Readers of this site undoubtedly know our editor-at-large, Kaiser Kuo — the name, if not the voice; the legend, if not the man — for Kaiser is a resident superstar of the China-watching community, a long-haired, leather-jacketed polymath of eloquence and candor, whose China experiences include working at one of the largest companies in the world (Baidu) and co-founding one of the country’s most influential rock bands (Tang Dynasty).
But did you know that Kaiser is also a prolific — if not renowned — Quora columnist?
We’re not sure if columnist is, strictly speaking, the technical term, but he’s posted so often on this question-and-answer platform — and often at length — that he might as well be. He’s also been named top writer on Quora every year so far, five years running, so he’s obviously provided rich material to mine. And why shouldn’t we mine it? Since Kaiser clearly doesn’t write enough for us, we’ve decided to turn his Quora output into an actual column, in which we’ll repost — with updates where necessary — some of his best answers through the years.
We begin with the most fitting of questions, asked on January 2, 2011:
How did Kaiser Kuo get the name Kaiser?
Kaiser says: It’s a goofy botched patronymic. My father’s name (rendered in pinyin) is Guo Jingkai, with “Jing” being the generational name he shares with his brothers (and, presumably, with some of his first cousins). So his real “given” name is Kai, and my folks used that as the basis for a name. Many years ago, while cleaning out the garage back at my family’s old home in Tucson, Arizona, I came across a book from the early 1960s called What to Name the Baby, and in it I found the name Kaiser, given as an alternate to Caesar, with a faded pencil tick next to it. [Editor’s note: Also with a pencil tick next to it, but slightly more faded, was the name Kaimbe, meaning “warrior” in the Frisian languages.] [Kaiser: I saved that one for D&D characters.]
Presumably, Dad hadn’t studied much of the history of the First World War: Even though his father was a very eminent historian, my father, alas, chose to study applied physics and engineering.
There’s a broader context to this, I think. Many Chinese of my parents’ peer group — sons and daughters of mainland intellectuals who had fled to Taiwan, and who had emigrated to the U.S. — gave their kids odd names out of a non-conformist impulse. [Editor’s note: I know a Chinese guy whose English name is Refrigerator, so I’m going to be hard to impress on this one.] Thus I grew up knowing kids named Baldwin, Stanford, Athena, Kingston, and so forth. [Editor’s note: At least none of them are named Meiklejohn.] My own siblings are Meiklejohn (he goes by John, sensibly) [Editor’s note: Oh…sorry, John!], I’m next, and then they got sensible with my younger brother, Lee Jacob, who goes by Jay, and my sister is Miranda, but goes by Mimi. [Kaiser: Meiklejohn is also in the What to Name the Baby book. It meant, if I remember correctly, “big John,” and my mom insists that they wanted to take the M from her name, Mary, and the J from my father’s name, Jenkai, and come up with something original.]
It’s been a mixed blessing. Fortunately, not much rhymed with it and I was spared torment about it through some of childhood [Editor’s note: So your childhood contemporaries didn’t know much about WWI history, either.] [Kaiser: Evidently not.] and later, it was such an odd name that people tended to remember it. It worked well for me when I was a reporter, as it was the kind of byline that would stick in people’s heads. But it’s absolute hell every time I have to tell a German person my name. “Kaiser??” they ask in astonishment. “Zat ees not a Christian name, eet ees a Zurname!”
[As Quora commenter William White notes: “Gets worse if you have to tell someone, in German, ‘Hi, I’m Kaiser.’ If it’s an at all familiar context, you’ll be saying, ‘Hallo, ich bin der Kaiser,’ which also literally means, ‘Hi, I’m the emperor.’ Just a quirk of grammar across languages.”] [Kaiser: Emperor, maybe not. I’ll take warlord of a small xian on the North China Plain, though.]
Kuora is a weekly column, like it or not. Illustration by Katie Morton.