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China runs out of surnames

93 million Wangs and rising

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China has been forced to mull the possibility of allowing double-barrelled surnames - a break with the ancient tradition that citizens adopt one of a hundred single character surnames.

The majority of Chinese take their surnames from the list, considered "part of the country's cultural heritage", the Telegraph explains. So embedded is this tradition that "ordinary" Chinese people are referred to as laobaixing, or "old hundred names", and schoolkids have to learn the lot by heart.

In fact, other less common surnames bring the official total of permitted surnames to 161, but this doesn't do much to offset the fact that there are now 93 million Wangs in China - closely followed by 92 million Lis - something which is causing the authorities a bit of a problem.

One official explained that "there are so many people who share an identity that it is becoming confusing", while Beijing police household registration officer Guan Xihua offered: "Such names cause great trouble in daily life." Indeed, China Daily notes that the name Wang Tao is shared by no less than 100,000 people.

The solution is, the powers that be reckon, to allow double-barrelled combinations. China Daily gives the example of a baby whose dad's surname was Zhou, the mother's Zhu, and who could therefore be called Zhou, Zhu, Zhouzhu or Zhuzhou.

Another proposal to expand the surname roster is "lifting restrictions on what counts as a surname to allow a greater variety of characters, including from ethnic minority languages where currently the closest sounding Chinese surname is commonly used".

However, parents will still not be able to use the "unsimplified, old-fashioned characters still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong" or Chinglish surnames. Furthermore, the western alphabet is strictly off-limits, meaning no Fleur de Lis or Brooklyn Zhous in the foreseeable future. ®

Bootnote

The top ten Chinese surnames are: Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Zhou, Wu.

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