Too many people, too few surnames

Pallavi Aiyar

Eighty-five per cent of China’s 1.3 billion people share just 100 family names.

What do a former table tennis world champion, two Chinese national soccer team players, a celebrity musician, and the first woman scholar at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have in common with 99,995 other Chinese? They are all called Wang Tao, a name that according to a recent CAS report is shared by 100,000 people.

Already fighting a variety of resource shortages from oil to water, China is now gearing up to redress a scarcity of a different kind: that of surnames. The world’s most populous country is blessed with abundant human resources. Yet 85 per cent of China’s 1.3 billion people share just 100 family names so that there are over 93 million Wangs and 92 million Lis. To put these numbers in perspective, were all the Wangs in China to form an independent nation they would become the world’s 12th most populous country.

The resultant confusion over similar names has become such a problem that Beijing is currently mulling over a draft proposal put forward by the police that would legally allow parents to combine their surnames while naming their babies. According to China’s Public Security Bureau, the move would help create 1.28 million potential new surnames thus redressing to some extent the current deficit of appellations.

If the draft is approved, it would, for example, officially allow a father surnamed Zhang and a mother surnamed Liu to give their baby either Zhangliu or Liuzhang as a family name. Currently, surnames are passed down exclusively through the male line.

Surnames in China have roots that are deeply entwined with the nation’s cultural heritage, so much so that the word for the “common man” in Chinese is “laobaixing” which literally translates as the “old 100 names” and refers to the 100 names that comprise the overwhelming majority of Han Chinese family names.

Until a few decades ago, school children across China were taught to reel off the list of 100 surnames by rote. “Zhao, Qian, Sun, Li, Zhou, Wu, Zheng, Wang” the list begins, which when said aloud has a nursery-rhyme like lilt.

Du Peng of the People’s University’s Population and Development Research Centre explains that the ranking of the 100 names list can be traced back to the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), which was founded by the Emperor Zhao Kuangyin. Hence the list leads with the name Zhao, despite Wangs, Lis, Chens, and several others being larger in terms of actual numbers.

Women’s movement

In more modern times, changed conventions of family names in China have reflected the rise of the women’s movement. Until the communist accession in 1949, the status of women in Chinese society was so low they were rarely given any special name at all and merely called by a number added to their father’s family name. So a second-born girl to a family with the surname Zhao would simply be called Zhao-2. When women married they took on their husband’s family name in addition to their own father’s name so that Zhao-2 if married to Mr. Liu would become Liu Zhao Shi — the character shi indicating the bearer’s status as a married woman.

In Mao’s China, where women were expected to hold up half the sky, this practice was abolished and over the years Chinese women not only began to be given personal names but today convention demands they keep their own surnames even after they marry. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s wife, for example, is Ms. Liu not Mrs. Hu.

But despite husbands and wives retaining separate surnames the fundamental problem of the lack of diversity in Chinese family names persists. The predicament is moreover aggravated by the tendency of Chinese parents to follow name fashion trends so that large numbers of children in a particular generation end up with not only the same family names but also identical personal names.

Du Rou Fu (no relation to Professor Du Peng), a retired researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an expert on Chinese name culture, recalls how large numbers of children in the 1960s and 1970s were called Guo Qin (National Day), Wei Hong (Protect Communism), and Wen Ge (Cultural Revolution) as parents attempted to demonstrate their patriotic credentials.

In contrast, Professor Du says these days his students at People’s University tend to be called Mei (beautiful) or Yin (elegant), reflective of the new ambitions Chinese parents hold for their children.

Professor Du Rou Fu reveals that he has been pointing out the detrimental results of too few surnames in China for over 20 years. He argues that China’s 50-plus minority ethnicities (which combined make up less than 10 per cent of the Han-dominated society) should be encouraged to bring their unique surnames into the Chinese family name lexicon. Professor Du himself has documented 1,000 distinct family names among Tibetans and another thousand among the Yi minority alone.

He explains that since the Qing dynasty (1644-1911/12) China’s bureaucracy more or less forced minorities to give up their own surnames and adopt Han ones instead, for purposes such as registering their households with the city authorities. As a result, thousands of potential family names have been lost to China.

The problem, he says, is that in China the laobaixing have almost come to define Chinese-ness, so that having a surname that is not part of the list like Gun (of which there are only around 1,000 in total) or Si, marks the individual out as different, even suspect.

The result, according to Professor Du is that unusual surnames disappear over time, with people voluntarily assimilating into the laobaixing. But while the roots of China’s name shortage may lie in history for many ordinary people the surname dearth has unwelcome repercussions in the present.

Unwelcome situation

Ms. Song, a bank clerk, tells of how she counts two Wang Qiangs and two Wang Shu Rongs among her colleagues. The two sets of Wangs are differentiated in the standard Chinese way by adding the prefix lao meaning elder or xiao meaning younger before their names. But this method is far from foolproof.

“Once we heard that Wang Qiang was transferring to our department and we were all happy. But later we discovered it was the other Wang Qiang who was being transferred and we were less happy, because Wang Qiang-2 had bad body odour,” Ms. Song recalls.

Twenty-six-year-old Wu Hao, a graduate student in Beijing, has his own name-related woes to recount. Mr. Wu shares his name with four other classmates in college in addition to a high school friend. “When I overhear a girl saying Wu Hao is handsome, I never know if they are talking about me or someone else,” he complains.

Both Mr. Wu and Ms. Song agree that there are ways of overcoming the name confusion and that unique ID numbers help avoid misunderstandings in banks and other critical situations. However, given their proposal to allow mother-father surname combos, the Chinese police are evidently of the opinion that ID numbers alone cannot substitute for a greater diversity of names.

But despite the police’s enthusiasm, the prospect of a double-barrelled future for Chinese surnames has not proved universally popular. Several online critics of the new scheme have posted notes on the Internet looking ahead to a time when one double-barrelled parent marries another. “Is it practical to have children surnamed WangZhuWuXu,” asks one such sceptic.

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