Posted by: Sam Olsen | September 7, 2011

New name game

A few years ago I called Virgin credit cards about some general account admin. On the security check I gave my name and date of birth, and was then identified as living in Sunderland. This was somewhat surprising as I had never once splashed in the Wear or frolicked with the Mackems. But there is indeed another Sam Olsen born the same day and living in a small terraced house in the North East of England. Admittedly I have a distinct name (oh so apt, one might say…) but it is a point of note if one meets someone with matching nominative characteristics. Even someone like Phil Taylor doesn’t suffer this confusion much, in or out of a darts match.

Not so in China. There are only around a thousand surnames here but spread amongst 1.3 billion people, which is the same as the population of the UK only having 46 to choose from. (That said, in some parts they’d think 46 different family names was way extravagant given their breeding patterns. Not mentioning Norfolk of course.) Zhang, Wang (which means ‘King’ but is a homophone of ‘death’), Li, Chen, and Liu are among the most popular, with Zhangs topping the numbers game with 70 million Chinese souls.

But the problem does not stop here. Most people have first names of a familiar nature, being named after every day items like “sun”, ‘wave” etc. But some things sound silly as a name, like “desk” or “tyre”, so again we have a bottleneck of naming options.

Not that new

Consequently, there are many, many people in China who have the same name. My lovely Mandarin teacher, who is called “New Moon Wang”, pointed out the issue with this. “Imagine if you find you cannot use your bank account and the police think you are a trouble maker because someone of the same name in a different part of China got in trouble.”

Consequently, the Government is trying to diversify the name base. Parents are being encouraged to choose hybrid names for their kids, which combines part of a father’s name with part of a mother’s name to create something completely original. This may decrease cases of identity fraud but most Chinese think these new names sound just plain daft. Not only that, in a country where ancestor worship is central to the spiritual life of many, not naming a child after one’s forebears is considered strange if not damn right risky.

One benefit of these new names may be to reduce some of the more hurtful names that parents can give their offspring. It is not unheard of for example for girls to be given the name ” Inviting Brothers”, which has the meaning of her being taken as a good luck token for male children to follow. As New Moon points out. “These girls have to go through life not with a name for themselves but as a prayer for a little brother”.

That said, if these reforms end up ridding the world of (actual) Chinese names like “No Smoking Zone Zhang” or “Can You Stay Awhile Li” then they’re going to have a lot to answer for.


  1. I would like to add to this post that yesterday I was approached by an Apple in a shop, and then when I returned to my desk was dealing with an Echo trying to organise a meeting in Beijing!

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