Divorce: a love story
While the government talks up family values,marriage break-ups are soaring
YANG YOURONG’s wife kicks him as they walk upstairs and he falls back a few steps, thenfollows again at a distance up to the cramped offices of a district-government bureau handlingdivorces in Chongqing, a region in the south-east. After more than 20 years of marriage, MrYang’s wife has had several affairs; she is “quick tempered”, he says (she had slapped himearlier, he claims). At the bureau, divorce takes half an hour and costs 9 yuan ($1.40). It isadministered a few steps away from where other couples get married and take celebratoryphotographs. Mr Yang and his wife have second thoughts, however; they return home, stillarguing. Most couples hesitate less.
Divorce rates are rising quickly across China. This is a remarkable transformation in a societywhere for centuries marriage was universal and mostly permanent (though conventionpermitted men to take concubines). Under Communist rule, traditional values have retained astrong influence over family relationships: during much of the Mao era, divorce was veryunusual. It became more common in the 1980s, but a marriage law adopted in 1994 stillrequired a reference from an employer or community leader. Not until 2003 were restrictionsremoved.
The trend reflects profound economic and social change. In the past 35 years, the biggestinternal migration experienced by any country in human history has been tearing familiesapart. Traditional values have been giving way to more liberal ones. Women are becomingbetter educated, and more aware of their marital rights (they now initiate over half of all divorcecases). Greater affluence has made it easier for many people to contemplate living alone—nolonger is there such an incentive to stay married in order to pool resources.
As long as both sides agree on terms, China is now among the easiest and cheapest places inthe world to get a divorce. In many Western countries, including Britain, couples must separatefor a period before dissolving a marriage; China has no such constraints. In 2014, the latestyear for which such data exist, about 3.6m couples split up—more than double the number adecade earlier (they received a red certificate, pictured, to prove it). The divorce rate—thenumber of cases per thousand people—also doubled in that period. It now stands at 2.7, wellabove the rate in most of Europe and approaching that of America, the most divorce-proneWestern country (see chart). Chongqing’s rate, 4.4, is higher than America’s.
Helped by the huge movement of people from the countryside into cities, and the rapid spreadof social media, the availability of potential mates has grown with astonishing speed, bothgeographically and virtually. But many migrants marry in their home villages and often live apartfrom their spouses for lengthy periods. This has contributed to a big increase in extramaritalliaisons. Married people previously had limited opportunities to meet members of the oppositesex in social situations, according to research by Li Xiaomin of Henan University. Peng Xiaobo, adivorce lawyer in Chongqing, reckons 60-70% of his clients have had affairs.
Such behaviour has led to much soul-searching. The notion that “chopsticks come in pairs” isstill prevalent; propaganda posters preach Confucian-style family virtues using pictures ofhappy, multi-generation families. (President Xi Jinping is on his second marriage but this israrely mentioned.) Many commentators in the official media talk of separation as a sign of moralfailure; they fret that it signifies the decline of marriage, and of family as a social unit—athreat, as they see it, to social stability and even a cause of crime. The spread of “Westernvalues” is often blamed.
But marriage is not losing its lustre. In most countries, rising divorce rates coincide with morebirths out of wedlock and a fall in marriage rates. China bucks both these trends. Remarriage iscommon too. The Chinese have not fallen out of love with marriage—only with each other.
It is tradition itself that is partly to blame for rising divorce rates. China’s legal marriage agefor men, 22, is the highest in the world. But conservative attitudes to premarital relationshipsresult in Chinese youths having fewer of them than their counterparts in the West (they areurged to concentrate on their studies and careers, rather than socialise or explore). Livingtogether before marriage is still rare, although that is changing among educated youngsters.People still face social pressure to marry in their 20s. Their inexperience makes it more thanusually difficult for them to select a good partner.
Couples’ ageing relatives are part of the problem too. Yan Yunxiang of the University ofCalifornia, Los Angeles, says “parent-driven divorce” is becoming more common. As a result ofChina’s one-child-per-couple policy (recently changed to a two-child one), many people have nosiblings to share the burden of looking after parents and grandparents. Thus couples often findthemselves living with, or being watched over by, several—often contending—elders. Mr Yansays the older ones’ interference fuels conjugal conflict. Sometimes parents urge theirchildren to divorce their partners as a way to deal with rifts.
Women are more likely to be the ones who suffer financially when this happens. Rising divorcerates reflect the spread of more tolerant, permissive values towards women, but legislationtends to favour men in divorce settlements. A legal interpretation issued in 2003 says that ifa divorce is disputed, property bought for one partner by a spouse’s parents before marriagecan revert to the partner alone. That usually means the husband’s family: they often try toincrease their child’s ability to attract a mate by buying him a home.
In 2011 the Supreme Court went further. It ruled that in contested cases (as about one-fifth ofdivorces are), the property would be considered that of one partner alone if that partner’sparents had bought it for him or her after the couple had got married. In addition, if onepartner (rather than his or her parents) had bought a home before the couple wed, thatperson could be awarded sole ownership by a divorce court. This ruling has put women at adisadvantage too: by convention they are less often named on deeds.
In practice, if the couple has children the person with custody often keeps the home—moreoften the mother. Yet the court’s interpretation sets a worrying precedent for divorcedwomen. Their difficulties may be compounded by the two-child policy, which came into effect onJanuary 1st. If couples have two children and both partners want custody, judges often assignparents one child each. Marriage and the family are still strong in China—but children clearly lie ina different asset class.
1.social change 社会变迁
例句:The key issue is the ability of the state toperceive social change and realize possibleoutcomes of its social policy.
2.in order to 为了
例句:Anne raised her voice in order to be heard.
3.more than 超过
例句:He had notched up more than 25 victories worldwide.
4.social media 社交媒体
例句:For leaders, social media is an extraordinary tool.