For Chinese Women, a Surname Is Her Name

NYT SINOSPHERE | Nov. 11, 2016 | By Didi Kirsten Tatlow | 26 comments

What’s in a name, or specifically in a Chinese name?

BEIJING — “Well, of course I kept my name when I married,” said Yang Huiping, mystified at being asked about it as she polished the glass doors of an apartment block in Beijing.

“My husband is called Zhao, but I’m called Yang,” the 47-year-old cleaner said. “It’s always been like that. Why would I change my name?”

In Japan, under a 19th-century law upheld last year by the country’s Supreme Court, all married couples must use the same surname, and by overwhelming custom — in 96 percent of couples — women take their husband’s name. Even in the United States, where feminism has influenced attitudes for decades, the rate is about 80 percent.

But in China, as in other Asian societies shaped by Confucian values, including Korea and Vietnam, women traditionally retain their surname at marriage. This is an expression not of marital equality, Chinese feminists are quick to note, but of powerful patriarchal values. A married woman continues to be identified by her father’s lineage.

A girl might not even have a formal name, just a nickname given by her parents in addition to her father’s surname, said Zhang Rongli, a law professor at China Women’s University.

After marrying, a woman often disappeared in terms of her name, known by her father’s surname and the affix “shi,” meaning “clan.” A woman whose father was surnamed Yang would be called Yang Shi.

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That kept her an outsider in her husband’s family. Genealogical records, which focused on the male line of descent, reflected this, usually omitting wives and daughters.

This changed with the fall of the Qing, the last imperial dynasty, in 1911 and the rise in the 1920s of the Nationalist, or Kuomintang, government, which tried to institute a Western-inspired legal code. Under a section of the new Civil Code enacted in 1930, a woman had the legal right to her husband’s name, signaling the end of her “outsider” status.

“The wife uses her original surname, but the family name is her husband’s name,” the law said. “But if the people involved agree otherwise, it is not limited to this.”
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Enforcement was uneven, however, broken up by the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and civil war between the Nationalists and Communists in the 1940s.

After the Communist victory in 1949, the new central government took up the cause of women in the 1950 Marriage Law, which also banned bigamy and arranged marriages as part of its feminist agenda.

Ms. Zhang called that legislation a declaration of women’s rights.

“For the first time, it was definitively laid out in law that a married woman had the right to her own, independent surname,” she said. “It wasn’t just a formalistic thing about liberating women. Having a definite surname increased women’s rights consciousness and protected their property rights.”

After the law was enacted, women rushed to register their names to have a claim on inheritance and, crucially, land, as the government carried out land reform, Ms. Zhang said.

“On this issue, Chinese law was very progressive,” she said.

Not everyone agrees. A commenter identified as Mu Qing Shan on Baidu Feminism Tieba, a social media site, wondered whether a woman’s retention of her surname only reinforced her outsider identity and inferior social position.

“After marriage, Chinese women don’t change their name. Is that really a sign of high status?” asked Mu Qing Shan, who did not respond to attempts to contact her. “Doesn’t letting a woman take your surname raise her status?”

Less egalitarian than discriminatory, then. “Woman are just a tool to produce the next generation. They don’t deserve your surname. So they are forever ‘outside surname people,’” Mu Qing Shan continued.
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A final twist on Chinese surname traditions also owes something to patriarchy. Occasionally, a husband took his wife’s family name, a practice known as “ruzhui,” meaning “to enter superfluity” or “become superfluous.’’

This usually occurred when a family needed a male heir to carry on the family line. Often the man was poor. He subverted the traditional pattern of a woman’s marrying into the man’s home by marrying into her home.

Today, some men offer to ruzhui, on grounds of poverty.

“My family is from Suide in Shaanxi Province. I was born in 1989,” wrote a user calling himself Yu Jian, or “Meet,” on the matchmaking website

“I have a college degree but don’t want to be a burden to my family, so I’ve decided to marry into a woman’s family,” Yu Jian wrote.

The “burden” is an apparent reference to a tradition that has not died, decades after the Communist government’s Marriage Law: A man’s family is often expected to give a woman’s family a “bride price,” which can include an apartment and car for the bridal pair, making it costly for many families to marry off their sons.
Follow Didi Kirsten Tatlow on Twitter @dktatlow.

Karoline Kan contributed research.

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