100 Surnames for 1.3B People Causes Chinese Confusion

Surname shortage causes identity mixups, bureaucratic chaos
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 5, 2008 8:39 AM CDT
Survivors search through names of Sichuan earthquake victims. The homogenity of Chinese surnames often leads to mix-ups, some of them tragic.   (Getty Images)
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(Newser) – The Chinese call them liaobaixing, or "old 100 names," and they are so partial to those 100 traditional surnames, Radio Free Netherlands tells us, that over 90% of the country's population of 1.3 billion share them. The profusion of Wangs, Chen, Lis and Wus creates powerful feelings of kinship, but also wreaks bureaucratic havoc. 

In one hospital, 9-year-old Wang Lan was given medicine meant for another Wang Lan and the mistake was not corrected until staff could check through all 227 Wang Lans in the system. Parents often try to give their offspring inventive surnames to help them stand out from the crowds of Chens. "Auyun," meaning "Olympic Games," has been big this year and many were christened "Hope for Sichuan" after May's devastating earthquake.