“I am wondering why you have kept your maiden name?” wrote a reader. “When I married my Chinese husband [many] years ago, I was terribly proud to take his name, and still am.”
So I wrote back to her with my primary reasons. One that as a feminist, I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea that a woman must take on her husband’s name in marriage. And two, that in China, women traditionally keep their last names even after marrying.
When but I thought about my choices later on, I had to laugh. After all, isn’t it ironic that my feminist side finds refuge in China’s tradition? A tradition that, I’m certain, wasn’t created to accommodate feminists like me. Let’s just say I pretty much never expect “tradition” to agree with my feminist perspective on anything…and yet this time, it did. Sometimes, tradition — especially those of my husband’s country — will surprise me in unexpected ways.
But the best part of it all? No one in China ever raises an eyebrow at my surname, and then asks, “Why didn’t you change your name?”
Instead, the Chinese have other ways to put me on the spot, like, “So, do you have children?” But that’s another question for another day. 😉
P.S.: If you’re actually debating whether or not to change your name in marriage, see my post on this.
42 Replies to “I’m a Feminist AND It’s Tradition in China? On Not Changing My Maiden Name”
There are more married women who keep there last names here in US, nowadays. It is trending.
However, the Chinese traditional is that woman takes husband’s last name. In fact, woman is only called upon their husband last name, not even their first name. There is fundamental change since “culture revolution”. The government is promoting woman’s right and independent. Therefore, the modern chinese culture accepts woman keeping their last name as norm.
Interesting! I wonder if there will be more reactions!
Before, I thought that if I got married I would take my husband’s name without question. Since I found out that this isn’t the norm in China and many other countries, I have come around to the idea of keeping my surname – also, my name is fairly uncommon with no chance of it being carried on within my immediate family so I think it would be nice to keep it.
These days people seem to be getting married a bit later so it can cause more problems than it is worth as women establish careers/set up businesses before marriage.
Interesting post Jocelyn! Growing up, I always rebelled against my traditions of taking on the husband’s name because we are a family of three sisters, and traditionally this is one of the reasons parents did not prefer to have ONLY girl child (as they could not “carry” the family name forward).
It was both ironic and hilarious to find that chinese tradition allows a woman to keep her last name, though then my question was, what about the kids. The post you linked is very thorough and interesting too. I debated with my bf that maybe the kids should either take on both names or one last name each. :D. Somehow he wasn’t so feminism friendly then. 😉
That is why any tradition becomes political and gets destroyed. In western countries, people don’t quite go that far.
Name is something to bond a family. I can understand why some women choose to use the husband’s name. It is a personal choice.
I’m spanish and we keep both surnames, father mother order surnames. In spanish,not sure when, they lifted or just give way to change the order or this surnames, and I took the step to do it. I swaped the surname order and I am able to transfer my mother’s surnames to my chinese descentens.It’s hard to believe united states can be that tradional. One can always should have the chance to break with the past.
We chose to hyphenate our last names. That’s right. I hyphenated my maiden name with my hubby’s last name. As did he. So we sort of took each other’s names. (I’m not sure how his parents feel about that, by my dad, an only child, and father to 5 girls, is REALLY happy about it.)
I also at first found it weird that chinese dont change their last names because after I knew about how the man “buys”(dowry) the girl before getting married so after that she belongs to the husband’s family I was expecting that as a member of the family she should have the same last name … So I asked around a couple of people and the answer was more o less the same , that even if she “belongs” to the husband’s family she isnt a real member so she cannot have the last name… I dont know if thats the real reason or not, I’ve never heard before what @Cvaguy said , about this started after the cultural revolution… a friend told me that it has something to do with Confucianism, because in the rank of the family the new young wife ranks on the very bottom, something like that , again I dont know if its true, just sharing what I heard…
and about the last names of the kids, I also asked about it and normally the kid will have the father’s last name, unless the mother’s family is richer ,then some families prefer to give the wife’s last name( about this I actually know a girl with the mom’s last name because the family is rich)
Many Chinese women did not have names in the old days. But they took husband’s name after marriage. But rich family girls were educated and given names. It actually depends. Things changed during Chinese revolution.
The old tradition also did not count on women to carry on family name.
