To Chi­nese fam­i­lies, a sur­name can be ridicu­lously important

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - FRONT PAGE - By Huang Lan­lan

Are­cent piece of news shocked me. To carry on their fam­ily name “Chen,” a cou­ple with seven daugh­ters in sub­ur­ban Shan­tou, South China’s Guang­dong Prov­ince, re­port­edly spent 98,000 yuan ($14,870) to buy a baby boy from a stranger (who was later con­firmed as a hu­man traf­ficker).

That is no small amount of money for a sub­ur­ban fam­ily, let alone one with seven daugh­ters to feed. But the Chens had their own logic for buy­ing a boy.

After be­ing caught, Chen ex­plained to the po­lice that he be­lieved it was vi­tal to have a son to carry on his sur­name, even though the boy was not his own blood and even though the ex­pen­di­ture cost him all his money as well as his free­dom (he was jailed).

Talk­ing about the traditional, feu­dal mind-set of pre­fer­ring boys to girls is no more than a plat­i­tude, as it is still quite com­mon among poor and con­ser­va­tive Chi­nese fam­i­lies, even those in “mod­ern” cities like Shanghai.

What con­fused me, however, is that men like Chen pre­fer sons sim­ply be­cause sons are more likely to in­herit their fam­ily name. Sim­i­lar to most other coun­tries, chil­dren in China usually keep their fa­ther’s sur­name.

It is a global cus­tom in to­day’s male-dom­i­nated world. None­the­less, West­ern­ers and Chi­nese seem to have to­tally dif­fer­ent at­ti­tudes to­ward sur­names, as West­ern fam­i­lies ap­par­ently place greater im­por­tance on se­lect­ing a cool, unique given name (e.g. North West or Au­dio Sci­ence) than car­ry­ing on an or­di­nary, com­mon fam­ily sur­name (e.g. Smith or Jones).

Chi­nese, on the other hand, re­ally don’t care much about given names and instead place greater im­por­tance on the ex­tremely limited number of fam­ily names. Sta­tis­tics show that the top 10 sur­names in China (Li, Wang, Zhang, Liu, Chen, Yang, Zhao, Huang, Zhou, Wu) ac­count for more than 44 per­cent of all Han sur­names, ac­cord­ing to Peo­ple’s Daily.

It is un­der­stand­able that Chi­nese so­ci­ety re­gards fam­ily names as a sym­bol of one’s blood re­la­tion­ship, but some­times peo­ple go too far. In 2016, a cou­ple in South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Au­ton­o­mous Region re­port­edly di­vorced over a dis­agree­ment about whose sur­name their new­born boy would take (the court ruled in his mother’s fa­vor; their son got her sur­name – but also got a bro­ken home).

China’s bat­tle of the sur­names has be­come even fiercer fol­low­ing the end of its one-child pol­icy. In just the past two years, more and more Chi­nese moth­ers are in­sist­ing on giv­ing their sur­name to their sec­ond baby, which sounds quite rea­son­able ... to ev­ery­one ex­cept their hus­band and their in-laws.

“I will never agree to any of my grand­chil­dren car­ry­ing my daugh­ter-in-law’s fam­ily name,” local res­i­dent Zhao, 65, told me­dia. “It’s awk­ward to see broth­ers have dif­fer­ent sur­names.”

Ear­lier this month, a mother sur­named Feng told China Women’s News that when her hus­band and in-laws agreed to let Feng give her sur­name to their sec­ond baby, Feng’s par­ents were so ex­cited that they im­me­di­ately des­ig­nated the baby as their only heir. “We will help raise the baby and give all of our prop­erty to him,” Feng’s par­ents stated.

Le­gal is­sues aside, I per­son­ally can not ac­cept any superficial sur­name-based re­la­tion­ship. Months ago, when a friend of mine be­came preg­nant with her sec­ond child, she and her hus­band con­stantly ar­gued over which fam­ily name the baby would take.

“I wanted to use my sur­name, but my hus­band didn’t agree,” she told me. “Fi­nally I had to give up, as my hus­band threat­ened to kick the baby out if it didn’t take his sur­name!” Say­ing such a thing to your wife about your own child is dis­gust­ing, but it is prob­a­bly more com­mon in China than we can know. I used to be­lieve that China was more fe­male­friendly compared with other Asian na­tions. For ex­am­ple, mod­ern Chi­nese women usually keep their maiden name after marriage rather than adopt­ing their hus­band’s sur­name.

Un­for­tu­nately, the re­al­ity in China is that men still en­joy more priv­i­leges than women, and as long as they are able to carry on the fam­ily name, they will al­ways dom­i­nate so­ci­ety.

The ques­tion, then, is why in the 21st cen­tury, when we fe­males can do al­most ev­ery­thing and any­thing that males can (and some­times if not of­ten bet­ter), it is still so feu­dal­is­ticly dif­fi­cult for us to sim­ply pass down our sur­name to our own child? The opin­ions ex­pressed in this ar­ti­cle are the au­thor’s own and do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the views of the Global Times.

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