He chose it when he left his family (a story too long to tell in this post. If you want to know the details, they take up about half of Eternal River, Vol 1) because he associated it with flying away from Confucian slavery to the kind of freedom that this country represents.

The Chinese have a family name, a generational name (so when someone’s introduced people know exactly where they’re placed in the genealogy of the clan), and a given name. “Wing” is a Chinese first name, not a last name, but “Tom” is a last name, so when my dad, Thomas W. Wing, was questioned about his name by puzzled Chinese, he simply told them his other name was Wing Tom and they were satisfied.

My generational name is wei which means “literary.” My children’s is tao, which means “way.” There’s a book somewhere (probably back in the village in China) where the names for all future generations have been written, but by the time I wanted my grandchildren to have their generational names, the only person who would have known the word was an elderly auntie who had advanced Alzheimer’s. I did not feel I could trust her for information.

Traditionally, the eldest in the family chooses a name for each child. There is usually a uniting theme. In Mom’s family, the theme among the girls was “fragrant.” She was Fragrant Moon and a sisters were Fragrant Cloud and Fragrant Ice. If you really want to do it right, you consult astrologers, check the date and time of birth and other details such as the direction the bed was facing when the child was born. I really wanted my grandchildren to have Chinese names, so I asked someone from China and she said I could choose for my family, but you have to be careful because the combination of words can mean something bad. You’re supposed to observe the child and then describe the good character you see (to reinforce it), or balance what gives you concern. A selfish child needs a name such as “Generous.”

Each part of the name needed to be carefully scrutinized for overtones and ramifications. For example, if you name your daughter “Rose,” it will carry with it not only the sense of beauty, but of a sharp and prickly personality. You have to really think about these things!

So I chose “Heart” for the unifying theme for my family and a Scripture for each one. My parents approved. There were no surprise twists to the combinations. And since my grandfather had not given me a name (I was born right after my father changed his), I chose my father’s adopted name for the other part of my name. It reads “Eternity Heart.” My Scripture is from Ecclesiastes: He has put eternity in their hearts.

The word for heart in Cantonese is sum. You may recognize it from the popular dim sum restaurants that serve all those fabulous tea cakes. It means “touch the heart.”

One last word. After I spent months agonizing over the names for my family, after they had been written in beautiful calligraphy and presented in a little ceremony at my parents’ house, only then did I realize that my name in Cantonese is Wing Sum. Sounds like Wing Sum, lose sum. Oh well. You can’t think of everything…


  1. Mary Holtz

    February 8, 2011 - 6:24 AM

    I love this! I want to have my own special name too! What does Ming mean?
    I have been painting Sumi-e style and studying Chinese Calligraphy for many years and my favorite word to paint is Eternity! If I ever got a tattoo, that would be the one! You are providing such great insights into your culture and I enjoy every one of them! I love your traditions and the heartfelt energy that goes into the family, just lovely Carolyn. Thank you so much for sharing this info. xoxo

  2. kathie fong yoneda

    February 7, 2011 - 3:59 PM

    Loved your blog about your name. I especially enjoyed the explanation about how a family selects a unifying theme. In our family, my parents chose “beauty” or “beautiful” MEI. So each of my sisters & I have a Chinese name that starts with Mei.

    I am Mei Ling — beautiful flower (my uncle said it was the lotus)
    My sister Dana is Mei Yoot — beautiful moon
    My sister Patrice is Mei Oy — beautiful love
    My sister Laureen is Mei Sing – beautiful star

    Unfortunately, none of us continued giving Chinese names into the next generation of our family.

    Much love as always,

    • Carolyn

      February 7, 2011 - 7:01 PM

      I love hearing those wonderful combinations of words to make a special name for each one! You know, Kathie, I decided that I would make my own names for my family. I did consult with a relative from Taiwan so I didn’t end up with some horrid meaning in Chinese, but I also asked her if she felt it would be okay for me to take it upon myself to do the naming. We decided that it was, since we are now Americans and we can make our own traditions and modifications, the way immigrants adapt their recipes according to the foods that are available in the new country. So go for it! It’s not too late. Creating our own way is part of living in the United States of America where invention is part of our legacy.

  3. Richard Wong

    February 4, 2011 - 6:06 PM

    I enjoy your thoughtful writings and insights; your dad was always proud of you. Good Luck in all you do.

    • Carolyn

      February 4, 2011 - 6:18 PM

      Richard, your comment brings tears to my eyes on this day that I’m missing my dad so badly. Being Chinese, he didn’t often tell me he was proud of me until the last years of our lives together. Hearing from you that he was touches my heart–dim sum. Thank you for being his friend for many years and God’s answer to his prayers for help for the health of my mom.

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