change surname marriage wedding china

What’s in a Name? – Name Change in International Marriages


So, you’ve decided to get married to Mr Li, Zhang or Wang. Congratulations! But, what are you going to do be called from then on?

It’s a big question, and one that can have unexpected repercussions on your life.

Chinese Traditionally Don’t Change Their Surname

It gets all the more confused when the traditions in your native country differ from the ones of your husband. In China for example, it isn’t a thing for the woman to change her surname to her husband’s name at all. Rather, she keeps her own family name, since the most important aspect of getting married in China is it gives you the green light to have a baby, and secure the continuation of the family bloodline. His family bloodline.

That is why usually the child will be named after the father. Only if the father has married into a more powerful/richer family, could there be an insistence from her family to choose their surname. However, this amounts to a serious loss of face, it’s a practical emasculation for said man. In many cases, if a couple gets divorced and the child stays with the mother, it is also not uncommon for her to change the child’s surname to her own. So, in China, while there’s at least no discussion about whose surname to take, there still can be a lot of politics surrounding the child’s name.

I am not a fan of not changing your name at all for a number of reasons. From my Western perspective the keeping of the wife’s surname felt very at odds with the general idea in China that the woman becomes part of her husband’s family upon marriage. It felt to me like a way of making sure the woman knows she has to serve her “new family” while at the same time not even granting her the right to fully become part of the family; even by name. But that might just be my cynical interpretation.

Name Change in Europe – So Many Different Options

In Germany and England, my countries of origin, there is an array of different options of what to do with your name once you get married. Traditionally, of course the woman would take on the man’s name, as she joined his family. However, following the feminist movement and increasing independence of women, some have equated this to a submissive act from the woman’s side, and so it’s now quite common to hyphenate both surnames. In few cases, the man might even take his wife’s name – although I’ve never met anyone who did this – and then there’s of course the option of going “Chinese” and no one changing any of their names at all, in which case you wouldn’t know they were married in the first place. This is becoming more common as people can’t be bothered to deal with the ridiculous paperwork associated with changing one’s name. However, I still prefer the idea of Mr Li and I somehow indicating our not-so-holy union.

My History with a Boringly Common Surname 

In my case, since we got married in China, there was never really any question about whether or not I wanted to change my name. Ironically, I did. Having grown up with both the most common first AND last names you could imagine in Germany, I have always been keen to swap my last name for something more “fancy”. For the longest time, I wanted to take on my mum’s maiden name – Nutchey – which I’m told is connected to our family’s Spanish heritage. That’s way better than being known as the German equivalent of Smith – and therefore instantly identifiable as German as well, I thought.

Anyway, 18 came and went, and I kind of put that wish to the side, thinking that you never know who I’d end up marrying. They might have a seriously cool name, after all!

What Does Taking on an Asian Surname Mean

Enter Mr Li. And with him the question of what to do with our names once we were married. I had a discussion with some fellow WWAM (AMWF) friends about this topic and it brought quite a few interesting and some disturbing truths to light.

If you were, say, to take on just your husband’s name, this could affect you in the workplace and sometimes in a negative way. If a recruiter reads a very Chinese sounding surname on your CV, they might assume that you are Chinese and in some cases, the sad truth is, that might lead them to think you are no native speaker and not up to the job. We like to think that people are wiser than to assume such things, but the sad truth is that this isn’t always the case.

The same goes for Mr Li taking on my surname and then appearing at interviews. I remember the painful story of a friend with African heritage who passed a phone interview stage for a job in a European country, and when she came in for the interview, the surprise of the interviewers that she was able to speak the local language was evident – she had grown up in said country. People are quick to make assumptions, it’s a bitter truth.

Mr Li and his Relationship with his Chinese Surname

In our case, there is actually another layer to the whole name debate. Like me, Mr Li has also been considering whether or not to change his surname irrespective of getting married, since he is the child of a broken home. However, his mother decided not to change his surname to hers, and so he is still named after his father, with whom he has always had a rocky relationship and in the end broke off contact.

His surname is therefore the only reminder of the ties to his paternal family. He even came to a point when he told his grandmother on his father’s side he planned to take on his mum’s surname Feng. She broke out in tears. He hasn’t changed his name yet, mostly I believe due to his attachment to that grandmother, who looked after him until the age of 6.

Coming Together To Create Something New

In light of all these feelings, we had many discussions about what to do about our surnames. Laura Li? I liked the ring to it, (Mr Li thinks it’s sounds like a porn name, harr harr), but for both CV and father-in-law I put that one to rest fairly early. Mr Li played with the idea of taking on my name but that would also mean giving up his Chinese heritage in a way, and I didn’t like that (aside from still wanting to flush a certain common surname down the drain).

The next idea was to return to the Nutchey option. I wasn’t entirely happy though with the idea of just my culture being represented in our surnames. So, a combination was in order. In light of the initial idea of Mr Li to take on his mum’s name, and with Nutchey being my mum’s maiden name, the surname Nutchey-Feng came into existence. Also, when he mentioned to his mother the idea of taking on my mum’s maiden name, she wasn’t what you’d call pleased.

