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Divorce: Why the big breakup in China?

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
  • Divorce in China was once frowned upon
  • In today's China, some 4,500 couples split up every day
  • Psychiatrist: Divorce on the rise because of social, economic changes
  • Another reason for increase in divorce: Changes to regulations make it easier to split

"Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- There was hardly any confusion about marriage and family life in old China. Traditional Chinese culture frowned on divorce. An ancient proverb admonishes newlyweds: "You are married until your hair turns white."

In practice, of course, men played a more dominant role in Chinese families and got away with most things, including marital dalliances. It was shameful for women to marry more than once while it was easy for men to take one or more concubines.

But the times are changing in modern China. The economic miracle that followed the country's opening to the outside world after 1979 has dramatically changed social mores --- and getting divorced no longer carries the social stigma it once did.

In today's China, some 4,500 couples split up every day. More than 2.46 million couples divorced in the country last year -- nearly twice the number in 2001.

See more of CNN's special coverage of China

"The rise in divorce rate is expected because China over the years has been going through drastic social and economic changes," said Xu Haoyuan, a U.S.-trained psychiatrist who offers marital counseling on a Beijing radio hotline. "Views on sex and marriage have swung from one extreme to another -- from the extremely puritanical to the free-wheeling."

"The rise in divorce rate is expected because China over the years has been going through drastic social and economic changes."
--Xu Haoyuan, a psychiatrist

So, why are couples in China splitting up? Experts have many explanations, but a key reason was the revision in 2003 of the marriage registration regulation, making it easier to divorce.

Before the change, couples seeking a divorce were required to get letters from their work units or neighborhood committees that explained and endorsed their reasons for breaking up.

Those who did not want to be subjected to lectures, gossips and shame opted to stay miserably married. Under the new rules, if couples are not fighting over property rights or child custody, they can get their divorce in minutes.

Other reasons for the spike in divorce: increased social mobility, especially the relaxation of the "hukou," or household registration system, that has accelerated internal migration; the one-child policy, some negative effects of rapid economic growth on peoples' values, and the dramatic change in the status of women.

Ideologues blame it on fickleness that comes from social-climbing, gold-digging, unsatisfied sexual or romantic desire. Still others attribute it to indiscriminate adoption of Western values and "bourgeois ideas" of materialism and egotism.

Not surprisingly, marriage counselors find that a common cause of Chinese divorces is marital infidelity, euphemistically referred to as "di san zhe," or "a third party."

"Extra marital relations are quite common nowadays," said the psychiatrist Xu. "Almost every couple who call in say they have extramarital relations. People are confused about what is right and what is wrong."

For four years, one of my friends had carried on a long-distance marriage with his wife. He worked in Beijing as a producer of movies and TV programs, while his wife chose to stay in her native Shanghai, where she worked as a white-collar employee in a trading company.

Not long ago, my friend found a girlfriend -- a young Beijing native. When his wife learned about it, she demanded a divorce. They parted ways amicably.

In some regions in China, the reasons for divorce have nothing to do with the romantic relationship: some people, wanting to take advantage of government programs, have entered into fake divorces.

For example, many property-hungry couples in Shanghai were found forging divorce documents in early October in order to circumvent a new government regulation. To curb speculation and cool the red-hot Shanghai property market, the local government recently issued new rules limiting families to buying one additional home per family. By faking divorce, couples hoped to buy as many as four homes instead of two, according to the Chongqing Business Newspaper.

In the past, marriage in China was mainly an economic arrangement where women were dependent on husbands and relegated to the role of breeder and nurturer.

Chinese women are now achieving higher economic and social status. These changes transform marriage into a mutually satisfying partnership.

Many Chinese now put a premium on love, mutual affection, compatibility and sexual equality.

All things considered, I see rising divorce rates in China in a positive light.

Read last week's "Jaime's China": The man who could be China's next president