From The New York Times:
I thought that these statistics were particularly remarkable:
BEIJING — “Ma,” a Chinese character for horse, is the 13th most common family name in China, shared by nearly 17 million people. That can cause no end of confusion when Mas get together, especially if those Mas also share the same given name, as many Chinese do.
Ma Cheng’s book-loving grandfather came up with an elegant solution to this common problem. Twenty-six years ago, when his granddaughter was born, he combed through his library of Chinese dictionaries and lighted upon a character pronounced “cheng.” Cheng, which means galloping steeds, looks just like the character for horse, except that it is condensed and written three times in a row.
The character is so rare that once people see it, Miss Ma said, they tend to remember both her and her name. That is one reason she likes it so much.
That is also why the government wants her to change it.
For Ma Cheng and millions of others, Chinese parents’ desire to give their children a spark of individuality is colliding head-on with the Chinese bureaucracy’s desire for order. Seeking to modernize its vast database on China’s 1.3 billion citizens, the government’s Public Security Bureau has been replacing the handwritten identity card that every Chinese must carry with a computer-readable one, complete with color photos and embedded microchips. The new cards are harder to forge and can be scanned at places like airports where security is a priority.The bureau’s computers, however, are programmed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters, according to a 2006 government report. The result is that Miss Ma and at least some of the 60 million other Chinese with obscure characters in their names cannot get new cards — unless they change their names to something more common.
By some estimates, 100 surnames cover 85 percent of China’s citizens. Laobaixing, or “old hundred names,” is a colloquial term for the masses. By contrast, 70,000 surnames cover 90 percent of Americans.I just talked with Qian a bit about why China has so few surnames. She said that it is largely based upon ancient traditions of land-owners giving their surname to all of their servants and everyone that worked for them. So if the Wang family or clan was particularly wealthy, their name would spread. Qian also said that, in some cases, entire villages would change their name to one common surname for identification purposes.
The potential for mix-ups is vast. There are nearly enough Chinese named Zhang Wei to populate the city of Pittsburgh.
I still don't feel as though I completely understand why Chinese surnames are so limited though. If any readers have good insight into Chinese surnames and their limitations, feel free to share your comments on this post.
The given name issue is different from the surname though. Theoretically, any character could a suitable given name. What I mean is that the universe of choices isn't limited to the one hundred or so characters that surnames are largely constrained to.
I think that the fact that China is currently having problems with the given name part of the name is largely due to Chinese being a character-based, rather than alphabet-based, language system.
In alphabet-based langauges, names are pretty much limitless. There are several variations of common names - Mark, Marc, Marcus - as well as the more non-traditional names that people in alphabet-based languages get named.
Looking at my favorite college basketball team's roster - the University of Kansas Jayhawks - from this past season, one can see a very wide variety of unusual names: Cole, Sherron, Mario, Markieff (variation of Mark!), Tyrone, Tyshawn, Tyrel (a white guy), Quintrell, Brady, and Brennan. In a diverse place like America, given names are truly unlimited.
In China though, there is a very set number of choices - the prescribed characters that make up the language. One can't really make up characters by throwing strokes together in the same way one can make up a name in English by throwing letters together.
For this reason, I can see why China is wanting its people to have some sort of standard when choosing their names. Especially in this more electronic age, it really is a problem if one's name can not become digitized.
While it sounds like there are a whole lot of people like Ma Cheng with unusual names (the article says sixty million) who are running into trouble because their parents tried being unique, a vast majority of parents don't seem to mind choosing from the more conventional choices. In the same way that Johns and Steves and Marks are everywhere in English-speaking countries, a lot of parents don't see a child's given name as the place to try to be inventive.
I don't think the government should have the right to dictate whether one's name is suitable or not. But it is probably a good idea for parents to think about whether the name they give their child is a good one. Handicapping a child with an extremely unusual name, whether in Chinese or English, is not always the best idea.