[lg policy] What's in a name? Not much to the Chinese police

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 1 15:08:26 UTC 2010

What's in a name? Not much to the Chinese police

The character for one family name is so unusual that the Chinese police have
forced them to change it.

By Peter Ford, Staff writer / September 1, 2010

Pity poor Mr. Shan, and his couple of hundred relatives with the same name
in a small village in Eastern China. The Chinese character for their surname
is so unusual the police are forcing them to change it. The great majority
of Chinese people share about 100 surnames. There are more Li’s than the
entire population of Germany. “Old one hundred names” is the Chinese way to
say “Joe Blow.”

But the Shan’s have a problem. The police computer system does not support
the character, one of the rarest among the 85,000 symbols in the Chinese
language. So the authorities could not issue them a new computerized ID

New name, please

The Shan’s have been told to become Xian’s since 2003, when the new
generation of ID card first came into use. But for some reason the state
news agency Xinhua publicized their ongoing plight only last month. “Nobody
wants to do it, but under the circumstances we have no choice,” Xian Xuexin
told state television recently. The story has provoked widespread comment on
Internet chat rooms and blogs, with most sympathetic to the villagers.

“The police are making them change their name because they don’t know how to
use a computer," scoffed a blogger who calls himself “renmin ribao zhubian”
(the authorities would probably like him to change his handle, too. It means
chief editor of the People's Daily). Some officials have weighed in too,
with education ministry expert Zhang Shuyan arguing that unusual names
deserve protection as part of China’s cultural heritage. “It is
irresponsible to change them only for technical reasons,” she told Xinhua.

Other sticky name issues

Other people have had trouble with their names since the computerized ID
cards came in, but the cases that have come to light have all concerned
their given names, which were a matter of choice, albeit their parents’
choice. Zhao C was told that “C” was not a Chinese character so he’d have to
change it. He sued for the right to keep his name, but lost his court case.
And a couple of proud new parents who tried to register their baby’s name as
@ (arguing that the Chinese way of pronouncing that character sounded a bit
like “ai ta” which means “love him”) had no luck either.

Still, there may be some hope for the Xian’s formerly known as Shan’s: The
National Language Committee has said that the police will add some rare
family names to their database during the next census, which starts in



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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