Nobody Needs to Change Their Name When They Marry

The essay “Why Don’t More Men Take Their Wives’ Last Names?” at The Atlantic opens like this:

In the run-up to marriage, many couples, particularly those of a more progressive bent, will encounter a problem: What is to be done about the last name?

Some have attempted work-arounds: the Smiths and Taylors who have become Smith-Taylors, Taylor-Smiths, or—more creative—Smilors. But there just isn’t always a good, fair option. (While many straight couples fall back on the option of a woman taking her husband’s last name, same-sex couples have no analogous default.)

Notice the option not mentioned? Nobody changing their surname upon marriage. And nowhere does the essay mention the possibility (except in the most indirect way). I suppose there may a situation where each spouse keeping their original surname is not a “good, fair option” but I cannot think of any such situation.

(I have since learned that both the essay writer and her fiancé intend to keep their original surnames when they marry, so she obviously knows that it is an option. The only reason I can think of that she did not bring it up in the essay is because she was trying to keep the word count low.)

I’ve spent several years in Taiwan, where (except for some indigenous people and foreigners) practically nobody changes their surname when they marry. And quite a bit of the fiction I’ve read in the past decade has been in Chinese and set in societies where, not only do people not change their surnames when they marry, they don’t even think about changing their surnames when they marry.

And some of Taiwan’s indigenous groups have very distinct naming traditions, such as the Tao people, who change their name, not when they marry, but when they have their first child (the parents take the child’s name), and then they change their name again when they have their first grandchild. Basically, in traditional Tao society, children aren’t named after their parents, parents/grandparents are named after their eldest child/grandchild.

And there is this interesting essay by an American woman in Taiwan who decided to change her surname to her husband’s name, even though it goes against Taiwanese conventions. Though I don’t know why she says this: “I’m not sure why name-changing never caught on in Taiwan” – why would she expect wives-taking-their-husband’s names to ever catch on in Taiwan? What reason would the Taiwanese have had to change? (Okay, yes, Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire for about 50 years, but apparently the Japanese were uninterested in changing this aspect of Taiwanese culture).

In Sinophone societies, if a mother and child have the same surname, it tends to mean one of the following things 1) the mother is in a ruzhui marriage, 2) the father is unknown or 2) the father and mother have the same surname, (which carries the connotation of incest, even though many Chinese people who have the same surname aren’t related at all, marrying someone with the same surname is still a bit taboo). Even if the parents are not married, if the father is known, the child will take the father’s surname 99% of the time. For example, in The Condor Trilogy (which includes that novel I keep on mentioning in this blog), Mu Nianci is adopted by a man whose surname is Mu, so she take his surname, not the surname of her biological father. She gets a crush on Yang Kang. It then turns out that her adopted father’s real surname is Yang, not Mu, but Mu Nianci chooses to keep the surname ‘Mu’ because, if she has the same surname as Yang Kang, then marrying him would be taboo. It turns out that they never marry (at least in the original novel, they get married in some of the TV adaptations), but she does have a child with him, and their child takes the surname Yang because, even though his parents were not married, it is obvious that Yang Kang is his father.

A few years ago I wrote a post culture countershock in Japan. I can add another example of culture countershock to the list I wrote in that post. I met a woman in Hokkaido and learned her full name. I later met her daughter. Then I stumbled across a package which was to be delivered to the daughter, and I saw the daughter’s full name. I was shocked to learn that she had the exact same surname as her mother. You would think this would not be surprising at all, especially since I myself have the same surname as my mother. However, after having been in Taiwan for years, and for years 99% percent of the fiction I read was set in Sinophone societies, I had internalized the idea that mothers and daughters having the same surname is weird.

A few minutes after seeing the daughter’s name, I figured out that in Japanese society women probably take their husbands’ surnames, just like in the traditional/conventional United States. I don’t know why I assumed the Japanese, like the Chinese, almost never change their surnames upon marriage, I guess because Japan is also a traditionally ‘Confucian’ society? But most probably because I had so fully internalized the Sinophone tradition of not even thinking about changing a surname upon marriage, let alone actually changing a surname upon marriage, that I just … did not think about it.

In the letters responding to that essay in The Atlantic, it is pointed out that it is very common for women in India to keep their original surnames after marriage, and that in Quebec, the government requires women to keep their original surnames and they have to petition the courts if they want to take their husband’s surname. Considering the population of India and China, it is very possible that a majority of the world’s people take it for granted that a wife will probably keep her original surname after she marries, and the people who live in societies where women are expected to take their husband’s surnames are actually a minority.

I’ll be honest, I think not changing a surname at marriage is the most sensible choice. I can respect that some people think it is good/important for everyone in a [nuclear] family to have the same surname, but I do not see how that is good or important. My parents don’t have the same surname, and that’s fine. I’ve lived in an entire society (Taiwan) where people don’t change their surnames except for adoption and some exceptional circumstances (unless they belong to certain cultural minorities), and it works just fine. It’s egalitarian. In fact, I think the idea of someone changing their name when the marry makes about as much sense as the Tao tradition of changing their name when they have their first child/grandchild (by that I meant that they are both traditions which can work, but requires people to change their name just because they formed a new relationship with another person, and having people change their names can be confusing). Barring some really unusual circumstance, I am never going to change my surname, whether I marry or not (if I do marry, I’ll let my spouse do whatever they want with their surname).

That said, I also support people having the choice to change their own surname for whatever reason. I may think their reason is silly, but I want people to feel free to do what they want with their surnames even if I think it’s silly. If one wants to change one’s surname because of marriage, fine, if one wants to change one’s surname to ‘Potter’ to express one’s love of the Harry Potter franchise, that’s also fine. I do not judge people who change their surname when they marry, regardless of gender.

2 thoughts on “Nobody Needs to Change Their Name When They Marry

  1. You can add Spain and Spanish-speaking America to the countries where changing surname after marriage is not even considered, and they form another block of countries with considerable population. In these countries, not only wifes keep their full name after marriage, but we also have a second surname which is taken from the mother’s main one. This second surname is lost for the next generation, but allows to distinguish people better than a single surname. So, in a nuclear family there is not uniformity in surnames. If José García Fernández marries María González Gómez, she keeps her full name and their children get the surnames García González or, under certain circumstances, González García. I don’t know the circumstances in Latin America, but in Spain the parents choose the surname order upon the birth of their first child and they must keep this chosen order for the next children. I expect Latin American countries to be more conservative and impose the default father-first surname order, but I don’t know for sure.

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