Why do so many Chinese people share the same name?

As U.S. intelligence agencies take heat for their response to Russian warnings about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, we're learning that the National Counterterrorism Center added the now-deceased Boston bombing suspect to its massive terrorism watch list with incorrect dates of birth and a variant spelling of his name, which prevented Tsarnaev's 2012 trip to Dagestan and Chechnya from triggering a travel alert, according to the New York Times

The blunder isn't all that surprising. After all, many foreign names have different spellings in English. There are at least 112 different ways of spelling the late Libyan leader's name in English, for example (We at FP go by Muammar al-Qaddafi). 

China, however, has the opposite problem: millions of people across the country share the exact same name. Renren, a Chinese social media site, has a function called "Same First Name Same Last Name Big Gathering" where you can see how many other people on the site share your name. Wang Wei, the name of an eighth-century Chinese poet, has 30,639 hits. But the poet uses a more obscure spelling. If you use a different character for Wei, which means "great," Renren returns 164,430 hits. Even imprisoned Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo shares his relatively uncommon name with 1,617 other people on the site.

The most common name in China, according to the 2007 census, is Zhang Wei, which 290,607 people claimed (there doesn't appear to be a list of the most common names for the 2012 census). At least 49 other names are shared by more than 150,000 people, and reading through the list feels a bit like scrolling through my old Chinese cell phone. Wang Yong, which at number 22 is a name shared by 198,720 people, was my cleaning lady, whom we called Auntie. Liu Wei, number nine, was a landlord of mine, while Wang Gang, number 47, was an author and real estate developer I interviewed for a story. 

When it comes to last names, a more recent census by the Public Security Bureau found that 21.4 percent of China's population, or 270 million people, have the name Li, Wang, or Zhang, "making them the world's three most common last names," according to an April article in the Beijing Morning Post. And the phenomenon is regional: In the northeast, where Auntie was from, roughly 10 percent of the population has the surname Wang, while in the south, Chen, the fifth-most common name nationwide, is shared by about 10.6 percent of the population. In the United States, by contrast, roughly 90 percent of the population uses 151,671 surnames, according to the 2000 census (the last year in which data is available), there are over six million surnames total in the United States. 

In China, 87 percent of the population shares 100 names, according to the Beijing Morning Post. This is why common people in China are still known by the term "hundred common name," a phrase I heard most often when someone was either declining to answer a question about politics -- "I'm just a hundred common name, I don't understand" -- or complaining about politics -- "they don't pay any attention to us hundred common names."

A 2007 article from Xinhua, China's state news agency, argues that having the same name as another person, like "when a man gets put into a woman's dorm, a company sends money (to the wrong person), or when one class has 'three myselfs,' makes life more interesting." However, "when nearly 300,000 people have the same name, and an innocent person gets mistaken for an escaped criminal, having the same name is no longer an amusing episode." In an illustration of this problem, a December 2012 notice on the website for the Chinese embassy in the Philippines reminded travelers who have common names "to prepare their ID, a copy of their ID," as well as a document showing that they have "no criminal record" to ensure that they could enter the country in the event that they were mistaken for someone with a criminal record. 

So, why do so many Chinese people share the same name? This, unfortunately, might be one of those blog posts where the question posed doesn't get answered. Chinese online question-and-answer sites like Baidu Knowledge offer intriguing but not entirely convincing answers on the limited number of Chinese characters. One commenter put it succintly: "1. There are many people. 2. There are not many names." 

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.  


What's Syria capable of doing with its sarin stockpile?

A flurry of questions followed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's announcement Thursday that chemical weapons -- in particular, the nerve agent sarin -- were used in Syria. But since no one knows how the sarin was used or who exactly used it, let's start with the basics about Syria's sarin stockpile.

What is sarin and how deadly is it?

Sarin is an odorless, colorless gas that's 500 times more toxic than cyanide and deadly in doses of 0.5 milligrams and larger. If you're exposed to it, you may begin vomiting immediately or start convulsing -- or, in less severe cases, get a runny nose. Besides potentially killing you within 10 minutes of inhalation, the gas can cause paralysis and environmental damage.

How much sarin does Syria have?

Estimates vary, but as a whole, Syria is known to have the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East and the fourth-largest stockpile in the world. Mideast weapons proliferation expert Laicie Heeley tells Foreign Policy that most estimates for the actual sarin stockpile hover around "the high hundreds of tons, possibly over 1,000."

Has Syria weaponized its sarin stockpile?

Yes. "By the mid-1990s it was estimated that Syria had developed between 100 and 200 warheads filled with sarin for its Scud-B and Scud-C missiles, and thousands of chemical bombs filled with the nerve agents VX and sarin," Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, tells FP. "Presumably, these numbers will be higher today."

How might Syria use its sarin stockpile?

It depends. From a purely tactical standpoint, sarin is not a natural tool for the Assad regime in the context of the urban warfare it's engaged in. "Nerve agents are effective in open spaces (battlefields) ... and as a terror weapon," James Lewis of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, tells FP. "Strategically, they are not particularly useful in urban warfare."

That's partly because a sarin strike is unweildy, as Esfandiary explains. "Sarin in particular is very volatile (evaporates easily), which means it presents an immediate but short-lived threat," she told us. "Syria seems to have the capacity to deliver nerve gas with its rockets and missiles. But Syria's missiles in particular are inaccurate and have small payloads. The speed at which missiles hit targets make it difficult to use them to disperse chemical weapons homogeneously."

Still, that doesn't mean it's useless. "The real value is as a weapon of terror; there is no bullet hole, no cut but people start twitching and dying," Lewis told us. "It is pretty haunting." Take a look at this graphic video and you'll see what he means.

How has sarin been used in the past?

The two main cases are in Iraq and Japan. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult released sarin in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto, killing 11 and injuring more than 5,500. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein deployed sarin gas against his own people in Anfal and Halabja in 1988 to horrendous effect.

Why is the use of sarin a "red line" for the United States? Assad already killed 70,000 people.

It's a good point. No one knows exactly why the Obama administration drew a line at chemical weapons as opposed to the regime's many other nefarious acts, but arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis brings up a valuable point. "Chemical weapons use invokes an interest that has nothing to do with the future of Syria," he writes on his blog. "We have a stake in strengthening the norm against chemical weapons use. If Assad is using chemical weapons to hold on to power, we have an interest in ensuring that his government falls and that the responsible regime figures take their turn at the Hague."