China: More People, Fewer Names

Go ahead, complain all you want about living in America — but at least you can name your kid whatever you want, whether it’s Temptress, Yourhighness, or even Marijuana Pepsi.

In China, meanwhile, the government is cracking down on uncommon names. From today’s Times:

Seeking to modernize its vast database on China’s 1.3 billion citizens, the government’s Public Security Bureau has been replacing the handwritten identity card that every Chinese must carry with a computer-readable one, complete with color photos and embedded microchips. The new cards are harder to forge and can be scanned at places like airports where security is a priority.

The bureau’s computers, however, are programmed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters, according to a 2006 government report. The result is … at least some of the 60 million other Chinese with obscure characters in their names cannot get new cards — unless they change their names to something more common.

Even more interesting is this bit about Chinese surnames:

By some estimates, 100 surnames cover 85 percent of China’s citizens. Laobaixing, or “old hundred names,” is a colloquial term for the masses. By contrast, 70,000 surnames cover 90 percent of Americans.

Here is a list of the 1,000 most common surnames in the U.S. There is much less variance among Latinos: 4 of the top 15 names are Hispanic (Garcia, Rodriguez, Martinez, and Hernandez). That’s the kind of thing that makes Andy Rooney unhappy.


If you have seen him lately, it seems that everything makes Andy Rooney unhappy.


Interesting coincidences from the US top 1000:
- Lewis and Clark are next to each other, at 25/26.
- King and Scott (as in Martin and Coretta) are next to each other too, at 35/36.
- There are more Watsons than Holmes's. How true.


"There is much less variance among Latinos: 4 of the top 15 names are Hispanic "

There seems to be some equivocation here between the term 'Hispanic' and the term 'Latino'. In many contexts, one cannot use the former as a replacement for the other.

Just a thought to keep in mind.

Eric M. Jones

Mohammed is the most common first name and Zhang (Chang) the most common last name. So, by the process of logical deduction we can calculate that Mohammed Chang is the most common name on the planet.


I've heard variations on that "Mohammed Chang" joke before. But according to, the most common Chinese surname -- and therefore almost certainly the most common surname in the world -- is Li (Lee).

Unfortunately, if you go for accuracy and say "Mohammed Lee", it wrecks the joke because it sounds like you're saying "Muhammad Ali".


Funny coincidence that monday's installment of the xkcd was just talking about the consequences of using int instead of long when you are writing programs that deal with large numbers
You'd think after the Y2K scare, that government programmers would have learned to use proper data types on their computers.
(not a programming nerd, be nice!)

Leland Witter

@Caliphilosopher - You are going to need to help me out here. I just did a Google search and cannot figure out the difference. Actually, I guess what I mean to say is that there is a wide range of opinions and nothing that seemed very definitive.

In my limited understanding (and I hadn't really thought about this too much before), it seemed to me that "Hispanic" was a sort of an ethnicity designation, while "Latino" seemed to be an "identity". I guess what I mean is that it seems like people refer to themselves as Latino.

It is all very confusing for me since I (perhaps incorrectly) thought Latino meant from Latin America, so I wouldn't include Cubans or Peruvians, for example, but would as part of the "Hispanic" group (as from Spanish speaking countries of the Americas). Of course then, Brazil confuses me yet again.

Hmm, it seems that I have actually given two different examples of my "understanding" so I am obviously confused.



What was missing from the article is that the ID card doesn't mean you change how your name is used elsewhere. I would expect people to have a simplified name for the ID cards.

The use of different names is relatively common in China - and some other Asian countries. That is, people pick English names so the Chinese person you know as William Chang likely just uses William. Helen is particularly popular for girls because of Helen of Troy and that usual Chinese girl names are of that type: flower, obedient (!), pretty.


To follow-up with Jonathan, people in China often have "big names" (da ming) and "small names" (xiao ming, i.e. nicknames) and will often identify by their "small name" in everyday use. So at least within my relatives, I've never actually been called by my "big name".


Yes, why don't you talk about how some European countries used to have a name for each date. If your child was born on that date, you had to name them that name. This was still the law 18 years ago in Czech (just to pick one example).

To me, a Chinese-Canadian, your tone of writing is very patronizing and offensive.


@ Leland,

You've touched upon what I find to be a problem with the equivocation. There does seem to be worries about how these terms are defined; I've heard people use them in specific contexts as well, with various reasons (that dovetail nicely with yours) why one word is used and the other is not.

You may be confused, but I think that the way you think things through is not confusing at all. :-) Actually, how you thought about the distinction goes to show that there might be some inconsistencies with the terms or that the terms are incoherent.

Excellent analysis! :-)

Science Minded

I think there is a lesson to be learned here. The chinese at the turn of the 20th century were still thinking in terms of Clan/family groupings. and they still are. The individual does not hold the same importance there as here. I am not thinking here along the lines of such traditions found in the West. The Chinese learned long ago of what can happen when people are left free to their own devices and still seem to troubled by it. Back then, your ties remained with your clan group no matter where you moved. so changing one's first name may not be such a big deal there as it would be here-- where first name distinguishes us as individuals. In other words, it is a matter of thinking in their terms--not ours.


"You'd think after the Y2K scare, that government programmers would have learned to use proper data types on their computers."

That's not how it works. At all.

GB18030 has more than enough character space. Either the characters are unassigned or the full standard (it's not mandatory) just isn't being implemented.

Xiaoshan Cai

Apparently in China you can get names such as "Temptress, Yourhighness, or even Marijuana Pepsi" . As the NYTIMES article has pointed out, someone named his son "C.", which means that the system probably does allow any kind of English names.


@ Fil - Yes, that is how it works. The ID card would store a unique number for each character in the person's name, but because the government has only defined a limited number of characters they are probably not not using any established character set but creating their own for the sole purpose if the ID Card.

Lauren B.

Names like Temptress and Marijuana Pepsi seem ridiculous. (I also know girls named Tremendous Johnson and Kishmah Ash.) Although, I suppose it can be considered a blessing that our names can be as ridiculous as our parents wish.

I wonder, are they planning to add more characters to the system? I would hate to think that China is so controlling that they need people's names to fit a mold.


@ Lauren B. - Oh, but China IS!!! (so controlling)


Hmm. Ok, I'll bite. Why are retain surnames so common.
Why is Garcia so common and not Soares?