Precious Chinese surnames with traditional values

Our surnames are worth gold.

When kids disagree with each other, you might hear an exchange like this: “I swear if I lie to you, I’ll abandon my surname!” Or, “I swear, if I lose, I’ll no longer carry the surname my father has given me!” Or, “Promised? If you lose, you will drop your surname, and follow my surname?”

When a Chinese kid places his surname as a bet, you need to take him seriously.

Outside Salisbury Cathedral -- Boys are superior in Chinese culture

Outside Salisbury Cathedral — Boys are superior in Chinese culture

Does it sound strange to you? As a child, when I argued or swore with the boy next door, we used the most valuable bid — our surnames. I’ve never heard an Englishman bet his surname: “OK, if you win, I’ll abandon my surname Smith and adopt your surname Barker.”

Surname is important. Sons are important because sons carry on the family surname and lineage. Sons carry incense sticks when worshipping the ancestors. They preside over ancestral rites, especially during the Tomb Sweeping Day.

Etched in the brain: Boys are important

Mencius, a famous Chinese confucian philosopher after Confucius, had a famous saying about the importance of male descendants. “There are three types of infilial, and the worst is not having a male offspring.” (不孝有三,无后为大). This concept has influenced the Han Chinese for 2000 years. Even though some scholars argue that this is a misleading translation, the concept of the importance of a male offspring is deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche. People believe that Confucianism favours boys and the job of a filial and dutiful man and woman is to produce a male heir.

15Dragon's ascent years ago, I was a translator for a television documentary project called China: The Dragon’s Ascent, produced by Francis Gerard with Totem Media. It is an 8-hour TV documentary series about China and Chinese civilisation.

In one episode about family and tradition, I translated from tapes many interviews with Chinese men from different social background. They all yearned for a boy. We understand how peasants and under-educated people favour boys, but highly educated and western educated men also held the same deeply-rooted concept: boys are superior. One young and educated man replied, “I’m open-minded. I wouldn’t mind having a girl, but deep inside my heart, I still want a boy because boys can carry the incense stick.”

Surname can break up love

I have heard of many stories that some couples are not allowed to marry simply because they both carry the same surname. There is a popular saying in Chinese that if you have the same surname with someone, it means that “500 years ago, you were in the same family.” Based on this belief, some older people would forbid their children’s marriage to avoid the potential of incest.

I wanted to leave at 18

I wanted to leave at 18

When I was 18, I wanted to go abroad to study. My father disagreed. He answered that I did not need further education as my high school education was enough for me to get a good job, such as a secretarial job. My father was correct. I was lucky enough to have finished high school while some of my friends gave up, got pregnant at 16, or became a ‘hairdresser’ in some dodgy shop in a street corner. I grew up in a patriarchal society and my father’s objection reflected the traditional viewpoints of that generation. I fully understood that.

However, I needed my father’s approval to get away because I needed him to sign on my passport application form. I needed him to take me to the Immigration Office to apply a passport for me.

On a normal, humid day, the air was stiff with the tropical heat, my mother, who is illiterate, stood up for me. She shouted at my father, and I remember her words clearly:

“Just take her to get her passport sorted! If a daughter wants to go, you should let her go. After all, one day, she will get married, and she will belong to someone else and she will carry another family’s surname! A daughter is never ours!”

— Words from my mother

I thanked my mother all my life for this compelling statement.

A married daughter is like water that you pour out

Marrying a daughter = pouring out water?

Marrying a daughter = pouring out water?

Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, I have always sensed that traditionally women are subordinate, and social hierarchy is to be observed. This value is instilled in us.

“A married daughter is like the water that you pour out of the family.” It is another popular Chinese saying.

This message can be interpreted in two ways. Some people believe it reflects the low status of a daughter. It explains why the natal family would not invest in a girl’s education. However, I like another enlightening interpretation: when the water is poured out, the daughter will enter a new family, to serve, honour, and bring harmony to her new family. As it is impossible to retrieve the water, a daughter who marries should cherish and value her new role.

This post was inspired by Blog Exercises: What’s the View Through Your Binoculars by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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13 thoughts on “Precious Chinese surnames with traditional values

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      That’s wonderful, to gain a daughter. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that in Britain, traditionally, it’s the bride’s family who pay for the wedding, so you not only have a ‘daughter’, but she also comes ‘free’ too.

      In the East, for the Chinese at least, the bride’s family, traditionally, asks for bride-money. I know that a lot of families no longer ask for any bride-money, but these families may still be pressurised into pretending they have received hefty sum from the groom’s family, just to avoid gossips. To marry a daughter, the bride’s family also provides a dowry. In the old days, to many, a dowry was seen as the ‘cost’ for bringing up a daughter, so the bride-money from the groom meant as a compensation for the ‘loss’ of the bride’s family who had brought up a daughter. It is also to prove that the groom’s family can afford the wellbeing of the daughter.

