Ask the Yangxifu: Change your name after marriage in China?



Gerald asks:

To change names or not [after marrying a Chinese in China], and if yes, how?


When you marry a Chinese, it challenges many cultural assumptions about what matrimony is, and how we announce it. White dress or red qipao (or even both)? Hotel or church?

And, perhaps, even more puzzling — should she change her name, or not?

See, in China, women don’t change their names after marriage. In many Western countries, women do.

So, the question is, which tradition should you follow?

Tianjin Shannon, not long ago, wondered just that as she pondered what to do after marrying her Chinese husband — and some of the comments she received illustrate possible options for a woman.

So, here goes…

Reasons For a Name Change

Western tradition. For some people, the Western tradition matters, and they want to mark this change in their lives with a new moniker. Period.

Break with family. For some women, their original last name conjures up tear-stained memories of a difficult childhood or strained family relationships. They may feel more aligned with their husband’s family, and want to demonstrate that alliance with a new last name.

Fewer travel hassles. When you don’t change your name, you have a different surname from the children — and that means additional hassles when you cross the border, just as the NYTimes Practical Traveler notes:

Jane Dunham, 50, of Westerville, Ohio, was caught off guard a few years ago when traveling with her two daughters, who go by their father’s last name. Delta stopped the trio on their way to Cancun because they didn’t have a notarized letter of consent for the trip from the father. “I scrambled to call him and get him to fax a letter to the airline that had a copy of his driver’s license on it,” Ms. Dunham said. “We nearly missed the flight.”

That experience prompted her to carry documentation every time she travels, including the death certificate for her husband, who has since died.

….If you have a different last name from the child’s, bring a copy of the birth certificate for proof of guardianship. If you have remarried and have a new last name, a marriage certificate or other legal paperwork that links your name back to the one listed on the birth certificate can be helpful.

Reasons Against a Name Change

Chinese tradition. Maybe the Chinese tradition matters more to you.

Too much trouble. Changing a surname means slogging through paperwork, and replacing all of your IDs, credit cards and bank cards.

Confusing. Whether we like it or not, people make assumptions about appearance based on our last names. We imagine “Smith” to be one way, and “Wang” to be another. When you don’t “look like” your last name, it can create anything from mild surprise to major problems. Consider these comments from Shannon’s blog:

Cindy: if you become Shannon Zhao, people you don’t know will assume you are of Asian descent and then do a double take when they see you (like how people assume I’m white).

Jessica: Before I started hyphenating [my name] I used to get lots of people assuming I was Chinese. It was sort of funny, but it got to be be problematic too when I was job searching in China and people saw my last name and assumed I was a local. I started hyphenating precisely because I got sick of having to explain that yes, I am indeed a foreigner, an American, yes, a white American, not a Chinese American (because sadly, in China, if you’re a teacher, it makes a difference). People didn’t want to believe me! If I was back home I don’t think I’d hyphenate because honestly I don’t care if people assume I’m Chinese, but I think here in China it confuses people a bit, especially since Chinese people don’t change their names when they get married.

Professional reasons. If you’re established in your field under a certain name, changing your name can hurt you professionally. People may get confused, and it could be harder for you to link yourself to the accomplishments under your previous name.

Feminist reasons. As one commenter on Shannon’s blog says:

Richard: I think it’s strange that the woman is the one considering changing her name. In this modern age, why not make the man change his name?

Middle Ground

Is there middle ground between changing and not? Sure — here are a few options.

Hyphenating. For many women, the best of both worlds — they can keep their maiden name and have their husband’s name at the same time. Still, hyphenating could still mean 1) legal paperwork when traveling (b/c your name is not exactly the same as your husband’s) and 2) professional issues, again, if people are not used to knowing your work under a hyphenated name.

Different names for each country. This was proposed by another commenter on Shannon’s blog:

GAC:…if you use a “Chinese name” — and I understand you may need an official Chinese name to get married — use his surname in Chinese and your own in English. Seems like a compromise.

For Chinese women, you’d do the opposite — keep your Chinese name (in Chinese characters), change your English name. (Chinese women, of course, may face the confusion issue in the US.)

So, You Want To Change. Now What?

Okay, so suppose you do decide to change your name? If you’re in China, what do you do?

For Chinese citizens. From what I read online, changing your name in China can be a frustrating process. You will have to deal with the Public Security Bureau, as these instructions (in Chinese) explain. But the name change is generally only in Chinese, not English — so unless you want to see a Chinese or pinyin version of your foreign last name (mine, last I checked, was “Aikenboge”), don’t bother.

