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Apr 21 / Jonathan

Standardizing Chinese names

From the NY Times:

Name Not on Our List? Change It, China Says

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. …

There are several sub-stories here, but I’d like to focus on the problem of not being able to represent some names on government ID cards (or phone books, though who really cares?). How very exotic. Until you consider the problem of naming your American son after his great-grandfather Søren. Or Simón. Or José.

Update: Victor Mair at Language Log proposes a solution to Ms Ma’s problem:

As a matter of fact, Ms. Ma really doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on (no jokes about the twelve legs of the three horses in the character for her given name!). The reason for this is that the 馬馬馬 character is listed in unabridged lexicons as simply an old form of 騁, which means exactly the same thing (“gallop; indulge in”) and sounds exactly the same (CHENG3). This 騁 is a fairly common character and is found in all modern dictionaries and computer fonts, so the government should kindly but firmly tell Ms. Ma to use 騁 instead of 馬馬馬 for her given name. No harm done (she still even has one of the three horses to race along with). I’m actually surprised that they haven’t already made this suggestion to Ms. Ma, though perhaps they were unaware of the connection between 馬馬馬 and 騁.

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