China’s marriage and birth rates have plunged to record lows. But the number of divorce cases has skyrocketed. In 2012, divorce levels exceeded marriage rates for the first time.
It peaked at 4.71 million couples in 2019 before declining to 2.1 million by 2022. This recent decline is partly due to the delayed processing of divorce applications during the Covid-19 lockdown and the “cooling-off period” introduced by the government in 2021.
In imperial China, divorce was a “male prerogative” and women had limited rights.
At the start of the 20th century, influenced by Western ideas, the Nationalist government liberalized divorce by allowing it when there was mutual consent or women sued. But the process remained highly stigmatized and filing for divorce was a major challenge for women.
In 1950, the Communist Party introduced a Marriage Law that abolished feudal practices and introduced a new system based on monogamy and gender equality. It allowed many women to free themselves from arranged marriages.
In 1980, divorce was allowed on the grounds of a “breakdown of mutual affection” and in 2001, for domestic violence and extramarital affairs. In 2003, the government simplified the process by eliminating the requirement for letters from the divorcees’ work units.
These amendments eased the process and made China one of the world’s easiest and cheapest countries to divorce. It was not until 2021 that the government introduced a 30-day “cooling off period” to curb rising divorce rates.
But this has come too late and may have little impact in the long run.
During the early stages of economic reform, China pursued a one-child policy between 1979 and 2015. Unlike their parents, who grew up under Maoist ideology, the one-child generation has been heavily influenced by Western notions of romance, freedom, and personal rights.
For them, marriage was about love and personal choice. This mentality led to the phenomenon of ‘naked marriages’ free of the props of a ring, a wedding party, or a honeymoon.
“Flash” or “fast-food” marriages became popular among young couples, followed by “flash divorces.” But then, post-1980s generations have also experienced unprecedented life changes, care, and investment from their families and the state.
Educated with economic status, women have altered the conventional pattern of patriarchal marriages. A growing number have become “breadwinners” for their families.
This is reinforced by a softened masculinity popularised among Chinese young men by the “Korean Wave” in recent decades, fueling fear of a “masculinity crisis” and a continuing trend toward “stronger women and feebler men” or yinsheng yangshuai.
Modern feminism in China defends and demands women’s rights and interests, from fighting sexism and male chauvinism to advocating for equal surnaming rights with their husbands.
Women have become increasingly intolerant of unsatisfactory marriages and resort to divorce to protect their rights.
Men divorce when their expectations of gender roles in marriage do not match those of their wives. But those with limited economic and cultural capital – especially women – can be disadvantaged in accessing and exercising their right to divorce.
Women with children also often face financial difficulties and challenges in remarrying.
Still, post-1980s generations have been faced with rising living costs, unaffordable home prices, and an increasingly complicated, or neijuan, lifestyle. Many rely on their parents financially and emotionally.
They have invested heavily in their one child, including education fees, wedding expenses, and post-marital residence. This has legitimized their role in managing their children’s private lives, from arranging blind dates to supervising their married lives.
Such “meddling” easily leads to marital conflicts among their adult children and divorce.
The rising cost of living combined with unemployment and lockdowns during Covid-19 led to economic and mental stress in families. In turn, this triggered increasing cases of domestic violence and underlying conflicts that have significant implications for divorce.
Since the government lifted the lockdown, a “divorce wave” has been reported in many provinces, marked by long lines of couples waiting at local civil affairs offices.
China’s fast-growing economy has opened a Pandora’s box of reasons for divorce – economic prosperity, personal freedom, increasing mobility, and a growing pursuit of wealth as well as materialism.
Emotional needs have been accompanied by an increase in cohabitation, premarital sex, prostitution, and marital infidelity, leading to broken relationships. Yet divorce is now celebrated by post-1980s generations.
Since the early 2010s, “divorce ceremonies” have emerged as “an elegant approach” to end love and commemorate marriage. More and more women have shared and celebrated their post-divorce lives on social media, praising their “certificates of happiness”.
Some spend thousands of renminbi on “divorce photography”.
So, while divorce is a warning for the state and a torment for many families, for others, it is a salvation and a happily-ever-after event.
Pan Wang is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese and Asian Studies at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.