Monday, June 27, 2011

The "Science" of Orphanage Naming

Most adoptive families invest a significant amount of emotion into their child's Chinese orphanage name.  Many use the name as their child's middle name out of a desire to retain a piece of their child's life history.  Orphanage names uniquely identify each child, and of interest in this essay are the methods employed by orphanages to create those unique names.

First, a short primer on the names themselves.  While many families notice that names often appear the same in the pinyin version, the Chinese characters underlying those names are different.  This is due to the fact that many different characters in Chinese can be "translated" into the same pinyin syllable.  For example, "Mei" is represented by forty-one different Chinese characters, six of which (梅, 美, 妹, 媚, 玫, 媄) are common characters in female names.  Thus, an orphanage could adopt many children with the name "Dang Mei", but in Chinese all the names would be different, represented by different Chinese characters.

First Character
The first character of a child's name in Chinese is designated as the surname.  Unlike in Western tradition, in Chinese the "last" name of the child is represented by the first character.  Thus, my name in China would be written surname, or family name, first: Stuy Brian Harry.

Although most children adopted from a specific orphanage are all given the same "surname", this is not always the case.  In Kunming, Yunnan, for example, the surname is a designation of what area of Kunming the child was found in.  Thus, children from Kunming may be surnamed "An" (安) if they were found in Anning City, "Cheng" (呈) if they originated in Chenggong, "Guan" (官) if they came from the Guandu district of Kunming, etc.  Although surnaming based on finding location is fairly uncommon among orphanages, we will see that it is more commonly used when designating the second character of the name.

While Kunming is pretty straight-forward in its surnaming, other orphanages are less transparent.  Desheng orphanage, Guangxi has employed surnaming in an almost "secret-code" method to designate where the children originated from.  Desheng is fairly unique among orphanages in that it adopts children transferred from other orphanages in Guangxi Province, including Guiping, Yulin, Pingnan, Cangwu and others, most of whom are also participants in international adoption (Nanning's "Mother's Love" orphanage also adopts largely transferred children from other Guangxi orphanages).  The first batch of children submitted by Desheng in April 2001 (when Desheng began international adoptions) was comprised of children mostly from the Cenxi, Pingnan and Guiping orphanages.  But in this early group, the surname given to a child is the only clue that they came from another orphanage. In April 2001, for example, seven "Cen" (岑) girls were submitted by Desheng. Although the surname originates in "Cenxi", the assigned finding location was in Desheng. In the same batch were seven children with "Gong" (龚) (indicating an origin in Pingnan) and "Jin" (金) (indicating an origin in Guiping) surnames, all with finding locations inside Yizhou City.  In a few cases, finding ads from the originating orphanage lists another finding location, which was of course not conveyed to the adoptive family.  For example, an ad for "Jin Xiao Ling" (name altered) was published by the Guiping orphanage on January 13, 2001 listing this child's finding date as December 1, 2000, birth date of November 29, 2000, and the finding location as the Muwa hospital in Guiping.  A finding ad for "Jin Xiao Lin" (name also altered) was published by the Desheng orphanage in April 2001, listing the birth date as December 1, 2000, birthdate as November 29, 2000, and the finding location as "Desheng Northern Temple".

Another girl's finding ad published in the same newspapers give the Guiping information as "Jin Mei Ling, born December 5, 2000, found December 5, 2000 at the Guiping City roundabout" (name altered).  The corresponding Desheng ad lists "Jin Mei Lin, born December 5, 2000, found December 5, 2000 at the Latang Forest Farm in Yizhou City" (name also altered).

A third girl's Guiping finding ad details ""Jin Guo Ling, born November 14, 2000, found December 9, 2000 at the Yu River bridge in Guiping."  The corresponding Desheng ad lists "Jin Guo Lin, born November 14, 2000, found December 9, 2000 at the Desheng main roundabout" (names altered). 

After these two groups of children, surnames became uniform for almost all children submitted by Desheng between June 2001 and December 2004, with "Sheng" (胜) being listed as the surname. However, now the finding locations betray the origin of the children, with children found in Qinzhou, Hechi, Xingye, and Cangwu apparently having their finding locations retained, but with a "Sheng" surname given. This would change again in 2005, when both the surnames and the finding locations of the children sent to Desheng were apparently retained. Also of interest is that the children arrived in batches, with each originating orphanage sending 3-6 children at the same time to Desheng. With a few isolated exceptions, this process is still followed in Desheng.

The deceptive "reassigning" of finding locations in 2001 is of course of concern to adoptive parents, who often have no idea that their child did not originate in Desheng, but actually was transferred from Guiping, Pingnan, Cenxi or another orphanage. Another potential problem arises if both the name and finding location were changed, which would then prevent easy detection of a transfer.  Thus, in the case of children adopted from Desheng, the surname choice reflected, at least in the early submissions, the area of Guangxi Province where the children originated. 

