What's in a name? It's just a matter of personal choice

Wan Lixin
If wives adopt their husbands' surnames, it shows a dedication to marriage and family, but if she has a demanding job, keeping her former identity may be more practical.
Wan Lixin

Recently, during the course of a conversation, a friend of mine told me about a Chinese woman who chose to keep her maiden name after marrying an Indian. In other words, she chose not to take her husband's last name, which is usually the norm in most parts of the world.

The friend commented that he "likes it here where the women are allowed to retain their identity for life," but wondered if the Chinese woman would be under pressure from the husband's family in India and the implications of defying social expectations.

Such concern is probably unwarranted, as the real issue here is probably more of a formality with little practical significance. For instance, Wang Yan would likely not object to being referred to as Mrs Zhang even if she continued to be known as Wang Yan after her marriage.

In actuality, using one's formal name is uncommon in more traditional Chinese social contexts.

I have never known my maternal and paternal grandmothers' formal names. They were always referred to with affection as aunts, grandmothers, sisters, and sisters-in-law. On their tombstones, instead of having their full names etched on them, they have a collocation of their own and their spouses' surnames.

Some Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and other places still follow this tradition of prefixing the wife's own surname with the husband's.

For instance, in the case of former Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Lam is her husband's surname, while Cheng is her own. According to reports, this practice is now limited to women in prominent positions in Hong Kong.

Professionals such as doctors and lawyers, who have made a name for themselves in their fields, often choose to keep their names to be easily identified in their professional capacity.

The Kuomintang government in Nanjing included a provision for this naming pattern in the 1929 Civic Code, stating that "the wife shall precede her own surname with the name of her husband," though exceptions were made for "couples who worked out their own arrangement."

Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, this practice has mostly fallen out of favor on the Chinese mainland.

Although adopting the husband's name is a fairly established tradition in the West, it has become increasingly a matter of personal choice since the 1960s, with some women preferring to keep their names after marriage, or a couple opting for the combination of their surnames as their new surnames, or even for a husband to adopt the wife's name.

There are studies suggesting that the practice of a wife adopting her husband's surname demonstrates a commitment to prioritizing their marriage and family, but in countries where women are more active in their professional spheres and are no longer confined to families after marriage, retaining your surname may be more convenient.

But, once again, this should be left to individual discretion.

In 1977, Angela Dorothea Kasner, then 23 years old, wed physics student Ulrich Merkel, adopting his last name. Although they divorced in 1982 and Angela went on to marry quantum scientist and professor Joachim Sauer, she continued to use her ex-husband's last name.

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