Zhao C: a Man Who Lost His Name

« previous post | next post »

Mark Swofford, Steve Hansen, and Anne Henochowicz have just called my attention to a wonderful post by Joel Martinsen over at Danwei which tells about a man named Zhao C who was informed by the Public Security Bureau of the People's Republic of China that he can no longer call himself "C," something that he has been doing his entire life. Mr. Zhao and his father, a lawyer, brought suit against the Public Security Bureau. Last June, a district court in Yingtan, Jiangxi Province, found in Zhao C's favor, but the Public Security Bureau appealed. As one might have expected, Mr. Zhao was ultimately forced to "voluntarily" change his name.

The government's position that Mr. Zhao's name violated rules and that their computers were not equipped to handle "non-standard characters" is, to say the least, disingenuous, since the roman alphabet is in evidence all over China. In the first place, Hanyu Pinyin is the official roman orthography of the People's Republic of China, enshrined in the law. Second, all Chinese schoolchildren learn to read Chinese through the medium of Pinyin and they also all learn English. Third, the most famous literary figure of the 20th century was named Ah-Q, and many Chinese novels have personal and place names that incorporate roman letters. Fourth, as Mark Hansell pointed out already in "The Sino-Alphabet: The Assimilation of Roman Letters into the Chinese Writing System," Sino-Platonic Papers, 45 (May, 1994), 1-28, the roman alphabet has long since been fully incorporated into the Chinese script. Fifth, there are entire dictionaries consisting of thousands of what are called ZI4MU3CI2 字母詞 ("letter words"). Even standard dictionaries, such as the Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Dictionary of Modern Chinese), which was edited by scholars at the Institute of Linguistics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and published by the famous Shangwu Yinshu Guan (Commercial Press), either have a section devoted to "letter words" at the back or integrate them into the main body of entries.

Martinsen's post ends thus: "Zhao Zhirong told the Information Daily that he and his son don't have any good ideas for a new name, so they're asking the public for suggestions." Any ideas?

Share:



37 Comments »

  1. John Cowan said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    How about Zhao Ci? That would be a minimal change, just adding a "minimal vowel". Or if it's meant to be pronounced like the English letter "C", I'd go with Zhao Xi. Of course neither is perfect.

    I leave up to someone else what character to choose in either case.

  2. jfruh said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

    The question that occurs to me is: if Roman letters are as well integrated into Chinese literacy as you say, what is the motivation behind forcing him to change his name?

  3. Nick Lamb said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    The fact that they've got a law about this makes me reject my initial intuitive idea, which was to pick a long obsolete but undoubtedly Chinese glyph from an ancient manuscript. Obviously if it's "not in the computer" then it'll get rejected again. Also I suspect the pronunciation for many obsolete characters is now unknown.

    How about a digit? If Latin alphabetic characters are agreed to be common in China, the so-called Arabic numerals must be even more ubiquitous (after all the case already mentioned the X used as an eleventh digit for a Weighted Modulo 11 checksum in the father's ID card). So how about Zhao 5 or Zhao 1 ? Otherwise, is there a suitable Character which would mean "anonymous" or "nameless" ?

    The Unicode enthusiast in me suggests U+FFFD "replacement character" usually visualised as a solid diamond with a question mark in it. But the average government functionary will have a lot of trouble figuring out how to type one of those, still less get the computer to accept it as someone's name.

  4. Charlie C said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    On the other hand, if i changed my name to Charlie ' I suppose I would have a lot of problems too with our various government and business computer systems (even though O'Neil, etc. are probably properly handled at least some of the time).

  5. Bruce Rusk said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

    How about 匸, Kangxi radical 23? It looks vaguely like a C and it's pronounced Xì (though Windows' IME thinks it's xǐ), which is about as close as you can get in Mandarin to "cee" (first tone would probably be closer). Its meaning is not particularly auspicious, but I suspect that someone who calls himself C is not particularly concerned with traditional naming patterns.

  6. dr pepper said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    Can the systems in China render a Prince symbol?

  7. Bloix said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    In the US you wouldn't be allowed to have a last name of 字. While I feel for him I don't think it's a particularly onerous civil rights violation.

  8. Benjamin said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    Nick, I like your suggestions for numbers and especially the Unicode, but the suggestion for "character meaning 'anonymous'" wouldn't work; the standard practice in writing case law summaries, or at least the few that I've studied, is to do just that. 孙中山 (Sun1 Zhong1 Shan1; Sun Yat-Sen, if you prefer) becomes 孙某 (Sun1 Mou3), meaning "A person called Sun1".

    That said, a quick search on the Chinese Facebook, Xiaonei, reveals plenty of people with the name 小某. Gut reaction says this is a bid for anonymity as opposed to a real name, but who knows…

  9. Zhao C said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

    Let's see, I logon here as Zhao C. What happens?

  10. Zhao C said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

    I'm actually surprised. The last place, wherever that was, wouldn't allow spaces.

  11. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    @ Charlie C: On the other hand, if i changed my name to Charlie ' I suppose I would have a lot of problems too with our various government and business computer systems
    Years ago I worked as an assistant keeper of Oriental books in the British Museum (before the BL came into existence). While looking through the index cards (older readers: please explain to any younger readers), I came across a card for a book by the Iranian writer Ali Dashti علی دشتی . A conscientious predecessor of mine, mindful of the fact that the first letter of `Ali is the pharyngeal `eyn ع , had headed the card Dashti, '. A colleague & I were reduced to helpless, paralytic laughter when we tried to reproduce the strangled cry represented by that " ` " (look: it's even thrown this blog's quotation marks out of kilter). Ah, happy days …

  12. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 4:59 am

    Here in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, where I am at the moment, this story was front page news. But I want to differ with Victor, who seems to regard it as a story about a government denying a man's perfectly reasonable right to have the name of his choice when they could easily handle it. I think this is not a language rights story; I think it is a crappy database systems story. Given the experiences I have had trying to enter an Edinburgh addess into English databases (my house number has the variant forms "10 (1F1)" and "10/1", for example, and gets rejected for having non-alphanumerics or spaces), and trying to enter an Edinburgh phone number in American databases (my bank has no idea how to phone me now), I think it is perfectly possible that the PSB might have paid a lot of money for a new database that, unlike the old one, could accept C in an apartment number or building name but not as a given name. (The former Zhao C is of course Mr. Zhao, and he wants his friends to refer to him as "C".) I think it is at least possible that once again bad software is forcing changes to information, where in an ideal universe a broad conception of the nature of the information should have driven the development of suitable software. That's my speculation, anyway: that contrary to Victor, the PSB may be telling the truth.

  13. Franz Bebop said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    Prof. Pullum, you may be right about the databases, but that doesn't make this a database story. Even if a government forces a man to change his name only to fit some data entry rules, then this is a story about government, not a story about databases. Your American bank may not be able to store your Scottish phone number into their database, but have they tried to force you to change your Scottish phone number, to fit their formatting presumptions?

    BTW, I'm disappointed in you, Prof. Pullum. How can you possibly refer to a random taxi driver as your "linguistic superior by a factor of infinity" just because he managed to parrot your language? Think about it: you spend huge amounts of energy decrying the linguistic ignorance of journalists and and everyone else. You complain that the world defers to the expertise of professionals like chemists or civil engineers but never defers to the expertise of linguists. But then, suddenly, one taxi driver in Hong Kong says "half hour" to you (not "half an hour," mind you, but "half hour") and you are ready to concede your own linguistic inferiority. Is this really Geoff Pullum, or did someone hijack your login?

    Any clown can learn a few phrases of many languages. Any self-respecting taxi driver in Hong Kong should certainly know a few English phrases. This is nothing to be impressed about.

    Please don't spend your entire time in Hong Kong convincing yourself of your own inferiority and the inferiority of your culture. We do not need yet another voice telling us how wonderful the Chinese are and how inferior the rest of the world is.

    Pretend you are in Europe. Pretend you are in an American state for the first time. Find something to complain about, please.

  14. JimG said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

    Prof. Pullum,
    When I first began to study Mandarin, I was either too slipshod, lazy or insensitive to distinguish tones. I was consoled and encouraged by my instructor (a native Mandarin-speaking post-grad linguistics fellow), who told me that many native speakers were often sloppy in their use of tones, and that context was usually sufficient to make clear that the ignorant foreign devil (whose effort would earn at least minimal tolerance) intended to refer to someone's mother, not his horse, his rope or the question particle. Don't hold back.

  15. James said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    I think you have two different third points. Mark Hansell's comments should be the fourth.

