As in much of the world, children in China typically inherit their father’s surname. This was once a defining characteristic of the country’s traditional patriarchal family structures, which greatly emphasized the need to have sons to carry on the family name.
Yet, there are signs that this practice is starting to change, at least in parts of the country. Generally speaking, two major alternatives to patrilineal surname inheritance have emerged: Some parents choose to give their children their mother’s surname instead of their father’s, while others combine both parents’ surnames to create a new, double-barreled surname. For example, if the father’s surname is Zhang and the mother’s surname is Wang, the child’s surname will be “Zhang-Wang.”
Chinese academic circles are largely split on the meaning of these phenomena. On one side, you have academics who argue that the shift away from traditional practices reflects China’s social development and the attendant evolution of popular attitudes. Some may argue that the tradition of children taking their father’s surname — a practice in China tied to the patriarchal family system, whereby Chinese families relied on male heirs to carry on the family bloodlines and estate — has been undermined by social changes over the past few decades.
As Chinese society has modernized, individuals have gradually been freed from the shackles of the greater family unit. Meanwhile, as the influence of traditional concepts weakens, gender inequalities within families have decreased. This, the argument goes, has allowed women to push for their children to take their surname, either as a standalone name or as a composite with the father’s surname. For example, many Chinese feminists have made a point of campaigning for matronymic naming practices.
Other scholars see these practices in an almost polar opposite light. In their view, the ability of women to pass on their own surnames reflects not a relaxation of attitudes and traditional family values but the continued importance of naming and family legacies in Chinese society. One of the prerequisites of the traditional system of patrilineal inheritance was that every family must have a son. Since the implementation of the one-child policy in 1980, however, China’s birth rates have plummeted, and with them, the chances of producing a male heir. Allowing family lines to be carried on through female heirs has thus become a necessary compromise to keep families from dying out. Following this logic, the growing popularity of compound or matrilineal surnames is just a strategic choice that parents without sons have been forced to adopt in order to carry on their legacy.
For all the academic discussions these emerging practices have engendered, they remain under-researched. Are both manifestations of the same societal change, or are they products of two different phenomena? Are they nationwide or merely local anomalies?
Part of the problem is that good, recent data sets are hard to find. To develop a more extensive understanding of the trends and causes behind the increasing popularity of maternal and compound surnames, my team and I studied the findings of a 2005 sample survey targeting 1% of the national population. Unlike the more recent sample survey conducted in 2015, this survey is not only national in scope, providing a convenient way to ascertain how prevalent the adoption of maternal and compound surnames is becoming, but also provides the first and last names of participants.
Our study found that, among Chinese born between 1986 and 2005, the percentage of children who were given their father’s surname was very high: almost 98%. Children who were given their mother’s surname or a compound surname accounted for only 1.4% and 0.8% of the total sample, respectively. In general, both maternal and compound surnames remain exceedingly rare, but they showed a clear upward trend over time.
We also found that the popularity of maternal and compound surnames is far from a nationwide phenomenon. In the economically prosperous coastal regions of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, where women have relatively strong bargaining power and institutions like “two-sided marriages” are more common, the percentage of children bearing their mother’s surname is significantly higher than in other regions.
We also used statistical models to analyze the determining factors behind the adoption of maternal and compound surnames. In the process, we found that in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, it was children from rural families or families with less educated mothers who were more likely to bear their mother’s surname. This suggests that the evolution of social norms and mentalities may not be the main drivers of the practice’s popularity.
Instead, giving children their mother’s surname is more likely to occur in families where the husband’s socioeconomic status is lower than that of his wife, or in families where the wife doesn’t have any male siblings, but her husband does. This seems to support the idea that giving children their mother’s surname is a strategy to continue a family’s bloodline in the absence of a male heir. In this, it is similar to the traditional practice of ruzhui — whereby economically disadvantaged men moved in permanently with their parents-in-law, and all offspring they produced took their mother’s surname — rather than a sign of an impending liberalization of gender norms.
The circumstances in which compound surnames are used are quite different. We found that children are more likely to be given compound surnames in urban areas, as well as in families where the mother has a higher level of education. Within these families, the decision to use a compound surname was not correlated to differences in socioeconomic status between husband and wife or the size of the husband’s family.
Although our study found that parents are more likely to give their child a compound surname when the mother has no male siblings, this correlation was much weaker than in the case of maternal surnames. Instead, the results indicate that the main reason why families have adopted the practice was not because of the rapid decline in birth rates or the desire to carry on family lines, but a change in mental attitudes brought about by the modernization of society.
Therefore, the emergence of alternative practices for naming children is due to a variety of factors. On the one hand, there’s the improvement of women’s social status and the evolution of mentalities that have accompanied the modernization of society. At the same time, there’s the lasting influence of traditional patriarchal family norms. Though we have observed that, overall, the status of maternal bloodlines is rising, we can also see how the form this change takes differs from one region to the next.
This is in line with the theory of “compressed modernity,” as experienced by East Asian societies. First coined by the Korean scholar Chang Kyung-sup, this theory argues that, in the course of East Asia’s rapid modernization, traditional concepts and lifestyles have not yet been eliminated, even as modern and postmodern ideas and lifestyles have emerged and grown in popularity. This has resulted in a complex societal landscape where tradition and modernity overlap and intersect. Our findings also support the “mosaic” theory put forth by Chinese sociologist Ji Yingchun, which argues that the country’s matrimonial institutions will not necessarily follow the same evolutionary path as Western societies. Instead, they will likely be defined by a complex intertwining of local tradition and modernity.
As newer data becomes available, it will be interesting to see if these trends continue, and if they do, how they manifest at the grassroots level of society. Over the past eight years, China has unveiled a series of policies meant to boost birth rates. The 30-year reign of the one-child policy is over, and with more choices, China’s families are growing more diverse by the day. In the future, families with multiple children may opt to give them different surnames, with one inheriting the father’s and the other the mother’s. But if one thing seems inevitable, the choice will never be entirely divorced from tradition.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from 500px and Vectorstock/People Visual, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)