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The Story of a Chinese Guy with an Unprintable Name

Not every Chinese character is accounted for, not every name can be typed.

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I can remember my uncle telling me when I was a kid that there wasn’t a person on earth who knew every Chinese character. I couldn’t understand how that could be — how could they have a writing system that nobody knew how to fully read? I wondered about this for an inordinate amount of time, but it wasn’t until I came to China myself for the first time in 2005 that I really understood that my uncle was, in fact, very correct.

Every once in a while a character will pop up that is rather obscure and few people will know what it means off hand. Generally, you just look it up on a mobile phone dictionary app. Though every once in a while, in extremely rare situations, a character comes into play that is so rare that it is not represented in the digitized lexicon of written Chinese.

I have a friend in Suzhou who had an unprintable name — as he put it. The last character of his original name is so obscure that nobody (seriously nobody) knows how to pronounce it or what it means. It is so uncommon that it’s not even in the GBK registry of Chinese characters that is often used for their digitalization. Of the 106,000 known Chinese characters only 32,000 can be written on a computer, and his name just happened to be one of those that were left out. On his student ID card there is “??” printed in the place of this unidentifiable character.

A text message he received as we were talking asking him how to pronounce his name.

A text message he received as we were talking asking him how to pronounce his name.

His entire life was full of people asking him the question: “Uh, how do you pronounce this,” to which he’d reply, “Wei, third tone,” and they’d look at him funny. Written Chinese, of course, isn’t phonetic, so it wasn’t as if anyone could just sound out the unknown name.

I asked him how he ended up with such a strange name. He said that it means “brightness,” but is also a homophone with the word for “greatness.” It also shares an element with his mother’s name. It wasn’t the worst way to select a name, for sure. At least his parents didn’t just randomly open a dictionary and put their finger down on a page, which is something that’s not unheard of.

Eventually, my friend’s parents wanted to purchase another apartment. Due to their line of work they are only permitted to own a single property each, so they decided to put the additional house in their only child’s name. They called the place his “marriage home.” Though when they tried to register the purchase there was a problem: the obscure character of his name of course could not be entered into the computer system. Unlike with his government and school ID cards, there wasn’t a way this could be fudged. Apparently, they couldn’t just enter in “??” in the property register.

So his parents were left with two choices: not buy the additional home or change their kid’s name.

They chose the later, and the problem character was purged.

It was changed to 韡. Same pronunciation. My friend told me that it has the same meaning too — brightness and greatness — but my Pleco translator tells me something a little different. It translates it as “gorgeous.”

Whatever is the case, as my friend put it, the change, “put an end to 20 years of my unprintable name.”

Unknown Chinese character_DCE


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Filed under: China, Language

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3719 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • Fr. Harlee December 3, 2015, 10:30 am

    I think the characters his parents used were a simplified version of his current name. The new name is a traditional character…at least the meanings it appears that way

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  • Fr. Harlee December 3, 2015, 10:41 am

    Just to add on that this is similar to the Chinese character that I chose as my family name 轸. Many Chinese just guest that this is pronounced zhen. I chose it becuase of its meaning and because it carries the same tones as 真. My Chinese name then sounds like the words “真难得” meaning very hard to come by, rare, seldom (my name: 轸南德). Although my Chinese name holds no deep meaning or importance, I like to say each character has its own meaning. Check the dictionary, sout heard, virtue.

    Sorry for getting sidetracked but the character 轸 is not used anywhere or for anything in China

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