Guest Blog: China restricts personal names

By Laurel Sutton

April 28, 2009

Today we present a guest blog by Andy Chuang of the firm Good Characters, experts in Chinese naming. We forwarded Andy an interesting story about the Chinese government placing restrictions on personal names, thinking he’d have a great perspective – and he was kind enough to write this wonderful blog post explaining the reasoning behind this decision. Thanks, Andy!

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China’s announced intention to limit the number of characters that can be used in a person’s name has generated much controversy. According to different speculations, people will be able to choose from among 8,000 – 12,000 characters. Why would the government limit its citizen’s options in choosing their children’s names? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks? Let me try to put the government’s decision in context and explain in plain English…so you can understand the issue without a Ph.D. in Chinese language!

picture-11Chinese Characters
You probably know there is no such thing as a Chinese alphabet. Written Chinese uses tens of thousands of symbols, known as characters. Each Chinese character has a basic meaning and represents a word or part of a word. Therefore, you can say that each Chinese character is more like an English word or affix than a letter of the alphabet or a sound.

Asking how many Chinese characters there are is like asking how many words there are in the English language. It’s an almost impossible question to answer. The largest database created by the Taiwanese government, called Master Ideographs Seeker with the project code name CNS11643, currently has collected 87,047 characters. The government in China is keen on simplification, so it uses a much smaller set of characters.

Technical Limitations
To write English, a computer needs to store only the 26 alphabet letters and it doesn’t really matter how many words are there: You can type “Rebekah” just as easily as “Rebecca”. But to write Chinese, a computer has to have the exact character stored before it can be typed out. You can’t “spell” or assemble a character on the fly.

Most computers on the market today don’t have all the Chinese characters stored in them. In 2006, the Chinese government’s computers were reported to be able to read only 32,252 characters. The number has since increased because widely-adopted Unicode supports over 70,000 characters on computers worldwide and is adding more. The CNS11643 in Taiwan, mentioned above, supports 87,047 characters.

The Issues
Technical difficulty and resulting obstacles in communication are the two main issues that prompted the pending new naming rule in China.

Since not all characters are stored in computers at this time, a name that has characters not stored cannot be entered on any electronic document. During the process of issuing computerized ID cards, the Chinese government encountered 8,000 characters not supported by their computers in the names of 60 million citizens. And creating a new character in the computer is about as troublesome as adding a brand new alphabet letter in a font set.

When you have obscure characters in a name, the problem is not only that the computer cannot read the name. People might not know how to pronounce it or understand its meaning either.

Is limiting the use of characters a good solution? It depends on your perspective.

Language and writing systems are ever-evolving. As recently as the last century, many new Chinese characters were created for newly discovered chemical elements. Limiting the use of existing characters and prohibiting the creation of new characters are like announcing a rule: All names have to be created with a set of known words. For example, you cannot create a new character for oxygen; you have to combine two existing characters to form an expression such as “nourishing-air.” An English equivalent would be a rule that you cannot coin a word like “Xerox”; you would have to say “photo-copy-machine-[company].” Or only Rebecca is “correct” – Rebekka or Rebekah will not be accepted. The analogies are not perfect, but they give you an idea.

However, each character is like a word and has to be stored in every computer before it can be displayed properly everywhere. It is understandable that the government doesn’t want people to create their own private characters, costing the country time, technology, and money to support them all—just because someone wants a unique name.

The supporters of new rule view the issues from the point of simplification and standardization. The critics think the technology should adapt to humans, not the other way around. Or at least people should be allowed to use all existing characters, not just a subset of the existing characters.

Some point out that too many Chinese share the same surname. It’s actually not an issue. Chinese have a small number of unique surnames but a large number of unique given names. Americans have a large number of unique surnames but a relatively small number of given names. You’re intrigued by how many Wangs you know and I am amazed by how many Daves I know. It’s just that east and west have different naming cultures.

So what would you do if you had the power to make the decision? Ensure that all existing characters are added to computers, establish a process so new characters can be created and approved, and allow people to create a baby’s name any way they want? Or permit only characters currently installed on computers to be used for names and forbid the use of obscure or new characters? Or limit names to a subset of characters so virtually no one will ever have to ask how you pronounce your name or how your name is spelled, as we do so often in America?

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