What's in a name? Not much to the Chinese police.

The character for one family name is so unusual that the Chinese police have forced them to change it.

Pity poor Mr. Shan, and his couple of hundred relatives with the same name in a small village in Eastern China.

The Chinese character for their surname is so unusual the police are forcing them to change it.

The great majority of Chinese people share about 100 surnames. There are more people named Li than the entire population of Germany. “Old one hundred names” is the Chinese way to say “Joe Blow.”

But the Shans have a problem. The police computer system does not support the character, one of the rarest among the 85,000 symbols in the Chinese language. So the authorities could not issue them a new computerized ID card.

New name, please

The Shans have been told to become Xians since 2003, when the new generation of ID card first came into use. But for some reason the state news agency Xinhua publicized their ongoing plight only last month.

“Nobody wants to do it, but under the circumstances we have no choice,” Xian Xuexin told state television recently.

The story has provoked widespread comment on Internet chat rooms and blogs, with most sympathetic to the villagers.

“The police are making them change their name because they don’t know how to use a computer," scoffed a blogger who calls himself “renmin ribao zhubian” (the authorities would probably like him to change his handle, too. It means chief editor of the People's Daily).

Some officials have weighed in too, with education ministry expert Zhang Shuyan arguing that unusual names deserve protection as part of China’s cultural heritage. “It is irresponsible to change them only for technical reasons,” she told Xinhua.

Other sticky name issues

Other people have had trouble with their names since the computerized ID cards came in, but the cases that have come to light have all concerned their given names, which were a matter of choice, albeit their parents’ choice.

Zhao C was told that “C” was not a Chinese character so he’d have to change it. He sued for the right to keep his name, but lost his court case. And a couple of proud new parents who tried to register their baby’s name as @ (arguing that the Chinese way of pronouncing that character sounded a bit like “ai ta,” which means “love him”) had no luck either.

Still, there may be some hope for the Xians, formerly known as Shans: The National Language Committee has said that the police will add some rare family names to their database during the next census, which starts in November.

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