Double-barrelled surnames: ask Language Log

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Eoin Cullen writes:

For a while I’ve been familiar with the fact that there is an established set of two-character surnames in Chinese including Sīmǎ 司馬 and Ōuyáng 歐陽, but I was interested to see the novel two-character surname of the head of the SAR government in HK, Lam4zeng6 Jyut6ngo4 林鄭月娥.

It looks like her surname at birth was Zeng6 鄭 and when she got married she chose neither to keep her own name nor to adopt her husband’s name, but to join the two in the double-barrelled surname Lam4Zeng6 林鄭. I know some people in Western countries who have a double-barrelled surname for this reason, but was not aware the practice existed in Chinese. Also interestingly, she does not use a double surname for her English name, she’s simply Carrie Lam.

Is this practice well established in the Chinese speaking world or is it inspired by the Western practice of joining surnames?

From Abraham Chan:

To the best of my knowledge, this practice became popular in Hong Kong from the 1960s onwards. My mother, born in 1941, has kept using it unofficially (i.e., not on her official documents) as long as I can remember. My impression has been that this practice originated in Hong Kong.

From Tang Pui Ling:

Double surnames are not common in Hong Kong nowadays. But in the past, particularly during the 60s and 70s, it was quite common for a female civil servant to have her husband's surname put ahead of her own.  Here's an article in Chinese on this subject.

From Tong Wang:

This practice is an old tradition dating back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) that the surname of a married woman was put behind her husband's surname and shi 氏 ["née; maiden name") was added behind the surnames instead of the given name of the woman.

Women on the mainland do not follow the old tradition of adding their maiden surname behind her husband's surname after marriage. Not at all. A woman uses the name given at birth for all her life.

I am not sure how popular the revised practice (using the maiden given name instead of shi 氏) is in Hong Kong nowadays or in which specific circles women adopt this tradition. Quite a number of female political celebrities follow it, e.g., Anson Maria Elizabeth Chan Fang On-sang / Can4fong1 On1 Saang1  陈方安生,Carrie Lam / Lam4Zeng6 Jyut6ngo4 林郑月娥, but it is rare in the show business.

I have met a number of people on the mainland who have adopted double-barrelled surnames for various personal reasons.  One of the most notable was Zhengzhang Shangfang 郑张尚芳 (1933-2018), a linguist known for his reconstruction of Old Sinitic.  His father's surname was Zheng, but when he was in high school, his parents changed his family name to Zhèngzhāng 郑张 by combining their two surnames.

[Thanks to Bob Bauer]


  1. Mark S. said,

    June 21, 2019 @ 9:03 pm

    In the case of Mandarin, Hanyu Pinyin orthography calls for such names to be hyphenated. Per Yin Binyong (from section 2.3 of his chapter on Pinyin's handling proper nouns):
    In the past, Han Chinese women habitually used their husband’s surname and their own together. In writing names of this type, the surnames are linked by a hyphen:
    Zhang-Luo Yuxiu
    Wang-Guo Guiying

    Note, however, that hyphens are not used in what are originally two-syllable family names. The well-known historian is Sima Qian, not Si-Ma Qian. (Similarly, Ouyang, not Ou-Yang; Zhuge, not Zhu-Ge.) Such family names, however, are rare.

    See also "When to use hyphens in Hanyu Pinyin."

  2. Neil Kubler said,

    June 21, 2019 @ 11:14 pm

    It has been common in Taiwan for many decades for working women to put their husband's surname first, followed by their own full name. For example, SHEN-HE XIANGYUN (where the husband's name is Shen and the woman's own surname is He and her given name is Xiangyun) or WANG-CHEN QIAN (where the husband's name is Wang and the woman's own surname is Chen and her given name is Qian). This custom is not due to recent influence from the West but has been around for a long time.

  3. John Rohsenow said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 11:52 am

    My friend and colleague Dr. Huping Ling (sic, see below), Changjiang Scholar Chair Professor of History at Truman State U, in Kirksville, MO,
    writes: "…my surname in Chinese was originally a double-word one–Linghu, and given name Ping. 令狐萍。However, this surname can be separated as Ling and Hu, so I changed it into 令湖萍 during my teen years in China; thus becoming Huping Ling when I came to the US in
    my 20s. "
    [btw: Prof. Ling is the author of Chinese Chicago: Race,Transnational Migration, and Community Since 1870, and the editor of Asian American History and Cultures: An Encyclopedia (2 vols.)

  4. liuyao said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 10:51 pm

    It's a stretch to say that it was an old Chinese tradition, and to imply that the mainland did not follow it but it was preserved in Hong Kong. One could go through the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women to see how many had double-barrelled surname (I'd bet very few). There's little doubt that it was primarily a Western influence, and you'd see it more common in Hong Kong and Taiwan (the elite, at least). Madame Chiang Kai-shek was known as 蔣宋美齡 or 蔣夫人. If anything is old Chinese tradition, it's that women never got their names recorded, and even when they were honored by the government, they'd be known as so-and-so's wife, surname xxx (i.e., her own family surname).

    If one wants to know what Chinese in premodern times were called (not just on the book), one may take a look into the Dream of the Red Chamber. 王夫人 and 薛姨媽 are sisters of the Wang family, but one goes by Wang and the other goes by her husband's name Xue. The matriarch is known as 賈母 (lit. Jia mother), Jia being her husband's surname. (The story is told from Jia family's perspective.)

    One real case of double-barrelled name is the 陸費 (Lufei or Lubi) family. 陸費墀 (1731-1790) was the chief co-compiler of the Siku Quanshu, and 陸費逵 (1886-1941) founded the Zhonghua shuju (publishing house).

    With the 20th century and the disruption of traditional social order (based on families), people feel a little free to make up their own surnames, but it's still rare occurrence. When the case of Bo Xilai was unfolding, it was a bit of a surprise when it was revealed on state media that Bo's wife official name was 薄谷開來. Maybe she had registered it in Hong Kong.

  5. B.Ma said,

    June 24, 2019 @ 3:45 pm

    In my family it seems to be totally arbitrary whether the married women have added their husband's surname in front of their maiden surname (in fact simply their father's surname) on their Hong Kong ID cards, and this bears no relation to whether they use their maiden, married or both surnames on their English-speaking country documents.

    However regardless of the official situation, in casual Cantonese conversation we all call the married women by their full name with only their maiden surname. Meanwhile in formal Chinese documents the "double-barrelled" version is always used – the only example I can think of is wedding invitations as all our other formal documents would be in English.

  6. ouen said,

    June 25, 2019 @ 3:49 am


    I’m interested that you say the only occasion where a Hong konger might use the double barrelled name would be in a formal piece of writing such as a wedding invitation

    It looks to me like the double barrelled name is used very widely when Carrie Lam is written or talked about in Chinese.
    Does this indicate that her preferred usage for her name is different to that of most women in Hong Kong, or is it because she’s a public figure, and so the conventions that apply when talking about a public figure are slightly different

    It could well be that people who encounter her outside her role as an official never add the initial 林 to her name, unless it’s in a document such as a wedding invitation. If this is the case it’s interesting to me that her English name is simply Lam

  7. Andrew Usher said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 7:57 am

    Surely this is not the normal usage of 'double-barreled surname'? I have only heard that to describe those that, while they may have originated from a marriage combination, are now inherited like any other surname (and the Brits usually spell them without the hyphen, too). A woman adding her husband's name to her own does not qualify, or is it just by way of analogy?

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

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