Which Mr Wang do you mean?

On the news this morning they mentioned that China is suffering from a chronic shortage of names, which leads to many cases of mistaken identity. They gave an example of one man who was arrested by mistake – it was one of his neighbours with the same name who the police were after.

The ordinary people of China are traditional known as 老百姓 (lǎobǎixìng), which means ‘old 100 surnames’. This comes from the ancient tradition that citizens adopt one of a hundred single character surnames. Today there are up to 450 surnames in use in some areas of China, such as Beijing – though fewer in other areas. Here is a list of the current top 100 Chinese surnames.

According to an article on this topic in the Telegraph, the most popular surname in China is 王 (wáng), closely followed by 李 (lǐ), which between them account for 14% of the population or some 185 million people.

One solution being considered is to allow children to take the surnames of both parents. The Chinese government is also considering allowing a greater range of characters to be used as surnames, and also for the use of ethnic minority surnames, which are usually replaced with Chinese surname with a similar sound.

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This entry was posted in Chinese, Identity, Language.

17 Responses to Which Mr Wang do you mean?

  1. Polly says:

    About time. How had this not dawned on anyone before? I always wondered if it had a detrimental effect on official identity. This answers my question.

    I notice the same kind of thing in Vietnemese. The name Nguyen seems to be the surname of the vast majority of people I’ve met.

    Tangent: What ever happened to the Smiths and the Joness? I never meet or hear about anyone with those surnames anymore.

  2. Josh says:

    You don’t know many Smiths and Joneses? Then you must not know many african americans. I’ve always wondered why some of the most common-sounding european surnames are predominately ‘black’ surnames in the USA: Williams, Davis, Smith, Jones, Jackson, Jefferson, Washington, Brown…

    I even saw a joke on TV once a while back that went something like:

    Q: What do George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson all have in common?

    A: They were all preisdents?

    A2: That, and they were last white people with those last names.

    Back on topic:

    I’m very hard pressed to find a Vietnamese person in this country whose last name isn’t Tran or Nguyen… or a Hmong person who’s last name isn’t Vang or Yang. In fact, I remember in highschool we had two people named Poua Vang at the school. And I know two people named Dao Yang that live in this city- ones’ a guy, one’s a girl. I also seem to know a lot of Indians with the last name Patel. I don’t know many chinese people, so I can’t really comment on that-

    At first I just assumed that this was an asian issue, but then I thought about the Thai, Cambodian and Lao people I know… and NONE of them have the same last names: Philavahn, Chantabouthy, Sambhatsupai and Damduanthavong are just a few I can think of off the top of my head.

    How exactly does this happen? The hmong don’t use characters and neither do Indians. I can see how the vietnamese might’ve gotten caught up in this through history, but aren’t khmer and tai languages ultimately derivative of chinese languages?

  3. Jangari says:

    …but aren’t khmer and tai languages ultimately derivative of chinese languages?

    I don’t think so, well, not ‘Chinese’ proper at least. Khmer is Afro-Asiatic, along with plenty of Laos, Vietnamese, some east Indian and some other south-east Asian languages, and Thai is, I think, from a small family – I can’t remember what it’s called – that derives from far-southern China.

    Mandarin, Cantonese and a lot of the other Chinese languages are Sino-Tibetan. There’s some very very tentative speculation that these three families were connected at some point, but that’s probably going way back before surnames even existed (if there’s even any semblance of truth to it).

    That said, cultural constructions like surnames tend to diffuse easily, so I would have expected Chinese cultural domination to impose surname conventions over the past couple of thousand years, but perhaps something like surnames coming from a restricted set – I don’t think that would easily be borrowed.

  4. BG says:

    Jangari: I think you mean Austroasiatic, not Afroasiatic, which includes Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew.

    Tangent and Josh: I know a few Smiths and Joneses. These names are not extremely common like they used to be, but are not uncommon either. I think the reason for African Americans having these European surnames is because of the intermarriage of slaves with masters, to put it nicely.

  5. Jangari says:

    Indeed. My bad.

  6. zhiguli says:

    Just to clear some things up – Khmer is Mon-Khmer, and Thai is Tai-Kadai, and up to now there is no conclusive evidence that either group belongs to Austronesian (Indonesian, Tagalog, etc) or Sino-Tibetan. Both languages are firmly within India’s sphere of influence – their alphabets are Indic-derived and a great deal of their vocabulary (and this includes personal names) is derived from Pali/Sanskrit, rather than Chinese.

  7. Tony Allan says:

    I recall reading once that the majority of Koreans have either Lee, Kim or Park as surnames (which come at the front of the name). I certainly lament the passing of the former Foreign Minister, Lee Bum Suk.

    There is also the Muslim tradition of naming a child. This seems to have led to a lot of Mohammed Alis around the place.

    I also recall there have been two US presidents called George Bush. Could they perhaps be related?

    In the Melbourne telephone book, I think Nguyen is the most common surname. But Smith and Jones are close behind, and I suspect most of them are very Anglo-Celtic.

    I think people are over-reacting a bit to the issue of common surnames. But I do see China’s problem!

  8. Polly says:

    Indeed, here in ther middle of Korea Town, every lawyer, doctor and dentist office is Kim this or Kim that. Kim (김) being the surname and, as Tony said, written before the first name.

