As if there weren’t enough rules about parenthood in one-child China, the government there is bent on curbing the possibilities for naming a child. A young woman whose grandfather went to some trouble to find her a unique, or at least uncommon given name — a rare character pronounced “Cheng” — has been told by officialdom that her name is “troublesome and problematic” and that she will have to change it.

The problem arises because the Public Security Bureau is replacing the handwritten identity card that every Chinese must carry (more rules) with a computer-readable one, complete with colour photo and embedded microchip. The bureau’s computers, however, are programmed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters. So Ma Cheng and at least some of the 60 million other Chinese with obscure characters in their names cannot get new cards unless they change their names.

One can understand the bureaucracy’s impatience with the new-fangled names Chinese are choosing for their precious offspring (“Olympic Games” was popular last year) — and they don’t have that on their own. A New Zealand family court judge last year issued stern warnings to a parent who called her daughter "Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii" and another couple who named their twins "Benson and Hedges" (a cigarette brand).

But you have to understand the Chinese parents’ dilemma as well. New Zealand has only 4.3 million people, while China has 1.3 billion — and only a hundred-odd surnames shared by some 85 per cent of them. With 92 million Wangs, 91 million Lis, 86 million Zhangs and enough Zhang Weis to populate Pittsburgh, there are good reasons for trying to personalise given names. Although if thousands of people call their baby boy “Space Travel” it’s difficult to see that they are much better off.

Linguistics scholar Wang Daliang told the New York Times, “Now a lot of people are perplexed by their names…This has become an obstacle in communication.” Ah yes, and that offends against social order and harmony. But law professor Zhou Youyong says the government should tread carefully because “the right to name children is a basic rights of citizens”. Of course, that is not going to trouble a regime that dictates whether you can even have a child. ~ New York Times, April 21

China’s naming issue, however, seems mild compared to that of its neighbour Mongolia, whose former Communist regime in the 1920s abolished surnames altogether in an attempt to wipe out class distinctions, according to a Washington Post story several years ago.

“Mongolia became a land in which most people not only had no personal property, but had no last name. Foreigners traveling here were told the use of only one name was a tradition; Mongolians themselves forgot that the tradition was new.”

By the 1970s people were marrying their relatives without knowing it. Since the collapse of Communism, however, last names have become legitimate again and people are scrambling to track down their ancestry or simply claim one. The big winner has been “Borjigin”, the tribal name of Genghis Khan. It means master of the blue wolf, a reference to Mongolia’s creation myth in which a blue wolf mated with a fallow deer to give birth to the first Mongolian. Up to 80 percent of Mongolians had claimed that name by 2000.

Perhaps a bit of bureaucratic interference would not have gone amiss there…

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet