License to Name: The press of modernization
The first in an occasional series on naming regulations around the world.
A recent New York Times article described China’s battle against its own baby-naming traditions. In Chinese custom, names are not a special class separate from ordinary words. Instead, parents have always constructed names out of auspicious combinations of the 50,000 different Chinese characters. Certain elements such as Mei ("beautiful" or "plum blossom," depending on tone) and Li ("strong" among other meanings) are particularly popular, but many parents have also chosen rare characters drawn from traditional sources like ancient poems. Until now. In 2006, China announced plans to ban half of all characters from use in baby names.
The problem was a practical one. The country was preparing the awesome task of issuing electronic ID cards to 1.3 billion citizens. To make such a massive database project feasible, some streamlining was required. The 27,000 least common word characters had to go. To be credentialed as a citizen you must be tracked in the database; to be tracked in the database you have to bear a modern, efficient name. The estimated number of Chinese with non-compliant names is 60 million. The plan, as you might expect, has met with considerable resistance.
This data-driven reform sounds like the ultimate 21st-century naming statement. In fact, it’s a close relation to a naming revolution that took place two centuries earlier on the other side of the globe.
From the days of the Vikings, the Nordic peoples used patronymics—names identifying people by their fathers. You'll find patronymic-based surnames in many languages. Jefferson is "son of Jeffrey," McCormick "son of Cormac." A true patronymic, though, changes with each generation. So in Denmark, Niels Andersen's son Peder was known as Peder Nielsen, while Peder's daughter Anna was Anna Pedersdatter.
This constant change became a sticking point in the modernizing Europe of the 1800s. Modern nations were mobile and industrializing. They operated at a large scale, collecting taxes, drafting armies, even attempting to establish national systems of education. That all required organization, and a population of shifting, indistinguishable Hans Jensens and Jens Hansens was no help at all. So one by one, most governments of Scandinavia began to require heritable surnames. In Denmark, patronymics were simply frozen in masculine form. Any Hans Jensen of 1828 would find his patronymic immortalized as the surname of generations of descendents, while the form Jensdatter was left to die out.
Do you see a flaw in this plan? Freezing patronymics made it easier to trace families, but it didn't actually make the populace more distinguishable. All those Jensens and Hansens were still Hansens and Jensens, and still named their sons Jens and Hans. Denmark was left with a small and concentrated name pool. Even today, the top 50 surnames account for two thirds of all Danes. Meanwhile the need to track and identify individuals increased year by year.
The Danish government responded in the 20th Century with an aggressive move toward personal identification codes, or personnummer. Each Hans Jensen now has a number that represents his identity, akin to a U.S. Social Security number but more broadly used. (It's also less private; the number comprises your date of birth, sex, and just three extra unique digits.) A Copenhagen University guide for foreign students explains that "the 'personnummer' opens Danish society to you."
This naming number crunch happened in Denmark, a nation of only 5 million citizens. Compare that to China where the surname Li alone accounts for almost 100 million people. Doubtless, the Chinese government will rely on numeric identifiers as well. Yet the movement toward national IDs that is costing so many Chinese citizens their naming freedom has had quite the opposite effect in Denmark.
Once it became clear that Danish surnames had ceded their practical, legal significance to ID codes, the need to restrict them began to melt away. In 2006, the government turned back the clock. 21st-century Danish parents now have a freedom their parents and grandparents never had: to name their children with patronymics in the old Viking style.