In many cases, you’re probably better off leaving her Chinese name as-is, and simply changing her name in your country — especially if you’re planning on living there. For example, here is a thread from Candle for Love on how to do it while applying for a US green card or fiancee visa. Citizens of other countries, check with your embassy or consulate for more information.

For foreign citizens. If you want to change your name in China, it’s possible — read how Ericka, the Shandongxifu, did it.

Of course, you’ll also want to change it in your own country. This varies, so check with your embassy or consulate for instructions. As an example, here’s what Americans can expect:

…the first thing you need to do is contact the US Embassy or Consulate in your country of residence to ensure that you can be issued a new passport after you change your name. She says that it’s usually not a problem, but that glitches do happen and one should always check with the Embassy for *anything* relating to the disposition of one’s passport.

Once you’ve confirmed that, you will need to contact the courts in
your city of residence to apply for a legal name change through their system. Although you are a US citizen, you are bound by the laws of your country of residence, so any legal matters must be handled through *their* court system – you cannot change your name “by remote” through the US courts. The Embassy or Consulate will assist you in contacting the relevant courts.

Once your name change is complete, you will need to contact the Embassy or Consulate again to apply for a new passport. You’ll need to have your current passport and a document from the court in your country of residence certifying that you have undergone a legal name change….

To change or not change? You have to decide, just as everyone in a cross-cultural marriage in China does. The answers aren’t clear when you’re between cultures and traditions. Still, on the other hand, there’s the opportunity to move beyond simple decorum and choose for yourself.

Now that’s a change. 😉


Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

37 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: Change your name after marriage in China?”

  1. Jocelyn, thanks for posting this! Though I am not in any sort of situation that would dictate a name change, I’ve always been curious about the intricacies of doing so in a more international context. I’m also curious about Western women who married Chinese men: what did their husbands think about the Western practice of the woman changing her name?
    .-= ellis´s last blog ..Visceral Overcrowding =-.

    1. @ellis thanks for the comment! You know, my husband thought the idea of women having to change names a little strange. After all, ancestors are important to the Chinese — so losing the last name you were born with is like losing a connection to the past.

      @melanie, thanks for sharing. That is great your inlaws were fine with the name change. It had to be interesting to be in the position of asking permission to take on your husband’s name. And, certainly, you’re giving the public a different perception of what “Gao” looks like. 😉

      @Gerald, thanks for the comment, and for your post too! I salute any man who challenges the status quo — so, as for the name change…I say go for it. 😉

      @George, thanks for sharing. I second Melanie in saying you are the sweetest to suggest better places to live. If my husband wasn’t dead-set on mainland China, I’d seriously consider your recommendations. Tolerant, multicultural places do seem to cost more.

      @Susan, thanks for weighing in. It does change how your name sounds. Of course, I have had moments, realizing I’d have a heck of an easier time if I just dropped “Eikenburg”. But I also like my strange, tough-to-pronounce name. If nothing else, it’s intriguing. 😉

      @Crystal, thanks for your comment — sorry to hear you were not successful in changing your name in China. From what I read, it seemed like an arduous process, and your experience reflects that. Well, anyhow, at least they cannot control what others call you. 🙂

      @Chinamatt, thanks for the comment. That’s great that you didn’t expect your wife to change her name. But yes, people do still assume I’m under my husband’s last name, so I can relate to that. 😉

  2. Oh what a great topic!

    Originally I wasn’t planning to change my last name but then I thought about our future children. They might not fit in in America because they wouldn’t be completely American, and they might not fit in in China because they wouldn’t be completely Chinese. And I wondered if even our own family consisted of some “Parsons” and some “Gaos”, would they wonder how they fit in to that picture as well? I wanted them to have at least one place where they knew they belonged, and that place should be the “Gao Family” so I decided to change my last name.

    But then I realized I would need to ask my future in-laws if they were okay with that, since it wasn’t their expectation. They were very gracious about it, basically open to whatever I wanted. Which is, God love them, how they are about just about everything. But the whole thing made me more aware of the significance of taking someone else’s name. Maybe because it wasn’t a given for my husband’s family. I felt like I should take good care of the name and be sure to live up to the “high” reputation it has.

    Finally, I love it when people are surprised that I’m not Chinese. I say, “I know, you expected Melanie Gao was a Chinese woman with a Western first name. But I’m a Western woman with a Chinese last name!”
    .-= melanie gao´s last blog ..Do I need a breathalizer for playdates now? =-.

