Obscure Characters

Language, Politics

In Taiwan it is not uncommon for someone to change the character used to write their name as a means of averting a streak of bad luck. Although sometimes people will actually change the pronunciation of their names, more often they will simply find a homophone with a different number of strokes in the character. According to Chinese numerology, the number of strokes is directly tied to one’s fortune.

This, of course, makes life somewhat difficult for beleaguered non-native speakers — especially when trying to do roll call in their class. (I’m working on it, but at present I still have my TA helping with that task.) Even Taiwanese sometimes get confused, and I’ve seen banners for political candidates that supply the phonetic pronunciation for unusual characters.

It also presents a bureaucratic problem. Although newer computers can handle almost every existing Chinese character, many government computers in Asia still use older systems that might not be up to the task of registering older or obscure characters. Two recent articles spotted on Language Hat (here and here) point to the very different ways the Japanese and Chinese governments handle these problems. (No info on Taiwan.)

In Japan

The Ministry of Justice became involved in the character set mudwrestle because the job of deciding what constitutes a valid personal name goes to the Ministry of Justice. The Jinmei kanji list (jinmeikanjiyou) is the list of kanji which may appear in given names.

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The discussion gets a bit technical, referring to different standards for encoding Japanese characters in computers, but you can see that attempts to restrict the number of characters in the 40s and 50s eventually gave way to a more liberal policy:

In the 2001, after the list had remained static for some years, a minor squabble over a curious name gradually developed into a reform movement. At issue was whether the kanji 舵 , rudder’, could form part of a name. The Ministry eventually decided on a new revision of the Jinmei list, more extensive than any before, and made the following statement:

It is expected that the Jinmei kanji will at least double, and if possible increase to about the level of 1,000. Informal and incorrect characters will, as before, be forbidden but we will base our decisions on the following attitude: Except for very difficult kanji, everything that is requested should be allowed.

In this remark (my rough translation), I think we see the final disappearance of the reformist enthusiasm of the 40s and 50s.

Since this liberalization, hundreds of new name kanji have been suggested (‘strawberry’ seems to be a common one).

The Chinese government, however, has taken a different approach:

A joke in China goes that if you call out the name Wang Wei in the street at least one person is bound to respond.

The name Wei, or Mighty”, is so popular that parents have been turning to ancient and esoteric dictionaries to find more unusual monikers for their children.

Not anymore. The Ministry of Public Security has drawn up new rules and babies’ names must in future be drawn from a database that excludes thousands of rare Chinese characters. Out go indecipherable names. With the introduction of electronic identity cards, the authorities will register only names that they decide to include on their database.

Bao Suixian, a deputy director at the ministry, said: We cannot handwrite rare characters on the cards like we did before.” About 60 million of China’s 1.3 billion people have at least one rare character in their name, making it difficult for them to open a bank account or to buy an aircraft ticket.

In related news, I just learned at dinner last night that the UN, which up till now has been issuing Chinese language texts in both the traditional” Chinese characters used in Taiwan and the simplified” characters used in China, will eliminate the use of traditional characters in 2008.

If one is using a computer, there are ways to convert between the two character sets, but since simplified characters have less information, the conversion isn’t always 100% accurate. Even some of my Taiwanese colleagues complain that they find it difficult to read simplified texts, but from what I understand it is easier to learn simplified if you know traditional, than the other way around.