It has a lot to do with what your view is.
I can say the same about royal family today. Isn’t all that against modern idea?
Wow! Jocelyn, you are a feminist and still nevertheless married a tradtional Chinese man. This is almost inconceivable as I would think that the traditions of China would clash with Western feminism. You are truly the greatest!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
If a Chinese male Lee married a white female Lee she does not have to change the last name at all. Actually a white Lee who married a Chinese Lee was in the class action suit against Texaco in the early 1990s!
It would also be a lot easier in life, including getting a job in America if the white woman keeps her last name. At least until they find out that she is married to a non-white person! Sad but true!
Yep. No ofense to OP. Feminism or not, the women who change names are brave. Do not get too wrapped up in some fancy ideal.
It is similar situation in Korea. I agree it seems more fair than woman having to take her husband’s surname.
However, the point where tradition fails feminism, is that children receive their father’s last name. It must be strange being mother to children with different last name.
Jocelyn’s post. No offense, I found her ideas misleading. But it gets other people talking.
In Korea its the same tradition, although I think I’ll change my last name. My sister changed hers, and I’m not sure if the rules apply to a foreign wife.
I don’t mind my child takes on an European last name. But the society will think them as Asian. It is better to carry Asian identity. One of good examples is adoptee coming from Asia with non-Asian names. A lot of confusions eventually.
Also, people who have name with history will not give that up easily. Most people want to be a Kennedy, right? Fact of life. I certainly did not see Chinese women’s status risen because they don’t use their husbands’ name anymore. Most will choose to use it if their husband is famous, or keep it when her family is prominent.
Jocelyn is just lucky with her in laws. Very lucky.
Majority of Chinese families would want you to change your last name to the husbands side.
Although I think I know several women who didn’t want to change their last names, I think the states is still bogged down with this tradition as well. Some women magazine’s and blogs have talked about the (non)issue of a name change and kids’ names. I have friends that have also hyphenated or have taken their husband’s last names. In one case, a friend change her middle name to her maiden name, and took her husband’s last name.
I suppose my BF’s family would expect me to be on board with changing my name. There are some AM/WW couples in his family and they changed their names. I often joke to my BF I’d take his last name just so I can know what it’s like to be in the middle of the alphabet, but instead of the end, LOL. But now I’m starting my own business and don’t want to deal with the process of changing my name, I’ll probably keep mine.
When I married my Chinese husband I wanted to take his last name but had to ask him and his family if they were okay with it, since it wasn’t their expectation. They were happy to see me change my last name to theirs – they were thrilled to have me as part of the family both in spirit and in name.
Now the sad question is – what do I do as we get divorced? Do I give the name back? Or do I keep it, as a token? My kids want me to keep it so I’ll have the same last name as them. To what extent do I take their wishes into account, and to what extent do I do whatever I want?
I wish there was a user’s guide for this sort of thing…..
I am 40+ never married and have no children, I carry my father’s surname (if I was married I would still carry my father’s surname) My brother has a daughter and she carries her mother’s family surname .
When my brother and I pass away our fathers surname will also go, disappear never to be used again and I find that sad; in a way it’s like we never existed our name ceased to exist…….so to speak.
Melanie do what you think is right for you and what feels better for you and explain to your children why. As previous comments you can hyphenate your name or your children’s name.
Also has your husband (ex?) made any comments re keeping not keeping the name?
I think you are free to do what you wish. Nobody will expect you to carry that name and stay single either. Your ex-in-laws will probably be as surprised to know your thinking to keep it. I assume your kids will grow up in your culture mostly? They wont’ think this whole thing in a Chinese context down the road most likely.
Change name is a choice. I know a two time divorced woman keeps her second husband’s last name, while her kids have her first husband’s last name. The reason: lazy.
“I don’t mind my child takes on an European last name. But the society will think them as Asian. It is better to carry Asian identity. One of good examples is adoptee coming from Asia with non-Asian names. A lot of confusions eventually.”
