In 1998, a Hebei teenager surnamed Liu got into an argument with a stall owner and stabbed him. Wanted for murder, the 17-year-old went on the run and Hebei police lost his trail for 16 years.
But earlier this year, after a tip-off, they found him in a neighbouring county of the same city where he had committed murder.
Liu, now 32, had been living an ordinary life for years under the new name "Li Xiaohu".
Cases like Liu's have put pressure on the government to tighten the rules allowing Chinese to change their surnames easily, a right that China's Civil Law gives them. Millions have exercised this right, whether to escape criminal penalties or debts, or just to have an auspicious surname or to name their children after benefactors.
Chinese only have to go to their local police stations to change their names, and this has given local police enormous authority to enact unorthodox requests, especially if bribes are given or guanxi invoked.
Last week, in a bid to stop the free-for-all, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) handed down its first-ever "judicial interpretation".
Using the Marriage Law, which states that children must be surnamed after either parent, it said that exceptions should be made only if the surname is of a lineal relative, a foster parent, or something in accordance with ethnic minority customs.
But it stopped short of a blanket ban, which some conservative lawmakers are lobbying for to prevent cases like Liu's. Instead, it said that "rational reasons" would be accepted for surname changes outside the ambit of the guidelines.
Beijing Institute of Technology law professor Meng Qiang said that it is a common practice for orphans or those from disadvantaged backgrounds to rename themselves with the surnames of benefactors who took care of them to express their gratitude.
"Being too strict on this will discourage such acts of kindness," he said.
Surname changes are quite common in China due to the historical significance placed on the "continuation" of a clan's name, and also because of the enormous variations among Chinese characters. Thousands of Chinese have surnames which are so obscure that the character is not available in computer databases.
In July, an Anhui newspaper reported that about 2,000 people in two rural villages have the surname "Chi", a character that is not available in modern databases. The villagers cannot buy train tickets online because of this problem, and are appealing to the authorities en masse for a new surname, the report said.
In Henan province, thousands of villagers share the surname "Gou", which sounds the same as the Chinese character for dog.
To save their children from the bullying they suffered in school, villagers are increasingly changing their children's surnames to "Jing", a character that looks close to the original "Gou" in Chinese script, reported a Henan newspaper earlier this year.
"I was so miserable when I was young by the bullying that I refused to go to school, and all my friends knew never to utter that word," one villager said. "I won't let that happen to my child."
This article was first published on November 7, 2014.
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