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Chinese Gov't Computer Problems May Force Chinese Citizens To Change Names

from the funny-how-that-works dept

I have to admit that I was among those who thought it was in incredibly poor taste and somewhat offensive when a Texas lawmaker recently suggested that Asian Americans with complex names should be required to change their names to reduce confusions and problems with matching up names to voting rolls. However, now it appears that the same thing is happening in China itself. According to the NY Times, the Chinese government is forcing people to change their names in an effort to modernize its own ID database. Apparently, the computer system being used can't handle some of the rarer Chinese characters, even though such characters are popular among some families as a way to give their children a distinct identity. It still seems in poor taste and somewhat offensive, but still somewhat fascinating to compare the two stories.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Devonavar, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 11:42am

    This isn't new

    This has been happening in China for a while as far as I know. Chinese names are complicated and are a poor unique identifier. I remember reading that there are 7,000 people in Beijing alone with the same name (Zheng something-or-other).

    In Japan, one of the requirements of citizenship (rarely given out, mainly to long-term spouses) is to legally adopt a Japanese name.

     

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  2.  
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    Hulser, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 11:47am

    Define "can't handle"

    Wow. I've worked in IT departments where the edict was never let technology dicate the business solution. We didn't always live up to this, but at least we had the goal to not implement something a certain way just because it was technologically expedient or, in other words, because it would avoid a hassle for the IT group.

    I wonder where this falls on the Change-A-Configuration-Option / Can't-Do-It-Without-a-Complete-Redesign spectrum.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 12:17pm

    Re: Define "can't handle"

    In a language with thousands of unique characters (and if I recall correctly, several different 'alphabets'), I imagine "can't handle" is something along the lines of, "there is not a bit pattern that matches to that character." But that's just a guess.

    It's kind of ridiculous that a technological limitation is having such a noticable impact on society/geneology/etc. why not build a database that CAN handle Chinese names, rather than forcing people to change their names to fit the database?

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 12:33pm

    Re: Re: Define "can't handle"

    Answer: LAZY

     

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  5.  
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    Marina, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 12:34pm

    What?!

    And I thought I´d already heard every unbelievable thing.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 12:45pm

    Re: Define "can't handle"

    Sometimes the businessmen need the constraints given by people who, by necessity, must think clearly and logically (else their code will crash). I'm not saying technology decisions should drive business decisions generally, but it is better for a programmer to say 'this is impossible. i cannot code it. your thinking is unclear' than it is to code some illogical mush to pacify their bosses.

     

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  7.  
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    Brent Parker, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 12:52pm

    Can't happen

    I really don't think this can happen. A lot of Chinese names are chosen by fortune tellers and can be changed if the fortune teller says that it will be an unlucky name. I have a fried who, because a fortune teller told her father that her name would be bad for his business, had her name changed for her.

    My point is that a lot of their names are more than just names. And the belief systems behind those names will make many people very reluctant to change them because they currently have lucky or fortuitous names.

     

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  8.  
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    Hulser, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 12:53pm

    Re: Re: Define "can't handle"

    Sometimes the businessmen need the constraints given by people who, by necessity, must think clearly and logically (else their code will crash).

    I couldn't agree more. In fact, one of my sayings is "The customer is always right...except when they're not."

    I'm not saying technology decisions should drive business decisions generally, but it is better for a programmer to say 'this is impossible. i cannot code it. your thinking is unclear' than it is to code some illogical mush to pacify their bosses.

    Well, it may be easier, but I wouldn't say better. What's best is to be able to explain to the business user why what they're asking for isn't the best implementation and -- here's the hard part -- to have a business user who is smart enough to understand the explanation of why what they're asking for isn't the best implementation.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 12:55pm

    Re: Can't happen

    I really don't think this can happen.

    So, you're saying that the Chinese people are fundamentally incapable of rising above superstition? I think there's a word for that attitude.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 1:00pm

    Re: Re: Can't happen

    yeah being human. people are unable to rise above superstition.

     

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  11.  
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    jm, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 1:01pm

    Standards Solve Everything?

    It isn't clear from the article, but is the problem that the Unicode character set doesn't have the appropriate characters? If so, it would mean China is following international standards instead of making up their own (as they keep saying they're going to do with HD-DVD, WiFi and the like).

    In the Texas case, there was a legitimate issue that got blurred by Betty Brown's poorly considered suggestion. The case in point was a man whose name was transliterated differently -- for example, on the drivers license his name was (say) "Lu" but on the voter roll it was "Liu." I wouldn't suggest that people with Asian names change them to "Smith," but it might be best if they choose a single, consistent ("standard") transliteration and and spell out their names.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 1:18pm

    Your name is Toby!

     

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  13.  
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    WisconsinGod, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 1:25pm

    The Real Problem

    Q: why don't theyjust develop a database that can handle the chinese characters?

