Monday, April 20, 2009

What's in a Name?

Chinese children whose parents wanted them to have a unique name are running into resistance.

From The New York Times:


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.

Read On
I thought that these statistics were particularly remarkable:
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.

...

The potential for mix-ups is vast. There are nearly enough Chinese named Zhang Wei to populate the city of Pittsburgh.
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.

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.

7 comments:

Sponsor A Child said...

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Ramesh said...

As long as you don't give a frivulous or dangerous name (eg Adolf Hitler) soem differention is good. I have been blessed with a name that's the equivalent of Zhang Wei in India and I am fed up with all the confusion it causes all the time. I'm all for an atleast slightly different name !

Vrani said...

Don't forget Markieff's brother Marcus.

derbek666 said...

The concept of governmental regulation of names may is quite foreign to the United States, but there are countries that already have laws in place. In Norway (I think it's Norway, but it's definitely in scandinavia anyway) there is a registry of acceptable first names that can be given to a newborn. If the name the parents decide on isn't on the list, then they have to submit it to some sort of committee setup to review new names. It is then up to the committee to accept or nix the name. It sounds a bit draconian, and I don't think the government should have the right to dictate things as fundamentally personal and sentimental as the name a parent wants to give their child. On the other hand, I do see some merit in the opposing argument. For example, my mom used to be a social worker, and she has told me stories of America's freedom to choose names run amok. One child she met was named Placenta because her mother thought it sounded pretty, and was presumably ignorant of the word's true definition. In another case she met a child called 'Feh-mall-ee'...spelled Female. While I don't envy those children their names, I still believe names are important to new parents, and they should have the freedom to name as they please, even if some people will abuse that freedom.

The Red Scare said...

That was really strange, I made that last post and I have no idea as to how the name 'derbek666' was linked to my email. Anyway, here's a more fitting name that I picked.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder if it would really be all that difficult to upgrade government computers to recognize the other 15,000 characters...? Or at least, less difficult than having everyone change their names...

Ty said...

I like your opinions on Chinese names. As a Chinese, I've never thought about this much. I guess it is taken for granted.

Concerning your your questions about why Chinese have so few family names. I agree with Qian's explanation.

I do not think Chinese government is trying to determine which characters are good for surname. Look, Chinese characters are not latin based. A rarely used character, though might be unique for names, is hard to recognize, to write, and even harder to type. It is mainly for the sake of the usefulness of the name and the efficiency for communication.