Opinion: The case for Chinese women to pass on their family name

Allowing greater equality within marriage moves society one step closer to fairness and could help boost the country’s fertility rate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 10:29pm

With the implementation of China’s two-child policy, many Chinese women are asking their husbands the same question: should our second baby have my surname instead of yours?

It is largely a private discussion but it could have significant social implications in China, where the fertility rate has dropped to an alarmingly low level.

In my view, it’s time to change the tradition of assigning the father’s surname to a child. Instead, China should encourage children, especially daughters, to have their mother’s family name.

While it is taken for granted today that only the father’s surname should be inherited, this custom is, at the end of the day, a product of an agricultural past. In days gone by, male physical superiority, as well as the need to pass private property on to male heirs, gave birth to a patriarchal system in which all children bore their father’s surname.

In a modern society, the physical advantages of men have become less relevant, and the economic and social status of women have risen steadily.

So much so that about 32 million family businesses will be handed on to a second generation in China, with many already controlled by women. Thanks to the country’s one-child policy, many of their heirs will be daughters but patriarchal rules have deprived them of the opportunity to have the women’s contribution recognised in the next generation by name.

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The deprivation of passing on a mother’s family name to their own children is one of the hurdles to gender equality. Once married to their husbands, excellent or mediocre, outstanding women entrepreneurs are rarely allowed to give their surname to their children – and that is unfair.

It also reinforces the view that only males can carry on a family line.

In a patriarchal system, even when a daughter takes her father’s surname, her son or daughter will follow her husband’s surname. In this case, why not just let a daughter take her mother’s surname?

In addition, women would be more willing to have children if their family names can be passed on, a development that is badly needed in China now.

At present, the fertility rate, the average number of children per Chinese woman, is only about 1.3, one of the lowest in the world, raising the spectre of huge demographic challenges for China down the road.

I have long advocated that China should provide financial incentives to encourage childbirth. But granting the rights of surname inheritance to mothers can help to increase the birth rate without costing a penny.

Once both parents have equal rights to pass on surnames, the whole family will be more motivated to pursue “both a boy and a girl”, which means “good” or “completeness” in Chinese culture. Even families with two boys or girls will also want one more daughter or son.

It is also good for gender equality in the long run.

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Allowing daughters to have their mothers’ surnames will improve women’s social status and give them greater recognition within marriage. In China – along with Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries – many women with a good education and high income are single, unlike men with the same qualifications and wealth. The higher the income, the higher probability a woman will be single. But if women and men have equal social status, high-earning single women won’t mind marrying a man who is “lower” in education or income.

It’s necessary to give women the same social status in marriage, and the passing on of a family name should be a key part of it.

Chinese law allows a child to have a family name either from the father or the mother, or even both.

If the father’s family name is Zhang and the mother’s surname is Wang, their child’s family name becomes Zhang-wang or Wang-zhang. In fact, if both the father and mother are only children, it’s very common now in China for the second baby to have the maternal family name.

This is worth encouraging because it helps true gender equality and childbearing.

James Liang is the founder of Ctrip and a part-time professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management