New rule on Chinese names criticized

Earlier this week I wrote about San Francisco politicians and what constitutes a Chinese name.

There has been some pushback against the new policy in San Francisco of not letting candidates for office use their own choice of Chinese name unless they can prove they’ve had the name since birth or that the name has been used publicly for at least two years. Those who advocated for the new rule may not have fully anticipated its impact.

“The regulation may unintentionally hurt American-born Chinese candidates who are making their first bids for office,” the San Francisco Standard reported. “Unlike more established politicos who are legacied in, they may not have used their Chinese names publicly, and if they were born in the United States, they also might not have any Chinese-language documents.”

Candidates are quoted as calling the policy “an incredible waste of time” and “absurd.” At least one press conference to protest against the new rule is planned.

Unless the policy is reversed, candidates must provide documentation in support of their self-submitted names before next Thursday.

source: Chinese American Candidates in San Francisco Outraged at Ballot Rule on Chinese Names, San Francisco Standard, December 15, 2023

San Francisco politicians and what constitutes a Chinese name

'羅瑞德' and '
丹尼爾·露里' written in Chinese characters, with the first name crossed out and the second one, which approximates the sound of the Western name but does not represent a Chinese-style name.

San Francisco will begin its own enforcement of a 2019 bill that places restrictions on the use of self-submitted Chinese names (i.e., names as written in Chinese characters), requiring that candidates prove they’ve had the names since birth or that the name has been used publicly for at least two years.

All other candidates on the ballot will be assigned transliterated names (i.e., names that use Chinese characters according to rough their having at least rough equivalents in sound in Mandarin, Cantonese, or another Sinitic language).

Since 1999, San Francisco — whose [ethnic] Chinese population is about 21.4 percent of its population as a whole — has required ballots to include the candidates’ English names and their translated or transliterated names in Chinese characters….

[C]andidate for mayor Daniel Lurie, “will likely be assigned a name, 丹尼爾·露里,” which “doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just an approximate pronunciation of his name in English: ‘DAN-knee-er LOO-lee.’”

Lurie had already given himself the name 羅瑞德, which means “auspicious” (瑞) and “virtue” (德), according to the [San Francisco] Standard. The Standard said this name is “widely publicized in the Chinese-speaking world,” but since he is a first-time candidate, if he can’t prove he has used the name for at least two years, it likely will not appear on the ballot in 2024.

Many established local public figures will be grandfathered in, since many will meet the two-year threshold already.

But then there’s this: San Francisco Supervisor Connie Chan, who led the push for the change, said, “Cultural appropriation does not make someone Asian…. There is no alternative definition to whether someone is Asian or not. It should be based solely on a person’s ethnicity and heritage. That’s what this law is about.”

That’s very different than a birth-name or two-year stipulation.

As real as cultural appropriation may be in some situations, wanting to base this “solely on a person’s ethnicity and heritage” seems to me problematic. I doubt Chan would argue that immigrants like herself who gain U.S. citizenship are not real Americans entitled to use Western names like “Connie.”

Then there’s the case of plenty of people whose ethnicity and heritage are not Chinese who live in Asia and have Chinese names, in many cases because they were required by government regulations. I’m one of those people. Although I’m unlikely to ever run for office in San Francisco and I’ve had my “Chinese name” a lot longer than two years, Chan doesn’t seem interested in granting any ground on this issue — at least not from what’s given in the brief quote.

San Francisco targets non-Chinese candidates using Chinese names on ballots, The Hill, December 7, 2023

further reading:
SF politicians and Chinese names, Pinyin News, May 12, 2023

Most common baby names in China, 2020

What were the most common names for newborn babies in China in 2020?

Please note that some names appear more than once (Yichen three times in the top 10 for boys, and Yinuo and Yutong twice in the top 10 for girls). The only differences are in some of the characters used.

Most common names for newborn boys in China, 2020

Rank Chinese characters Pinyin (with
tone marks)
(without tone marks)
1 奕辰 Yìchén Yichen
2 宇轩 Yǔxuān Yuxuan
3 浩宇 Hàoyǔ Haoyu
4 亦辰 Yìchén Yichen
5 宇辰 Yǔchén Yuchen
6 子墨 Zǐmò Zimo
7 宇航 Yǔháng Yuhang
8 浩然 Hàorán Haoran
9 梓豪 Zǐháo Zihao
10 亦宸 Yìchén Yichen

Most common names for newborn girls in China, 2020

Rank Chinese characters Pinyin (with
tone marks)
(without tone marks)
1 一诺 Yīnuò Yinuo
2 依诺 Yīnuò Yinuo
3 欣怡 Xīnyí Xinyi
4 梓涵 Zǐhán Zihan
5 语桐 Yǔtóng Yutong
6 欣妍 Xīnyán Xinyan
7 可欣 Kěxīn Kexin
8 语汐 Yǔxī Yuxi
9 雨桐 Yǔtóng Yutong
10 梦瑶 Mèngyáo Mengyao

I tried using ChatGPT again to clean up the HTML in the tables above. But it kept hallucinating and changing characters, and it never gave me the entire tables but cut off at least one row each time. So I cleaned up the code myself in a text editor.

Source: 《2020 nián quánguó xìngmíng bàogào》 fābù (《二〇二〇年全国姓名报告》发布), Gōng’ānbù wǎngzhàn (公安部网站), February 2, 2021

Prevalence of single-syllable Chinese given names

How common are single-syllable Chinese given names — names that take just one Chinese character to write?

Much less common than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. The downward trend is not likely to change, because China wants to avoid being a place filled with the equivalent of John no-middle-name Smiths.

The proportion of two-character names (i.e., a single-syllable family name plus a single-syllable given name) in China increased from 7.6% in the 1960s to peak at 27.6% in the 1990s. But the figure has now fallen to just 6.3%.

Although some of the three-character names will be those of people with two-character family names and single-syllable given names (as opposed to single-syllable family names and two-syllable given names), the figure is statistically insignificant, as only 0.11% of people in China have two-character family names and only about 6.3% of them will have single-syllable given names (or only about one person in fifteen thousand).

Although in the chart below the number of people with names totaling four or more characters/syllables is small (and largely within minority groups), such names have been on the increase, growing from from just 0.3% and 0.4%, respectively, in the 1950s to 1.6% and 1.7%, respectively, at present.

My translation of a graph from the PRC government, showing the popularity of two-syllable given names in China being high in the 1980s and 1990s and lower before and since then.

Source: Ministry of Public Security Household Administration Research Center System. Translation of labels by

In Taiwan, single-syllable given names are much less common than in China. Also, in Taiwan the majority of those with single-syllable given names are female; I don’t know if that tendency exists in China as well, but I suspect that it does.

Source: 《2020 nián quánguó xìngmíng bàogào》 fābù (《二〇二〇年全国姓名报告》发布), Gōng’ānbù wǎngzhàn (公安部网站), February 2, 2021

Further reading: 85 percent of Han in China have two-syllable given names: report, Pinyin News, August 10, 2008

Thanks to Qin-Hong Anderson for her input.