Chinese Slough Off Old Barriers to Divorce
Breakups Skyrocket Alongside An Embrace of Individualism

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.

"In traditional neighborhoods, everyone knew each other," Yuan said. "Now those mediation committees just do administrative work. People will not accept their intervention anymore. Your parents, your uncle, your aunts are all over the place now. Everybody has become more individualized."

Divorce laws have also changed several times since 1980, when a new marriage law first made estrangement a reason to grant divorce. Divorce was also granted if mediation failed in cases of bigamy, violence, gambling, drug abuse or lack of mutual affection.

The most recent revisions came in 2003. Courts no longer automatically reject first-time divorce applications or require long waiting periods before reapplying; people can now get divorced in a matter of minutes.

Although women still confront negative consequences when they divorce -- it can adversely affect promotions, Communist Party membership and overseas training opportunities -- the stigma is less than it was, especially among young people.

"In the old days, people would point at you as if you were a whore. It would be very hard to date," said Wu, who has gone out with three men since her divorce, each just once. "I used to think I could never tell anyone I was divorced."

It has not been easy adjusting, but Wu had another source of support: a Shanghai-based divorce counseling center that in two years has opened 30 offices across China. Its year-old Web site has an online community of more than 1 million registered members.

The Wei-Qing Counseling Center says it has had about 2,700 people walk through its doors. More than half of the clients complain of loveless marriages. About 20 percent suffer from sexless marriages. Another 20 percent are so hostile that founder Shu Xin immediately recommends divorce.

Most clients, however, ask him to help analyze and save their marriages, which he does for up to $105 an hour or up to $658 a day. Business is booming. Earlier this year, Shu said, he made $79,000 from one client.

Even in the case of a husband's infidelity, the women try to hang on. "They say, 'I'm a phoenix, how could a common squirrel just come and occupy my nest?' " Shu said, adding that most of the men have already found an ideal partner and want help obtaining a smooth divorce without hurting their wives.

"In my dad's time, when they had marital trouble, the first thing was to go to their parents or bosses or workers union or women's federation and ask them to educate their spouse," Shu said. But with the proliferation of cellphones, computers and online dating, people are not only having casual sex but are also beginning to ask strangers how to improve their love lives.

Recently, the general manager of a computer company came to Shu after his desire for a divorce produced suicide threats from his wife, who also threatened to harm their 12-year-old daughter. Shu met repeatedly with the wife and called in faraway relatives to help soothe her. In the end she got a big apartment, a Buick and $263,000. The husband got his divorce. It took three months.

Experts note that spikes in the divorce rate are not an entirely new phenomenon in China. Divorce temporarily increased in the early 1950s, for example, after China's civil war and the passage of laws banning concubines. Back then, as now, women began to step out of family-centered roles; with jobs came independence and the will to leave unhappy marriages.

For Wu, although being a newly single mom has meant more work, she has no regrets about splitting with her husband.

"If I talked about these issues last year, I wouldn't be able to control my tears. When I got divorced, friends asked me how I could bear it, especially with a 3-month-old. But I had faith, and I knew I could depend on myself," she said. "I knew I had to work hard to give my daughter a better life."

Researchers Jin Ling in Shanghai and Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company