People - 2007-03-23 - Life in China's orphanages can be bad enough, but life thereafter can be tough too. In much of China, children in state care are given unusual surnames that clearly identify them as orphans. Common choices are Dang meaning “party” (the Communist one, naturally), or Guo meaning “country” or “state”. Those saddled with these names face a lifetime of funny looks, or a bureaucratic quagmire trying to change them.
In February last year, the north-eastern city of Dalian caused a nationwide stir when it announced that it would no longer give all girl orphans the surname Dang and boys Guo. This had been the city's practice for 30 years, the legacy of an era when being called Comrade Party or Comrade State blended in more with the Orwellian spirit of the time. Party and State are surnames with ancient origins (long before the Communist Party was founded Dang meant simply a faction). But they are rare outside orphanages. Dalian said that henceforth only common surnames would be used.
After the fanfare with which Dalian ditched the Party/State naming system, others have been changing their policies too. Early last year, the southern city of Guangzhou stopped giving its orphans the surname Guang (the first character of the city's name) and given names after the district where they were found. This year nearby Dongguan stopped calling its orphans Guan, the second character of its name. This followed a complaint about the naming system raised by an adviser to the city's legislature. In January the northern city of Taiyuan gave up its practice of calling all orphans Party.
But there are a few, at least, who still regard the names Party or State as badges of honour. Last year, on the 30th anniversary of an earthquake that killed perhaps 600,000 people in Tangshan, near Beijing, the official press reported (approvingly) that a quake orphan surnamed Party had just joined the party and would not dream of changing her name to the one she was born with. In February, the party chief of the southern city of Zhanjiang met a group of local orphans, all surnamed Guo. A photographer asked the name of one of them. “Guo Yuqun,” came the reply. Anxious to distinguish the surname from a more common one also pronounced Guo, the orphan went on: “that's Guo meaning state”. Proudly, of course.
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