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Identity Ayi

Can't tell Right from Wong? Let Ayi unravel the mysteries of Chinese surnames.

Hey Ayi,

As I waited in Beijing's airport last week for the delayed departure of my flight, I heard several announcements over the PA system asking Mr. Zhang Wei to come to the information desk to take an urgent call. After each broadcast, several dozen Chinese men hurriedly holstered their cell phones, scurried to the desk, and fought their way to the front of the queue, only to return to their seats crestfallen. What's the lowdown? Can all these guys really have the same name?

Zhou Q. Public

Dear Z.Q.,

Despite China's enormous population, not to mention the vast diversity of its people, all 1.3 billion of them have to make do with sharing a surprisingly small number of surnames. Estimates as to how many are in use vary widely, but there are no more than a few thousand, of which only around 500 can really be considered widespread.

What's more, the most common hundred names cover over three-quarters of the population, while the big-five combination of Li, Chen, Zhang, Liu, and Wang are used by more than one-quarter of all families. That's 350 million people, the population of Japan and the U.S. combined, sharing just five surnames. In fact, there's a common Chinese saying, zhang san li si, which basically means "any Tom, Dick or Harry." (example: These days, every zhang san li si thinks he can start an Internet company in China.)

Family names originally aided in the smooth operation of one of China's greatest inventions - bureaucracy. Ironically, the present scarcity threatens the very system that originated the names. The nation's press is filled with reports of mistaken identity, wrongful arrest, bank errors and even mistaken surgery ("Remind me again nurse, which Mr. Chen was supposed to get the vasectomyŐ?"). And the wheels of government, which, let's face it are sluggish at the best of times, can grind to a near standstill under a confused mass of nomenclature. So, your all-knowing Ayi will now attempt to explain how this came about, and what can be done to clear up the mess for future generations.

Family names have been used in China since ancient times, both as a means of enforcing clan identity and to prevent inbred offspring from corrupting the gene pool. In fact, the marriage of any two individuals with a shared family name was strictly forbidden, regardless of how close the bloodline actually was. Such a relationship was punishable with 60 blows with a bamboo staff and the cancellation of all nuptials. Fortunately, the present regime takes a more enlightened view of these matters and you should be okay so long as you keep your lips off your siblings and close cousins.

In the bad old days there were over 12,000 surnames, but this has gradually dwindled to the present paltry handful. In a patriarchal society, surnames can quite easily drop from circulation when a family produces no male heir.

More dramatically, in a process known as zhulian (ancestral connection), an entire clan could be executed if the emperor took exception to a single member. This reduction over time is common to most societies, but in China, where family names have been in use for so long, the dearth is unusually acute. The problem is further compounded by the Chinese script - when non-Han peoples take a Chinese surname they are obliged to use an existing character, often using the same one for an entire clan, whereas surname lists in Western languages swell when new ethnic groups join the population. Add to that the fact that some names are tied to certain clans or localities (in south China entire villages can share a single surname), and for various indeterminable reasons, Chinese parents are reluctant to choose unusual given names for their children.

Consequently, the problem of repeat names, known in Chinese as tongming tongxing is not uncommon. The proverb zengsheng sharen refers to the story of Zengzi, a student of Confucius, whose mother at first refused to believe reports that her son was a murderer. Only after three people had told her the same story did she lose faith in her son, who promptly turned up and dismissed the whole tale as rubbish - the guilty party was just his namesake.

Recently, experts have been searching for ways to create more names. Some argue that children should receive both parents' surnames, as is customary in Spain, or that long-dead surnames should be resurrected and pressed back into service in this hour of need. Others say that simply encouraging parents to be a little more imaginative, and use two or even three character given names, would be enough to reduce the pressure. Of course, some people take personal responsibility for distinguishing themselves from the masses. Throughout history, Mandarins and members of the literati have adopted a hao - style name. To this day many writers and performers adopt a stage or pen name, among them Hong Kong actor Cheng Long Jackie Chan, Red Sorghum author Mo Yan (lit. "Don't Speak"), and Blood Red Sunset author Lao Gui (lit. "Old Devil").

For common folk, to avoid confusion among friends and family, individuals with popular names can be addressed according to their relation to the speaker, by their xiaoming or "small name," used primarily by family members or wai hao - nickname, used by friends.

If you're still having problems remembering who's who, have a little patience and don't give up. Try to learn the pronunciation, romanization, characters, and English meaning of your friends' names, and hopefully at least one of these will jog your memory when the time arises. To end on a plea: remember, when choosing a Chinese name for yourself, try using a little imagination. Trust your old Ayi, you don't want to become Beijing's 50,001st Zhang Li.

Got a question only an Ayi can answer? Don't have an Ayi? Ask ours. Send your questions to askayi@bigfoot.com


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