What can we tell from the evolution of Han Chinese names?

Country/area: Singapore

Organisation: Kontinentalist

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 12/03/2021

Credit: Isabella Chua, Suri Zhu


Isabella loves to dig beyond what is ‘commonsensical’ or ‘natural’ to us, by looking at the larger forces (or even accidents), that may have structured these beliefs. A writer at Kontinentalist, she’s particularly interested in social issues—religion, crime, identity, and food. While she strives to stay curious about the world by listening to podcasts and taking classes, she’s happiest when eating pastries, cakes, and drinking tea.

Suri Zhu is a freelance vis developer currently living in Beijing. She enjoys using data and visuals.

Project description:

This story uncovers and narrates the history of China and the evolution of societal norms and political events through looking at the changing patterns of Han Chinese names. Names reveal a lot about a society, especially Chinese names for which there are 220 million possible options. Through examining the seemingly mundane personal act of naming a child, we can see the bigger macro historical forces at work.

Impact reached:

The innovative Chinese chess-board like visualisations of the name data gained a lot of praise, as it’s a clever homage to Chinese aesthetics and motifs. It shows that Kontinentalist produces truly innovative data journalism, as both the topic and the forms we produce are situated in our Asian context and true to our mission.

The cover illustration also very subtly encodes motifs of a changing China, from the modes of transport to the fashion and hair styles depicted.

The story also embeds audio clips pronouncing the Chinese characters and walks the reader through the changing popularity of the names in response to wider external circumstances.

The last interactive visualisation also engages the reader by helping them ‘take part’ in the story by identifying their name and how popular it is.


Techniques/technologies used:

For the data analysis, R was used. For the illustrations and visuals, Figma, and Adobe illustrator. For the visualisation of the data: Flourish and d3.js

What was the hardest part of this project?

It was difficult trying to retrace historical happenings and identifying which specific ones were tied to name changes and hence conclusive findings. It was also a struggle explaining the significance of Chinese names, including the context about how Chinese characters work, what the side character means, how the combinations work for that individual and in relation to other members in the family.

It was difficult to create data visualisation and design that were coherent, thematic and added something more to the story beyond being just ornamental.

What can others learn from this project?

Keep your eyes open for interesting datasets—browsing Github is a good way to get them. Remember that mundane datasets can uncover interesting insights, so look at them with curious eyes to unearth hidden gems.

Project links: