JIANGSU, East China — Long before Hu Xing and her husband tied the knot, their families had already planned out their life together in minute detail.
Over a series of meetings, the two sets of parents agreed their children’s union would be a marriage of equals. There would be no dowry, bride price, or betrothal gifts, and the families would split all subsequent costs 50/50 — from the wedding to their future grandchildren’s tuition fees.
Hu, it was decided, would give birth to two kids. The eldest would take the husband’s surname, and the youngest Hu’s own. After the first birth, the couple would move in with the husband’s parents, so they could help with child care. Then, once the second was born, they’d relocate to the Hu family home.
For Hu, the arrangement feels perfectly normal. The 31-year-old now has two little girls, and she and her partner are currently living with her parents in Kunshan, a city bordering Shanghai in eastern China.
“It’s natural to maintain a harmonious family situation like this,” says Hu, who spoke with Sixth Tone using a pseudonym due to privacy concerns. “Now, everyone takes care of our two children. And in the future, we will take care of our respective parents when they’re old.”
This style of relationship — known as a liangtou hun, or “two-sided marriage” — has existed in parts of East China for decades. But it has become a hot topic on Chinese social media in recent weeks, after the state-owned China Women’s News published a story portraying the two-sided marriage as a new trend spreading in the eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
The article — which focused on the fact that couples were ditching traditional practices like the payment of sky-high bride prices and allowing children to take the wife’s surname — sparked a big reaction, with women’s rights advocates hailing the two-sided marriage as a model for modern relationships.
The reality, however, is more complex. Although two-sided marriages can have a number of upsides for wives like Hu, they often don’t feel like a liberation from patriarchal pressures in practice.
For Zhao Chunlan, a sociologist at Zhejiang International Studies University, the two-sided marriage is best understood as an evolution, rather than a revolution, of traditional marital customs.
After conducting field research in Zhejiang, Zhao found that the two-sided marriage actually began to popularize in the areas she visited as far back as 2000. For local families, the arrangement was a response to a specific set of social changes unleashed by the one-child policy and China’s booming economy.
“This approach solves a series of problems, such as passing on the family line within a one-child family, not wanting daughters to leave the family, and ensuring there’s someone to provide for the elderly,” says Zhao.
Whereas traditionally wives would “marry into” their husbands’ families — or, in rare cases, the reverse — this custom became problematic after China imposed the one-child limit. Parents with only daughters — or impoverished families who’d been forced to “marry out” their only sons — would be left with no one to pass on the family name or care for them in their old age.
As a result, families began agreeing to a compromise: Neither the husband nor the wife would “marry in” after the marriage. Instead, the couple would split their time between both family homes — ensuring they’d be able to take care of both sets of elderly relatives.
The trend for giving one family name to each child worked in a similar way: As long as the couple had two children, both families could continue their lines. (Even during the one-child era, it was often possible for couples to have two kids, either by paying a fine or because of exceptions to the single-child rule).
This kind of arrangement was able to catch on in Jiangsu and Zhejiang because the provinces are among the wealthiest in China, according to Zhao. Families arranging the marriages tended to be relatively equal from a financial point of view, making it easy to agree to a 50/50-style deal. Plus, young people from comfortably-off families tended to be less willing to marry out.
Today, around 70%-80% of young couples in the part of Zhejiang Zhao studied have a two-sided marriage, the professor estimates, and she expects the practice will later spread to other areas where the economy is strong and communities have an open attitude toward marriage.
But though Zhao stresses that two-sided marriages can have real benefits for wives, enabling them to acquire equal status in their relationships and retain greater independence from their husband’s families, they’re not a cure-all.
A mother takes her children on a walk around a park in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, 2018. An Xin/People Visual
Hu is a classic candidate for a two-sided marriage. Originally from the city of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, her parents moved to Kunshan for business 40 years ago and enjoyed huge success. They now own multiple properties in Kunshan, Shanghai, and the United States.
When she became engaged to her husband, who’s from a local Kunshan family that owns several stores, apartments, and even a shopping mall in the city, it appeared natural for both sides to agree to an equal division of the marital assets.
Hu considers the arrangement to have been a success. An event planner with a demanding schedule, she appreciates having so much support with child care. But she admits things might have turned out differently if she hadn’t been able to give birth to a second daughter.
For Hu, the splitting of the children’s surnames has been key to maintaining harmony between the two families and stability in her marriage. She still remembers the joy her father expressed when he heard Hu’s in-laws were prepared to “offer” a child’s surname to his family.
“He finally felt the Hu family had someone to continue our lineage,” Hu says, half-jokingly.
The two sets of parents continued their discussions over surnames years after Hu and her husband had walked down the aisle. When Hu became pregnant with her second baby in 2017, she recalls her father pulling her father-in-law aside during a family banquet.
“If the second child is a boy, we can let the boy take on your family’s last name, and the older daughter can change her surname to ours,” he offered.
A statue showing the characters of Chinese surnames in Shenyang, Liaoning province, 2016. People Visual
In some cases, the tussle over naming rights can tear marriages apart. Wu, a 35-year-old from Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, who gave only her surname for privacy reasons, filed for divorce in late 2020. Her two-sided marriage with her former husband had collapsed years before, and Wu is convinced the main reason was the constant disputes over her children’s surnames.
Wu and her ex-husband first fell in love while studying together at university, and decided to get married when they were 25. Though his family was from northern China, a region with no history of two-sided marriage customs, they agreed to embrace the idea.
But the two families only agreed to give one surname to each child. They never specified which child would take which name — and this oversight proved to be fatal, Wu says.
When Wu gave birth to a son in 2012, her father insisted the boy be given the Wu surname. Wu’s ex-husband went along with this at first, content that a second child would be given his name.
The decision, however, set the local rumor mill whirring. There had already been whispers that Wu’s ex-husband had married into her family — a reversal of traditional custom that many men find demeaning — as he had moved south to live with her in Jiaxing. Now, the fact he’d allowed his own son to take Wu’s surname seemed to confirm it.
The ex-husband’s colleagues and even the doctors at the hospital where Wu gave birth started speculating he might not be the child’s real father, Wu recalls. For the young man, the malicious gossip was too much to bear, and he insisted the boy’s family name be changed.
Wu’s father, however, refused to consider a name change. “My father threatened to take his own life and break off relations with me if I did so,” says Wu. “He forced me into the divorce.”
For Wu, surnames are simply labels with no real meaning, but she says her father — who has two daughters — was obsessed with securing a male heir.
“Men care about family names like it’s an issue of national sovereignty,” says Wu. “They won’t give even an inch.”
In the end, the rumors, distrust, and quarrels meant that Wu never had a second child. She and her ex-husband separated in 2013. Yet, Wu repeatedly stresses to Sixth Tone that the two were truly in love.
“But no matter how strong the emotional foundations of a marriage are, it’s impossible to withstand the pressure of outside opinions,” she says.
Over time, Wu says she has come to see other problems with two-sided marriages. Giving one surname to each child, she says, can distort a family’s dynamics, as the grandparents will favor the grandchild who possessed their own last name.
“It definitely happens that they’ll leave the good food and clothes to the child with their name,” she says. “Parents getting involved with the nuclear family never has good consequences. Parents on both sides want to participate, want to be dominant, and this in itself creates conflict.”
Shen Yifei, an associate professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University who specializes in the sociology of families, agrees that conflicts over surnames is inevitable, even within a two-sided marriage.
“One side wanting the boy to take their last name … is inherently a patriarchal construct,” says Shen. “While the patriarchy still exists, this marriage model won’t resolve any problems.”
For Shen, the two-sided marriage isn’t progressive at all, but rather promotes unhealthy relations between parents and children that damage the couple’s own relationship. She says it’s important that young couples are able to live independently, without being dominated by intergenerational relationships.
“The two should become a unit and become more independent and less reliant on our parents,” says Shen. “It’s an important concept for adults.”
Two-sided marriages can also lead to problems once couples get divorced, as it’s common for the two children to be separated and raised by the grandparents with whom they share a family name, according to Yang Huili, a Zhejiang-based divorce lawyer.
“Although custody of the children is usually granted to the woman, in reality things often carry on as they were before,” says Yang.
A couple walks with their children in Dongguan, Guangdong province, 2013. Zhan Youbing/People Visual
But Jia Ruiqiu, a 25-year-old from Jiaxing who lives in Shanghai, says the two-sided marriage is still worth trying and isn’t only about securing heirs for both families.
In Jiaxing, non-two-sided marriages are considered unusual these days, says Jia, who also requested use of a pseudonym to protect her privacy. Her husband, who is from Northeast China, didn’t understand the idea when she first proposed it, but eventually she talked him around.
The couple got married in 2019 and plan to start trying for children in around three years. For Jia, the two-sided marriage is about striving for equality inside an antiquated institution.
“There’s still a degree of friction, as traditional beliefs continue to enforce the notion that only men can carry on the family line,” she says.
The young woman has decided to play it safe: If her first child is a girl, the couple will name it Jia. Then, the second child will have her husband’s surname, she says.
“This way, if the second child is a boy, he can have his father’s name,” says Jia. “Otherwise, this would likely cause conflicts over surnames and lead to divorce.”
Wu, meanwhile, is trying to move on from her own marriage. She and her ex-husband have broken off contact, as every phone call would turn into an argument about her son’s surname, she says.
Late last year, the couple rushed through their divorce, to avoid having to deal with China’s new mandatory cool-off period. Wu was granted full custody of her child, and is raising him with the help of her parents.
Looking back, Wu feels there was something wrong with her two-sided marriage from the start. It was always too neat and easy to break off, she says.
“This type of marriage is like a business partnership,” she says. “Everything is clearly divided, with neither party owing the other. There only exists a relationship of shared benefits.”
Contributions: Tina Yin; editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Visual elements from akindo/Getty Creative/People Visual, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)