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Quite a few Chinese novels and movies don't name the main character (or one of the main characters) as Mike or Alice or any name alike. Instead, he/she is called "无名氏".

In general, 无名氏= anonymous, nameless, unnamed.

However, when "无名氏" functions the same as Mike, Alice, etc., how to say it in English?

According to my humble knowledge, "Anonymous" (the first letter is capitalized) works. -- I know a hacker organization calls itself as "Anonymous".

Am I right? Are there any examples from English novels and/or movies? (BTW, I have no access to Google books, because I'm in China.)


无名氏 is NOT the author/narrator. By contrast, it is the name (usually the only name) of the character created by the author.

I make some sentences here for your information:

"Jim, Kate and 无名氏 are good friends."

"Mr. Smith owes a lot of money to both 无名氏 and me."

"I want Mr. Black to have a meeting with 无名氏. Could you make this happen, Mrs. Green?"

"无名氏 knows everyone, and everyone knows 无名氏."


"无名氏" is somewhat similar to the X in "X Ray". X Ray got its name, because Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen (as well as anyone else in 1895) knew little about it.

In different novels and films, the ways that 无名氏 gets his/her name "无名氏" may be different. Some is similar to X Ray, some isn't.

There is a REAL and well-known lake called "未名湖" in Peking University.

未= not yet.

名= name.

湖= lake.

So "未名湖" literally = "The Unnamed Lake".

However, "The Unnamed Lake"(未名湖) is the actual name of the lake. And all educated Chinese know it.


无名氏 creates an aura of mysteriousness, while "John Doe" or "Jane Doe", I think, doesn't.

无名氏 when functions as a proper noun (i.e. refers to a specific person) is an oxymoron (the Nameless is the name) and defamiliarization (compared to any normal Chinese name, 无名氏 looks very different). That's why 无名氏 creates an aura of mysteriousness, importance and particularity.

"The Unnamed Lake" is widely thought as a brilliant and beautiful name, even the campus of Peking University is often referred as the lakeside of the Unnamed Lake.

There are numerous lakes and numerous colleges in China, but there is only one lake called "the Unnamed Lake". If any other institution named its lake as "the Anonymous Lake" or it hill as "the Unnamed Hill", it would be despised as a lousy copycat.

When 无名氏 makes a general reference to people whose name(s) is/are unknown, 无名氏, just like the English word "anonymous", doesn't imply any unusual feature.

"This poem is credited to 无名氏." In this sentence, 无名氏 may be a general reference or may refer to a certain person (the person). It depends on the context. If this sentence just means because the poem was written a long time ago so the author's name has faded away, then it is very similar to "many nursery rhymes are credited to 'Anonymous' as their composers are unknown" (@JamesK's).

In everyday's spoken Chinese, the word "无名氏" (a general reference) isn't frequently used, because it sounds a bit formal. Instead, we say "The book is written by someone I don't know" or "Deng are talking with a woman I've never met". (@JamesK's)

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    "无名氏 creates an aura of mysteriousness, while "John Doe" or "Jane Doe", I think, doesn't." In some Hollywood movies and TV-shows, when the "aura of mysteriousness" is required (especially at the start of the movie), they use "he/him" or "she/her". Something like "We were just heading home ... and there He was." Also, in Harry Potter, they kept playing this pronoun game and kept referring to Voldemort by "he/him". But of course there was a reason they couldn't use his name. Anyways, yeah, you can try using the pronouns. – AIQ Jun 28 '20 at 16:16
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    @AIQ makes an excellent point. I'm a fan of the B-movie, Waterworld. The protagonist is simply "Mariner" and other characters refer to him by that "name" in the same way they would "Dave." But there's no especial air of mystery - only that the character doesn't have a familiar (or familial) designation. Which or what word would be used in English would have a lot to do with why a name wasn't provided. "John Doe" or "Anonymous" would be a literal translation of 无名氏, but I suspect what word/phrase is appropriate would almost be a novel-by-novel choice. – JBH Jun 28 '20 at 17:52
  • Would you use 无名氏 in normal conversation. Say you saw Deng and a second person that you don't know talking. Would you say " Deng and 无名氏 are talking" – James K Jun 28 '20 at 19:55
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    Note that the Author and the narrator are not the same person. The author is a real person, the narrator exists only in the fictional world of the story. – James K Jun 28 '20 at 19:56
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    In English, there is never any doubt how to express “Anonymous” as a proper noun. As you yourself showed in the Question… simply give it a capital. Make it "Anonymous" like every other proper noun, rather than "anonymous" as though it were an ordinary, descriptive adjective. Could everyone please accept that if it's true 无名氏= anonymous, nameless, unnamed then there's no need ever to refer back to that. To refer back to whether 无名氏= anonymous, nameless, unnamed would be to challenge the basis of the Question… perhaps wholly valid, but very different from any discussion of a solution. – Robbie Goodwin Jun 28 '20 at 22:57
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There are some examples of English films that have unnamed main characters.

