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    Chinese Surnames Are Changing. Why?

    Families are passing down maternal names and inventing compound surnames for their kids. Is it a sign of rising progressivism or merely patriarchy in another guise?
    Apr 11, 2024#family#tradition

    In not-so-new news, the patriarchal structures underpinning China’s traditional marital norms continue to show their age. Young Chinese are opting for increasingly diverse cohabitation arrangements after marriage, moving away from home, dividing their time and resources between their in-laws more equitably, and trying to better balance care and work responsibilities.

    Even patrilineal naming practices — in which children take their father’s last name — are being overturned in parts of China, with some families opting to give children their maternal surname while others create compound surnames that recognize both parents.

    The most obvious explanation for this trend is social progress and more modern ideas about gender. If true, we can attribute the recent rise in the number of people choosing maternal surnames or creating new family names to the rapid evolution of Chinese society, making it a product of economic growth, increased urbanization, the proliferation of higher education, and increasingly progressive cultural attitudes.

    However, not all scholars buy the idea that social progress is convincing families to drop deeply held beliefs about lineage. The 20th-century sociologist Fei Xiaotong famously quoted Mencius’ line about “the three ways of being unfilial, the greatest of which is to have no posterity,” to illustrate the particular emphasis placed by Chinese families on lineage and generational continuity. When combined with social and institutional norms that limited inheritance to the male line, this belief made it imperative for families to have sons. The one-child policy made guaranteeing a male heir all but impossible, however, and some researchers argue that the rise of non-patrilineal naming practices is merely a strategic response to the shortage of sons, as families attempt to preserve their lineage through daughters instead.

    To better understand which of the two explanations is more accurate, my research team and I examined data from the nationally representative 1% National Population Sample Survey. We found that matrilineal naming practices were more common in villages in the eastern regions of Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu, as well as among families where the mothers had a lower level of education. That suggests the embrace of modern, progressive thinking may not be the right explanation. We also found that kids were more likely to take their mothers’ names in families where the husband had lower socioeconomic status, especially if the wife had no brothers and the husband did.

    In other words, matrilineal naming has become a means of passing on the family name in the absence of a son — at least for families that can afford it. Similar to the traditional but unusual practice of husbands marrying into their wives’ families — known in Chinese as ruzhui — it is usually conditional on the husband’s relatively lower socioeconomic status.

    Unlike maternal surnames, compound surnames are more common in modernized cities and in households where the mother is well-educated. Neither the relative socioeconomic status of the couple nor the presence (or absence) of siblings on the husband’s side has an effect. Families in which the wife has no brothers might adopt a compound surname, but far more choose maternal surnames.

    These results strongly suggest that the increasing use of compound names is not driven by plummeting birth rates and the continuing need to pass on the family name. Instead, it more likely stems from changes in attitudes brought on by modernization.

    In brief, the use of maternal surnames seems to be a strategic choice made by families to continue their family name amid declining birth rates, while the use of compound surnames reflects to some extent the conceptual changes brought about by societal modernization. Both trends are on the rise.

    The diversity and complexity of changes in surnames support theories put forth by some East Asian sociologists, such as Chang Kyung-sup’s theory of compressed modernity and Ji Yingchun’s theory of mosaic familism. On the one hand, China’s highly compressed modernization has led to the coexistence of traditional, modern, and even postmodern ideas and beliefs. On the other hand, the acceleration of the demographic transition since China’s family planning policy and its spatial differentiation have led to a proliferation of different family types and concepts.

    Ultimately, the choice of family names in China today is the result of the clash, confrontation, and coexistence of traditional concepts and modern needs. The country’s rapid social and demographic changes have exacerbated the “crisis” of patrilineage while opening the door for the rise of matrilineage and changes in surnames that are simultaneously grounded in tradition and open to modernity.

    Translator: Katherine Tse.

    (Header image: IC)