Increasing Prevalence of Unique Names in China


Dr. Bruce Bao

Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Manchester

July 29, 2023, 4:03 p.m.

Unprecedented economic growth and social transformation have led to substantial changes in Chinese people’s psychology, namely in the baby naming process. In the research carried out by the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Beijing, China), they focused on a possible change in Chinese people’s need for uniqueness by means of first names, a psychological need that is typically high in the West but assumed to be relatively low in the East. Specifically, they investigated whether the need for uniqueness has been increasing in China.
In the 1st study, the research team examined the characteristics of human names across different historical periods that is a valid way to study cultural changes over time. While naming babies serves as a special kind of cultural practice reflecting core cultural values, the names themselves play an important role in cultural transmission across generations. Moreover, one’s name, as a basis of self-construction, also influences one’s attitudes, beliefs, and even life choices. Therefore, names are viewed not only as a product of culture but also as a reflection of human psychology.
In the 2nd study, they specifically examined the usage of unusual given names. Unusual given names are linked to uniqueness seeking at the cultural level and to the need for uniqueness at the individual level. Thus, by studying changes in usage of unusual names, they can infer the change in the naming uniqueness, both as a cultural value and as an individual personality trait.
To compute name-character uniqueness in naming practice for each individual in the 2005 China Census, the investigators accessed a Chinese name database from the National Citizen Identity Information Center (NCIIC) of China. This database is publicly available in the R package “ChineseNames” (Bao, 2021), which consists of nationwide frequencies of 1,806 Chinese surnames and 2,614 Chinese characters used in given names, covering about 1.2 billion Han Chinese. Percentages of people whose given names included each of the 2,614 name characters were documented separately for six birth cohorts (pre-1960s, 19601969, 19701979, 19801989, 19901999, and 20002008).
Using a large representative sample of Chinese names (N = 2.1 million), the Chinese researchers replicated the increase in uniqueness of names from 1920 to 2005, especially since the 1970s, with multiple uniqueness indices based on name-character frequency and name-length deviation. They used six indices to measure name uniqueness. Two were based on the frequency of Chinese characters in a given name, whereas the other four were derived from the length of a given name (i.e., the number of Chinese characters in a given name).


Ein Bild, das Text, Diagramm, Reihe enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

Figure from Bao et al. (2021)


Given that the vast majority of Han Chinese possessed two-character given names, these results may also denote that atypical naming practices became more prevalent in China, though the interpretations and implications of these two indices were more complex than the other indices.

One of the ways to create a new name is to flip through the dictionary and find words that sound and/or look pretty: for instance, Yanran 嫣然 /yān rán/, which means “beautiful smile” or “smile sweetly”, may be considered as a new name that does not come from the traditional names pool. 

In summary, the name-uniqueness indices based on name-character frequency and name-length deviation produced similar findings: an increasing trend of name uniqueness in China over the past decades, especially since the 1970s.


Bibliography (chronological)

Cai, H., Zou, X., Feng, Y., Liu, Y., and Jing, Y. (2018) “Increasing Need for Uniqueness in Contemporary China: Empirical Evidence”, in Frontiers in Psychology 9:554. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00554

Ogihara, Y. (2020) “Unique Names in China: Insights from Research in Japan - Commentary: …”, in Frontiers in Psychology 11:2136. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.02136

Bao, H.-W.-S., Cai, H., Jing, Y. and Wang, J. (2021) “Novel Evidence for the Increasing Prevalence of Unique Names in China: A Reply to Ogihara”, in Frontiers in Psychology 12:731244. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.731244

Bao, H.-W.-S. (2021) ChineseNames: Chinese Name Database 1930-2008. R package version 1.1.0.

Ogihara, Y. (2023) Historical changes in baby names in China [version 1; peer review: awaiting peer review] F1000Research, 12:601