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Home  /  Inside China  /  Rising Divorce rates in China– Is marriage the grave of love?
Rising Divorce rates in China– Is marriage the grave of love? print version
Divorce rates in China are on the rise. Although this phenomenon is often associated with modernization and a capitalist lifestyle it could also be suggested that some traditional Chinese conceptions actually promote the deterioration of the marriage institute.

Along with the post-Mao reform era in China, many changes in family values are taking place. In terms of the marriage institution, China is experiencing growing divorce rates (currently standing at a ration of about 1 divorce per 1000 people per year, getting close to the top 10 countries in the 'divorce chart') and associated phenomena such as marital infidelity. Public discourse and academic experts often link between modernization, Westernization, liberal permissive values and the 'post 80's generation' (80后), which represents these trends, and the changes in the conceptions of marriage and divorce.

It is evident that changes in values brought upon by new modern trends do affect divorce rates and that transformation of norms is more prevalent in big cities, where socioeconomic changes have reached higher altitudes. However, it is also worth to examine the unique features of romantic conceptions in China, and how they affect the landscape of dating (谈恋爱 tán liànài), marriage and divorce in China.

Many studies from the last 20 years show that marriage relationships are becoming more egalitarian in China and that wives gain a stronger position within the extended family. This is explained by the facts that less and less couples move to live with the grooms' parents compared to the past, women rights are more respected and that Western ideas that promote romantic and even passionate love are penetrating deeper into the Chinese society.

These new 'romantic' values could have contradicting effects on the lifespan of marriage: On the one hand in an equal marriage tie more women would be content and would less look for a way out, while on the other hand women also allow themselves to file for a divorce if such satisfaction isn't realized. As for men, the shift of values also allows them to fear less when being unfaithful and not persist on keeping the family in one piece, as traditional Chinese values (as well as Maoist values) might suggest.

In many cultures, marriage is considered a less romantic phase of a couple's relationship compared to earlier dating stages, but it seems that in China this view has been taken several steps further. '结婚是爱情的坟墓' jiéhūn shì àiqíng de fénmù - 'marriage is the grave of love' is a popular expression in China. When talking with people, in a more personal and less amused manner, it is still clear that many unmarried women fear the day they will get married, as their relationship would soon lose its spark. Married men and women often admit that in terms of romance, dating and marriage are completely different. It seems that even those who adopt a positive attitude towards marriage, don't claim that marriage life is full of love and passion but rather comfort themselves by the idea that love (爱情 àiqíng) becomes 亲情 qīnqíng - A close-intimate feeling, which is in some levels a deeper realization of a man-woman bond.

Such views aren't expressed merely by the newer post 80's generation and are commonly heard also by people in their 40's and 50's, suggesting that these views might be linked to long-standing norms. Somehow it seems that new 'imported' romantic values have a strong effect particularly on young adults who are choosing their spouses, while in the marriage phase couples sink into the less romantic 'Chinese' concept of adult love. On a different level, new emphasized individual needs also lead people to look for an outer marriage affair (外遇wài yù), even if it is naïve to think that such phenomena didn't exist prior to the reform era (1979).

A 52 Chinese man told me a while ago that in Chinese culture men have always '老婆看别人的好,孩子看自己的好' (lǎopó kàn biérén de hǎo,háizi kàn zìjǐ de hǎo) - 'Men always think the wife of another person as better than their own one, while they always see their own children as better than anybody else's'. It would be interesting to discover how true this saying is and whether or not it represents men's mind also in past imperial China.

It is difficult to create a Chinese profile in terms of attitudes towards love and marriage, especially when values are constantly shifting. Modern values give couples new freedom in terms of choice considering marriage and breakup. While divorce rates are higher among younger urban residents, they are also rising in rural areas and among older couples, supporting the idea that divorce in China isn't only a result of 'imported' of foreign values, but also the result of the reaction between modern values and more traditional Chinese attitudes towards the marriage institute. 

This is a complex system: On the one hand the traditional unromantic values might keep people within their marriage, without hoping for something better, but on the other hand this also leads to outer marriage affairs and dissatisfaction, which promotes divorce. On the contrary, romantic values might enable building a stronger marriage foundation, while they could also lead to a growing awareness to unsatisfying relationships and then again, promote divorce.


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