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Scratch the Dog Jokes

Fed up with their insult-inspiring name, a group of Chinese villagers set out to change it. Now they answer to `respect.'

September 09, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

SHIMENGOU, China — It's a dog's life, but after 1,000 years the people of this village in western China have had enough.

Back in the 10th century, legend has it, Emperor Shi Jingtang was angry that their ancestors had the temerity to share part of his name. Apparently a clan member also delivered some now forgotten slight to the mighty ruler.

In retaliation, he forced them to change their surname from Jing, which means "respect," to Gou, which means "humble" but has the same pronunciation as "dog." For the next millennium, thousands of Gous were forced to endure insults, jokes and general canine confusion.

Last month, 261 villagers persuaded the government to restore the Jing name. When the paperwork came through, there were fireworks, congratulatory toasts and backslapping.

"We're so happy," said Jing Baishan, 58, an infectious-disease specialist who urged his neighbors to apply for the name change. "It feels like a thousand-year curse has been lifted, restoring our honor."

Getting the name change in the current Chinese astrological year has been a bonus.

"What could be better than losing our dog name in the Year of the Dog?" said Jing Junfu, the local Communist Party secretary.

Many here view the centuries of humiliation as emblematic of China's long feudal history, when ordinary people suffered under the boot of the mighty, enduring collective punishment for the deeds of a single clan member.

Over the years, the Gous met with countless slurs for having a name linked to an animal that hasn't had the cute-family-member status it enjoys in the West. Although the dog's reputation in China is improving as the country develops a larger urban middle class, it typically has been valued mainly for herding, food and guard duty (while being seen as dirty and willing to eat anything).

Teacher Jing Yan, 32, recalled traveling as a child to Xian, several hours from the Shaanxi province village, and having a stranger ask what her family name was. "Gou," she said. "How could such a cute little girl be a dog?" the stranger responded.

Ren Caiyuan, whose sister married into the Gou clan, said she was often too embarrassed to introduce her scientist brother-in-law to people. "What could I say, 'Oh, here's Dr. Dog'?"

Jing Chuangshi, 61, reflected on the generations of Gous he sent into the world during his 38-year career as a primary school teacher. He said he would explain how the whimsy of an ancient emperor had made the clan the butt of so many jokes. And he'd advise them to cultivate an inner strength to weather the inevitable ribbing.

Most Gous say they learned over the years to feign amusement.

"They call me 'Little Dog' and think it's hilarious," said farmer Jing Yamin, 18, referring to the use of "xiao" in front of someone's surname, generally a term of endearment. "All you can do is laugh. But it always bothers you a bit inside."

Some altered their behavior in small ways. Few Gous had pet dogs, which would only invite more abuse. Jing Junshun, 52, a farmer, takes solace in his location. "I rarely leave the village," he said, as it's a relative oasis given that most of the 1,600 people share the same fate.

The power of puppy love notwithstanding, some young Gous reportedly have lost girlfriends after revealing their surname. But Ren Caixia, Jing Baishan's wife, said marrying into a family with such an unusual name didn't bother her.

"She's not telling the truth," her husband countered with a laugh.

Over the centuries, some Gous rose above the humiliation. During the Ming Dynasty, Gou Shi married China's ruler and became known as "Empress Dog." She reportedly was buried with a cloth listing her accomplishments in bronze lettering, a great honor.

Jing Baishan said he had wanted to change his name ever since receiving his first childhood insult, but he couldn't obtain the historical documentation required by the government. Unlike in the United States, where changing a name is relatively easy, the hurdles are high under the Chinese system, which evolved more for the convenience of bureaucrats than of commoners.

Then one day last year, Jing Baishan read in a newspaper that several Gous in neighboring Henan province had successfully made the switch. Inspired, he contacted his nephew, party secretary Jing Junfu, and suggested that the whole village follow suit.

Last September, they organized a clan meeting attended by five generations of Gous. Most jumped at the chance to change the name. The clan collected newspaper clippings and other evidence and petitioned the local police bureau, which is responsible for name registration issues, and individual petitions were filed for villagers ranging in age from 1 to 82.

The fact that other communities of Gous were doing the same thing nationwide helped persuade authorities. Although exact numbers are difficult to pin down, there had been well over 10,000 Gous in China.

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