I was amazed and appalled to discover today that a widespread practice for naming abandoned children in China has been to assign the family name after the name of the city of the orphanage. For example, many such children from Guangzhou have been assigned the family name of Guang and those from Shenzhen have been called Shen.
China doesn’t have the same range of surnames of Western countries (more about that some other time), so uncommon names stick out even more there than in the West. Giving children family names like Guang and Shen is not altogether unlike branding their foreheads and ID cards with the word “orphan.”
As if that weren’t bad enough, the given names assigned to children have been largely pro forma as well, with elements of even those often based on geography. Thus, children in the Guangzhou orphanage have often had names of places within the city incorporated into their names, such as “Tian,” “Bai,” and “Li,” with those representing the city’s Tianhe, Baiyun, and Liwan districts, respectively.
Naming someone Li after the Liwan District (荔灣區) is pretty much the same as calling that person “Lychee.”
The non-geographical elements in given names have often been Yong (as in 勇敢, brave), Hong (紅/红, red — often associated with communism), Qiang (強/强, strong), Wen (文, literacy, culture), Ping (as in 浮萍, duckweed), or Cui (翠, emerald green).
Taken as a whole, these names tend to mark children as having been residents of an orphanage and, as my source article states, “are not good for their psychology when they try to interact with the outside world, the orphanage has found.”
No kidding. Just how many decades did it take to figure that out?
Fortunately, the practice has changed, at least in Guangzhou:
Starting this year, Guangzhou’s orphanage has stopped giving its wards the surname “Guang” to prevent them from being identified as orphans.
All children adopted by the orphanage are being given the surname “Li” this year, the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily said yesterday. “Wang” will be used next year, followed by other Chinese surnames listed in the “Baijiaxing,” a book of 100 common surnames. Staff members of the orphanage said they would also try to think of unique names for each child, rather than middle names representing the location of orphanage, and a randomly picked given name.
The children can also pick their own name later if they do not like the name given by the institute, the head of the orphanage said.
I wonder how many Westerners who have adopted children from China have innocently continued to use such pro forma names, thinking that they must have been given especially and uniquely to their child.
source: Guang dropped as surname for orphans, Shenzhen Daily, February 13, 2006