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The Wa System of Personal Names

The Wa people have a special system for personal names. This page contains some general information about the system and a chart showing the principal sets of names used.

The following description is based on Zhao Furong, "Wazu," in Miao, She, Gaoshan, Wa, Bulang, De'angzu wenhuazhi, pp. 478-479; Zhou Zhizhi and Yan Qixiang, Wayu jianzhi, pp. 35 and 47; and Wang Youming and Chen Weidong, Wazu fengqing, pp. 164-165.

Son-daughter names

On the tenth day after a Wa infant is born, the family invites the headman (touren) of the village into the home to give a name to the child. The name given to the child is generally in two parts. The first part, which is different for boys and girls, is similar to the custom of the Han nationality's use of a particular character to show the birth order of the child. In the case of male children, the eldest son is given the name "Ai," the second son is given the name "Nyí," the third son is given the name "Sam,", the fourth, "Sai," and so on. (For the complete list in various transcriptions, see the appended chart.) In the case of female children, the eldest daughter is given the name "Yeix," the second daughter, "I," the third, "Am," the fourth, "Oug," and so on.

The second part of the child's name is usually based on the names of the days in the cyclical ten-day "week" of the Wa calendrical system. These names are "Kab," "Nab," "Rái," "Méng," "Pleeg," "Kad," "Khuad," Róung," "Tao," and "Ka." This is similar to the traditional Chinese ten-day cycle of "heavenly branches" (tian gan), named jia, yi, bing, ding, wu, ji, geng, xin, ren, gui, which progressed together with the cycle of twelve earthly branches (dizhi), named zi, chou, yin, mao, chen, si, wu, wei, shen, you, xu, hai, to make a complete "sexagenary" cycle of 60 days.

So, for example, an eldest son who was born on the day ren-shen would be named "Ai Tao." Similarly an eldest daughter, born on the day gui-you, would be named "Yeix Ka." Or she might also be named "Na Ka," "na" only being used for females.

In some areas, the second part of the child's name, representing the day of birth, is based not on the cycle of ten heavenly stems, but rather on the cycle of 12 earthly branches.

In order to avoid duplications with the names of the older generation, a son may be given, as the second part of his name, the name of the day one or two days after that of the day on which he was actually born; a daughter may be given, as the second part of her name, the name of the day one day before that of the day on which she was actually born.

Among the Wa people, those who live within the same village would normally address each other using just the first, birth-order, part of the name, indicating respect or intimacy. Thus "Ai Tao" would just be called "Ai"; and "Yeix Ka" would just be called "Yeix." Parents within the family would also only use the birth-order part of the name. Using the full name to refer to someone would be emotionally neutral.

Mother-father names

After a Wa person gets married and has children, he or she will usually be known by another "mother-father name," composed of the word for father, "Keeing," or mother, "Miex," plus the second part of the name of his or her eldest son or daughter. So if a man named Sam Khuad and a woman named Yeix Nab have Ai Ka as their eldest son or Yeix Ka as their eldest daughter, then Sam Khuad would also be known as Keeing Ka, and Yeix Nab, as Miex Ka. In addition, a man can also be known by appending the second part of his name to the second part of the eldest son or daughter's name. So Sam Khuad could also be called Ka Khuad.

Elder names

After a man or woman has grandchildren, or reaches typical grandparent age, he or she will usually be known by still another "elder name," formed by substituting the word for grandfather, "Tax," or grandmother, "Yíex," for the first, birth-order, part of his or her name. Thus Sam Khuad would then be called Tax Khuad. And Yeix would be called Yíex Nab.

Wa clan names

Modern Wa society is patrilineal. There are a number of common Wa clan names, which are transmitted from father to son. Most Wa surnames have one or more than one conventional and completely arbitrary Han surname equivalent, which many Wa citizens of China adopt as part of their Chinese name. However the association of Wa surnames with Han Chinese surnames varies from region to region. The late Luo Zhiji calculated that there were as many as 125 Wa surnames in the Ximeng district. Of these, 61 were based on an ancestor's name; 18 were based on a village name; another 14 were based on a combination of village and individual's name; 10 were based on a natural phenomenon; and 10 were based on some social situation.

In the Yanshuai district of Cangyuan County, Yunnan, China, the following surnames are typical (Chinese surname counterparts are shown in parentheses):
Yaong Kaeng (Tian), Si Níex (Xiao), Sai So (Zhao), Yaong Rúng (Li), Si Gú (Chen), Pang Pla (Bao), Móuig Tóun (Zhong), Pa Rhax (Zi). Other common Han surnames adopted by the Wa include Luo and Yin. For fuller transcriptions, see the draft name chart.

To the above list, Dr. Solthira Satyawadhna has added the following other surnames common in the Banhong, Cangyuan area (retaining her idiosyncratic spelling):
Sne (elsewhere written Sane) (Chinese surname Wei) [Si Níex in standard orthography]
Kön Kweul-œt (elsewhere written Konkwel-at) (Chinese surname Zhang)

Dr. Solthira identifies the "Sna" (Si Níex) clan as the ruling clan throughout the Wa region in pre-modern times. Also, she found Wa-speaking university students in Simao, Yunnan with names like "Sa Soe [Sai So in standard orthography] Wielöy," "Sa Soe Wie löng," "Sa Soe Muet Dray" (all of whom were surnamed Zhang).

(From Dr. Cholthira Satyawadhna, "The Dispossessed", p. 206-207 --see Wa bibliography for full citation)

Wa surnames in Myanmar

In Myanmar, following Burmese custom, Wa append to their own given name the second part of their father's given name. This acts like a kind of surname. E.g. if a grandfather is named Nyi Kham, then his son Ai Mhawm will add 'Kham' to his own name and be Ai Mhawm Kham. And his grandson Ai Rong will likewise add the second part of his own father's name to his own as a surname and be named Ai Rong Mhawm. Clan names can further be appended at the end. E.g., Ai Mhawm Kham Sieh (Siniex?), or the great Wa educator, Ai Pao Pleek Sgu (Sigu)

Draft comprehensive chart of personal names.

Data in the chart come from many sources, including the following (for full citations, see Wa bibliography):

  • Ai Pao Pleek Sgu, Lai Vax, Phuk Lai Gau, Glawg 2, p.25
  • Magnus Fiskesjö, "The Fate of Sacrifice and the Making of Wa History"
  • Nyī Ga (Wei Deming) Wazu wenhuashi p. 155 ff.
  • Wa-Han jianming cidian
  • Wang Youming and Chen Weidong, Wazu fengqing, pp. 19, 27, 152, 164-167
  • Zhao Furong, "Wazu," in Miao, She, Gaoshan, Wa, Bulang, De'angzu wenhuazhi, pp. 478-479
  • Zhao Yanshe (Ai Se), Wazu shenghuo fangshi, pp. 128-135
  • Zhou Zhizhi et al., Wayu jianzhi, pp. 35, 47 and passim.

Discrepancies in the data may be due to regional variation, to lapses in cultural memory, or to transcription errors in the sources used.

Arts and Humanities Research Council School of Oriental and African Studies

The Wa Dictionary Project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and hosted at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Please send suggestions, queries or comments to Justin Watkins or Richard Kunst.