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I've seen this happen enough times to start wondering.

For example, take the name "Ting Chao Chung", a Chinese-American Nobel laureate. Ting (丁) is the last name, and "Chao Chung" (肇中, which is two characters in Chinese) is the given name. But if he were to enrol as an undergraduate in a Western university, his student card would read something like "C. Ting" instead of C. C. Ting, leaving his name incomplete. I know one pair of twins who ended up with the same name on their student card this way. Their names are different, but if you throw away the second character, then the names become the same.

Why do Western universities seem to struggle with parsing Chinese names? The Chinese students that I've asked have generally said that the university refuses to use the right name (although the name on their degrees look correct), which doesn't make sense to me.

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    Perhaps it is best to confirm how the students' names are written in their official passports issued by the Chinese Government. Unless my memory serves me wrong, Chinese passports write the person's first name without spaces. Universities tend to follow the writing conventions used in passports, unless the person in question explicitly asks otherwise. And to be fair to Western Universities, the authorities and universities in both China and other Asian countries also produced lots of mistakes and issues in registering my Western name...
    – djohn
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 10:44
  • @djohn hmm it seems like some countries spell their Chinese names with two words, others with one. Here's a 2-word example from Hong Kong, and another one from Singapore, while this is one-word.
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 12:16
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    As far as I know, everyone who speaks only Indo-European languages has difficulty with Chinese names. This is not particular to universities. Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 13:07
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    Names are hard. kalzumeus.com/2010/06/17/…
    – Anyon
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 13:42
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    Dropping half of a two-part name is very common in the west and is not specific to Chinese names. Another problem is people from South America with five or six names are not sure how to pair it down to two or three. Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 14:43

2 Answers 2

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Countries differ with respect to what a name is. These differences are both cultural and legal. All organization struggle with people who have names that do not conform to the national standard. That is not just limited to universities. It is also not limited to Chinese in Western countries. Even within the EU there are different standards, and there is friction. Or think of people who come from societies without a last name. In practice, most administrative staff at universities tend to be as accommodating as their software allows...

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    You hit the mark when you wrote "as accommodating as their software allows." Until relatively recently universities in the United States used home-grown software that made cultural assumptions about names. Those assumptions particularly included assumptions about order of given and family names, to the point of referring to "first name" and "last name." With the widespread use of packaged software, the situation is improving, but not much.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 14:00
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    With reference to the last sentence: shinesolutions.com/2018/01/08/… Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 16:40
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For a name that uses two characters in Chinese, I think it is common to treat it as a single word with no spaces in English.

There are lots of ways of writing Chinese names in the Latin alphabet. You could just as well say that C. C. Ting is wrong because it should be Ting C. C.

Not all Western universities write students' names on student cards in the same way.

Perhaps your hypothetical university has a system where all names have to be of the form INITIAL-OF-GIVEN-NAME FAMILY-NAME. This would also mean that Spanish names cannot be written fully.

I don't think it is just universities that have these issues with non-English names. Probably all sorts of organizations do.

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    As I understand it, the Chinese (& Japanese) way of writing names is with the last name in front - so Ting C. C. is right. The Western style though puts the last name at the back, so it becomes C. C. Ting.
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 9:24
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    @Allure: The issue of whether "last name -- first name'' or "first name -- last name" is being used is often a source of difficulty for me in determining full names of authors for my personal bibliographies. Often a comma is used for separation when the last name is front, and somewhat often all capital letters are used for the last name when the last name is front (both conventions are unambiguous when the last name consists of more than one word), but there seems to be no method that doesn't require the reader to be knowledgeable of the convention being used, (continued) Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 10:17
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    which is often the case when dealing with names in various publications in various countries spanning several generations. On the other hand, at least in my personal writing for the past 15 or more years (mostly in internet posts and personal writing), I've been avoiding creating a similar ambiguity with dates (e.g. does 10/11/1943 mean "November 10, 1943" or "October 11, 1943") by not using a numeral for the month -- for example, "10 December 1981". (continued) Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 10:18
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    Note this is also ordered so that the middle-sized unit isn't front (thus avoiding what seems illogical to me), and it additionally avoids possibly having to use a comma, which I find distracting when other commas for more important purposes appear nearby in the text. Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 10:18
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    I'll note also that Hungarian names are usually given with the family name first and personal name following. One of my Hungarian friends once said to me "Makes more sense, doesn't it?".
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 11:43

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