In the end, this is the surname that represents both our origins and very fittingly makes you think of nutter and fengzi (which means crazy in Chinese). Couldn’t think of a more appropriate choice, could you?

So there we have it, Nutchey-Feng, the surname we would like to one day legally take on; and the very lengthy explanation as to how it came about. You know me, words…there’s just so many of them. And they’re fun to use.

Now the only hurdle is to get the authorities in one of my home countries to agree to this name change…yeah, that’ll be easy, I’m sure of it…

What did you do with your surname? Let me know in the comments!

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17 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? – Name Change in International Marriages”

  1. Ha, we had quite the surname battle in our household –http://www.westdateseast.com/2015/09/07/surname-siege-80

    We were going to hyphenate, but then, just like in your story, the crying grandmother destroyed everything. It’s the Chinese familial nuclear option or something.

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  2. My surname was “Lee” so I was already used to being perceived as Asian in interviews and the like. I just took my husband’s name. He thought it was weird, but since we live in the US now I’m glad I took his name to keep things less complicated with our kids and business.

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  3. My wife chose to hyphenate so these days she goes with Lei-Glander.

    About changing names, one of my cousins chose to take her mother’s maiden name when she got married e.g. both she and her husband took her mother’s maiden name.
    One of my friends in Finland took the name of his wife when they married few years back.

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  4. Luckily we had an easier time deciding on our surname. We hyphenated our surnames, my preferable option also because we now have kids and they have both our surnames, not only one. My husband also got to keep his original Chinese name in characters on his passport.

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  5. Oh, and about Chinese women not changing their names: In the past, once married they were just known as “wife of Mr so-and-so”, not really better than legally changing one’s name to your husband’s name…

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  6. I’m glad you found something that works for the two of you!

    I have a different mindset regarding the custom of women not taking the husband’s name after marriage in places like Korea and China. I don’t see it as repressive, and I don’t think it totally makes the new wife feel distant from her new family. I actually think it’s nice that they get to keep their names and are still attached to their biological family.

    For me, there were several reasons I didn’t want to change my surname. (http://learntoloveanywhere.com/2016/06/09/on-not-changing-my-last-name/) For one, the paperwork I’d have to do is ridiculous, and I don’t want to deal with that. Also, my family name used to give me a lot of grief. It is often misspelled and mispronounced, and sometimes I’m not even allowed to enter it on forms, and a lot of times, it’s too long or difficult to fit on IDs and such. I used to long to marry someone with a simple name so that my life would be easier.

    However, I’ve come to appreciate my last name. It has history and meaning and is a nod to my French ancestry and to the people in my family who hold the name or who have passed away, and I like to keep it as a reminder of them and of those I’m connected to because of it.

    I also like the uniqueness of my husband’s name, but it wouldn’t sound right with my first name. And since we plan on staying in Korea long-term, I’ve decided to do what the Koreans do, which is keep my name. It will be great that our future kids will have his family name, but I’m not overly concerned with them taking mine or me not having the same name as them. As you mentioned, it’s common in Asia to do it this way, and across the world, many people are bucking tradition.

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    1. Yes – as with many things – it all depends on the point of view, and I agree that the more positive approach of you get to keep your own name is a lot more positive 🙂 I think every new family needs to find what’s right for them – at the end of the day, it’s just a name, and you are the person who ascribes it a certain meaning – it’s all in your hands what to make of it 😀

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    2. Just read your article – your surname sounds seriously cool though – much more exciting than the German version of Lee 😉 I applaud you for deciding to keep it – I think it’s great! That’s why I’m more passionate about mums maiden name – there’s more of a story there 😉

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  7. I love the on-going discussion about surnames and marriage! Sometimes I am a little jealous when I hear awesome stories about how a couple settled on their surnames, whether they changed or not, and what they changed to. Mainly because our story is so boring! The surname I was born with and carried for way too long is very common and associates us with my Dads family. I love my Dad to pieces, his family not at all. Ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to change my name to my mother’s maiden name but didn’t as it would have deeply hurt my Dad. When we got married, we talked about surnames, and my Blondie told me he would be totally ok with whatever I chose but that he wanted to keep his surname because he is the only male in his generation with his grandfathers surname. Personally, I wanted us to have the same surname, I wanted our kids to have our name and I wanted to get rid of my maiden name in a way that wouldnt hurt my Dad!
    I have also known a couple, he is German and she is Kiwi, who selected a new name for themselves, based on looking back in their family tree’s to find a common name. I also know a guy who knew that his fiancees name meant a great deal to her as her Dad passed away when she was in primary school, and he broached the subject of taking on her surname.

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    1. Oh that’s really cool, thanks for sharing those examples! Seems like we are in a similar spot surname-wise haha. Do you know if the German guy changed his name in Germany or NZ?

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      1. They definitely both changed their names in NZ, as thats where they were living when they got married. They are now living in Germany and their passports are under their married name so I would presume he changed his name in Germany too…?! Not sure on that one though.

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