Other common surname methodologies include having the orphanage surname be a part of the town, district or city name -- "Bao" (宝) = Bao'An, Guangdong; "Chen" (郴) = Chenzhou, Hunan; "Ning"(宁) = Changning, Hunan; "Gao" (高) = Gao'An, Jiangxi.  This is the most common surnaming method.  Also common is the practice of making the orphanage surname the same as the orphanage director's surname --"Lin" (林) = DianBai, Guangdong; "He" (何) = Sanshui, Guangdong; "Qiu" (邱) = Yangxi, Guangdong; "Zhao" (赵) = Yuanling, Hunan.

Surnames can also be based on some characteristic of the area, as in Huazhou's use of the surname "Ji" (吉), which originates from the Cantonese "Jihong", a popular medicinal plant in that area.  Other examples are Shangrao City, Jiangxi use of "Ling" () for its children, originating in the majestic Ling Mountains south of the city, Jianxin, Jiangxi use of "Gan" (淦) after the Gan River in Jiangxi Province, and Xiangtan, Hunan use of "Peng" (彭), the surname of a famous military leader born there.

The two most common orphanage surnames are "Dang" (党) and "Guo" (国), especially early in China's international adoption program.  "Guo" (国) is translated as "State" or "Country", and is used to reflect a child's origins in China's State or overall country.  Many orphanages have used this surname at some point in their history, including Zhuzhou, Hunan; Beihai, Guangxi; Beiliu, Guangxi, DianBai, Guangdong; Qingcheng, Guangdong; Zhanjiang, Guangdong; and Guixi, Jiangxi. 

Another very common surname is "Dang"(党), which represents the political face of China, being interpreted as "Political Party" or "Government".  This surname is used most frequently in Henan Province, with more than half of that Province's orphanages using the "Dang" surname at some point in their histories (some examples are Anyang, Hebi, Kaifeng, Luohe, Luoyang, Nanyang, etc.).  Other orphanages that use "Dang" include Zhangzhou, Fujian and Ankang and Jiangzhang orphanages in Shaanxi.  Other surnames with similar connotations include "Hua" (China), and "Min" (The People, Citizens). 

A final example of a common orphanage surname is "Fu" (福), meaning "Good Fortune."  It is the root character for "Fuliyuan", the Chinese word for "orphanage", and thus is used to designate a child from an orphanage.  This character is used as a surname by the Fuling, Chongqing; Hengdong, Hunan; Sanshui, Guangdong; and  Yizhou, Guangxi orphanages among others.

One last use of an orphanage surname is to designate when a child was found.  Thus, many orphanages change the orphanage surname periodically (annually, etc.) to reflect the finding time frame of a child.  Thus, the Baoji orphanage in Shaanxi used "Sun" (孙) as the orphanage surname in 2002, "Li" (李) in 2003, "Zhou" (周) in 2004, "Wu" (武) in 2005, etc.  Other orphanages that have employed similar chronological naming patterns include Zhongshan, Guangdong; Zhuzhou, Hunan; Changsha, Hunan, etc.

Thus, an orphanage surname can be used to designate that a child was an orphan (Dang, Guo, Fu), a city of origin, or a unique aspect of the child's birth city, or when the child was found. In most cases, the surname is chosen to imbue the child's name with some historical or cultural significance.

Middle Characters
The use of middle characters in orphanage names is much more varied, but follows most of the general use patterns found in surnames.  Thus, for example, the Shangrao City, Jiangxi orphanage uses the middle character to designate which county a child was found in -- "Cha" (茶) for Chating, "Qian" (铅) for Qianshan, "Wu" (婺) for Wuyuan, etc.  Middle names are also commonly indicative of finding time-frames, which can range from just a few weeks to a year or longer.  One interesting character that was used by some orphanages in 2008 was the "Ao" (奥) character (Huazhou, for example, gave this character to every child found in 2008).  "Ao" is found in "Ao Yun", the Chinese word for "Olympics" (奥运), which were held in Beijing in August 2008. 

One naming method employed for middle names that I have not yet seen in surnames is the assigning of characters based on the gender of a child.  Since 2007, for example, the Qingyang orphanage in Gansu Province has assigned the character "Fu" (福) to boys and "Xiao" (晓) to females.  Generally, however, the overall tendency among orphanages is the use of finding location or finding date "codes" when assigning middle characters.

Last Character
The last character (for those children assigned three characters to their orphanage name) is usually the most varied character from any given orphanage.  I have not seen any use of the last character to indicate timing, location, or any of the other "informational pieces" that we have seen in the surname and middle characters.  But the last character often does follow a pattern, and that pattern is usually the order it appears in a character combination dictionary.  Characters in Chinese are not organized by themselves, but rather in groupings based on common usage, or "radicals", with other characters.  They are generally listed by complexity of the character, meaning how many strokes it takes to write the character.  For our purposes it is only needed to know that characters can be found in "conjugation" groups.

