In Sydney, the barista asks you your name when you order a takeaway coffee. Then as he fills the order, he yells the name out for the whole place to hear. I always feel awkward weaving through a crowd of strangers who all know my name. So I am Wu Ming when I collect my coffee.
Wu Ming 無名, means No Name in Mandarin (China’s official dialect).
So I was with a friend when I gave my name as Wu Ming at the coffee shop. She was surprised to hear it; I explained.
This friend teaches English as a Second Language to the Chinese, and she’d spent a lot of time in China. She asked:
Shouldn’t it be ‘Bu’ 不 for ‘no’ ? Why do you say Wu Ming instead of Bu Ming?
My friend knows a little Chinese, and as we all know, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
If you get a Chinese phrase book, chances are that ‘bu 不‘ is given as the way to say ‘no’. Sorry, it does not mean ‘no’. It means ‘negative’. So you may say it means ‘no’ to any question; well, no.
I say Wu Ming for No Name because Wu means none. Wu Ming means anonymous. Bu Ming would make no sense because you cannot have a negative to a noun, only to a verb/adjective, in Chinese. If you say Bu Ming to a Chinese, they would think you said 不明 Bu Ming as in ‘not understand’. And if you say that is your name, they would laugh.
If you are a student of Chinese, get a copy of the Buddhist ‘Heart Sutra’ that teaches non attachment. You will see about 40 bu 不 and wu 無 in its 260 odd words (depending on which version of translation you have). It clearly demonstrates this： Bu means ‘negative’ and Mu means ‘none’. Both can be translated into ‘no’ in English, but don’t always mean ‘no’.