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The normal chaos of (Chinese) love

A report on China's booming divorce rate, imposing reflections on causes and possible antidotes


The normal chaos of (Chinese) love

A report on China's booming divorce rate, imposing reflections on causes and possible antidotes


In 1995 wife and husband Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim, two German sociologists, co-authored a book called The Normal Chaos of Love. They explained how fundamentally love is changing in modern times, creating opportunities for both democracy and chaos in personal life. People struggle to harmonize family and career, love, and marriage, and many social institutions, such as marriage, tend to flounder.

No book better than this could embody the massive social transformations that Chinese cities are undergoing these days: China is facing a boom in breakups. In 2012, the most recent year for which figures were available, China counted 3.1 million divorces, up 133 percent over 2003, and amounting to an average of almost 10,000 per day. According to a report from China Daily which cited Zhang Shifeng, head of the department of social affairs at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the Chinese divorce rate is not slowing down; it has exponentially risen over the past decade.

Big cities lead the way in China’s breakup outbreak. In Beijing in 2013, about 164,000 couples tied the knot in 2011, while over 55,000 couples divorced. The capital experienced a 65 percent increase in divorce between 2011 and 2013, and is not even the country’s leading city in this regard: Tianjin trails closely and Shanghai has a higher marriage breakup rate.

Such figures provide context within which it is easy to understand the concerns that both the authorities and the people are having with respect to marriage, this last possibly contributing to China’s long standing demographic problems.

Marriage has long been the cornerstone of Chinese Confucian society, and is therefore more than an expression of love. According to Confucian tradition, it was a means to reach virtue, and an affair involving not only the spouses but also their families and their entire clans. It all contributes to the “worry” with which the crumbling of marriage is viewed.

Many people point to certain young adults as a reckless, spoilt generation. According to such a view, those born in the 80s seem to treat romantic relationships more casually, falling in love easily, marrying hastily and divorcing just a few months later. The 1980s generation, product of the controversial One-Child Policy, is often pointed to as selfish, apathetic to the needs of others and incapable of compromises as they were raised without siblings and presumably pampered by their parents. Therefore, so the argument runs, they are impulsive, materialist and very impatient. This especially applies to women, becoming more and more coveted after the One-Child Policy resulted in a surplus of men.

“Many city couples in their 20s or 30s lack the patience to adapt to each other or make the necessary compromises, so their marriages are often in a fragile state,” Du Huanghai, family attorney from Shanghai, confirmed to China Daily.

At the same time, some scholars report that a change in China’s marriage laws is facilitating divorce. Sun Xiaomei, a professor specializing in women’s studies at China Women’s University, told the People Daily that the law’s revisions in the last half century contributed to the phenomenon. “In the past, people had to get permission from employers or neighborhood committees to untie the knot,” she said.

And there are even people who end their marriage for tax reasons, to purchase real estate or to receive more money for property demolition.

And while authorities have expressed signs of preoccupation at the divorce boom and intend to take action against the floundering of marriage, their attempts have looked nothing but clumsy (at best) thus far.

For instance, Xi’an and Nanjing are among Chinese cities that just plastered many regional newspapers’ headlines after setting up a limit of daily divorces issued by their bureaus.

Only the first 15 couples to arrive at the Civil Affairs Bureau, in Xi’an’s Changan District, after it opened at 8.30am are able to file for a divorce each day, as the South China Morning Post reported. The director of the office told the newspaper the quota was introduced to try “to fix more broken families because of the mainland’s rising divorce rate.” As the couples will have more time, they might as well think their intentions over.

Similarly, the government is thinking about setting up divorce hotlines and counseling services to alter the trend.

Not every netizen welcomed the measures:

“The civil affairs bureau has no right to make any decision for a couple,” said a Beijing microblogger, who identified herself as Yanyan.

“Is there anything on the mainland that the authority could not restrict,” another Beijing Weibo user asked.

It all adds to the normal chaos of contemporary Chinese love.

A portrait of Confucius

A portrait of Confucius

Society is also responding and trying to produce its own painkillers. Just to give an example, Li Jingheng, a history scholar in Chengdu, Sichuan province, recently cited a figure no less than Confucius, claiming he himself was divorced. The sage, he says, married at 19, had a son, and went on to split from his wife. Later on, at 67, Confucius also gave his daughter-in-law permission to remarry. Li thus argues that even he who laid the foundation of the patriarchal family was not thoroughly against breakups, and was far more tolerant than people realize.

And while Li’s interpretation of Confucius’ personal life and ideas can be debated, it does reflect contemporary anxieties spreading in China. “No, we’re not worse off today” Li’s article seems to say, and “maybe the kids today are all right from an ancient point of view.” The current situation may be a better fit for the strife and hardships of love in 21st century China. A Chinese answer to the normal chaos of Chinese love.

Master Image courtesy of Flickr User: Lunabee. Used and edited under a Creative Commons licence