In English-speaking world, it is a common practice that women assume their husband's family name after marriage. This seems to be a practice that somewhat reflect patrilineality.
In contrast, although China is a more patrilineal society than English-speaking world, assuming husband's family name is not a common practice in China.

Could anyone offer some historical explanation for this seemingly contradictory phenomenon?

  • 1
    Not a duplicate given this question's request for comparative cultural practice. However I think this is anthropology not history. I'm also unwilling to devote much time or effort to a question that asserts a difference without providing any evidence/documentat; too often such questions are founded on erroneous assumptions. Are Chinese women less likely to adopt their husband's names? Is there a linkage to age? urbanity? what is the real % difference? What is the demographic?
    – MCW
    Feb 24 '15 at 14:42
  • 1
    @MarkC.Wallace FWIW its not just uncommon; Chinese women do not take their husbands' surnames at all. It's not part of their customs.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 24 '15 at 15:07
  • @Semaphore - From what I dug up, it does happen in some western-influenced areas. But you are right that traditionally it was simply not done that way.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 24 '15 at 15:57
  • @T.E.D. You might perhaps be thinking of 冠夫姓, lit. "crowning (my name) with my husband's surname". That's a social style where a wife puts her husband's surname in front of her own (which is kept), and not a change in surname per se. Some older women sometimes uses it, but it's mostly died out.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 24 '15 at 16:09
  • @Semaphore - No, I'm just reading straight off the top of the Chinese surname Wikipedia page. But again, that's current practice, not historical (and if you think that's wrong, feel free to go there and fix it).
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 24 '15 at 16:22

I've argued elsewhere that it depends on cultural importance of blood lines. In particular, whether surnames arose as a mark of lineage, or for ease of identification. I believe that applies here as well:

Cultures with strong views of family tend to adopt a collective representative name. In those without, surnames tend to come about for identifying otherwise similarly named individuals. It would have been convenient, and would indeed make sense, to identify a wife by her husband's name ("Agnes who married John the smith; not Agnes who married John the carpenter"). Then as surnames became more established, dropping maiden names turned into an ingrained traditional custom.

Historically, Chinese surnames had two components: a clan name, , and a household name, . The former was shared by the whole clan, and normally remained constant for generations. In contrast, denoted different branches of the extended family. It frequently changed as families adopted new ones based on placenames, professions, job titles, etc - rather like how English surnames developed. This system persisted till the late Warring States period.

If we look at the word for clan names, , it is obviously a composite of the radicals , meaning woman, and , meaning birth. Thus, from its earliest times Chinese surnames had been intrinsically linked to (matrilineal) kinship. Of course, bloodlines do not usually change with marriage. Likewise, it wouldn't make much sense for a woman to change her surname to her husband's.

Furthermore, Ancient China was most likely originally a matrilineal society. In fact, the Eight Great Clans of Antiquity, , , , , , , , - all contains the female radical . While not an absolute rule, most surnames from the period share this feature. This is commonly believed to be the lingering influences of a matrilineal prehistoric society.

I'm not saying the difference between China and English countries is purely due to patrilineality vs matrilineality, but these factors help explain the different paths of development the two societies took. Moreover, once a tradition became established, it can be very difficult to break.

Sidenote on the Eight Great Clans (exact composition differs depending on source):


It looks like the short answer is "No".

At least I can't find anything historical that explains this, outside of the fact that Chinese culture and Western culture developed independently, and thus were forced to invent their own ways of doing things.

I did some digging, but couldn't find any significant difference in how married women are traditionally treated in both cultures. It looks like it may have been a bit easier for a Chinese woman to get out of a bad marriage (and go back to her original family) than for a (traditional) Western woman, but of course in both cases it was far easier for the man to do so. In both cultures, a widow was still considered part of the husband's extended family.

  • 1
    Not all Western cultures follow the English/French practice, v.g. Spain.
    – SJuan76
    Feb 24 '15 at 17:45

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.