Naming a Nation: Will the Real Wu-Tang Clan Please Stand Up?

13 June 2007 at 2:01 am 1 comment

| Chihmao Hsieh |

In the USA, the “Wu-Tang clan” refers to a family of Grammy-award-winning rappers formed in the 1990’s. In China, it’s about to refer to, well, just a normal family.

As described in this news report released yesterday by the AFP, today China has roughly 1.3 billion people, and 85% of them are covered by a mere 100 surnames. Ninety-three million people share the surname Wang, while 92 million are called Li and 88 million call themselves Zhang. For comparison, the 2007 estimated population in the United States totals 301 million. (You do the math!) And, as might be expected, the lack of variety in surnames is causing undue confusion in China (kind of like this?).

Thus, according to a recent report by the China Daily as mentioned in that news report, “under a new draft regulation released by the ministry of public security, parents will be able to combine their surnames for their children, a move that could open up 1.28 million new possibilities.

“For instance, a father named Zhou and mother named Zhu could choose to call their child either Zhou, Zhu, Zhouzhu or Zhuzhou…” (N.B.: but not Klein-Mahoney)

Two notes: [1] Western countries endure a similar problem with the lack of variety in first names. But confusion is often resolved by calling people by last names (or nicknames), e.g. we might distinguish between Bob Perkins and Bob Williams by calling them “Perkins” and “Williams.” Asians apparently have little similar recourse. Indeed, for a variety of sociocultural respect-related reasons, Asians often go out of their way to avoid calling each other by first name (from my own first-hand experience). [2] I wonder whether the Chinese government has plans to incentivize explicitly the adoption of combined surnames. But my guess is that enough new parents will welcome the policy change that helps distinguish their imminently genius offspring from the “little snots next door.”

Entry filed under: Ephemera, Former Guest Bloggers, Institutions.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. jonfernquest  |  13 June 2007 at 5:02 am

    Well, since the name is only three syllables in Chinese, just use the whole three syllables. Watch out for the little comma in bibiliographies though, or you might mix up the syllables and get gobblygook.

    Chinese people themselves must disambiguate family names somehow, like with hometown name which is pretty important in Korea, for instance, where there are a whole lot of Kims.

    Burma and Korea also have three syllable names and the wife does not take any part of the male’s name, in fact the notion of “last name” or “surname” is probably not directly comparable at all. I remember the usage of Burmese names in Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia being way off from the way that names were actually used, like “Mr. Than” did this or that whereas in Burmese would say “U Than Tun” did this or that, “U” being the honorific prefix for older people. In short, there are conventions which probably don’t map directly to the western conventions.

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