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.
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.
15 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.
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
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 Lorelle on WordPress. This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.
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