  16. g said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

    Charlie C, there might be worse names than "Charlie '": http://xkcd.com/327/.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    Thanks, James. I'll fix that.

    Meanwhile, Zhang Liqing suggests that, if the PSB refuses to accept "C" for Mr. Zhao's name, he should substitute "cc." Every medical facility that Liqing knows about in China — including the emergency medical units of the PSB — uses "cc" to refer to the amount of blood drawn, the quantity of vaccine injected, etc. References to "cc" recur frequently in the computerized medical records of hospitals and clinics all over China. However, if the PSB refuses to accept "cc" for Mr. Zhao's given name, then I recommend that he write it as LI4FANG1 LI2MI3 立方厘米, which means "cc."

  18. David Marjanović said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    When I first began to study Mandarin, I was either too slipshod, lazy or insensitive to distinguish tones. I was consoled and encouraged by my instructor (a native Mandarin-speaking post-grad linguistics fellow), who told me that many native speakers were often sloppy in their use of tones, and that context was usually sufficient

    I fear all of this holds more for Mandarin than for Cantonese. Mandarin has four tones (or even just three in some dialects), Cantonese (at least in Hongkong) has six; (northern, including Standard) Mandarin ignores the tones in singing, Cantonese doesn't; (northern, including Standard) Mandarin has plenty of unstressed syllables that have no tone ("light/neutral tone"; grammatical particles, the second syllables of many bi- and trisyllabic words…), Cantonese doesn't; and while Cantonese has more syllable-final consonants than Mandarin, Mandarin has more different syllable-initial ones and AFAIK more bisyllabic words. In sum, I expect toneless Mandarin to be easier to understand than toneless Cantonese.

    Also, I gather that the Cantonese tones are harder to learn. The Mandarin ones all differ in contour (whether and how the voice moves during the syllable); some of the Cantonese ones have the same contour and only differ in pitch.

    ————————–

    cc is a nonstandard symbol for cubic centimeter, properly cm³.

  19. Nigel Greenwood said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    @ David Marjanović :


    When I first began to study Mandarin, I was either too slipshod, lazy or insensitive to distinguish tones. I was consoled and encouraged by my instructor (a native Mandarin-speaking post-grad linguistics fellow), who told me that many native speakers were often sloppy in their use of tones, and that context was usually sufficient

    I fear all of this holds more for Mandarin than for Cantonese.

    Well, perhaps. But according to YR Chao, in the introduction to his Mandarin Primer: "A word pronounced in a wrong tone or inaccurate tone sounds as puzzling as if one said bud in English, meaning 'not good' or 'the thing one sleeps in.'

    Mandarin ignores the tones in singing

    There's the solution! Just make sure you sing whenever you communicate with the locals …

  20. Jon Weinberg said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    I'm reminded here of the Japanese requirement (Family Registration Law, art. 50) that the characters in children's given names must be drawn from a Ministry-approved approved kanji list. That this particular requirement has nothing to do with database design and everything to do with social policy was demonstrated by the public debate over a mild expansion of the name-kanji list (from 2235 to 2298 kanji) in 2004.

  21. Jon Weinberg said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    Sorry, that should have been 2235 to *2928*.

  22. Neil Dolinger said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    Nigel Greenwood said:

    "Well, perhaps. But according to YR Chao, in the introduction to his Mandarin Primer: "A word pronounced in a wrong tone or inaccurate tone sounds as puzzling as if one said bud in English, meaning 'not good' or 'the thing one sleeps in.'"

    I am sure Prof. Chao had his pedagogical reasons for making that statement, but it's not too relevant in this situation. Of course if someone pronounces a single word in a language other than their own there is a chance that it will not sound right to a native speaker, but you would rarely say this word in isolation. If someone told me they went to a terrible movie last night, "it was very bud", I'd know from the context of the statement exactly what they meant! I had a Chinese friend who said his wife was in the "chicken" cooking dinner. It was not difficult to figure out from context that he meant to say "kitchen". Our ability to suss out meanings from context, despite pronunciations that vary from the native, should give us more confidence to try out our fledgling abilities in new languages. Whether Cantonese has six (or more) tones or some other language has consonants or vowels that our own language doesn't have should not hold us back

  23. aaron said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

    Take it from a nearly fluent speaker of terrible Cantonese, context goes a long way.

