In imperial China, divorce was a ‘male prerogative’ and women had limited rights to divorce. At the beginning of the 20th century, influenced by Western ideas of freedom of marriage and divorce as well as gender equality, the Nationalist government liberalised divorce by allowing it when there was mutual consent between spouses or women sued. But the process remained highly stigmatised and filing for divorce was a major challenge for women.
In 1950, the Communist Party introduced a Marriage Law that abolished feudal marriage practices and introduced a new marriage system based on monogamy, gender equality and free marriage and divorce. The Marriage Law turned into a ‘divorce law’ as many women used it to free themselves from arranged marriages.
In 1980, divorce was allowed on the grounds of ‘breakdown of mutual affection’ and in 2001, for domestic violence and extramarital affairs. In 2003, the government simplified the registration of divorce by eliminating the requirement for letters from the divorcees’ work units. These amendments eased the divorce 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.
China encouraged family planning in the early stages of its economic reform period — most families were restricted to one child between 1979–2015. Unlike their parents, who grew up under Maoist ideology, the one-child generation has been heavily influenced by Western notions of romance, freedom in love and personal rights. For them, marriage is about love and personal choice. This mentality led to the phenomenon of ‘naked marriages’ — in which couples get married without a car, house, ring, wedding party or honeymoon — and the popularity of ‘flash’ or ‘fast-food’ marriages among young couples, followed by ‘flash divorces’.
Post-1980s generations have also been subject to unprecedented life changes, care and investment from their families and the state. Rising educational attainments and economic statuses, especially of women, have altered the conventional pattern of patriarchal marriages. A growing number of women 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, fuelling fear of a ‘masculinity crisis’ and a continuing trend toward ‘stronger women and feebler men’ (yinsheng yangshuai).
Modern feminism in China defends and demands women’s rights and interests, from fighting sexism and male chauvinism to advocating for women’s 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 after divorce.
Post-1980s generations have been faced with rising living costs, unaffordable housing prices and an increasingly ‘involuted’ (neijuan) lifestyle. Many rely on their parents financially and emotionally. Parents have invested heavily in their one child, including education fees, wedding expenses and post-marital residence. This has legitimised 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 stresses in families and triggered increasing cases of domestic violence and underlying conflicts that have significant implications for divorce. Since the government lifted the lockdown, ‘waves’ of divorces have been reported in many provinces, marked by long lines of couples waiting to divorce 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 and divorce.
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 divorce certificates as ‘certificates of happiness’. Some spend thousands of renminbi on ‘divorce photography’. While divorce is a warning for the state and a torment for many families, for others, it is a salvation and happily-ever-after.
Pan Wang is Senior Lecturer in Chinese and Asian Studies at the University of New South Wales.