BEIJING, Aug. 15 -- What's in a name? New parents in a rural east China county are mulling the answer as they ponder how to name their offspring.
On the one hand are the continuation of a stubbornly patriarchal tradition and the ensuing problem of a yawning gender imbalance if the child takes the father's surname; on the other is the offer of 1,000 yuan (about 162 U.S. dollars) and participation in the start of a social revolution if the child has the mother's surname.
At least 30 families in Changfeng County, Anhui Province, have taken the money, according to the local authority.
The cash incentive, launched in 2012, is aimed at balancing the gender ratio and promoting equality, says deputy county chief Xu Shengbin.
In 2011, the central government and the United Nations Population Fund selected Changfeng as a pilot county for three gender equality programs: surname reform, sanitation reform and customs reform.
The latter two -- one to improve access to and quality of women's toilets and the other to tackle folk traditions that discriminate against women -- have been less problematic than the surname campaign, which has drawn controversy.
The media and Internet commentators have branded the naming program the "surname revolution" .
"Surnames mirror the change in women's status through history, and Changfeng's move will improve gender imbalance to a certain extent," says Xia Xueluan, professor of sociology at Peking University.
In feudal times, Chinese women had to put their husbands' surnames ahead of their own and were regarded as chattels of men.
However, since the establishment of People's Republic of China in 1949, women have kept their own names after marriage.
"Their social status rose as they began to go to work and make money," Xia says.
Despite this progress, many Chinese parents -- especially in remote or impoverished rural areas -- retain a preference for sons to carry on the paternal name and to maintain a dominant social status.
Gong Cunbing, Changfeng's population and family planning chief, says the old ideas remain an obstacle to equality among the county's 800,000 people.
"By encouraging parents to give their baby's the mother's surname, we aim to show that women can also carry on the family line and gradually break down traditional ways of thinking," Gong says.
Threat to stability
According to National Bureau of Statistics, 117.6 boys were born for every 100 girls in China last year. That compares with an international average of 102 to 107 boys born for every 100 girls.
The central government wants to reduce the imbalance to 115 boys by 2015.
"In Changfeng, that ratio peaked at 128 boys for every 100 girls, but it fell to 114.7 last year," Gong says, attributing the drop to the surname reform program.
The gender imbalance has resulted in a growing number of rural men who cannot find wives, which threatens long-term social stability, says Gao Junwen, deputy director of Anhui provincial commission of health and family planning.
Media reports of men in the rural areas paying human traffickers tens of thousands yuan for brides from as far afield as Southeast Asia are becoming frequent.
Though the central government is fighting human trafficking with the law, action is needed to tackle the root cause of the problem -- obstinate mindsets.
"Only when people abandon their old concepts and value boys and girls equally will the gender ratio even out," Gao says.
However, many people question the reform campaign. "What's the standard of equality? Won't it cause new discrimination against men?" asks Professor Dong Zengshou, of Taiyuan University of Science and Technology.
Some argue the policy could trigger family feuds over whose surname the children should inherit.
Others say the cash incentive will have no long-term effect on patriarchal attitudes as many people will just want the money. "This is a gender equality program with Chinese characteristics," said a netizen named "AshikaCafeteria" .
A survey conducted this month by Chinese portal Sohu.com showed 60 percent of the 14,000 respondents supported the tradition of following the father's surname, while 28 percent believed the surname was unimportant and only 12 percent supported children taking their mother's surname.
"Surname reforms only work to a certain degree, and the basic way to break people's old-fashioned mindsets is to broaden people's horizons by improving education and shaking off rural poverty," says Xia Xueluan.