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1.4 billion names – Big Brother knows them all

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling aus dem Jahre 2017
Johnny Erling, Journalist and China Correspondent

The family council met weeks before the birth of the daughter. Parents and grandparents looked for a suitable first name. It should make sense, sound good, be easy to write and pronounce. The prospective grandfather looked it up in the Book of Oracles (Yiqing) and Confucius; the father looked it up online. Their choice fell on the double character “YouYou” (有有). It means “to have something, or something is available”. The character is in the Yiqing as a symbol of luck and in the motto of the philosophy: Wu Zhong Sheng You – From nothing comes the You. The mother liked the melodic sound when the third tone swings by doubling when pronouncing You.

That was in 2006. The Beijing family described to me how they found the first name in the traditional way, which according to Chinese custom, comes after the father’s family name. The police department registered the daughter with an 18-digit number after she presented her birth certificate, proof of being an only child, and the registration confirmation (hukou) of her residence.

The new freedom of naming

Today, things are simpler. Numerous inexpensive apps make it easier to find the right name. Most importantly, parents have a legal right to choose their child’s surname and first name (姓名权) themselves for the first time. The first Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China (民法典) has been in effect since January 1. It regulates in several articles that names of natural persons may be freely “decided, used and changed” as long as they do not violate general good taste. Or, if there are other justified reasons against it. Such as in mid-2017, when party authorities had words inciting Islamist thought banned as part of a name in the course of their suppression of the Uyghurs. They suspected incitement to “holy war” or separatism.

At least the new law guarantees more equality. Because of the “change in social norms” and the end of the “one child family” in 2016, newborns are allowed to take on their mother’s last name. This was already noticeable in the generation born in 2020 (10,035 million children). Nevertheless, for every 12 children who took their father’s last name, there was only one who took their mother’s name.   

This is all according to the “National Report on Names in China 2020” published on the police website. In it, the Ministry of Public Security boasts that it has made the collection of names a building block of its “big data strategy”, which it has been pursuing since 2018. Digitalization is so advanced that “we have built the world’s largest information and management system on the population“. China’s now 1.4 billion people registered with their hukou (right to stay) could track them across “all stages of life and nationwide migration”. The problem: The vast wealth of names and data are the raw material for developing sophisticated surveillance techniques. China already leads the world in identifying faces using artificial intelligence.

Wang – a name for 100 million people

According to the police report, China’s names are said to have existed for more than 5000 years. A major dictionary of surnames in China published in 2010 (中国姓氏大辞典) records 23,813 family names. Of these, 6150 are still in circulation today, he said. The names, which are borne by the majority of all Chinese (85 percent), fall under the “list of 100 surnames” (baijiaxing). In 2020, as many as one in three (30.8 percent) of the 1.4 billion people belonged to one of the top five surnames from the list: Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu or Chen (“王,李, 张, 刘, 陈”). Wang – this is the name of more than 100 million people in China alone.

Since many parents then also choose the same first name for their children, everything is doubled. Masses of Chinese with the same name populate the People’s Republic. No wonder the police want to encourage their compatriots with an online service to check the names in all 31 provinces and city states to choose rarer or multi-syllabic first names. As many as hundreds of thousands of people are registered under only one name at a time, the current state of affairs is a nightmare for statistical surveys (including police investigations).

Weidong – born at the end of the 50s

A table in the police report analyses how the choice of first names depended on the zeitgeist between 1949 and 2019, changing every ten years. It shows that some parents probably made their children’s first name a badge of their publicly demonstrated enthusiasm for the regime. Chinese with first names like “Jianguo” (building the state) or “Xinhua” (New China) were mostly born around 1950. Many first names were generated from abbreviations for absurd political campaigns. For example, those named “Zhaoying” (Outdated England) were born in the late 1950s. “Weidong” (Defends Mao Zedong) fell into the period of the Cultural Revolution, as did symbolic words like “Red Sun”, “Red Rock”, to “Sea Wave” that were readily used as first names. Only after Mao’s death in 1976 naming was gradually depoliticized to a large extent. First names reflected wishes for their children’s future, names from films, music and sport, love of the countryside and culture, or again the recourse to classical names.

China’s word for family name “Xing” (姓) is composed of the characters for woman and birth. It derives from the matriarchy in China’s primitive society, writes the police report. It was only 2,000 years ago, after the unification of the empire and unified administrative reforms, that the current father-influenced naming system emerged. Digitalization is now leading to a new standardization that is turning 1.4 billion Chinese into transparent people by recording their names.


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