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The letter of the law

It often appears in beverage ads touting the drink`s vitamin contents. It can also be seen in the logo of the state broadcaster, China Central Television.

But when it comes to a name, the letter "C", it seems, is a no-no.

A young man in East China`s Jiangxi province, who became a minor celebrity thanks to his unique name, became nameless overnight when he agreed in court on Feb 26 that he would no longer be a "C".

College student Zhao C hit the headlines last June when he won a lawsuit against the local police bureau in Yuehu district, in the city of Yingtan, which refused to issue him a new ID card but asked him to change his name instead. He was told the computer had been thrown off by the presence of an English letter, rendering the registration technically impossible.

C`s case was even listed as one of 2008`s top 10 lawsuits in China. The list is a compilation of those cases that are believed to be able to pioneer changes in legislation, justice and policy making. It was begun in 2005 and is sponsored in turn by newspapers, law societies and prestigious law schools, including those at Peking University and Tsinghua University.

The public security bureau appealed the court ruling on behalf of the police but a compromose was reached before the new hearing - the appeal was withdrawn, C agreed to change his name and the lower court agreed to cancel its first ruling.

That may have closed the lid on the year-long case but the controversy it triggered has hardly died down.

Names usually reflect parents` expectations of their offspring. The letter C meant many things to Zhao Zhirong when he decided to give a name to his son, 23 years ago.

"The combination of the Chinese character Zhao and the English letter C reflected my hope that my son would have a command of at least two languages when he grew up," says the father, who was born to a farmer`s family and learned traditional Chinese medicine but eventually became a lawyer.

"C" is also the first letter of the English word "China", and reads like the word "the West" in Chinese, and so the father also hoped that Zhao would one day study abroad but keep his Chinese roots.

"The name was supported by my entire family. Even my grandparents raised no objections," says Zhao snr.

Zhao C faced no difficulty when he went for his first ID card, which was hand-written. Trouble arose when he applied for the new chip-carrying card in 2006. So, the father, on behalf of C, took the police bureau to court in January 2008.

The case came under the spotlight and drew much criticism after it was reported in the media. An online poll at last June showed that 23 percent of about 45,000 respondents voted against such a name, while 31.5 percent expressed their support, saying it was a personal matter.

"Choice of one`s name is a civil right. There`s no reason to ban it so arbitrarily," said a netizen at Zibo, Shandong province at, which saw more than 3,200 postings on this issue.

Critics voiced their worries about the erosion of traditional Chinese culture when names began sounding weird or too Westernized. A name such as Zhao C violated the law on the use of standard spoken and written Chinese, they warned.

While agreeing that personal rights should be respected, an online critic named "ebwei" argued at a forum of that a name, instead of only serving as a symbol of personal identification, should in a broader sense act as a carrier of culture.

"But names in recent years are degenerating into sham individuality," said "ebwei".

To linguist Zhang Shuyan of the research institute of language use under the Ministry of Education, a name is more than a personal symbol.

"A person belongs to society and so his name should be closely linked to the culture of the nation he belongs to. A name in a person`s mother tongue reflects his attachment to his culture," Zhang says. "I`m not in favor of using an English letter in a name."

Researchers on names, like Hu Xiaomei and Xu Zhisuo, also believe they should serve as carriers of culture. In an article titled The Cultural Contents of Chinese Names , Hu and Xu said names act as tools for recording and communicating one`s culture.

But in a country of 1.3 billion people, with 40 percent sharing 10 most-common surnames including Zhao, many parents seek a unique name for their children. More than 20 million babies are born every year, and parents rack their brains, turn to dictionaries and even the ancient classic I Ching, or the Book of Changes, for inspiration for an unusual name.

The case of Zhao C offered Xia Xueluan, a sociologist with Peking University, a chance to observe and interpret social changes.

As an old Chinese saying goes, you would rather teach your son a craft than leave him a mount of gold; but you would rather give your son a good name than teach him a craft.

The saying actually reflects the fact that names are highly valued in traditional Chinese culture. But this traditional importance attached to names has undergone changes with the evolution of society, Xia says.

The decades between 1949, when New China was founded, and the 1980s, when the country started to reform and open up, witnessed strong political overtones in people`s names, with many going for Jiefang (Liberation), Jianguo (Founding of New China), Wenge (Cultural Revolution) and Weidong (Safeguard Mao Zedong).

Over the past 30 years, people have had more choices, like Yong (Brave) for a man and Na (Beautiful) for a woman. Exotic names such as Menglu, a hint at the American movie idol Marlyn Monroe, and Lisi, which sounds like Liza, became favorites with girls.

The search for uniqueness sent a father in Chongqing, southwest China, to the extreme in 2007 when he changed his son`s name Ouyang Zumin to Ouyang Chenggongfenfatuqiang. The change was rejected by the local police for its unconventional length: six Chinese characters in the given name and two for the surname.

"Changing names indicate the trend of social evolution. The awareness of individuality when choosing names shows the country is evolving toward a more diversified society," Professor Xia says. "It`s a reflection of social culture in an era of globalization and the Internet when people begin to use English letters or even @ in their names."

Zhao C`s case also diverted criticism to China Central Television, whose logo with the English abbreviation CCTV was said to go against the country`s regulations on language usage.

If Zhao has no right to use "C" for his name, then how can the state broadcaster continue to use the logo, critics argued, following media reports about Zhao`s compromise.

China Central Television reportedly replied to the criticism by saying it was not easy for the state broadcaster to change a logo that had been in use for 20 years.

The country`s regulations on hukou, or the residence registration system, were formulated in 1958 and are still in use today. It does not have a single rule on the use and registration of names, and the information on the ID card is based on the hukou.

This loophole should be partly blamed for the registration of the name Zhao C when he was born in 1986, says Liu Xiqiu, a lawyer based in Nanchang, provincial capital of Jiangxi. Also, the law on ID cards fails to clarify what "numerical symbols accord with national standards".

As a lawyer himself, Zhao Zhirong says he hasn`t expected the case to attract so much attention.

"I`m glad it has aroused people`s interests in the safeguarding of civil rights," he says.

China Features

Date:2009-3-18 7:53:00     
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