    1. How did you change it I am struggling with how to do it . My husband and I want to do the same for our future children so we can all have the same name and not have to worry about people assuming I adopted them or something. Also it makes us feel closer. I am in china and trying to figure out ho

  3. Well, glad others find it an interesting point too – and I’m with Melanie and the feminists on that. I did decide to put up a post on the issue, too…

  4. “They might not fit in in America because they wouldn’t be completely American, and they might not fit in in China because they wouldn’t be completely Chinese.”

    Try Hawaii…

  5. I’ll add a reason which could either land in the “for” or “against” category: It changes how your name sounds!

    Not that Chi doesn’t conjure up some goofy pronunciations (Chai and Kai, please!) or spellings (Chee? Shee?) But it happens much less than it did with my maiden name, and I think it sounds better 🙂

  6. Indeed, changing your name in China is a very very big issue.
    From looooong time ago my mom wanted to change my first name (Chinese name – not “Crystal”): she went through so many complicated bureaucratic procedures, but all in vain.
    So now – I have one name which is written in IDs and another by which I am called by friends, family and colleagues.
    Sad, huh? 🙁
    .-= Crystal´s last blog ..Chinese Girls Want To Be Whiter =-.

  7. “It is so sweet how George is always on the lookout for the perfect place for me to live. Hawaii sounds nice and George I will gladly move there if you will put up the down-payment for my beach villa.”
    I will move there if I had the money myself. Right now I range between Washington DC and Singapore. Singapore is actually more expensive than Hawaii except food. Unfortunately, tolerant places are costly..and the two tolerant places in the world now are Hawaii and Singapore, San Jose, CA and perhaps Arcadia, CA and Shanghai, China….all of them very expensive.
    The reason I responded was the broad statement you made about kids not being accepted in China and the US..there are pockets of tolerance in this country and I believe in China…but I do understand that Alabama and the South are definitely not welcoming to mixed race children, particularly as many of them are very smart or super-smart! My boss’s boss, a tenured Professor from Berkeley on leave and working in my organization…her father’s side is from Alabama (outside Mountain Brooke) and mother from France. The girls who are teens…15 and 13 are already attending NYU and Berkeley, but their grandfather’s (paternal) sisters and nieces would not accept them as they are mixed…father is Filipino, although his family is multi-millionaire and own huge properties in Singapore.

  8. My wife told me about the tradition of not changing her name after marriage, and I didn’t mind. I thought the biggest obstacle would have been applying for her immigrant visa, but it didn’t matter. Only problems we’ve run into are when people send us checks with the wrong last name.
    .-= Chinamatt´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

  9. I changed my surname after I married my Chinese husband for a couple of reasons – my former surname was troublesome in China as it was translated to “wer-er-jing-si”, something of a mouthful. My husband’s surname, Li, seemed dead easy by comparison. Also I didn’t want to the the odd one out when we had kids (as I knew in Chinese tradition any kids would take their dad’s surname).

    However, when we moved back to the UK my new surname was more troublesome than expected as nobody knew how to spell it – Hong Kong style Lee was suggested lots, as was British style Leigh, but nodoby hearing my lovely Scottish accent would believe my surnam was spelt “L I, yes, that’s right, L I nothing else”.

    And now I am back in China again I use a hyphenated version of old and new surnames because of the “racism/discrimination” mentioned in one of the quotes in the article – although I live here, I want people in the industry that I work in (media/communications) to know I am a native speaker of English and I found that too often that assumption was that I was Chinese.

    As for my husband, he didn’t expect me to change my name, just like he didn’t expect to wear a wedding ring as neither of these are Chinese customs, but when I explained my thinking about name and ring he was very happy to go along with me.

    1. Hi Laura, thanks for sharing your thoughts! How funny that such a simple name as Li could be so difficult — but your examples prove it.

      Certainly, for your work, it makes sense to hyphenate.

      My husband never expected me to change either, and that’s been perfect for me — but, in any event, how nice that your husband was happy to follow your own decision.

  10. Nice post. I was actually just writing something about name changes as I just changed mine. I’m really not sure if it made things more confusing or less.

    1. Thanks so much Ericka — and for your writeup! Your post is awesome — really, the only reliable info about how to change your name in China that I’ve found yet. I’ve updated my post to add you in.

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  12. Great post, and good food for thought.

    When I came to China I gave myself a Chinese name, complete with a chosen surname (“lei é›·”) and used it for several years in a semi-official capacity. But when I married my wife I assumed her surname as my own, as it contained an infinitely larger connection than the name I chose for myself.

