Women in China Embrace Divorce as Stigma Eases
By JIM YARDLEY
Published: October 4, 2005
GUANGZHOU, China, Sept. 30 - In this lush, affluent region where adultery is so ingrained that wealthy businessmen keep their lovers in "concubine villages," infidelity is often tolerated in a marriage. But Cai Shaohong could not put up with it.
Cai Shaohong of Guangzhou, China, was divorced in June, despite her parents' disapproval, after, she said, her husband had been unfaithful.
Lin Junjie works at an agency in Guangzhou that introduces foreign men to Chinese women. Most of the women are, like herself, divorced.
So against the advice of her parents, Ms. Cai, 29, decided in June to leave her husband. Five years of marriage dissolved after 30 minutes of paperwork. She celebrated at a teahouse with friends. By August, Ms. Cai was advising a friend who had also decided to end her marriage with an unfaithful spouse.
"Several of my friends have gotten divorced," Ms. Cai said this week during a break at her office, explaining how things are changing here. "My friends think divorce is normal, not an unthinkable thing."
Divorce was once a dreaded fate for women in China. Now, many younger urban women like Ms. Cai view it almost as a civil right, which has helped drive up divorce rates. One government study found that women had initiated 70 percent of divorce applications here in Guangdong Province, where the number of divorces increased by 52 percent last year.
For women, and for men as well, changing social mores have brought changing expectations of marriage. If Chinese couples once recited ancient vows "to remain loyal to each other even if the seas run dry and the rocks crumble," as scholars point out, these days bad food or bad sex is enough to end some marriages.
"In the past, traditional values were the most important thing," said Yuan Rongqin, a psychotherapist in Guangzhou who treats a growing number of people for marriage- and divorce-related problems. "Now, individualism has taken over."
Divorce, then, has become yet another barometer of how Western influences introduced by two decades of economic change have rippled through Chinese society. China now has divorce lawyers, divorce counselors, prenuptial agreements and private detective agencies that photograph cheating spouses in the act. Several television shows about divorce have become popular.
"People's idea about the concept of marriage is changing," said Lu Ying, a lawyer who runs the Women and Gender Study Center at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. "Instead of thinking of having just one spouse for a lifetime, now they are thinking about the quality of a marriage. If it doesn't work out, then they are quietly ending it."
To a degree, China's rising divorce rate is typical for a developing country that is rapidly modernizing and becoming more affluent. But the increase has been sharp since October 2003, when the government streamlined the process in response to citizens' complaints. It also dropped the onerous requirement that couples needed approval from their employers. A process that once felt like an inquisition now can take 10 minutes.
Overall, China's divorce rate, as figured by comparing the number of divorces with the number of marriages in the same year, is about 19 percent, nearly five times the 1979 rate. That is still far below the divorce rate in the United States, which has been about 50 percent in recent years. Last year, the number of divorces in China jumped 21 percent from 2003, with 1.6 million couples splitting up. Roughly 6 in 10 opted against a contentious court divorce and chose the fast, noncontested divorce offered at government civil affairs offices. There, couples need only a marriage certificate, identification card, photographs and a divorce application.
The simplicity of the process has led to a new, if rare, social phenomenon, the "flash divorce" (as well the "flash marriage"). Chinese newspapers have carried accounts of young couples marrying in the morning, arguing at midday and divorcing in the afternoon.
Chang Jie regards her short marriage as a foolish mistake. In September 2003, when she was 24, she married her boyfriend in Beijing the day before she left for a job more than 1,000 miles away in the southern city of Macao. For four months, the new couple communicated mostly by e-mail. When Ms. Chang returned to Beijing in January 2004, her husband asked for a divorce. They had spent only a few days together as a married couple.
"He told me he didn't want to do this anymore," recalled Ms. Chang. "It shocked me." But she added: "It was better to end it. I think a lot of young people end their marriages in two years."
Divorce is much more common in the more prosperous cities than in poorer rural areas. In Beijing, for example, one study found that the divorce rate last year was 50 percent. Even so, divorce is rising in rural migrant families where a husband working away from home may only see his wife once a year.
Here in coastal Guangdong Province, a densely populated manufacturing hub that is one of the wealthiest regions in China, a local newspaper recently carried an article suggesting that Sept. 30, the eve of the weeklong National Day holiday, would be a "lucky" day to get divorced. It was a twist on the Chinese tradition of getting married on fortuitous holidays.
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Yuan Rongqin, a psychotherapist in Guangzhou, said the number of people he has treated for problems involving divorce has increased.
For many older couples trapped in loveless marriages, the new law has meant an exit without the shame of seeking permission. But Ms. Lu, who runs the Women and Gender Study Center, said younger couples were often less concerned about shame and more interested in whether the marriage has enough money and sex. If a person is unhappy over these issues, he or she is less likely than prior generations to simply bear it.
"These are considered reasonable excuses to file for a divorce," Ms. Lu said.
Infidelity has emerged as a leading cause of divorce. A survey in Guangdong, cited by state media, found that work pressure contributed to 60 percent of divorces while adultery contributed to 30 percent. Unhappiness with a "poor sex life" played a role in 20 percent of divorces.
Mr. Yuan, the psychotherapist, runs a private counseling center in Guangzhou. He said 80 percent of the patients who came to him for marital counseling complain of adultery. "There are more choices now in sex," Mr. Yuan said. "The change in traditional family values has led to more affairs."
Ms. Cai, the woman divorced in June, discovered a photograph of her husband and his lover. Infuriated, she told him that he must stop seeing his mistress, but he refused. Ms. Cai's parents fretted about the shame associated with divorce.
"My father said, 'You have a child and you should stick with the marriage,' " she said. "But I couldn't take it. My husband thought I was boring because I just went to work and came home. He said we had no social life."
Like an increasing number of younger women, Ms. Cai had a job, which gave her greater flexibility in deciding to leave. So in June, she arranged to meet her husband at the civil affairs office for a divorce. "He was late for the divorce appointment," she said. "He was late for the marriage, too. He was always late."
Two months ago, Ms. Cai took a new job at a Guangzhou agency that introduced foreign men to Chinese women, the equivalent of a mail-order bride company. Three of the agency's seven employees are divorced; so are 80 percent of the women who are signed up to meet foreign men. Inside the office, a wall is covered with photographs of middle-aged foreign men hugging mostly middle-aged Chinese women.
Remarriage is a major concern for Chinese women, given that there is still some social stigma attached to divorce. So Lin Junjie, a manager at the agency and herself divorced, said many women had come to the agency after failing to find a new Chinese husband.
Now, Ms. Lin said, the agency sponsored Saturday mixers between divorced Chinese women and foreign men. She said attendance was growing.