When mentioning the character we normally refer to them as their job or title such as

The Driver
The Teacher
The Cop

Or simply by their function in the story:

The Hero
The Protagonist
The Villain

You can use those to refer to an unnamed character without needing to explain that they are unnamed.
However, if you choose to use "Anonymous" or "Unnamed" or "Nameless", then you should explain why. It is not automatically understood as a pronoun for the main character the way you explain it is in Chinese.


As you mentioned, these are used for mysterious and unknown or unidentified characters, but I don't think these are what you are looking for:

Mr./Mrs. X
Mr./Mrs. Smith
John/Jane Doe
Mystery Man/Woman


We simply don't have a word for "未名湖"- "The Unnamed Lake" that is widely used and understood the way it is in Chinese. Perhaps it should be added to one of the many lists of words without English equivalent. It sounds like a useful word.

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    1 When reading the article you linked, I noticed a trilogy called "The Man With No Name". So can "The Man With No Name" function as the name of a/the character? 2 I upgrated my question. – Zhang Jian Jun 28 '20 at 9:49
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    I think the truth is, we just don't have something that matches the Chinese "Unnamed Lake". So if you are writing about an unnamed character, then you can introduce them as "the man with no name", but after that, he would be referred to as simply "The Man" because we don't want to keep saying/writing/reading long titles like that every time. – Jay A. Little Jun 28 '20 at 15:44
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    "When mentioning the character we normally refer to them as their job or title" - Yes. There is a movie called "The Transporter". By the way @ZhangJian may be you want "I edited my question" instead of "... upgraded ..." – AIQ Jun 28 '20 at 16:04
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    @ZhangJian “The Man With No Name” certainly worked for that film, but now that title is rather famously attached to that specific character—many readers who saw that would understand it to refer to the character from that film, not some other unnamed character. (Well, realistically, context should make it clear enough, but it would still be jarring.) – KRyan Jun 28 '20 at 17:04
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    This is a good answer, but we do have an equivalent to 未名湖 in English (at least, American English), "John/Jane Doe." As you explained in your answer, a proper noun is a proper noun is a proper noun: the lexical construction is irrelevant. "Anonymous" is as good a proper noun as any other. – JBH Jun 28 '20 at 17:45
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It can be hard to maintain the unnamed protagonist. A good list of examples of novels that do this can be found at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/24/ten-best-nameless-protagonists-mullan

  • Roxana by Daniel Defoe. ...
  • The Aspern Papers by Henry James. ...
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. ...
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. ...
  • The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. ...
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. ...
  • Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. ...
  • Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud.

The name of a character can appear in two main ways: either the narrator of the book can use it, or another character can be quoted saying it. The usual way that an author can keep a character anonymous is to make the character the narrator, and so then all reference to the name can be replaced by "I" or "me". In Moby Dick, the first-person narrator begins with "Call me Ismael" but that name is unused throughout the rest of the book, the narrator is just "me".

It is harder if the anonymous character is also anonymous to the other characters you can use "the man" or "the driver". An example of this is "Day of the Jackal". The unnamed protagonist never gives his true name. The police call him "the Jackal" and he uses fake names at times. This is possible because we never meet anyone who knows "the jackal". It is very hard to pull this off if you have a character with their friends.

"Anonymous", or "Anon" is sometimes used as a place holder for an unknown author. For example many nursery rhymes are credited to "Anonymous" as their composers are unknown. However, you can't have "Anonymous" as the name of a character. There isn't a single answer to this question, you will have to think of "why" does nobody in the book speak the character's name. Then you can start to think of how the narrator would speak to or about the character.

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  • I think "The Jackal" is how this is done in English. or "The Driver" or "The Mariner" It creates exactly the feeling of "strangeness" that you require. However this contradicts your examples which are mundane. The unnamed person has no friends. and He doesn't arrange business meetings... – James K Jun 28 '20 at 20:03

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