  9. AR says:

    Wikipedia has some interesting Articles on Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese names.
    Some Stats:
    Of the [South] Korean population, 21% are 김 (金) Kim (Gim), 15% are 이 (李) Lee (Yi, Ri, Li, Rhee, Reeh) and 9% are 박 (朴) Pak (Park, Bak).
    In Vietnam, Nguyễn (阮) accounts for 38.4% of the population and Trần (陳) 11%.
    Most Vietnamese and Korean surnames are derived from Chinese and have Hanzi equivalents. Its interesting to note that various names are common in certain areas. For instance Nguyễn, (Ruan in Mandarin and Yuan in Cantonese) is fairly uncommon in China. Trần (Chan or Chen in China) is common in both Vietnam and China.

    In India, Patel is only common in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh and is only found in certain subcastes. It is second only to Singh (lion) in India which is most commonly found in the state of Punjab where the Sikhs are based. Singh is in the top 20 list of most common surnames in Britain! Indian surnames have a strong historical value stemming from both caste and ethnic sources. Certain surnames provide insight into migratory patterns of various people in (the) India(n subcontinent).

  10. BG says:

    Tony Allan: Yes, George H.W. Bush is George W. Bush’s father.

  11. Tony Allan says:

    Dear BG…Of course I know that. I was engaging in subtle humour.

  12. rek says:

    According to what I’ve read and been told, my own surname, Jensen, is the most common in Denmark (~6% of the population). Due to the old patronymic system a whole lot of people were the Sons of Jens when the practise was banned in 1828, and so there are a lot of Jensens, Jensons, Jenssens, et cetera. As of last year the patronymic system has been reinstated (with some changes) to alleviate the abundance of Jensens, Hansens, and Rasmussens getting each others mail.

    The changes include derived names from Tamil and Arabic, and optional ski/ska instead of sen/datter.

  13. Ama munawaychu says:

    Koreans do not call other person by surname-only. The Korean word for Mr(or Miss,Mrs) is 씨(ssi) but it’s very rude if you call someone who has surname “Kim” in Korean “김씨”(Kim ssi).
    If you need call an unfamiliar man politely you must call his full name like 김근석씨 (Mr. Kim Geun-seok)
    If he is your friendly colleague in other gender, you need call him as personal name like 근석씨 (Mr. Geun-seok)
    If you want to go battle someone you can call him like 김씨(Mr.Kim) An tough construction laborer can call other laborer like 김씨. But, If you are a foreigner, surname+honorific word in your language like Mr.Kim/金さん/Monssieur Kim doesn’t matter.
    And, Koreans can also call you like Jefferson씨, 田中씨, Dubois씨.
    Surname+씨 has other usage for example the answer of this question. 성이 뭐에요?(What is your surname?)- 김씨요.(Kim-ssi-yo)

    Korean has limited number of surname, so they hardly use surname-only general honorific for mutual designation. Instead,
    All surnames have their family origin(본관/本貫) for example,
    안동 김씨(安東 金氏;Kim’s from Andong) 김해 김씨(金海 金氏;Kim’s from Kimhae) 광산 김씨(光山金氏; Kim’s from Gwangsan) 본관(Bongwan) desgnates the homeland of ancestor’s. Kim is dominant surname in Korea, and Kimhae Kims are dominant sub-group among the Kims. According to the law,it is not allowed to construct a new surname in Korean yet,but it is possible construct a new Bongwan. So, A famous German-Korean named Lee cham(Bernhard Quandt) constructed his new Bongwan as 독일 이씨(獨逸李氏;Lee’s from Germany) A few feminist use both
    surname like 박안지선(Park-An Ji seon)

  14. Josh says:

    At BG: Yes, I realize that the reason African Americans have these names is because they were ultimately passed down from slave masters, but my question is WHY it seems African Americans predominately have these European surnames (in the USA).

  15. BG says:

    Maybe because there were so many slaves? I don’t really know.

  16. epingchris says:

    In Taiwan Chen (陳) and Lin (林) predominate, followed by Zhang (張), Wang (王) and Li (李).
    Our problem on people with same names is not as big as in China, because less people name their children with one character only here AND because we have less people here. :) But the problem is still there. The Chien-Ming Wang (yes, I just have to use him as example:) ) who is present in MLB shares his name with several celebrity in Taiwan and definitely a lot of citizens here, with some variations perhaps. (建民/建銘 are two of them. We have Zhao, Chen, Wang, Jiang with this name……and I know a friend with this name which is a Lu.)
    Girls’ names tend to repeat a lot, such as Yi-Xuen, Yi-Jun, Jing-Wen……probably because people put less effort here in naming girl’s names, unfortunately.

    PS: I’m using hanyupinyin in order for it to be more comprehensible here; people in Taiwan usually don’t spell their name according to that system……

  17. Sol says:

    Sorry but you are missing the obvious – in Asia with its rigid heirachies and feudalism, commoners had no names unlike commoners in European, English, Irish etc society.

    Most of the Koreans have a handful of names, a tiny number by the standards of other countries but this does not mean all or most of them are descended from the Kims of wherever who were prominent during the Shilla Kingdom etc.

    This is a face saving fantasy. Most Koreans had no names and around 30 percent of the Koreans were slaves well into the 19th century. Peasants and other commoners were not deemed worthy of names in the rigid Korean caste-like society.

    Koreans purchased names and purchased family ‘histories’. These are shams for many but if it saves their face that is all that matters to them.

    Most of the Japanese had no names until they were allowed to have names during the Meiji Period. The same thinking behind it.

    Both the Koreans and Japanese had an outcast ‘class’. It’s unfortunate they don’t discuss these things in the education system. I find it absurd that they talk about slavery in the US so much (to make their own countries’ bleak feudal histories better) but cannot admit the existence of slaves for so long in Korea (despite their excuses that they were nonbi or whatever) and the outcast class. Asian hypocrisy and face saving at its best – or worst really.