New Naming Rules in Mainland China

June 29, 2007 Updated: June 29, 2007    

China is proposing a new naming regulation that would require newborn children to adopt either or both parents' surnames as their surname. The plans are currently being discussed at a grassroots level. To date, there has been no official regulation on naming.

According to the Yangzi Evening News, there are 1601 surnames in China. If the policy goes into effect, approximately 1,280,000 new surnames will be created. This will reduce the amount of duplicate names and help to more clearly identify children's blood relationships.

The regulation states that new names must contain between two to six characters and must not damage the country's dignity, infringe on local folk customs, or have a negative impact on society. The names must use the simplified version of Chinese characters if they exist, and must not use eliminated variant characters, self-created characters, foreign names, or pinyin or Arabic numerals.

To prevent frequent name changes, the regulation would permit citizens 18 years and over to change their name (both surname and given name) only once. Those that change their names with fake certifications would be fined 800 yuan (approximately US$105).

Research shows that the Chinese naming convention stems from a matriarchal society where people formed clans around mothers. To differentiate clans, they used the mother's surname as the clan title. These surnames commonly contained the character component (radical) that stood for 'woman'.

In addition to this, the following factors are believed to have influenced the creation and use of Chinese surnames:

1. A forefather's home state or kingdom, such as the states of Zhao, Song, Qin, and Wu. 2. A forefather's title, such as the ancient official titles 'Sima' and 'Situ'. 3. A forefather's rank of nobility, such as 'Wang' and 'Hou'. 4. A forefather's given name. 5. An occupation, such as a pottery maker using the word for 'pottery' as a surname. 6. A place name or physical description of the location's scenery such as Dongguo, Ximen, Chi, and Liu. 7. Worship of animals like horses, cows, sheep, and dragons. Elements from these characters were mixed into surnames.

The book “One Hundred Surnames”, written during the Song Dynasty, includes about 500 surnames, of which 60 are compound surnames. According to statistics, there were about 5000 surnames in ancient documents. Now there are about 200 common surnames.

Ancient people's names were more complex than modern people's. Besides surnames and given names, additional words were used to identify one's position in the family hierarchy. People sharing the same hierarchy were required to have one identical word in their names.

People who were cultured or had social status had additional names such as 'Zi' (a courtesy name traditionally given to Chinese males at the age of 20, marking their coming of age), and 'Hao' (a self-selected courtesy name, usually referred to as the pseudonym).

For example, the Song Dynasty author Su Shi's surname was 'Su' and his given name was 'Shi'. In addition to this he had 'Zizhan' as his 'Zi' name, and 'Dongpo Jushi' as his 'Hao' name. The Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai lived in Shichuan's Qinglian County. He thus often used an additional name 'Qinglian Jushi' (as his Hao name) to signify: “Person who lives in Qinglian.”

Traditionally many people also believed that names foretold one's future. Extensive research went into choosing a name based on date of birth and the corresponding eight characters of the Chinese horoscope.