Although China has the largest population (1.37 billion), the household name of this large population represents the smallest collection of names compared to all the countries of the world.
According to a CNN report, if you randomly stop someone on the street in China, there is a very good chance that his last name will be either Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, or Shin.
This is because these are the 5 most common titles in China – more than 433 million people, or 30% of the population, according to government figures.
According to the Ministry of Public Security, only about 6,000 household names are in use. The vast majority of the population – about 86% – share only 100 of those names.
By comparison, America, which has less than a quarter of China’s population, had about 6.3 million household names in 2010.
One of the reasons for this is technology, china’s digital revolution has changed everyday life, and many of these systems rely on a limited list of unified Chinese characters.
This means that people with rare characters in their names, which do not correspond to current computer systems, can be left behind, prompting many to change their names, even if it means abandoning centuries of heritage and language.
How are some family names extinct?
This has not always been the case, and throughout its long history, China has registered more than 20,000 household names, and some researchers put this estimate at 23,000.
“The culture of these names has been spreading in our country for thousands of years, and it has had a profound and wide impact, and throughout history, the names have evolved and characterized, and have formed more than 6,000 household names used today,” the Ministry of Public Security said in its 2019 nationwide survey of household names.
In China’s history, household names have often been in constant change, partly because many have disappeared since then.
At times, the old rulers and clans adopted the names of their state or their fiefdoms; others were given new royal names by the emperors.
The Chinese sometimes change their names for ease as well, for example, simplifying complex characters by adopting similar characters with fewer hits. At other times, they do so because of superstition, giving up a name that is believed to cause misfortune.
Obstacles in the digital age
Rare or uncommon names in China have disappeared for centuries, but they are facing an accelerated crisis in modern China.
For many years, people with rare letters in their names could have used them, as documents and letters were largely handwritten, but it became almost impossible to use them in a written form with the advent of digital technology and the new digital national identity system.
The main problem is that not all Chinese characters are encoded in computer systems, and in 2017, there were about 32,000 encrypted characters in the Chinese character database, leaving tens of thousands of characters.
As China enters the digital age, almost everything has moved online, from scheduling to buying train tickets. This means a world full of problems if you happen to have rare characters in your name that may not be in the database. As of 2017, up to 60 million Chinese citizens have faced this impasse.
Another factor that exacerbates the popularity of Chinese names is the government’s efforts to standardize and regulate the language.
In China, there are many different dialects in Mandarin between provinces, some of which differ so much that speakers cannot understand each other, so in 2000 the Chinese Government declared that standard Mandarin, spoken by Beijing residents, was the national official spoken and written language.
However, written Mandarin was not uniform at the time, with differences due to factors such as geographical area and population, so government bodies and experts began compiling a list of characters they could agree on and use collectively in the future.
The result was the general Chinese standard character table, published in 2013 and hailed by the State Council as a “new starting point” for the unified Chinese.
This table consists of more than 8,000 characters, which is only a fraction of the total number of Chinese characters present. However, this structured list of common characters has been implemented in all walks of life in China, from education, journalism, publishing, information processing, computer lines, Chinese reference books, etc.
This also means a smaller set of names that people are encouraged to choose from.
After the table was issued in 2013, the Ministry of Public Security ordered local police departments to “limit new names and changes to the population information management system on the general Chinese standard character table”, describing it as an effective solution to the problem of the calculation of rare characters in names.
However, the announcement turned out to be premature, as people encountered problems long after the schedule was issued. One problem was the limited character database in computer systems through government institutions and agencies, forcing some people to change their names.
To address this, experts have increased the database from 32,000 to 70,000 characters, and are still expanding it to more than 90,000 characters.