Right most of the time. But, wrong where it matters……
Last I was visiting Harvard in early September there seemed like there were a lot more Asians on campus. However, many had last white surnames and entered by classifying themselves as white. So in the Asian-white battle for college admissions, there are clearly advantages for having a western sounding last name…I mean sounding because authentic Asian Americans (full blooded) got in with surnames such as Lee and Lay. Three Asian American women got into the Ivy League from the south because admission officers were fooled into thinking that they are descended from Robert E. Lee. It is true.
“Also, people who have name with history will not give that up easily. Most people want to be a Kennedy, right? Fact of life.”
No. More like a fact of death or curse! With the Kennedy curse many these days do not want to be a Kennedy. Not only is the Kennedy name cursed, but whole of the state of MA is cursed…Romney hopes to break that curse by winning, and if he does, I sincerely hope it is not carried forward towards the curse of the USA. Only blind Asians and Asian Americans, blind to history will want to be a Kennedy. Ask white people, most do not. Perhaps most people probably want their last name to be Romney, Biden or Bush rather than Obama or Ohira, although some Irish say that there is no one more Irish than Barrack Obama!
“I certainly did not see Chinese women’s status risen because they don’t use their husbands’ name anymore. Most will choose to use it if their husband is famous, or keep it when her family is prominent.”
Those Asians are with Caucasian fathers. It is essentially the same concept in US society to go with father’s side on the name thing. But the “one-drop-rule” classifies all mixed kids as not white. It also has a lot to do with how the kids look-more Asian or otherwise. Kennedy name can get you into Harvard pretty easily. That is my point. The ivy league admission game for Asians show they are the new Jewish back half an century ago. But you don’t look white. Harder to blend in. Again, the situation is changing for people to choose the more than one race box these days because bi-racial population increases.
Anyway, name has social context sometimes. I will never marry a feminist. I understand most the ideas of feminism. But feminists often don’t make good wives and mothers for family stability, which is really important to my Chinese root. I don’t feel we have to shatter stereotypes to ditch our roots. That is over done. I wish my future wife will take my last name in honor of my culture because of that is a nice gesture. I used to think women who did that have more affiliation to the husband’s side for longer marriage. Guess I was wrong based on another comment here (not to judge her decision).
One of Joe’s comments reminded me of a story a colleague told me… She is half Chinese and her Mum’s surname was Lam and her Dad’s surname is Lamb – her Mum took the name Lamb but I thought it was funny because there would have been no change in her name other than the spelling.
My husband told that in Taiwan, it’s perfectly acceptable for a woman to keep her maiden name after she gets married. I’ve met women who decided to do so in Taipei. It’s a personal choice. I kept my last name in the states and ended up getting my husband’s last name when I moved to Taipei.
“Those Asians are with Caucasian fathers. It is essentially the same concept in US society to go with father’s side on the name thing. But the “one-drop-rule” classifies all mixed kids as not white.”
True. Although some people say it is not enforced strictly with regards to Asians unless they have a clearly Asian name such as Choi, Kobayashi, etc. A colleague of mine is Sisobohn from Thailand. Everytime his daughter applied for gifted students program, they think she is French, ie., white and then they get a rude surprise when she shows up!
“It also has a lot to do with how the kids look-more Asian or otherwise.”
True in most cases. But, a white looking kid with a surname Choi will have a tougher time getting into Ivy League than even a full blooded Asian kid with a name like Sarah Lee. Ivy League schools admitted several Lees from the South thinking they were related to Robert E. Lee. Even better a young full Chinese lady from Singapore but born in the US with the last name Mack got into Princeton and the admission officers really thought her parents were expats and so it goes.
“Kennedy name can get you into Harvard pretty easily. That is my point.”
True. But, only if related to the political Kennedys or Justice Kennedy. Some Irishman from a small village in Ireland? I doubt it.
“The ivy league admission game for Asians show they are the new Jewish back half an century ago. But you don’t look white. Harder to blend in.”
But, easier to get in with an Anglo surname, including those who were adopted. For many, that is all matters.
“Anyway, name has social context sometimes. I will never marry a feminist. I understand most the ideas of feminism. But feminists often don’t make good wives and mothers for family stability, which is really important to my Chinese root. I don’t feel we have to shatter stereotypes to ditch our roots. That is over done. I wish my future wife will take my last name in honor of my culture because of that is a nice gesture. I used to think women who did that have more affiliation to the husband’s side for longer marriage. Guess I was wrong based on another comment here (not to judge her decision).”
