Last year, after giving birth to their second child — a son — Chen Yuan and her husband, Liu Lei, decided that the boy would take his mother’s surname. Their elder child, who was 5 at the time, was surnamed Liu after her father.
“When it came time to go to the police station and register the birth, I was still in the monthlong recovery period, so my husband had to go instead,” laughs Chen, gesturing toward her husband. “He almost went back on his word!”
Liu wrings his hands a little. “At the time, I felt a bit conflicted,” he says. “I’m from Shandong province [in eastern China.] I’m pretty conservative. My parents never expected we’d give our child my wife’s surname. I was worried they wouldn’t be able to accept it. And what would my friends and family think when they found out my son doesn’t share my name?”
In China, children traditionally share a surname with their father. Typically, if a child has his mother’s surname, it means that the woman comes from a much richer or more powerful family than her husband. While a woman traditionally moves into her husband’s family home after marriage, sometimes the opposite occurs, for instance when the wife has no brothers and her family “adopts” her husband. Under these circumstances, husbands take their wives’ surnames and assume more responsibility for domestic tasks. Children born into such unions are given their mothers’ surnames.
Yet in order to avoid giving the impression of being inferior to their wives, comparatively few Chinese men are willing to give their children their wives’ family names. Many women, too, seem to lack interest in challenging this tradition. Since the implementation of the two-child policy, however, some women have begun to question naming beliefs. At present, it is not uncommon in cities to see two-child families in which the elder kid shares their father’s surname, while the second-born shares their mother’s.
While this is partly a natural outcome of the increasingly high status enjoyed by Chinese women, it may also be a residual side effect of China’s one-child policy.
The majority of urban Chinese currently of childbearing age are their parents’ only children. Women who grew up in such families are just as responsible as their husbands for maintaining their parents’ wealth and bloodlines, and have also won more equitable access to education and employment opportunities. In a patriarchal society like China’s, this has laid the foundation for real gains in gender equality between husband and wife.
Prior to the repeal of the one-child policy, wives usually lacked the ability to vie with their husbands for the right to pass on their surnames. However, now that it is legal to have two children, their case is easier to make.
The relatively strong economic position of Chen’s birth family, combined with the assistance they’ve provided the couple in raising their children, doubtless played a role in her willingness to go against the grain. Her parents made the down payment on the house in which she and her husband currently live. Chen herself is relatively well-paid; her salary at the multinational company she works for is double what her husband, an industry researcher, brings home each month.
While Liu ultimately agreed to his wife’s request regarding their second child’s name, his mother was staunchly opposed to their decision and demanded both of their children be surnamed Liu. “She’s a real old grouch,” says Liu. “Even now, she refuses to accept our choice. It’s caused a major rift between her and my wife. Of course, it’s caused a rupture in our relationship [as mother and son] as well. She thinks I caused our family to lose face in my hometown and worries that in the future, there will be no one to carry on the family name.”
Chen doesn’t think the decision regarding the surname of their second child has anything to do with her mother-in-law. After all, her mother-in-law isn’t named Liu, either. “Whether she agrees or not, it’s not her decision to make,” Chen says. “Our two children are being raised by my parents [in Shanghai]. My mother-in-law has never bothered to visit from Shandong, nor has she ever contributed anything … I had no problem with naming our first child Liu, but it’s only fair that our second child take my surname.”
The conflicting views held by Chen and her mother-in-law largely stem from the fact that it was Chen’s daughter who wound up with the Liu family name, while her son is named after Chen. Although Chen accepted the traditional primacy of the male family line when she agreed their first child would be named Liu, the child turned out to be a girl. However, in the male-dominated culture in which her mother-in-law grew up, only sons can carry on the family line.
No wonder, then, that netizens like to joke that if a couple’s first child is a boy, he will take his father’s surname, while the mother is free to give their second child her family name. The same is true if both children are girls, with the mother having the freedom to pass on her name. If the first child is a girl and the second is a boy, however, then what do you name the second child?
In comparison to families like Chen’s, families whose eldest child is a boy and second child is a girl experience noticeably less conflict. Thirty-two-year-old Shen Zhujin is a mother of two. Her 4-year-old son is surnamed Qu, like his father, while their 1-year-old daughter is surnamed Shen.
“When my second kid was still in the womb, my father called up my husband and told him that our family had respected the one-child policy, and now the family line was on the verge of dying for good,” Shen says. “I don’t know what else my dad said to him, but my husband agreed that no matter the sex of the child, it would take my family name.”
In such a patriarchal culture, the birth of a son means the continuation of the family line, whereas a daughter can mean its end. After the implementation of the two-child policy, parents of only daughters became some of the strongest advocates for the practice of a second child taking their mother’s surname. Shen’s father is an example of this new outlook.
“I just think women should have the right to pass their family name on to their children,” says Shen’s father, who along with Shen’s mother declined to give his full name. “I’m not just using gender equality as a cover, either. It may look like I’m the one benefitting from this change, since it means the child will have my surname, but in the end, it’s a first step toward equality. Everyone wants their family name to continue, regardless of gender. If I had two daughters, I would agree to give one of them my wife’s surname.”
But when, laughing, Shen’s mother asks if he would have given their son her family name if their other child had been a daughter, the old man just smiles and says nothing.
Shen herself may have put it best: “This isn’t real gender equality; it’s just another, albeit quieter, kind of patriarchy. Only this time, it’s clad in feminist garb. Still, if the freedom to choose can be passed down from generation to generation, perhaps it could become a turning point on the road to real equality.”
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A mother leads her son and daughter across a school playground in Zigong, Sichuan province, Oct. 5, 2016. Mai Tian/VCG)