Wuwei orphanage in Gansu gives us a good example of an orphanage almost certainly using a Chinese dictionary in naming children.  The image below shows the finding ads for Wuwei orphanage for two consecutive submission batches -- March 9, 2004 (left) and April 15, 2004 (right).  The two finding ad scans are four consecutive pages from a typical Chinese dictionary.  As one can plainly see, the names for the eight children in the March 9, 2004 and the first child in the April 15, 2004 batch all had the last character of their orphanage name taken from the "Baogaitou" radical section of the Chinese dictionary.  The rest of the April 15, 2004 batch all had the last character of their name taken from the "Nvzhipang" radical section, located on the next page of the Chinese dictionary.  One child (the fifth ad on the right side) is not listed in our version of the Chinese dictionary, but the last character of her name belongs in this same radical group, and almost certainly appeared in the orphanage's Chinese dictionary. It is extremely unlikely that such naming "clusters" occurred randomly, and they point with certainty that a Chinese dictionary was used.

While most adoptive families imbue their child's Chinese name with emotional meanings, in practice the names chosen are usually (but not always) selected based on a set of bureaucratic and practical reasons.  An orphanage may factor in the finding location, the finding date, the child's gender, and lastly a Chinese dictionaries to come up with the name that will be used to identify a child for adoption purposes.  While adoptive parents may see the orphanage name as a reflection of a child's history, personality, and character, for most orphanage directors assigning a name to a child is simply a formulaic exercise.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I did keep both my daighters' Chinese names as middle names but I have to say I might not now just because of the public posting of private information- like on your blog Brian. I would want them to have that piece of themselves from China but not at any risk to their privacy or safety.

Moya...with a child from Shaoyang

Sharyn said...

Just a comment. My daughter is from Xiangtan and has the surname Peng. It was the name of the orphanages director and that is why the children got that surname. Xiangtan SWI has always given all the children the name of the current director.

Anonymous said...

Brian -- Thank you for such a detailed and fascinating explanation of how the kids' names are assigned. We did keep our daughter's 2nd & 3rd characters as her middle name--so her middle name is Xiaochu.

We had long guessed there was a definite bureaucracy involved with the assigning of names, and your article explains this very well.

In the end, our daughter thinks it is cool to have an "X" for a middle initial! So,that's always a plus!

Great job, as usual, Brian!


Anonymous said...

As a parent to a child from Desheng whose identity was deliberately changed to "Sheng", therefore depriving her of even the simple detail of orphanage of origin, this topic is both interesting and frustrating. It is a painstaking process that several families in the same situation have been undertaking to try to find some answers by analyzing the naming practices of other orphanages. I wonder if our children will ever be able to have some truth...

Kantmakm said...

Some swis will also incorporate the name of the foster mother as a part of the child's name. Presumably this helps to keep track of which children are living with which foster families.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the detailed naming information.
My oldest's surname is Yuan, which we were told meant 'institution' and was not a good name; that it would brand them for life. My 2nd's was named after the director. The 3rd after a local landmark where the SWI stood. And the 4th after the area of town in which she was found. Each from a different province.

For my oldest, all children who entered the SWI in the same month were given the same 1st name. At first I thought that difficult to have 100+ babies all with the same first name!, but came to see it as a way to link the children together and also confirm their arrival time. I assumed the middle name was almost randomly assigned. The dictionary makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Another very common surname is "Dang"(党), which represents the political face of China, being interpreted as "Political Party" or "Government".

Our daughter from Gansu had this surname assigned back in 2001. I distinctly remember the locals comments and reaction when reading our card we had with us about adopting her and what her name was. I know our guide didn't interpret correctly for us what was being said--but there was definately a lot of convervations going on regarding the surname. Zhangye a few year later changed the surname to Zhang.

malinda said...

That is a terrible practice at Desheng of reassigning names. My oldest is from Guiping, and I was familiar with the naming convention when I got my referral for my youngest from Mother's Love. When my agency told me the name, I said, "She's from Guiping!" They insisted that she wasn't, she was from Mother's Love. Sure enough, when the documents were all translated, it turns out she started at Guiping, was named at Guiping, and was transferred to Mother's Love. In fact, all the girls in our travel group were originally from Guiping, transferred to Mother's Love, and all with the surname Jin.

So at least in 2003, when this group of girls was transferred to ML, ML was not renaming them. . . .

A Beautiful Mess said...

Our daughter also had the surname of "Dang" and all of the children from the SWI shared the same surname. Our children all came from the SWI in Datong, Shanxi Province.

Maps of China said...