    We’ve pretty much decided that if ever there is need in China, we’ll use our Chinese names, but if/once we move to my home country, she’ll be using my last name and her English name. The same will go for our child. Officially his passport (non-Chinese) will have his English name, but his grandparents and grandaunts/uncles will all call him by his Chinese name.

    I see Jessica’s point from the post about it not being as much an issue of judgement when in a Western country — but as we learned when my wife’s name was called at the Toronto airport recently, Westerns have a long way to go with Chinese name pronunciation.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ryan, and for sharing your decision. I agree with you on the pronunciation issue. Fortunately, I’m pretty lucky that my husband’s name is one of those relatively easier ones to pronounce! (In fact, I’d say I have a harder time than him when it comes to people being unable to pronounce your name). 😉

  13. I had a Chinese name on my local ID before I married. I decided to not to legally change my name to my husband’s name after marriage (for convenience & feminist reasons) & it was basically a non-issue for him and his family (my m-i-l’s legal name is her father’s family name).

    After the kids came, I noticed that doctors and school officials would cal me Mrs. Husband/Children’s family name. I am OK with that. In fact, I enjoy having different names for my different personas and roles. But, legally my name remains the same as on my birth certificate.

  14. In my religion it says that when a woman gets married she is not permitted to change her family name to her husband’s name upon marriage. She is always known by her father’s name, as a mark of her own identity. That is what it say in mines :)_

  15. Uhhh?
    I am a Chinese who has a family book for 17 generation. I can say that in the shanghai area all my family member’s wife changed their last name. That goes back 17 generations.

  16. I was curious. I’m an American man married to a Chinese wife. I was thinking about hyphenating my last name so that when we have a baby, our kid would feel a connection culturally to both of our cultures. But, after reading the post and the comments from responders, I have a couple of questions for you guys.
    I was wondering, if I hyphenated my last name, could I just verbally tell Chinese citizens my European last name for job opportunities to avoid skepticism of being an American for teaching jobs, or would a copy of my passport photo create a lot of barriers and problems for me?
    Also, in the U.S., would my hyphenated last name marginalize me and make me “that weird guy” that nobody wants to talk to and create problems for social networking opportunities?
    Any helpful responses would be appreciate, thanks 🙂

  17. I am currently living in China right now with my chinese boyfriend. We are planning to get married, and my thoughts with changing my surname came up. I know I want to change my last name, but what about my chinese name? If I am changing my surname, I want to change it for both of them. Though actually in my case I have my English name, Chelan, and two chinese names! MuLan is registered with my residency files, and Chen Ke Jia is registered with the university I am attending….. sooo, I think it is kind of a burden to have so many different names. I hope there is a way to create just one chinese name if I am able to change my surname? Is there any thoughts or advice for this?

  18. I didn’t know that women don’t change their last name in China…I never thought about that. I just assumed I would change my last name…Well, I never planned to get married but my boyfriend and I do talk about it but the name thing never came up. The ring thing did, he didn’t want to wear wedding rings which up until then I never knew I would have a problem with that. But now I need to talk to him about this too…

  19. @Denis
    I am with you on this one. How come nobody mentioned it used to be a Chinese tradition for women to go with husband’s last name too?
    Please don’t over use feminism. Plenty of independent women change their names in western countries to go along with the tradition.
    The problem with discrimination is real. But people can be pleasantly surprised if you are a woman with a Chinese last name. I think it is more of a trouble for children with a Chinese father. They can be categorized by their last name. I knew some Chinese women happily adopted their husband’s last name for this reason too.

    I applause those women who change to their husband’s last name. They choose to stand out and go with the tradition. They are better feminists in my opinion.

  20. wow! sounds like a hassle process to change names.
    I also have a chinese boyfriend and one time, we suddenly talked about that topic.
    he even told me ‘i don’t need to change names’
    but i wanted to!! haha, now i know it’s really a part of their culture.. but if ever i’d be married with him someday, i want to change my surname!:)

  21. I’m so glad I found your blog here! I’m from Tianjin, and living in NC currently. I was talking with my boyfriend yesterday about how I did not want to change my name after marriage. Well he said he understood, but he looked pretty confused to me. I gotta let him read your blog post on this :).

  22. My Chinese wife tells me married women started keeping their own name after the Communists took over. It seems right to make a name change because, in Chinese culture (I am told) the woman is leaving her own family and joining the husband’s.

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