Ma Cheng’s book-loving grandfather came up with an elegant solution to this common problem. Twenty-six years ago, when his granddaughter was born, he combed through his library of Chinese dictionaries and lighted upon a character pronounced “cheng.” Cheng, which means galloping steeds, looks just like the character for horse, except that it is condensed and written three times in a row.Ms. Ma is managing so far to get around the restrictions. But many more are not. In their rush into the modern world, China runs the risk of oversimplification just to keep pace.
The character is so rare that once people see it, Miss Ma said, they tend to remember both her and her name. That is one reason she likes it so much.
That is also why the government wants her to change it.
For Ma Cheng and millions of others, Chinese parents’ desire to give their children a spark of individuality is colliding head-on with the Chinese bureaucracy’s desire for order. Seeking to modernize its vast database on China’s 1.3 billion citizens, the government’s Public Security Bureau has been replacing the handwritten identity card that every Chinese must carry with a computer-readable one, complete with color photos and embedded microchips. The new cards are harder to forge and can be scanned at places like airports where security is a priority.
The bureau’s computers, however, are programmed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters, according to a 2006 government report. The result is that Miss Ma and at least some of the 60 million other Chinese with obscure characters in their names cannot get new cards — unless they change their names to something more common.
Moreover, the situation is about to get worse or, in the government’s view, better. Since at least 2003, China has been working on a standardized list of characters for people to use in everyday life, including when naming children.
One newspaper reported last week that the list would be issued later this year and would curb the use of obscure names. A government linguistics official told Xinhua, the state-run news agency, that the list would include more than 8,000 characters. Although that is far fewer than the database now supposedly includes, the official said it was more than enough “to convey any concept in any field.” About 3,500 characters are in everyday use.
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