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.
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