“I think you should change your name, it’s too much trouble,” the bank teller told me. She had already spent half an hour helping me to open a bank account, an act that takes most people only a few minutes using a self-service machine. That option wasn’t open to me: the character for “Ying”, my given name, does not exist in the bank’s computer system. Though dozens of other characters sound the same, my one is rare. After a long wait I was finally given a bank account, or rather “Ying2” was – instead of using the right character, they spelled out my name in pinyin, the romanisation system used to write Mandarin, and combined it with the number two to denote the rising tone used to say my name (there are four tones in all). I wasn’t happy. As well as being denied my own name, in China the number two is slang for “stupid“.
The bank isn’t the only place to frustrate me. My Ying character is also absent from the database used to make online medical appointments, so whenever I need to see a doctor I have to wait for hours in a long queue along with retirees who don’t use the internet. I now get to airports and railway stations with the larks, because my character doesn’t show up in the computer so an extra layer of security screening is required. The tax bureau’s database uses a similar character in place of mine, making it hard to prove that I’ve paid my dues.
My parents didn’t foresee the difficulties my name would cause. In 1990 when I was born the database for Chinese characters was even smaller than it is now, so it was normal to write out many characters by hand. In 2004 the government introduced a new format for ID cards that was readable by computers. But without a significantly expanded character database, many ran into problems like mine. An estimated 60m Chinese have “unusual characters” in their names. In an attempt to deal with that shortfall, in 2013 the government issued a list of 8,105 “standard Chinese characters” that could be used to register names for newborns. The gaps remain huge: when the police collected names of people and places for the ID system, they reached some 72,000.
My problems identifying myself are minor compared with many ethnic minorities in China, such as Kazakhs, Tibetans and Uighurs who live in the country’s far west. The names of Han Chinese, who make up 92% of China’s population, are all two to four characters, whereas ethnic groups that use an alphabet often have longer names. Most computer systems and forms are designed for the majority Han so have limited space to input names. Millions of people with longer names find it hard to open a social-security account, get a credit card or book a flight online, all basic but essential components of modern life.
There is an easier way. In Hong Kong and Taiwan the governments have put character codes online, allowing them to be downloaded by anyone. If the list is missing a particular character, you can apply for its inclusion. China offers no similar mechanism. Some people resort to changing their name. In 2010 some 200 villagers in the eastern province of Shandong who all shared an obscure character did just that. I don’t want to. Ying means “the lustre of jade” and has a component “王”, which indicates my generation within my clan. Changing it to make filling out forms easier would seem like a triumph of bureaucracy over humanity.
In the meantime, I cling to one faint hope. The character “镕” (rong) used to be unusual, but its digital form was encoded and disseminated far and wide after Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) became China’s prime minister in the 1990s.
For those officials who have the same Ying character as mine, I wish them the best of luck in their careers.