Problems with crazy characters


Late last week, the the Ministry of Education released a paper on the the state of the Chinese language in contemporary society, representing the results of an investigation into how the Chinese language is used in Chinese media.

Covering traditional media like newspapers and TV as well as new online media, the paper is actually pretty interesting once you get past the executive summary, “Building a harmonious linguistic life.” There’s a survey of blogging language that examined over 400,000 blog posts comprising more than 135 million characters. Another interesting survey looked at word frequency data drawn from textbooks used in teaching Chinese as a second language.

What caught the media’s attention, however, were some quirky, easily-digestible bits of information presented at the press conference. A list of 171 new additions to Chinese vocabulary, for example, or examples of imaginative personal names. Here’s part of a Reuters story:

A Chinese couple tried to name their baby “@,” claiming the character used in e-mail addresses echoed their love for the child, an official trying to whip the national language into line said on Thursday….”The whole world uses it to write e-mail, and translated into Chinese it means ‘love him’,” the father explained, according to the deputy chief of the State Language Commission Li Yuming.

While the “@” simple is familiar to Chinese e-mail users, they often use the English word “at” to sound it out–which with a drawn out “T” sounds something like “ai ta,” or “love him,” to Mandarin speakers.

Li told a news conference on the state of the language that the name was an extreme example of people’s increasingly adventurous approach to Chinese, as commercialization and the Internet break down conventions.

Even for a “news of the weird”-style feature, the @ story stretches the bounds of what can be considered “news” – Li Yuming’s remark, which doesn’t even mention the name of the family, was probably made in reference to a case from almost three years ago, in which a certain Mr. Wang tried to register his son’s name as “王@.” From the Yangzi Evening News for 12 October, 2004:

You choose a good name for your child in the hopes that it will be convenient or advantageous. However, a name that is too “individual” might not make it not make it onto your hukou. Two days ago, Mr. Wang encountered the hukou threshold at the Xidajie police station in Zhengzhou.

That afternoon at 3 o’clock, Zhengzhou citizen Mr. Wang wanted to add his child to his household registration form at the police station. Mr. Wang said that he chose the name “Wang @” for his child – computers have become popular in recent years, and “@” (sounds like the words for “love him”) is a novelty. He guesses that no one has used the name before.

Police officer Qiao Kezhi of the Xidajie police station said that he understood a parent wanting to choose a good name for their child, but it should never be so abnormal. According to regulations concerning household management, English-language characters in a name must be translated into Chinese before being entered into the hukou. “@” is a letter, so it cannot be used. At the same time, names that have numerals or which do not follow the surname of either of the child’s parents cannot be used, either.

And that was the last we heard of that incident until Li Yuming picked it out as an example of problems faced in developing an effective computerized registration system.

The Reuters story continues:

Sixty million Chinese faced a related problem because their names use ancient characters so obscure that computers cannot recognize them and even fluent speakers were left scratching their heads, said Li, according to a transcript of the briefing on the government Web site.

While the ignorance of fluent speakers can’t be helped (indeed, there often seems to be a sort of perverse pride in having a name that trips people up), the computer issue is an acknowledged problem that the country’s public security bureaus are in the process of addressing through system and software upgrades.

But why did this problem come about in the first place? Why, because of inferior foreign technology, of course.

Last December, before he was elevated to GAPP head, Liu Binjie wrote an article on the development of China’s new media that was published in the GAPP journal Media. It was later republished in Youth Journalist and then in last month’s Xinhua Wenzhai digest magazine. The pertinent section:

China invented Chinese characters, but Chinese computer fonts are held in the hands of Americans. All of the Chinese-language systems we use today are imported from America, and each year we pay the Americans 7.9 billion yuan. If we are to develop new media on a large scale, we must build a sound Chinese font set. During the eleventh five-year plan, the country will invest a large amount to establish an extended font set for China. This is a major project for the publishing world. The fonts set up by the Americans are incomplete. They don’t even have a majority of common characters; American fonts have 7000 characters, but Chinese surnames alone number 13,000, so there are far from enough characters. Work on an electronic ID card is currently unable to proceed because the number of characters is insufficient. And characters in ancient books are even harder to address.

People with rare characters in their names can hold out hope that an upgraded font set will solve their problems without forcing them to change their names. But I still wouldn’t bet on meeting many people named @ in the near future.

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