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  2. Nicki Chen

    My late husband was Chinese, born in China. And he, too, valued his surname. But what surprised me was how flexible he was about his name. The writing of his (now my) surname never changed, but the pronunciation did with language and location. When we traveled back to his hometown, Chen (in Mandarin)became Tan (in Hokkien). His given name was Ah Chu until he started school, then he took a more formal name, Yu-wei. When he started speaking English, he became Eugene.

    Most Chinese may prefer sons, but I was lucky. We had 3 daughters, no sons, and my husband never showed signs of being the least bit disappointed.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Nicki,

      Thank you for sharing your story. Chinese characters stay the same (only 2 variations: Traditional script – used in Taiwan and Hong Kong and some Southeast Asia countries, and Simplified script – used in the mainland China and the rest of the world).

      The same character will be pronounced differently depending on the ‘languages’ (or some people call them dialects). Malaysia is one of the few places in the world that the Chinese still keep their Chinese surnames based on the parents’ root (normally the father’s root). For example, a person whose surname is 陈 (Chen in Mandarin), will be registered as TAN if his root is Fujian (from the Hokkien or the Min language). If his root is Cantonese, the same ‘Chen’ will be registered as ‘Chan’.

      This registration tradition does not keep up with the world’s trend, however, I find keeping one’s root in one’s surname charming and unique. Using standardised form of spelling, using pinyin, the Chinese spelling system popularised by the Mainland China, to denote Mandarin Chinese, is convenient, but there is no way for you to know the root of the person.

      Your daughters — they’re so lucky to be loved in your family. Some Chinese women have to continue to give birth until a son is born. I’ve known some sorrowful women, who had a hard time in the traditional family, due to their ‘failure’ to produce a son. The pressure from the society can be quite unkind to these women too.

  3. gigiwellness28

    My Mum told us after she gave birth to her 3rd daughter 50 years ago, my Grandma (my Dad’s mother, who was a very clever & wise lady in her own way, she was not illiterate but I don’t think she had ever finished high school), went to visit her in the hospital. My Grandma said to my Mum, “I really don’t understand why people concern about the kid’s gender instead of the well being of the kid.”

    20 years ago, I heard there was once a lady, who had 5 daughters and she was pregnant with their 6th child, everyone were so happy because based on the ultra sound scan, it’s a boy. Before she gave birth, her mother-in-law accompanied her to the hospital and to the Delivery Room. When this lady came out from the Delivery Room, she cried her eyes out, because the ultra sound scan was incorrect, it was a baby girl, again. The sad thing was, her mother-in-law was never seen in the hospital room.

    I have two daughters and my husband is the eldest son of his family. When I was pregnant with our 2nd daughter and after it’s confirmed she’s a girl, my brother-in-law asked (during a family gathering and my father-in-law was sitting next to him) us if we would get pregnant again. I replied, “No, our plan is to have 2 kids only.” I remember so clearly that my brother-in-law’s eyes moved to his Dad’s direction (but not moving his head). My father-in-law didn’t have any comment on my answer and he loved his 2 granddaughters dearly until he passed away. My brother-in-law has a daughter, I wonder if anyone in the family had ever asked him the same question – I wouldn’t know, because we’d migrated to Australia already.

    My Mum has said she never feel sad of having 4 daughters, because we will bring my parents a half son (半邊仔) when we got married. I wondered if she said that because of what my Grandma told her or because of a Cantonese saying, “好仔不如好兒媳 = Instead of having a good son, it’s better to have a good daughter-in-law.”

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Your grandma was such an open-minded lady. I must say it was unusual, not to bow to social, cultural influence.

      I’ve heard so many stories that women want to produce a boy, to exert their own status in the family, to be seen as a worthy woman. If you go to any Chinese online forum now, you’ll still find these recurrent topics: “How can I produce a boy to carry my husband’s family surname?” “How not to terminate my husband’s ‘joss-sticks’ (meaning, “How to create a descendent to carry joss sticks and perform traditional family rituals?)”

      I knew a young Chinese lady in the UK — she has 5 girls, and were not allowed to stop, until she finally produced a boy, her 6th child. And they had a huge banquet for the boy.

      I agree with your family sayings. How true!

  4. ShimonZ

    Very interesting to read about the culture in which you were raised. As we can see, there are great changes happening in the west. More and more people prefer not to bring any children into the world, whether they be boys or girls…

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