Chinese Slough Off Old Barriers to Divorce

Wu Meifen, 33, with her daughter, gave up everything when she divorced, but says she has no regrets as a single mother.
Wu Meifen, 33, with her daughter, gave up everything when she divorced, but says she has no regrets as a single mother. (By Travis Fox -- Washingtonpost.com)

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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 7, 2007

SHANGHAI -- Wu Meifen, 33, was seven months pregnant when she saw the short text message. It was on her husband's mobile phone, she said, and it confirmed her suspicions: He was having an affair.

Then, days before giving birth, she called home from the hospital and discovered her rival had temporarily moved in. That was when Wu decided to leave her husband, divorcing him in 2004 and taking nothing, she said, even though Chinese law calls for a 50-50 split of a couple's assets.

"I thought it was humiliating to bargain with him," Wu recalled. "I gave up everything."

Although she had no income at first, Wu knew that in a pinch she could rely on relatives. She learned how to drive. She borrowed money from a sister in Shanghai and started her own business. Now, she makes a decent living selling bathroom tiles. She drives a shiny white Toyota.

Divorce, once nearly unheard of in China, has become more common than ever as women such as Wu gain financial independence and shrug off the diminishing stigma of leaving their husbands. Legal barriers to divorce have fallen away -- couples needed permission from their employers until just four years ago -- and the Internet has become a resource for discontented spouses seeking guidance.

More broadly, experts say, the increase in divorce points to an embrace of individualism in this country, which in many ways remains only nominally communist.

"We used to think about how others see us, and the reputation of our families," said Xu Anqi, a sociology professor and deputy director of the Family Research Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "With people's changing ideas and less control on society, people are eager to look for happiness. Now they pay attention to love and quality of life. I think that's healthy."

Although it remains lower than in many developed countries, the divorce rate in China has skyrocketed in recent decades. It more than doubled from 1985 to 1995, as the country opened to Western ideas, and by 2005, the rate had more than tripled, to 1.37 couples out of every 1,000 people, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. In cities such as fast-paced Shanghai, the divorce rate is now seven or eight times the rate in 1980, Xu said.

The U.S. divorce rate, by comparison, was 3.7 couples per 1,000 people in 2004. By some estimates, half of all new marriages in the United States will end in divorce.

In China "there are more options, more choices" than before, said Victor Yuan, a sociologist and chairman of the Horizon Research Consultancy Group, which tracks social trends. "Everything -- we need it to be new. We hope our quality of life will be improved because we just got a new house, a new spouse, even new kids."

In the past, many Chinese couples stayed together because of pressure from family members. But that pressure has lessened as the notion of family has changed. Traditional courtyard houses that once contained extended families have been replaced by modern apartment blocks and smaller families. Other families have been split informally, as millions of Chinese pick up each year to join the ranks of migrant workers in distant cities.

Meanwhile, the closure of many state-owned companies has reduced the influence of the traditional work unit, or danwei, which controls housing and once approved marriages and divorces. Even so-called mediation committees, traditional neighborhood groups once active in intervening in family disputes, hardly know who's who anymore.


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