- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia editor at Foreign Policy, where he edits, reports, and writes stories from across the region. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, Isaac wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea, a country he has visited twice. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Isaac spent seven years living in China prior to joining FP; he has traveled widely in the region and in China. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
As U.S. intelligence agencies take heat for their response to Russian warnings about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, we’re learning that the National Counterterrorism Center added the now-deceased Boston bombing suspect to its massive terrorism watch list with incorrect dates of birth and a variant spelling of his name, which prevented Tsarnaev’s 2012 trip to Dagestan and Chechnya from triggering a travel alert, according to the New York Times.
The blunder isn’t all that surprising. After all, many foreign names have different spellings in English. There are at least 112 different ways of spelling the late Libyan leader’s name in English, for example (We at FP go by Muammar al-Qaddafi).
China, however, has the opposite problem: millions of people across the country share the exact same name. Renren, a Chinese social media site, has a function called "Same First Name Same Last Name Big Gathering" where you can see how many other people on the site share your name. Wang Wei, the name of an eighth-century Chinese poet, has 30,639 hits. But the poet uses a more obscure spelling. If you use a different character for Wei, which means "great," Renren returns 164,430 hits. Even imprisoned Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo shares his relatively uncommon name with 1,617 other people on the site.
The most common name in China, according to the 2007 census, is Zhang Wei, which 290,607 people claimed (there doesn’t appear to be a list of the most common names for the 2012 census). At least 49 other names are shared by more than 150,000 people, and reading through the list feels a bit like scrolling through my old Chinese cell phone. Wang Yong, which at number 22 is a name shared by 198,720 people, was my cleaning lady, whom we called Auntie. Liu Wei, number nine, was a landlord of mine, while Wang Gang, number 47, was an author and real estate developer I interviewed for a story.
When it comes to last names, a more recent census by the Public Security Bureau found that 21.4 percent of China’s population, or 270 million people, have the name Li, Wang, or Zhang, "making them the world’s three most common last names," according to an April article in the Beijing Morning Post. And the phenomenon is regional: In the northeast, where Auntie was from, roughly 10 percent of the population has the surname Wang, while in the south, Chen, the fifth-most common name nationwide, is shared by about 10.6 percent of the population. In the United States, by contrast, roughly 90 percent of the population uses 151,671 surnames, according to the 2000 census (the last year in which data is available), there are over six million surnames total in the United States.
In China, 87 percent of the population shares 100 names, according to the Beijing Morning Post. This is why common people in China are still known by the term "hundred common name," a phrase I heard most often when someone was either declining to answer a question about politics — "I’m just a hundred common name, I don’t understand" — or complaining about politics — "they don’t pay any attention to us hundred common names."
A 2007 article from Xinhua, China’s state news agency, argues that having the same name as another person, like "when a man gets put into a woman’s dorm, a company sends money (to the wrong person), or when one class has ‘three myselfs,’ makes life more interesting." However, "when nearly 300,000 people have the same name, and an innocent person gets mistaken for an escaped criminal, having the same name is no longer an amusing episode." In an illustration of this problem, a December 2012 notice on the website for the Chinese embassy in the Philippines reminded travelers who have common names "to prepare their ID, a copy of their ID," as well as a document showing that they have "no criminal record" to ensure that they could enter the country in the event that they were mistaken for someone with a criminal record.
So, why do so many Chinese people share the same name? This, unfortunately, might be one of those blog posts where the question posed doesn’t get answered. Chinese online question-and-answer sites like Baidu Knowledge offer intriguing but not entirely convincing answers on the limited number of Chinese characters. One commenter put it succintly: "1. There are many people. 2. There are not many names."
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.