  24. dr pepper said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

    Back in the 60's, or maybe early 70's, there was a novel called "The Man Whose Name Wouldn't Fit". The man in question refuses to change or abbreviate his name when informed that the data width of the computer was one character smaller. Instead, taking advantage of the fortuitous discovery of a bacterium that likes mylar, he turns neo luddite.

  25. Charles Belov said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

    I recall a case in the US perhaps 10 years ago plus-or-minus where a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) of some state (California?) required a certain Mr. O of Korean ancestry to change his surname because their computers would not accept a one-letter surname. They finally agreed on "Oh." If I remember the article correctly, it referred to "one-digit surname" instead of "one-letter surname."

  26. Nigel Greenwood said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    @ Neil Dolinger: Our ability to suss out meanings from context, despite pronunciations that vary from the native, should give us more confidence to try out our fledgling abilities in new languages. Whether Cantonese has six (or more) tones or some other language has consonants or vowels that our own language doesn't have should not hold us back

    Of course you're right that we should be confident when learning to speak a foreign language: aiming at perfection won't get us anywhere. Yet we shouldn't be too cavalier about the host language's phonemes! If I were a Frenchman speaking English, I hope I'd make at least an effort not to say Zat is ze sing … Similarly when speaking Mandarin we ought to aim at getting the tones right, rather than regard them as a sort of quaint optional add-on.

    One great advantage of the long-discarded Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization (devised by YR Chao et al), at least for language learners, is that the tone of each syllable is incorporated in the spelling (following rules which might politely be described as baroque). Using GR, you are constantly reminded that Beeijing (Běijīng / BEI3JING1), the capital, is not the same as beyjiing (bèijǐng / BEI4JING3), "background".

    [I should declare an interest: I was partly responsible for the WikiP article on GR.]

  27. Mr Fnortner said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

    Of course, consider that the Chinese government simply must be THE GOVERNMENT, and not Mr. C's best friend just trying to help him solve this pesky little problem with his name. They need to govern something, and this is right up their alley–it isn't and wasn't a mere technical problem.

    OK, now also consider that you'd like your name to be, say, 孙. And you'd like this to appear in all the English language telephone directory listings, social security records, flight manifests, water bills, income tax refunds, voter registrations and so forth along with all the 300,000,000 other English alphabet only names. Because you're special. Would you consider our governments unreasonable to say no?

    One of these is probably the right answer.

  28. Nigel Greenwood said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    @ Mr Fnortner: OK, now also consider that you'd like your name to be, say, 孙. And you'd like this to appear in all the English language telephone directory listings, social security records, flight manifests, water bills, income tax refunds,

    WE Soothill similarly caused no end of trouble for editors, cataloguers, etc when he called his 1899 dictionary The Student's Four Thousand 字. He scrupulously wanted to avoid using the word word or character, so simply left the character 字 untranslated in the title. According to Chao (in A Grammar of Spoken Chinese), "One cataloguer in a university library listed it as The Student's Four Thousand, apparently taking the tzyh 字 as a decoration on the title page!"

    This book is now referred to in most Western catalogues as The Student's Four Thousand [zi], though a few prefer The Student's Four Thousand [character]. Whichever you choose, it sounds rather mysterious.

  29. Franz Bebop said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    @ Mr Fnortner: OK, now also consider that you'd like your name to be, say, 孙. And you'd like this to appear in all the English language telephone directory listings, social security records, flight manifests, water bills, income tax refunds,

    As has already been pointed out (in so many words) by other posters, there is a big difference between asking to insert a novel glyph into a 26-glyph system versus asking to insert a novel glyph into a 30,000 glyph system. Also, Latin glyphs are already part of written Chinese. Inserting '孙' into written English is not the same thing as inserting 'C' into written Chinese. It's not comparable at all.

    I have no domain knowledge, but I suppose there are (legacy) software systems in Greece which normally handle Greek letters, can also handle Latin letters, but cannot handle Chinese glyphs.

    Computers were invented by people using Latin letters. It's hard to argue that a computer system cannot handle an ASCII character, even if that system was designed and manufactured in China. That's not a system limitation, that's a policy limitation. It's reasonable to guess that that very same system will adequately handle the names of Western foreigners living in China whose names are spelled using Latin characters. What kind of engineer would design a system for tracking names of people in China without even bothering to handle the case of foreigners whose names use Latin letters?

