What's in a name? A lot of tension

Changes in society, views on marriage and the end of the one child policy are causing tensions over which surname a child should carry.


Joanna Zhu gave birth to her second baby last week. Originally, it was happy news for the whole family. But a rift between her parents and parents-in-law has been growing by the day over choosing the boy’s last name.

As Joanna Zhu is an only child, her parents want the second grandchild surnamed Zhu, to carry on the family name.

But her parents-in-law said it is a tradition that children inherit the father’s surname, not the mother’s.

In Chinese culture, the surname symbolizes lineage. People consider that only the same surnamed clans belong to the same lineage.

The one-child policy left many families with only a daughter. If a daughter’s child cannot be named after her own last name, it means her family’s lineage does not carry on.

Now, the two-child policy gives hope to daughter-only families. In Hangzhou, parents of many brides and grooms make an agreement before the wedding which usually clarifies that the couple’s first child inherits the father’s family name while the second child inherits the mother’s.

Zhu’s family is no exception. But her parents-in-law changed their mind because the second grandchild turned out a boy while the first was a girl.

Marriage brings together families of different surnames and traditionally continues the family line of the paternal clan. This is generally why having a boy is preferred over a girl.

“My parents-in-law will feel ashamed if their grandson is surnamed Zhu because in Xiaoshan District, boys as the inheritor of the family line, must be surnamed after the father,” said Zhu. “I cannot deny the fact that the older generation people prefer boys rather than girls.”

In Hangzhou, especially the rich rural areas in Xiaoshan and Fuyang districts, many daughter-only families no longer marry daughters in traditional ways that require her to live with her parents-in-law and all of her children to carry husband’s surname.

On the contrary, they now give a large dowry and even buy a house and a car for the newly-wed couple.

“All I want is equality, and equality is supported by property. My daughter is my only child. Her kids carry down my clan’s bloodline,” said Zhu Qingnian, Joanna’s father. “Her parents-in-law should conform to the agreement and let the second grandchild be surnamed Zhu.”


In Hangzhou, parents of many brides and grooms make an agreement before the wedding which usually clarifies that the couple’s first child inherits the father’s family name while the second child inherits the mother’s.


But the other grandfather disagrees.

“I didn’t expect the second child to be a boy. Now, the situation has changed. If he doesn’t inherit my family name, how could we live in the village?” said Jiang Liang, the paternal grandfather.

“That is the most embarrassing thing in a rural place and our neighbors might look down on us.”

It is still the norm on China’s mainland that a child, especially a boy, inherits the father’s family name, although the marriage law explicitly states they can be given either parents’ surname.

Nonetheless, more and more daughter-only families like Zhu’s are trying to change that as society changes and awareness of marriage equality increases.

“Traditionally, a married Chinese woman keeps her name unchanged. In Western countries, even the wife adopts husband’s surname, not to mention kids,” said Jiang. “I advise my granddaughter’s family name be changed to Zhu, but my grandson must be surnamed Jiang.”

The growing rift between parents annoys the young couple.

“My wife and I don’t care about the surname. No matter what their surname is, it doesn’t change our love for them,” said Phil Jiang, Joanna Zhu’s husband. “The continuous conflict makes the family atmosphere really tense these days. I hope to solve this problem harmoniously.”

Such family conflicts are not uncommon in Hangzhou. Families with only a daughter want equality while son-only families want tradition to continue.

But many families reach a peaceful agreement that two children carry the surnames of the different families.

Jiang is considering combining both families’ surnames for his son.

“It is possible, although far less common,” he said.

“Zhu plus Jiang creates the perfect name that will satisfy both sets of parents.

“Although the name’s pronunciation is not poetic in Chinese, at least it mediates the family augment.”




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