Nowadays, the Chinese people usually have just two names: their surname, called "xing," followed by their given name, "ming."
But until recent decades, most educated people had an additional one or two alternative names. These were called "zi," or "style," and "hao," or "alias," which were given at the age of twenty as a sign of maturity.
"It is a great pity that this tradition was abolished as a stigma of feudal society during the turbulent 'Great Cultural Revolution.' Now it is fading in modern society," said Wang Dayou,a scholar who has studied Chinese name culture for 30 years.
Wang said Chinese surnames are the name of the clan to which the person belonged. These names originated approximately 9,000 years ago, evolving from the totems of tribes -- often an animal, plant, or natural object.
Ancient Chinese began to use an additional name to follow their surname in the Zhou Dynasty (about 1100 BC - 771 BC). The given name is usually chosen by the parents as a symbol of their blessings and hopes for the child.
The "style" and "alias" names are for self-encouragement and are a further explanation of the given name's meaning. They are usually plucked from Chinese classic writings, Wang said.
Take China's late leader Mao Zedong for example. "Mao" indicates the name of his clan and ancestry. His given name "Zedong," which was used on official or formal occasions, means "benefiting people in the east." Mao also called himself "Runzhi" in front of elders or among his peers, in which "Run" means "benefiting something."
Another example is Li Bai, a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). His given name, "Bai," means "white and clean." His "style name" is "Tai Bai," which refers to Venus, the planet in Chinese astronomy that gives off white light in the dark sky. Thisexplains the meaning of his given name.
In addition, the great poet chose "Qinglian Jushi," meaning "a hermit of lotus," as his "alias." As of symbol of China's Taoism, lotus represents purity and dignity. Li Bai chose the name because he was a devoted follower of Taoism, a principal philosophy and religion in China.
"So, names are not simply a differentiating symbol, but a medium to pass on Chinese traditional culture that has a history of thousands of years. Other people can see a person's beliefs and pursuits in his name," Wang said.
In addition, Wang also thinks using alternative names is a remedy to avoid the rising repetition of names in the world's most populous country. The Chinese people with a popular surname, such as Li or Wang, have to face the problem of many people having their same name.
Wang's proposal, however, is not popular with everyone.
Ma Guoqing, an anthropologist at the prestigious Zhongshan University in south China's Guangdong Province, said the Chinese people, especially the younger generation, have accepted the modern way of naming.
"Giving alternative names has a very complicated system, which most people even barely know about, making it more hard to spread," said Ma.
Zhao Rui, a 22-year-old college student said: "It seems elegant and cultured to name in the traditional way, but it's too inconvenient and not suitable for modern people."
"I'm afraid my clients will not be patient enough to listen to all my traditional names," Shen Yiyu, a marketing professional, said. "Even if they did, I don't think they will remember all of them."
Wang Chao, a college student, who has two other classmates with the same name as his, applauded Wang Dayou's suggestion of reviving alternative names.
"But If I had alternative names, where should I put them in my residence book? Do I need change my ID card?" he asked.
The names on the Chinese identity card have been sanctioned by the State Council and they can not be changed or deleted. Alternative names can be placed in the "previous name" item on residence book, but they don not have legal validity, said a consulting clerk from the certificate administration of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau.
"I know it is impossible for all the people to accept my suggestion, but I think it is more important to have all the people realize we are losing the cultural heritage endowed by our ancestors. We should take measures to stop the situation from worsening," Wang said.