    A: Because the country has the website blocked that teaches you how.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 1:44pm

    Re:

    You are number Six!

     

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  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 1:52pm

    as someone trained in databases and programming, I see no reason why they couldn't include all the (admittedly many thousand) kanji in some manner, it has to be the trouble of bring ancient archaic systems up to date.

    I think people should be able to have any name they want and then is no purely technological reason why that can't be.

    to the person pointing out names are bad unique identifiers: No duh, that's why we created social security numbers, that is why no sane person creates a database that relies on the name field as having anything truly of value, there is always another number or field to uniquely identify the person.

     

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  16.  
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    Gary, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 1:55pm

    Re: Standards Solve Everything?

    This is just a guess, but I think the problem stems from the creation of Simplified Chinese. As part of their cultural revolution, the government instituted a "simplified" form of their written language. This simplified form is now the national written language. It has tremendously increased literacy rates in China, but it has also removed various characters that were once part of the language and changed how many others are written.

    It's not that Unicode can't handle all of the characters, its that you would have to encode names with multiple encodings (Chinese-Traditional and Chinese-Simplified) to handle it.

    To me that sounds like a fairly non-trivial problem - encoding each character with their character set.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 2:18pm

    Re: Standards Solve Everything?

    Actually this article seems to suggest that the issue is about people who has a legal name and their "common" name-- which more easily pronounced by English speakers.

    One example would be "Jenny" Lang Ping.

    I'm guessing the problem is that the poll workers see the legal name on one ID and their "common" name on another.

     

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  18.  
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    Jack Sombra, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 2:30pm

    Q: why don't they just develop a database that can handle the chinese characters?
    Probably because there are over 55000 of them

    Reading it it sounds like some people have been giving their kids "weird" names to make them "unique", like happens in the western world with people naming their kids things like Zowie, Dweezil, Fifi Trixibelle and Dandelion.

    Except in chinese it means they are using non standard characters, and with so many to chose from it's creating a bit of a nightmare

    Actually vagely remember a case a few months ago here in the west were someone wanted to name their kid something like "@" and the autorities stoped them, not only because the hassle it would create for the poor kid but also because of the problems it would create for collecting and storeing info on the kid

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 2:37pm

    Fifteen bits ought to be enough for everyone...

    To me that sounds like a fairly non-trivial problem - encoding each character with their character set.

    The Times article mentions that.

    The bureau’s computers, however, are programmed to read only 32,252 of the roughly 55,000 Chinese characters, according to a 2006 government report.

    Are they using unicode here?

     

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  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 2:52pm

    Re:

    The fundamental problem is a language one. In English words are made by combining a fixed set of characters. If you invent a new name, people can type it, alphabetize it, read it... in Chinese each word is a new character, if you invent a new one people can't type it, alphabetize it or even read it. Think of what the consequences would be for us, if someone wanted to add another letter to the English language. That's why they can't, it isn't a matter of of desire, it's a matter of complexity.

     

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  21.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Apr 21st, 2009 @ 5:52pm

    Re: Writing Problem

    The fundamental problem is a language one. In English words are made by combining a fixed set of characters. If you invent a new name, people can type it, alphabetize it, read it... in Chinese each word is a new character, if you invent a new one people can't type it, alphabetize it or even read it.

    That’s not insurmountable. Simply set up a central registry to which you submit an SVG representation of your new character, and get a new character ID assigned. All the computer systems can simply get updates from the registry, either periodically or on demand, when they see a character ID they don’t already recognize.

    It’s not that different from, say, how the DNS registry for the Internet works.

     

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  22.  
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    Azrael, Apr 22nd, 2009 @ 12:42am

    Re: Re:

    I am not a number, i am a free man !

     

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  23.  
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    Frosty840, Apr 22nd, 2009 @ 1:21am

    Re: Re: Define "can't handle"

    While your comment is not without merit, I personally don't see its relevance to this case.
    According to the NYT article, the Chinese computer system currently defines 32,252 characters out of around 55,000 total characters.
    The unicode character set, on the other hand, already claims to contain 70,000 Chinese characters. Unicode is a well-known, well-recognised, easily-implemented format. Its only problem is that the data space required for each character is rather large (I believe each character can occupy three or four times the area of the comparable ASCII encoding commonly used for unaccented, English-only characters, though I'm not familiar with the intricate details of the format).
    You can easily see Unicode working by opening the Windows program Character Map (Start->Programs->Accessories->System Tools in Windows Vista, and most others, as far as I recall), selecting a Unicode font, and scrolling down to the section containing CJK ideographs.
    While Unicode is by no means perfect, for example, the specific complaints about chinese ideaographs are documented on the relevant wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CJK_Unified_Ideographs, given that the Chinese government wishes to restrict its citizens to an 8000-character set, which pushes it into the realm of 16-bit data encoding anyway, I really can't see one would choose to encode in such a limited character space, unless one wanted, for some reason, to implement a strange, illogical, internationally technically incompatible, downright *weird* storage and retrieval system, which would be a heck of a lot more work than using proven, internationally accepted systems.
    So, again, while I agree with your sentiment as it applies to many technology cases, I don't see its relevance to this particular situation.