All true if you are in China but not the US. But, your wife if she is white will have a better time getting called for interviews or jobs with a western surname unless you have an even “better” Asian surnames such as Lee, Mack or Lam(b) (@Claire).
My future wife will have a real taste of what being Asian American is like with my last name, which in turn will help the relationship.
If a name alone can get you to Ivy so easy, I am tempting to change mine. It certainly helps. Countless study shows how social economic status of parents and their marital status impact those kids’ places in Ivy too.
China is increasingly becoming elite. More than people realize. If you go to Peking (Chinese Harvard), you will know it is about the same kind of game. The only difference is the riches haven’t gained so high of social status comparing to the princelings. But there are places for normal kids just the same here for Asian kids with Asian names.
People who ditch traditions are the ones who never benefit from them. I wonder why poor peasants destructed everything during China’s Culture Revolution.
Interesting post. In Spain we don’t change our Maiden name either.
Children get 2 surnames, the first surname of the dad and the first surname of the mom.
In fact, you can only change your surname, legally, under certain circunstances, and marriage is not one of them. In high society meetings, with no legal value, the woman can be named also with the surname of her husband. Example:
Woman’s name is: Maria Garcia Fernandez
Husband’s name is : Jose Trujillo Lopez
She would be named as… Maria Garcia Fernandez de Trujillo
Is only used when is needed to stress her relationship with the husband.
A friend from US told me once that this way genealogy is a big mess, in fact is not, because kids keep both surnames so you don’t lose the “way” to figure out your ancestors, is very easy too.
Do you know why we have 2 surnames instead of 1?
I heard once that the reason why we have 2 surnames is because in past times that helped to identify Jewish people thanks to their surname, but I did not find more information about that.
I know a bit about Jewish experience. They settled in Spain long time ago, but later left because Catholics forced to convert them. Later on, Dutch were more tolerant of Judaism. That is how Jewish first ended up in New York (New Amsterdam) and started emigrating to US. I have never heard about the tradition of your name having Jewish connection. How would a child with two surnames name their children after marriage?
It seems a good solution for bi-racial children though.
We all have two surnames so it works like this.
Mother; Lucia Fernandez Lopez
Father; Pedro Suarez Menendez
Once they marry the woman keeps the same surnames, no change, so the children will be:
askdsk(name of the kid) Suarez Fernandez ( first surname of the dad + first surname of the mom)
The name will still lose a surname and part of the history from each parent?
Yes, you miss part of the surname, some families with peculiar, not common surnames, do something different, if the surname is not common they will also give this one to their children and link it with a “-” in the middle.
askdsk Suarez Fernandez-Donate
askdsk Suarez-Moradiellos Fernandez
That’s allowed, so in my case I lost the second surname of my dad which is Velazquez, like the painter, and the second name of my mom which is very common.
That is still shorter than a Thai name. 🙂 No middle names?
Many people have middle names, I don’t have I only have one given name.
My mother has her given name+2 middle names+ 2 surnames
Most part of my uncles / aunts have middle name: Maria for women, and for me Jose or Antonio.
Do you have middle name?
Chinese don’t have middle names. The old tradition gives some people another name besides their formal name. It is like a pseudo name, only addressed by subordinate or younger generations for respect. This “second” name is only given to people with certain status. Best way I can explain it.
This tradition is gone by now.
Thanks for the explanation about Chinese naming customs.
We don’t have “middle names”, there is not term for that, we have “given names” and “surnames”( not widely use but is the best way to explain it). The term of given name is not part of our naming traditions.
I am not into history, I just repeated what my teach told the class.
In the old time, techelically, no one LEGALLY changed name, since your name was not registered. Your name was given by your dad and that was it. However, after you married to your husband, say zhang family. You belonged to him and hence you response to whatever they call you, and that mean they call you daughter in law with number. Your neighbor then prefix zhang family to identify you. In other word, you real name was no longer in use. After a while, you real name was forgotten.
I don’t know what qualify name change in Western world, but the whole viliage call my grant ma mather of (my dad’s last name). Some tradition.