A movement to pass mothers’ last names to their children is gaining traction in China

Like mother, like child.
Like mother, like child.
Image: REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A Chinese woman divorced her husband last month, partly she said, because they disagreed about whether their son would carry his or her name. Eventually she agreed their son would use a hyphenated surname consisting of both her and her husband’s last names. “This is the best I could do. At least I’ve let my ex-husband realize that he should not take passing on his surname to his children for granted,” she wrote on social network Weibo late last month.

But the post, which generated over 240,000 likes, quickly stoked a backlash. Some called the woman’s idea of passing her surname to her son an “extreme feminist view.” Others said it was a typical example of “feminism with Chinese characteristics,” a term commonly used in China to attack women’s rights advocates, suggesting that women want to have equal rights but do not want to bear obligations such as helping with mortgage payments. Chen Shu, a 25-year-old Chinese woman who self-identifies as a feminist, said that even those who agree that it’s important for women to have the right to pass on their names don’t dare to discuss it publicly out of fear that they would be “deemed too extreme.”

The discussion of family names comes as Chinese authorities have strongly cracked down on civil society of any sort in recent years, and have even thrown feminist activists into jail. Still, women in China, who are becoming increasingly conscious of the gross inequalities they face on issues ranging from marriage to sexual abuse, are finding ways to make their voices heard online.

One of the most outspoken feminist voices in Chinese social media on the topic of surnames is Lydia Lin, a Beijing-based finance professional who has over 270,000 followers on Weibo. In the past, she has advised women not to get married since it would require them to sacrifice more than men, and also to cut off ties with families that don’t provide enough support for their daughters. Recently, she has been sharing stories from women who say they are fighting to change their children’s surnames to their own.

“Chinese men pay more attention to this topic than women, and they usually strongly oppose the idea. In comparison, lots of women don’t care about it much, and just say that taking the father’s name is tradition. Even optimistically speaking, it could take hundreds of years for this idea to become reality,” Lin told Quartz.

Shortly after the post about the woman who divorced her husband went viral, the first forum (link in Chinese) dedicated to the topic of children taking their mother’s names was created on Weibo, while the hashtag “passing women’s surnames to children” has been viewed more than 27 million times (link in Chinese).

Chinese law stipulates that a child can have either their father’s or mother’s surname, but the vast majority of children take their father’s name. This has been very gradually changing in the last few years, however, but only usually for a couple’s second child and mostly in affluent areas—in Shanghai, nearly one in 10 babies was given their mothers’ surname in 2018.

The discussion about children’s names in China mirrors a growing trend elsewhere as women push back against traditional naming conventions, such as taking their husband’s names after getting married. Some opt to give their children double-barrelled names, for example. In Japan, a court last year quashed a legal challenge to allow couples the right to retain their individual last names after marriage, though in China women overwhelmingly retain their own names.

The proportion of children who take their mothers’ names remains extremely low globally. Taiwan, for example, saw a “record high” of 2% of new-born babies taking maternal surnames in 2016, while the figure was 5.9% for babies in Belgium in 2018.

The impact of whether a child carries a father’s or mother’s name, however, has serious consequences for Chinese women, particularly those in rural areas, where men overwhelmingly stand to inherit the family’s wealth because they’re able to continue the family name. A 2019 survey (link in Chinese) done by the All-China Women’s Federation, a nonprofit closely linked to the government, found that over 80% of Chinese women in villages don’t have their names on their families’ homestead registration documents. As such, boys often receive more attention and resources in their families than daughters, said Lin.

In the past, the practice of extending a family line only through men has even had an impact on the mortality rate of female babies, as a preference for boys resulted in one of the world’s most unequal gender ratios, exacerbated by the one-child policy. In 2014, a county in central Anhui province gave 1,000 yuan (link in Chinese) in cash ($140) to each family that gave newborns the mothers’ surname, in a bid to improve the region’s imbalanced sex ratio.

“It’s still too early to tell if significantly more women are passing their own surnames to their children now than in the past,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. “Perhaps we will be able to look back at this period and identify a larger number of children using their mothers’ surnames, alongside the increasing social media discourse about feminist topics.”