Customs and Legislations about Surnames in China

Customs of Surnames and Clan Names in Ancient China

In the very ancient times of Chinese history, there were two branches of Chinese surnames - xing (ancestral clan names) and shi (branch lineage names).

Xing were symbols to signify the status of noble enfeoffed by Tianzi (the sacred monarchical title of the Chinese sovereign). The character xing (姓) is composed of a female radical (女) and the character for "give birth" (生). This is commonly taken as evidence that they originated from matriarchal societies based on maternal lineages. 1

After the family splits into several branches and lives in different places, Shi were created as sub-surnames to distinguish between noble lineages according to seniority, commonly derived for xing (for central lineage of the ancient royal family) or connected with the living place.

During that time, xing and shi were mostly held by the noble classes, and the general population usually did not have any types of surname.

After the states of China were unified by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC2, ancestral surnames gradually spread to the lower classes. Xing and shi were confused at Qin and Han Dynasty. Surnames were used to replace these two concepts in common and gradually evoluted into the present system. 3

In the period when xing and shi coexisted, women were called by xing, men were called by shi. After marriage, the husband’s shi is attached to the wife’s original xing as a prefix 3. The tradition is reserved after general population begin to use surnames. Unlike the custom of married name in western countries, the prefix does not change a woman's original surname.

Legislations about Surnames in Modern China

However, these practices of married surname (in western countries) or attached surname (in ancient China) reflected a patriarchal society where women's identities were often tied to their husbands. In modern China, influenced by the growing emphasis on gender equality, both customs and legislation regarding surnames have undergone significant changes.

Surnames of Women after Marriage

During the early 20th century days in ROC2, the legislation about surnames were not significantly different from those in ancient China. Generally, the wife in patrilocal residence takes her husband’s surname before her original surname. For matrilocal residence, the husband takes his wife’s surname before his original surname instead. However, the second rule shall not apply in the parties that had other appointments. 4

After PRC established in 19492, the jurisdiction of China divided into two systems5.

In mainland, the legislation of the Marriage Law was influenced by the ideology of gender equality. It was soon recognized by law that both party of the couple have right to keep their original name unchanged 6.

In Taiwan, it is stated in the Civil Code that the husband and the wife should keep his or her own surname since 1998, unless one party shall prefix to his or her surname that of the spouse in writing at the household administration authority. The party who prefixed to his or her surname that of the spouse shall return to his or her own surname, but only one time for change during the continuance of the marriage relationship 7.

Surnames of Children Born in a Marriage

In early 20th century ROC, children born in a patrilocal residence shall take their father’s surname. For matrilocal residence, the children adopt their mother’s surname instead. However, the matrilocal rule shall not apply in the parties that had other appointments. 8

After PRC established, Children may adopt their either parent’s surname in mainland, which is explicitly stated by the law in 1980 9. In Civil Code 2020, the surname rule is expanded to more situations other than inheriting biological parents’ surname: (1) taking the surname of a senior lineal relative by blood; (2) taking the surname of a foster parent, other than the legal care provider, who provides care thereto; and (3) taking a surname with other legitimate reasons that do not offend public order and good morals. Natural persons of ethnic minorities may take surnames in compliance with their cultural traditions and local customs. 10 Mostly, children inherit their father's surname as a norm. For newborn babies in 2020, according to a research by the MPS of PRC, the proportion of mother's surname to father's surname is 1:12. 11

In Taiwan, a law change in 1985 allowed children born in a patrilocal residence to take the mother's surname. This was only possible when the mother had no brothers and both of the couple made an agreement. However, Children born in a matrilocal residence could adopt the father's surname simply by the couples' agreement. The rules still discriminated between patrilocal and matrilocal residence. 12 It was not until 2007 that the legal rules about children surname underwent a fundamental change, introducing the concept of gender equality. Now in Taiwan, parents shall agree surname of the child in writing before filing the child’s birth registration. If agreement not meet, the registration agency may decide by random. After filing the child’s birth registration and prior to the child reaching maturity, the parents can in writing change the child’s surname to either the father’s or mother’s. When the child reached his/her maturity, he/she can change his/her surname to either the father’s or mother’s surname upon the parents’ written agreement. Changing the surname pursuant to preceding two paragraphs can be done only once. 13