To or Not To Be Ethnic: Naming Choices in Modern and Contemporary Northeast China

Author: Loretta Kim (University of Hong Kong)
Speaker: Loretta Kim
Topic: Language, community, ethnicity
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


Non-Han ethnic groups in the People’s Republic of China are generally known as “ethnic minorities.” The identity of “ethnic minority” entitles the affected populations to some exemption from some measures of social control, such as the former one-child policy and affirmative action for university administration, but also subjects both individuals and groups of these populations to discrimination in access to education, employment, potential friends and spouses, and resources for business development.

Ethnic minority persons must therefore determine how they express their differences from members of the ethnic (Han) majority. For some persons, the use of personal and collective (clan/patronym/surname) names can be an issue of pride or shame. In the northeast region of contemporary China, there are over 20 populations legally recognized as ethnic minorities. Some families and individuals choose Han (Chinese) names for their descendants (children/grandchildren). Others choose personal and collective names that reflect their ethnic identities. For example, some Mongols are identified legally by their mononyms. Identification by mononym leads to some difficulties in matters such as applying for passports and other official documents. Ethnic University of Hong Kongminorities other than Mongols may use varying combinations of Han and non-Han names to identify themselves in formal and informal settings, which may help the persons using multiple names to adopt multiple, complementary identities or may be a strategy to avoid discrimination when interacting with Han people while maintaining their social status within their own ethnic groups.

This paper discusses findings from the compilation of a digital name lexicon, focusing on naming patterns within families and analyzing some individual case studies. The greater significance of this research is two-fold: 1) to utilize a substantial body of data to trace how the construction of ethnic identities in the twentieth century by both the PRC and preceding regimes has affected how ethnic minorities choose to represent themselves, and 2) to promote the option of choosing non-Han names in the future, since first-hand knowledge of such names is becoming rarer among ethnic minority persons in the PRC today.

Keywords: China, Ethnic minorities, Identity, Han