Wednesday, 5 September 2007

China's Unsung Heroes

There are already 93 million Chinese called Wang and the number's growing (the top 10 Chinese surnames are Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Zhou, Wu). The problem is that Chinese names are traditionally 3 characters, starting with the family name, then adding 2 personal names. The Chinese Government controls the choice by publishing a list of acceptable family names. The resulting surname (or as seen in a recent e-mail: "sir name") shortage is causing confusion apparently.

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

Note that wives usually retain their own name but children would take the father's. We can now play the I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue game where we announce the arrival of Mr. Ng and Mrs. Sung with their son Ng Sung He Ro.

You don't need double-barreled names to have problems. Everyone one I know here has problems with romanised Chinese names, most notably in e-mail where I hear daily Long/Leung/Leong or Chee/Chie/Chea debates amongst people of all levels of Mandarin fluency. Worse yet, a Mandarin Seng is a Hokkien Sing so people pronounce the same name according to their language bias.

As far as I know, my company's e-mail always uses the Mandarin romanisation but that just means they may be called something slightly different and you can't tell. A minor additional confusion is that Westerners are shown as "<first> <last>", but for some reason, Indians are added "<last> <middle>-<first>", leaving their given name in the wrong place unless they complain to the Admin and have it switched around. It's no wonder business cards are so important and exchanged with almost Japanese levels of reverence.

My chief gripe is with Chinese who take a Western name as well. While Mike Tan is easy, it may be used in addition like TAN Kuan-Hiat Mike. So he might be "Mike" at work, "Kuan-Hiat" elsewhere but you still need to be able to spell the whole thing for e-mail. It can occassionally be fun such as a lady I worked with a few years ago: Ms. Heidi Ho. Strangely, I've never forgotten her name.