To Chinese families, a surname can be ridiculously important
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.