Our first daughter from China was from Jiangxi and she had the surname of the director, as did all babies who arrived during his time there. Soon after her adoption, another director took his place and all babies have this new director's name.

Our second daughter from China had the surname of Dang. She was from Inner Mongolia. She did not have but one other name, Nan. Is there is any significance to a child only having a surname, and one other name?

Research-China.Org said...

When orphanages are just beginning the international adoption program, they sometimes start with two-character names at the beginning. But once they run out of those names, they move to three-character names, which are the overwhelming majority of names.


lanlan88 said...

My daughter is from Jiangxi with the last name Zhuang. I was told by her SWI that this is for the Zhuang minority (more prominent in Guangxi but small numbers in Jiangxi). Lu (Road) as finding location makes sense and a dictionary naming for the last character. I decided not to use any part of this name in her English or Chinese name. But I will explain the history and meaning of it to her of course. Instead she has her English name and a Chinese name I chose with the help of Chinese friends and based on the traditional naming system and the five elements.

Research-China.Org said...

Actually, the Zhuang character from your daughter's orphanage is a different character than the Zhuang minority people. The surname character used in your daughter's orphanage is "庄", meaning "village, banker, manor". The character used for the Zhuang minority people is "壮"(combined with 族). Thus, the orphanage misinformed you on the meaning of your daughter's surname, although perhaps they meant the pinyin was the same.

Anonymous said...


While I can understand that you want to share what you know about transfers and naming, original finding ad and the falsified finding ads, possibly you should check with the parents of the children you use as examples first. I know the child you mention in the DeSheng April 2001 ad originally from Guiping and I am aghast at how you just shared her private info with everyone. Did you talk to her mother first before posting this?? I agree with Moya's post on 6/27 and that you publicly posted private info and you shouldn't have. I'm also bothered by the fact that you chose to continue charging for finding ads even once you knew people were paying for falsified ones.

Research-China.Org said...

It is our mission to provide adoptive families with information about their children. To do so requires that examples such as Desheng be used to illustrate fundamental issues in their program. Unfortunately, someone needs to be the example. From a reader's perspective, there is no violation of privacy because no one knows who this child is, who adopted her (or even if she was adopted). Will she one day Google her name and read her mention in this article? Perhaps, but hopefully the information she reads will have already been conveyed to her by her adoptive family. And if they have not done the research and learned of this problem, perhaps she will then learn something new about her history, a valuable clue that she can then use to get more info. We need, as a community, to end the shroud of secrecy surrounding our children's information. It protects the lies told by the orphanages, etc., and ultimately keeps our kids from discovering the truth of their own histories.


Research-China.Org said...

To avoid unnecessary controversy, I have altered the three Desheng names to protect the privacy of the individual children.


Coco said...

What about children given wrong gendered names? Is this too from dictionary naming? They get the next word regardless of gender? I've always been a bit dissapointed to think no one took the time to even give our daughter a girls name. It was however confirmed to us by a couple of different sources that it is very defiitely a boys name.

Erin said...

Thank you! We are leaving soon to pick up our daughter in Henan Province. Her surname is "Dang", like so many here. Her given name is... well, a given. It is Xue "Snow", and she has albinism and white hair. Most kids with albinism that I know of are named either "Xue" or "Bai" (white).

New Broom said...

An interesting article! However, we have kept the Chinese name for our children. Simply because they were their names - and the history behind how they got them, even if it was for bureaucratic or practical reasons, was irrelevant in that decision. It was the only name they knew and the only thing they could take with them from China.

I had already spoken to my daughters orphanage about the names and gotten an explanation similar to yours, so no surprises there. This does not change how we feel about the names.

Karen, 2 kids from Zhejiang province

Chris said...

Interesting as my daughter adopted from Desheng originally came from Cangwu. The finding locations are different though.

Unknown said...

Our daughter had the surname Bo, as did all the girls from that SWI, and I assumed this related to the previous name of the town Poyang - Boyang. Her personal name is the same character as the police person who is named on her documents as doing the paperwork when she was found and before she was taken to the orphanage. I wonder if this could be true and if any others have noticed this match up?

Unknown said...

Our twins are from Nanchang, Jiangxi. Their surname was Hong. Hong Hua Wei and Hong Hua Jin. They were found and taken to the Tao police station. I am positive they were taken to Nanchang from somewhere else. Do you have any info on this area?

Research-China.Org said...

We do have a lot of info, but the surname "Hong" was given to all children from Nanchang, so is itself not a clue. Our orphanage reports go into lots of background information that you will find helpful.

Cait Goddard said...

My daughter, adopted in early 1998 has She as her surname. The character translates as society or community. Her given name means 'new opportunity' I have always felt this reflected the particularly staunch party line in Xiangtan at that time as it is so impersonal. I kept the given name Yuxin as phonetically it could be translated as 'new jade'!