     

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  24.  
    identicon
    Frosty840, Apr 22nd, 2009 @ 1:32am

    Keyboards?

    Despite my assertion in one of the discussion threads that data storage for the Chinese alphabet is a more-or-less trivial matter, data-entry for such an alphabet is, to put it mildly, utterly terrifying from any practical standpoint.
    Think about it. The keyboard you are using at the moment is likely one of the common 100-odd key variants, or slightly fewer if you're using a reduced laptop keyboard; 60- or 80-key, say.

    That's for an alphabet of 26 letters, with two written styles (upper and lower case), 10 digits and a handful of punctuation and special characters. And typing in accented characters on a standard keyboard is already a pain in the ass.

    Now try designing that again, but this time for an EIGHT THOUSAND CHARACTER SET. And that's just the reduced character set that the story is complaining about.

    Now try to imagine the utter, utter horror of designing something portable, practical and easy-to-manufacture which allows you to enter any one of FIFTY-FIVE THOUSAND CHARACTERS.

    Now try training the average government official to use that monster.

    Yeah.

     

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  25.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 22nd, 2009 @ 3:33am

    TAFKAP

    and of course this has happened before and will happen again. Language is an evolving thing, the concept of a fixed alphabet is so last century. But the cost of adapting to these changes is always going to slow progress down.

    Answer this, did the IRS reprogram their entire system so they could use 26 english characters and a 'symbol' or did they just list him as TAFKAP?

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Kansas Coward, Apr 22nd, 2009 @ 7:21am

    Western names

    About adopting western names… I worked with a guy who later worked with a Chinese (Taiwanese) immigrant with a very thick accent who’d met someone in NYC who’d really helped him out, and who therefore adopted the guy’s first AND last names: David Costanza.

     

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  27.  
    identicon
    EngineerZ, Apr 22nd, 2009 @ 9:14am

    It's not just the Chinese that have this problem. My wife (born in Quebec) has a hyphenated first name. You wouldn't believe how many systems in this day an age won't accept the hyphen in her name. Most government agencies force her to either truncate her name or concatenate it. (She usually just truncates it since concatenation turns it into something that appears unpronounceable and confuses the hell out of people.)

    And don't forget about little Bobby Tables... :-) http://xkcd.com/327/

     

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  28.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 22nd, 2009 @ 1:20pm

    Re: TAFKAP

    Wrong pinhead. A hieroglyphic languages are inferior at abstraction thus are so last eon.

     

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  29.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 22nd, 2009 @ 11:07pm

    Re: Keyboards?

    Yeah, they have worked out the "input method" for typing chinese characters.

    The good news is that they use the regular keyboards, which solves the easy-to-manufacture problem. The bad news is that you need to type multiple keystrokes for each character.

    For linux it's called scim. For microsoft, it's called IME. XP allows you to install support for "East Asian languages" (look under Regional and Language Options).

     

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  30.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 22nd, 2009 @ 11:17pm

    Re: Re: Re: Define "can't handle"

    ...given that the Chinese government wishes to restrict its citizens to an 8000-character set.

    That sounds interesting. Can you elaborate on this?

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 23rd, 2009 @ 2:03am

    Numbers?

    Next thing you know they'll be wanting to assign unique numbers to people. I'm sure glad we don't do that in the US.

     

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  32.  
    identicon
    Allison, Apr 26th, 2009 @ 8:38am

    The issue with the Texas legislator was about poor taste and cultural insensitivity, and I understood the ire that arose due to the comments.

    It's unfortunate that computer systems cannot help to preserve cultures. Instead, we have an example of a culture making historic changes to bend to modern technologies and standards that originated outside of China. Just because a technology developed according to certain cultural ideas doesn't make it the "right" way or the "only" way. Unfortunately, it has become "the" way.

     

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  33.  
    identicon
    ike, May 7th, 2009 @ 3:04pm

    An article from 2 years ago on the topic.
    http://english.eastday.com/eastday/englishedition/features/userobject1ai2358485.html
    It's interesting that one one guy couldn't use "@" in his name.

     

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  34.  
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    tppk, May 23rd, 2009 @ 2:08pm

    chinese hackers

    If the Chinese are curious or worried about someone, before they do anything else they will attempt to hack to retrieve information first. But they do this in such a sloppy, spammish way. The thing is they are so paranoid about their hacking attempts, that they make ALOT of them with different ip addresses to throw you off. I speak from experience and have logs from china.

     

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