I thought the Western countries are more gender-aware than China. Am I missing something here?
My family and I have recently relocated from Hong Kong to Bristol in the United Kingdom. We have been through a lot to uproot ourselves from a city that we have lived in for our entire lives and trying to regain a footing in a city we have never been to, not even as a tourist. In the last two months, we have to “re-create” our identity —register ourselves at the local council, open bank accounts, rent an apartment, apply for jobs, making new acquaintances, etc. I took the pain to go back and forth to explain to the other end that I have a different last name from my husband’s. But still, many of the official and unofficial documents got it wrong.
I admit that I probably feel this “male-name adoption” more strongly than others due to the fact that my name in Chinese actually consists of both my mother’s and my father’s last name, and they are special to me. I don’t want to replace my father’s last name with my husband’s, that would not make any sense. Ok, now you would probably ask why my parents put their last names in my name, were they too lazy to think of a new name? or is it a cultural thing in where I come from?
My parents fled Communist China after experiencing the Cultural Revolution (1967–77) first-hand. The Cultural Revolution was in many ways nightmarish. It had scarred many people's lives in the most unspeakable way. Yet, gender equality was seen as a sign of progression under the Cultural Revolution. It meant women taking up what is normally expected of men — wearing the same outfit, being called “comrades” and working like men receiving the same pay. When my parents came to Hong Kong, by then a colony of the British Empire, they thought Hong Kong must be a progressive society. After giving birth to my elder sister who bore my father’s last name, my parents thought it was only fair to let me bear my mother’s last name. Soon they found out it was not possible(!) and I ended up having BOTH of my parents’ last names in my Chinese name.
There are many reasons why women want to adopt their husband’s last name upon marriage. It is a romantic thing like “I am yours”; and probably it is more “convenient” for all members in the family to have the same last name (but bear in mind that the notion of conveniences is shaped by our patriarchal culture). According to a Life Project article by BBC, 70% of the US women and 90%(!) of the British women adopted their husband’s last names when they get married. As revealed by the same 2016 survey in the UK, a slightly lowered percentage, but still 85% of women under 30 said they will follow the practice. Even though way over half of the women under 30, 68% and 60% in the US and UK respectively, regarded themselves as feminists, what their versions of feminism entail? What had stopped them to think more critically about such a practice, even when it is not legally required?
I am glad to find out that not all Western European countries are the same: Iceland and Spain have a different naming practice and a law passed in Greece in 1983 that require all women to keep their birth name on getting married. In some countries like Norway, some women preserved their identity by keeping their maiden name as a middle name. But it is still a long way to go before people would think it is normal that they don’t have to change their name. I will leave it to the sociologists to dig deeper on this subject. For those if it pulled your academic nerves, you may look up Simon Duncan’s research here.
You don’t have to be a feminist, however, if you decided to keep your name. There are some practical reasons for you to keep them.
Your name, your professional profile, and your money
I understand that in the past women were thought to be “possessions” of their husband and their “productivity” mainly resides within the household — be it childbearing, household chores, clothes mending, etc. Now, many women have their own careers before getting married. Whatever you pursue, many of the career paths recount success in making your name known. I had pursued an academic career at some point and there is a big deal about authorship and publication. The name change practice is frowned upon and usually not openly discussed.
If you want to stay away from academia or any serious kind of authorship, many of us are still content creators. You may be too shy to admit it, but the content that you create could be monetized by you or the platforms. Changing names unnecessarily does not make sense unless you want to cut yourself loose from the “work” you produced.
Okay, if you are not a content creator, but an office worker or executive, it is likely that you would look for jobs on LinkedIn or other professional networking platforms. Many of these platforms rely on referrals and endorsements. Again, changing your name is just counter-productive.
Although name changing might be considered differently before the digital era — Mozart’s name alternation in his lifetime was actually seen as an integral part of his creative endeavor* — rarely does adopting your husband’s last name have anything to do with your level of creativity. It does not help with empowering your SELF.
Own Your Life
There is a Chinese saying 行不更名,坐不改姓 that could be semantically translated as you don’t change your last name even when you are punished for being related. In ancient China, innocent people could get executed simply because of the “crimes” their family members committed. No one would agree that we should be punished, or worse, executed, only because we bear our family name. Yet, the gist of this saying is more about owning the path you treaded and being proud in your own skin.
So there is an option. As women, we should celebrate that we have a chance in our lifetime to make an intentional decision on our names, unlike our male counterparts. The thought process behind this seemingly unharmful decision could be empowering!
*Maynard Solomon mentioned, “Mozart’s constant alternation of his name is his way of experimenting with different identities, trying to tune them to his satisfaction.”