Internet star Papi Jiang sparks debate by giving son her husband’s surname

Papi Jiang, a Chinese comedian who became an internet sensation in 2015, has been at the centre of an online backlash after it became clear that her newborn son was going to take on her husband’s surname rather than her own.

The controversy began on Mother’s Day, after Papi Jiang (real name Jiang Yilei) posted a photo of herself and her baby on her Weibo account, which has 33 million followers. Underneath the post, a large contingent of users started criticising the celebrity for giving her baby her husband’s surname, in spite of being such a successful and independent woman. Some of the posts took on an offensive tone, with people calling Jiang a “married donkey”, an offensive terms for a woman who submits to her husband’s will in all things.

According to Chinese law, it is possible to choose whether to give a child the mother’s surname or the father’s. Like in most countries, the vast majority of couples choose to pass down the father’s surname, although there is an increasing number of cases in which the child is given both parents’ surnames as a workaround. A few weeks ago a different Chinese woman caused a storm of controversy on social media, after it was reported that she divorced her husband because she wanted to give their son her own surname and he disagreed.

Papi Jiang is sometimes seen as a role model for female empowerment, partly because her success is not based on her looks, and she often wears simple clothing and little make up in her videos. When she first came to fame, she also claimed that she was proud to be a “leftover woman” who was approaching 30 without being married. These factors might lie behind the disappointment that some of her fans felt at her decision to go along with ordinary naming conventions.

There has however been a strong backlash against Papi Jiang’s critics, who many feel are being unreasonable and judgmental. Unfortunately, but not unpredictably, some of the online backlash has degenerated into name-calling and slurs against feminists as a group, described as unreasonable extremists attempting to impose their views on others. A few media outlets have also published articles critical of those who have spoken out against Papi Jiang’s choice. Writing in the Global Times, sociologist Li Yinhe exhorted people to respect the star’s personal choices, and invited feminists to focus on more important topics, like gender equality within marriages and in the broader society.

An editorial published in the Vista看天下 magazine expresses similar sentiments. It ends with the claim that “the people slurring Papi Jiang as a shame to womanhood always claim to be speaking up for women’s rights, but in fact they are just exerting a different sort of pressure. Ordinary women have become sitting ducks, enduring malicious attacks from all sides. If you want to protect women’s rights, the first thing you need to do is precisely to respect their freedom of choice. The most important thing is for ordinary women to be able to lead the life they want, without being attacked by anyone, and having the ability to be responsible for their own choices. You can choose to work, or you can choose family; you can choose marriage, or you can choose to be single. Perhaps only when we have learnt how to respect every independent individual, can we really get a step closer to equal rights.”

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