    (And yes, I understand that English uses more than 26 glyphs, since you can argue that 'g' and 'G' are distinct glyphs, and there are other glyphs like '$'. The important thing is not the actual tally of glyphs, it's about the order of magnitude.)

    Forget the computers: Focus on the really interesting part of this, and that is that Chinese people (perhaps) don't want a Chinese person to use Latin letters to spell their Chinese name while they are in China. That's a much more interesting phenomenon than any purported (imaginary?) software limitation.

    It would also be interesting to investigate whether the same bureaucrats who ruled out the name 'C' have also made other rulings that do not involve Latin characters at all.

  30. Dmajor said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

    Maybe he should change his name to SingleLetterC, or JustC, or C-Only?

  31. A-gu said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 3:41 am

    It's so nice to see so many familiar names commenting on this thread.

    My first instinct was also to recommend 匸 xǐ, not only because of the appearance but also because English 'c' is often read by Chinese speakers as pinyin 'xi' anyway, since Mandarin [i] cannot follow affricate/fricative alveolars like [s], but would follow [ɕ] or some other alveolo-palatal.

    Then again, my experience says that by default, 'c' will be read as a first tone 'xi,' in which case Mr. Zhao may prefer to use 熙.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    After reading about Zhao C on LL, John Rohsenow wrote to me about a similar, but more devastating, incident involving Yao Shen, a specialist on English as a second language for Chinese students. According to John, "Yao Shen (orig: Shen Yao ) (1914-1980?) worked with the famous linguist Charles C. Fries at the English Language Institute at the Univ. of Michigan in the 1940s-50's, and later retired to Honolulu. For details see: http://worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n86-115807

    "When Yao Shen returned to China in August 1979, she was told that the character for her mingzi ("name") did not exist, which greatly angered the old lady. After a month or so, she cut short her visiting foreign expert gig in the PRC and returned to Hawaii. Shortly afterwards she committed suicide. Truly, you 'can't go home again.'

    "I suppose after all these years, it doesn't matter. The incident of the character for her mingzi she told me herself in the Friendship Hotel dining hall in August 1979. Her early return to her home in Hawaii and her suicide shortly thereafter are matters of fact. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc?"

  33. Aqsaqal said,

    April 17, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

    I wonder how a registry office somewhere in Missouri would deal with happy Icelandic-American, Hungarian-American or Turkish-American parents applying for a birth certificate for their son Eiður or daughters Enikő or Işın…

  34. Bob Violence said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    One question I haven't seen addressed in any of the writings on this subject: if the databases are incapable of handling non-Han characters, how do they handle non-Han names? Are all Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, etc. in China required to use transliterated hanzi forms of their names?

  35. H Klang said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    @Charles Belov

    A well-known Chinese mathematician is Weinan E

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weinan_E

  36. H Klang said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

    What of the many cultural naming rules on the static, seething Continent?

    If you are German you must have a name that is culturally acceptable there: not Moon Unit. If you are of foreign nationality in Germany, they will allow (or require) you to use names appropriate to the culture of your passport. An example is the requirement of a "family name": all children of a given couple must have a common surname, either the mother's or the father's. This applies to Germans, but evidently not to Icelanders or Mongolians.

    My understanding is that there are even professorships devoted to checking this. Name experts, called to testify in hard cases. This corresponds to the general notion in that country that there is a Fach for everything and no Ignoramibus.

    That being said, the in many other ways progressive Germans actually saved our own baroque baby-naming plans by applying this extraterritoriality to the American father over the German mother, thus virally injecting a maximally liberal naming regime into German legacy code. Registered under German law before birth, the name became valid in a nearby country — where the babies were actually born, and where the father has no such rights due to non-marriage — by asserting the mother's rights to import her country's naming custom.

    The result: correct names on an American passport.

    Effectively, this legal nominal insertion-within-an-insertion is a real-life echo of the visitor DNA in @g http://xkcd.com/327/.

  37. Anton Sherwood said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

    The story mentioned by Chas Belov has probably occurred more than once, but I remember clipping it from the Los Angeles Times, necessarily between June 1981 and January 1985. The last paragraph said that Mr. Oh né O had been told by some institution (bank, insurer, school?) that it couldn't handle a name of fewer than three letters, which I find a bit implausible.

    To suggest a replacement for ‘C’, it would help to know why his parent chose it. Without that information, how about translating it as 百?

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment