China's Identity Crisis: Many People, Few Names

If you ask a Chinese person what his or her family name is, there is a good chance that he or she will answer Lin, Chen, Wang, or Zhang.

The frequency with which Miss Chens and Mr. Zhangs can be encountered surprises many visitors; coming across four Wangs in the same school class, a Westerner may understandably, but wrongly, guess them to be related. Almost always, they simply have the same surname.

The people of Taiwan have a proverb to describe this phenomenon. "Chen, Lin, Li, Guo, and Tsai are half the people in the world." This is not such an exaggeration. The 10 most common Chinese surnames account for more than half of the households in the world's most populous nation.

In 1995, the Xinmin Evening News reported that no fewer than 87 million people in mainland China bear the surname Li, and that several other surname groups have more than 50 million members. This would not be a problem, but for the tendency of Chinese parents to choose common given names for their children.

In Tianjin, a large port city near Beijing, there are 2,300 people named Zhang Li. Throughout China there are 13,000 women named Liu Shuzhen. Imagine the confusion this can - and does - cause in hospitals, banks, and police stations.

China is ethnically diverse, with more than 50 minorities. Why the lack of surnames, then? The reason, according to Du Ruofu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is that all societies experience an "evolutionary dwindling" of family names as less-common ones die out. Because the Chinese have used surnames for thousands of years (compared to just a few centuries in many parts of Europe), this effect has become particularly significant.

Foreigners settling in China have long adapted the surnames of the majority Han Chinese. Manchu Chinese adopted common surnames to try to disguise their origins after the overthrow of the Manchu imperial government in 1911. In southern China, clan warfare sometimes concluded with weaker clans being forced to adopt the surname of the dominant one.

Those concerned about the lack of names have suggested reviving extinct family names, of which there are an estimated 9,000, or increasing the use of (currently rare) bi-syllabic surnames.

Du Ruofu and others recognize the principal obstacle to change: the Chinese are very attached to their ancestry, and reluctant to abandon lineages that may reach back more than 100 generations.

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