Chinese orphanages and children’s names

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

15 thoughts on “Chinese orphanages and children’s names

  1. Greeting from Perth in Western Australia. I picked this up of an adoption site – my husband and I are adopting from China – and i was very interested to see this material. I could not help but be reminded of the way that Aboriginal children were assigned names in the period of the Stolen Generation, where the state presided over the removal of children of mixed parentage. Many of these (often very young) children were placed in institutions and given names using places of origin – like Wyndham, or Hedland, and adding the old “Jimmy” or “Billy” at the front. Such a crime really, and such a long way from the complex and suble names and relations established by the chilren’s family names, which were most often lost to them completely,

    Thank you for the post,

    Josephine Wilson

  2. Thanks for the information, Josephine. It’s useful — though appalling — to know that this kind of practice hasn’t been limited to China.

    Best of luck with your adoption.

  3. Oh my god, I feel awful, both my daughters are adopted from China, and we deliberatly call them by the first part of their chinese name as in Mei short for Mei Jun and Lei short for Lei Xiao Rui. We did this so they will keep some of their original identity. Now I feel it’s going to backfire on us.

  4. My daughter is a “Bai” from the Guangzhou orphanage. Knowing that it was not considered a good name I choose not to use it as part of her legal name.

  5. Very interesting stuff. Like 2 of your respondents, I have 2 adopted daughters (from Qianjiang, Chongqing). I was aware that thier orphanage surnames (Qian) were mere abreviations of Qianjiang, but I chose to incorporate thier given names (Yu & Li Xue) as middle names after being informed that they were common feminine names with no particular (negative) connotations. I was under no illusions about thoughtful consideration having been given to the names by orphanage staff but wanted a Chinese name in there, so went with it. I figure if my girls don’t like them when they get older they can sort of lose the middle names.

  6. Actually it is also used so that in years to come when the Chinese kids may ‘get together’ and if they have the same ‘surname’ then they can tell that they were from the same area and that gives them something in common since they were both ‘adopted/abandoned’… knowing they have someone who went through the same thing… I am adopting… I will not use my daughters surname in her middle name but will let her know what it is so she will know that if she ever met someone with the same name that they were from the same area…

  7. We kept our daughter’s surname and the first part of her given name – but combined the two – as her adopted name. I realized that the surname was part of the name of the orphanage, and I didn’t have strong feelings about whether the was carefully chosen for her. Someone chose it and it became hers and so in that sense her name, this place she lived for the first three years of her life, is a part of who she is . . . I am hopeful she will be proud to have her name and proud to have come from where she’s come from. I suppose if we’re wrong, she can use her Americanized middle name, or she can choose a new name. What I was not aware of was that the part of her name we chose to keep were both used in the names of a lot of children from this SWI. So from that perspective, I wonder about our decision . . . but the upside is that, despite many sharing her name as a sur/given name I haven’t heard of anyone else actually using it as part of their adopted name. Time will tell.

  8. A child’s name is very important as it will have an influence over his/her life somehow. I guess much is related to his/her identity. I didn’t know that people with surname “Guang” and “Bai” could be using pro forma names. I do have chinese friends who surnames starts with Guang and Bai. Does this mean that they were orphaned when they were a kid? Of all these friends, many have “English” names now and i wonder if it has something to do with what you’ve suggested abt their plight. I do not feel its appropriate to ask them as it could be very sensitive. Maybe someone can give me a hint or two if this means they were orphans?

  9. My brother’s name is Shan An Yong ??? … I knew about the “Shan” part but didn’t know “Yong” was so common. Thank you for the information. :]

  10. Judy: Bai is a fairly common family, just as its English equivalent, “White,” is common in the West. “Guang,” however, is rare and may well have been assigned rather than inherited.

    Sarah: Shan is most definitely not a common family name. Given the Shàn (?), I — and probably a lot of other people, too — would guess your brother was adopted from an orphanage in Shàntóu (formerly known as Swatou), Gu?ngd?ng. Is that correct?

    “Anyong,” however, appears to be a fairly normal given name and not something assigned pro forma.

    FWIW, there’s no need to write the parts of the name separately as “An Yong”; the official style in China would be to write this as “Anyong.”

    For a bit more on names in China and Taiwan, see my two most recent posts: 85 percent of Han in China have two-syllable given names: report and Taiwan personal names: a frequency list.

  11. My daughter was from SWI (they believe her parents migrated from Northern China for work in the fast growing city of Shenzhen — her given last name was Chen which I understand is as popular as Smith and Jones here in the US. We named her Jadyn Mae Chen Anderson. Jadyn because I liked that name, Mae after my mother’s middle name, Chen and then our surname. I wanted to keep part of her name. Her first name was Hong Hong and I just thought for sure she would be teased with that name.

  12. I’m a Cantonese who works in the orphanages in Guangzhou. It might be surprising but in fact Chinese people tent to help others who have the same family name as they do. Therefore, the orphanages give the kids same last name to make sure they have a family even if they didn’t get a chance to be adopted. The family name Guang is uncommon but it is a family name that existed far before used by the orphanages. Almost all characters in Chinese can be use as family name (at least had been used as family name in history) so therefore people do not usually relate family name with abandon. And for the first name, those characters are just commonly use by parents in country side and do not really have positive or negative meaning.

  13. As someone whose doctoral research focused on Chinese adoption and a parent who adopted from China myself, I can assure you that a very large number of parents are fully aware of the sources of our children’s names. That in no way changes the fact that that name is part of their history and their story.

    While we Westerners are certainly ignorant of a great many things, this is not one of them.

  14. My daughter was from SWI (they believe her parents migrated from Northern China for work in the fast growing city of Shenzhen — her given last name was Chen which I understand is as popular as Smith and Jones here in the US. We named her Jadyn Mae Chen Anderson. Jadyn because I liked that name, Mae after my mother’s middle name, Chen and then our surname. I wanted to keep part of her name. Her first name was Hong Hong and I just thought for sure she would be teased with that name.

  15. Dr. Sweetman, I’d have to disagree about how ignorant Westerners are. For instance paragraph 3 of the document was news to me that one of my children may have acquired their first name from a district of the city.

    So as we adopted from China in 2008, 2010, 2012 this was news to me. From our children’s given Chinese names – two who were from near Guangzhou had the same surname but I believe that was x surname given for y year of birth. The other child does not appear to have a given surname other than the same pattern, different city.

    Only one child has a name that may have been placename or could actually mean something along the lines of where they were found.

    As I work supporting the educational field, I have no problem saying, often on a daily basis that I am ignorant of certain facts – and this is one of them.

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