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Need help translating Chinese characters into Southern Fujian Dialects

August Norris

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August Norris

Between 1858 and 1860 about 39 or more men from Fujian Province migrated to Guam, which is the southern most island in the Marianas archipelago.  In 1856 the island was struck with a small pox epidemic that reduced the population by half.  The arrival of these men served two purposes: (1) to work the fields left vacant by the epidemic, and (2) to introduce natural immunity to diseases into the local population.


All were given romanized names following the Spanish custom used in the Philippines at the time.  That is, they took on 3 syllable names that ended with "co/koh," or "elder brother" in Hokkien.  The first two syllables look to have been a combination of the individual's family, generational or first names.


Prior to getting married he would have to convert to Catholicism.  Upon doing so he received a western baptismal name, and his romanized Chinese name became his new surname.  About a dozen of these surnames are still in use.


They signed their names on their labor contracts using Chinese characters.  The Spanish official who recorded the document wrote down the romanization for each individual's name.  I'm pretty certain that all of these men left China from the port city of Amoy/Xiamen, and that they all originate from that general area of Fujian, Province.  Some listed their places of birth as Amoy/Xiamen, Nan'an/Lam An, Chanchiu/Quanzhou, and Chinchan/Jinjiang.


I would really appreciate help translating these characters into Southern Fujian dialects.  I've posted a few along with the Spanish romanizations.  There are many more.  I'd love to get the pin yin for the character, the meaning of the character, and the dialect that that matches up to the romanization.  Thank you!


IMAGE 1)  Te-Dingco




IMAGE 2)  Lim Tiaco




IMAGE 3)  So Suyco




IMAGE 4)  Au Quienco




IMAGE 5)  So Coco



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I'm really not all that good at historical written Chinese, especially these handwritten examples. But it looks fascinating! 


All characters are of course in traditional (this being before standard simplification)


The romanisation I've used is Tâi-lô as used on the Taiwan Ministry of Education website.

Te Dingco: 香可 (an attempt at 香哥?) = Hiang-khó (an attempt at Hiang-ko?)

Lim Tiaco:  粘埕反 = Liâm Tiânn-hóan

So Suyco: variant of 蘓瑞 (where 蘓 is written as ⿱艸⿰禾奐 Instead of  ⿱艸⿰禾魚), now usually written as 蘇瑞 = Soo Sūi 

Au Quienco: I suppose it was 勁 that was written: I've never seen the 工 replaced by a 灬 before, although there is one variant that has an additional set of "water" dots. = Kīng / Kìng

So Coco: variant of 蘓告反 (same variant as So Suyco), now usually written as 蘇告反 = Soo Kò-hóan


I'm wondering if the 反 in the names of Lim Tiaco and So Coco are actually miswritten 哥, having simplified it to 可 and then transposed the order of the 丁 and 口 and then changing 口 to 又. Or maybe it was taboo avoidance??? I don't really know.


You can find the meanings easily by putting each character into a good online Chinese dictionary; I don't think there's any specific dialectal meanings in any of these characters.


I'm very surprised at Lim Tiaco's (surname?) being written with 粘, because Lim to my ear sounds like the super common surname 林 Lîm. Although 粘 is a possible as part of a given name, its meaning is odd. More taboo avoidance? 



As for dialect that matches up to the romanisation: it's really hard to tell the differences between Quanzhou, Zhangzhou, Amoy (let alone between Jinjiang, Anxi, Nan'an) dialectal differences from names filtered through the Spanish-based romanisation of Guam here. The phonetic differences in the tones would not be captured by the Spanish, and the small vowel differences (e.g. between Quanzhou influenced /u/ vs Zhangzhou influenced /i/) would not be picked up in such a small sample.

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The first one looks more like 香苛, which would also be pronounced Hiang Ko.

I don't think the fourth one, Au Qienco, is 勁. It might be 鄦, which is an older character variant of 許 which is a popular name in Fujian and Taiwan, also pronounced Ko. But i am not sure how that relates to the sound Au Qienco.

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This is really interesting. I can't be of much help, but I see that others can.

Lim Tiaco:  粘埕反 = Liâm Tiânn-hóan
I just wanted to add, for better understanding, that the -nn ending doesn't sound like -n, but actually means that the syllable is pronounced with a nasal sound. So 'tia [nasal]', which fits the Spanish transcription of the sound.
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August Norris
Michaelyus, chiuyan and Lu,


Thank you for your responses!  I have a some more information concerning these men that may provide more context behind their "signatures."


(1)  The characters for Lim Tiaco and So Coco were penned by a translator, and not by the individuals themselves.  I'm confident that Lim Tiaco and So Coco were from the Amoy/Xiamen area, but I'm not sure about the translator.  His name was transliterated as Can A-jo.  This is a Spanish transliteration, so his name would phonetically sound something like KAHN-AH-Ho.  He arrived with the first group of men who sailed to Guam in 1858, helped them transition into their positions of employment (agricultural indentured laborer) and then left the island for Hong Kong.   His use of the 反 for the sound "koh" may be a clue that he was not from Southern Fujian.


(2)  I'm very new to Chinese characters so I could be completely off base here, but...  In my learning, I've observed that names of people can tell interesting stories.  That a particular stroke or set of strokes within a character will provide the pronunciation of the entire character, and the remaining strokes surrounding it will give the name additional meaning or context.  I'm going to use Te-Dingco from my list above as an example.  Although this comes out a bit tongue in cheek, I'm a descendant of his so I say this a lovingly.  Take the bottom portion of the second character, 可.  Perhaps what was written was 口 (kháu - mouth) followed by 丁 (ting - adult male, vigorous).  In this instance could  have provided the sound of the character, TING/DING?  To me, the strokes above  above look like the radical form of  (jiáu - claw), or .  So could this be a clever way of his parents adding color to their child's name?  Something to the effect of 丁/male + 口/mouth + 爪/claw= robust male child who has a vicious bite?  Or perhaps he was born with a tooth?  Sorry for the silliness.

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Your proposition that Te-Dingco has the name 口 has good phonological evidence, although I admit to never having seen a name from that region with 口! 


Although extra elements in Chinese characters can "happen" (this is the source of lots of variant characters), the risk is always that it morphs it into something completely different (even 丁 + 口 = 可 is an small example of this). Additionally, the rule that one character is one syllable is adhered to pretty strictly in Chinese names (unlike for example the use of kanji in Japanese names and other words). Thus each character's pronunciation with all its elements is in practice fixed. What this would mean for a man born in the latter days of the Qing empire, I'm not sure.


I'm not even sure how literate some of these labourers were: I imagine that señor Can would have had to guess at the "Intended" character for many of them based on what he knew of the dialect and of course by the meaning of the words. For a modern version of this problem, see this StackExchange answer.



I also have to confess, I don't particularly rate señor Can's handwriting in Chinese.

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Was the first image for "Te-Dingco" written by someone else? The handwriting looks different to me. Also this one along with "Au Quiengco" seem confusing for me as the signature does not have multiple characters but the name has an extra syllable at the beginning? I'm also a bit confused that if the convention was to use elements of the person's real name and then add "-co" to the end, there should be no connection between 反 and "-co" assumed...

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