Digital Version Shop TWOC Events

Bizarre divorce laws in ancient times

In olden times, the divorce law provided many opportunities for a man to divorce his wife


Bizarre divorce laws in ancient times

In olden times, the divorce law provided many opportunities for a man to divorce his wife


It is no surprise that many cultures in the world frown upon divorce.  Though almost every wedding vow say “until death do us part”, divorces still happen everywhere. Today people can easily accept that the end of a loveless marriage contains no evil, but in ancient times, divorce was a serious matter.

Just like everything else in ancient marriages, divorce was also dominated by men and seen as shameful for the women and her family. What’s worse, only men had the right to apply for a divorce. In modern Chinese, divorce is translated into “离婚”, literally meaning “take apart a marriage”. But in ancient Chinese, the practice was called “休妻” or “出妻”, meaning “divorce a wife” or “expel a wife”. The old laws clearly regulated seven situations in which men could divorce their wives lawfully, which was called “七出之条 (seven codes for divorcing wives)”. Let’s have a look at these codes and maybe we can will gain some basic ideas about how hard it used to be for a woman to maintain her marriage.

1. Not obedient to the in-laws (不顺父母)

In traditional cultures, once married a woman becomes a member of her husband’s family. Her parents-in-law became more important than her own parents. The wife had to look after them, respect them, obey them, and most importantly, please them. If a wife could not achieve all of above or even if her in-laws simply disliked her, the husband could lawfully divorce her.

The famous poet Lu You (陆游) in Song Dynasty deeply loved his wife Tang Wan, another talented poet and his cousin. But Lu’s mother didn’t like Tang, and said Tang wasn’t obedient. So they were forced to get divorced, with only their sad poems left in memory of their love.

Image depicts Lu You met Tang Wan after they were forced to divorce, courtesy of blog.sina.com.

Image depicts Lu You writing a poem when he met Tang Wan after they were forced to divorce, courtesy of blog.sina.com.

2. Childless (无子)

Children, or let’s face it,  sons were really important for an ancient family. Women’s first priority was to give birth to children. A son was a very important safeguard for a woman’s marriage. But if a couple had no children, the wife was the only one shoulder the blame. The Tang Dynasty regulated that if a wife had not yet had a child by the age of 50, the husband could divorce her.

3. Adultery (淫佚)

This just might be the most reasonable cause for a man to divorce his wife. If the wife is caught cheating on her husband, she would be imprisoned. Divorce would not be surprising. However, sometimes the husband would not even have any evidence, and simple propose a divorce based on his suspicions.

4. Jealousy (嫉妒)

In comparison to the previous one, this reason seems completely ridiculous and domineering. The word “jealous” could be loosely interpreted. Though a man could marry only a formal wife, he could have concubines. In the traditional moral and ritual system, a decent wife had to show her acceptance and consideration for all the concubines, and get along with them peacefully and even happily, or she would become the guilty party. If the wife did not allow her husband to marry concubines or was unhappy about it, she could be defined as “jealous” and thus divorced.

5. Disease (恶疾)

Ideally, every couple should face the ups and downs of their life together. If one was afflicted by illness, the other one is supposed to help. But back in ancient China, disease served as a reason for divorce. In marriage, if the wife contracted infectious diseases (mostly lepriasis), the husband did not have an obligation to look after her and could have no problem divorcing.

6. Talking too much (多言)

Nobody likes a big mouth. But for ancient wives, the standards were much harsher. Usually, talking too much referred to words that led to conflicts between the husband and family members. Imagine that, as a wife, you had a quarrel with your sister-in-law, then you talked with your husband about it, and your husband stood on your side. He would argue with his sister. All of a sudden, you are divorced, because you alienated the family.

7. Theft (偷盗)

Theft was obviously a crime, but the point was its definition in marriage. We have to know that although the wife is a formal family member, to some extent she is still an outsider. The wife did not have the right to dispose of domestic property, and if she used their money without her husband knowing, it was “theft”.

Apart from the seven codes, there were also divorces by agreement, which was called “和离制度”, literally meaning that both sides agreed to divorce. But in fact it meant that despite adhering to the rules, a wife could still be divorced. Chinese people believe that “家丑不可外扬 (Domestic shame should not be made public)”. So when men do not want others to know why he divorced his wife, he could use divorce by agreement.

Of course, people—male or female—could also appeal to the court for divorce (呈诉离婚). But it was supposed to be used only in extreme situations, like “the wife escaped”, “the husband had be missing for more than three years”, “the husband forced the wife to become prostitute”, “the husband sold the wife to others”, and “male family members raped the wife or her female relatives”.

And in a twist, the court could end a marriage without the consent of either parties. The law regulated that if any brawl, murder, or other criminal offense occurred between the couple or their relatives, the couple would be divorced by the court. It was called“义绝 ”, meaning “end the relationship”.

Compared with the laws mentioned above, regulations meant to protect marriage (or say women directly) were really rare. There were only three conditions under which a man couldn’t divorce his wife:

Wives whose own family had no members alive (有所取无所归);

Wives who had been in mourning over her deceased in-laws for no less than three years (与更三年丧);

Wives who had experienced poverty when married but now became rich (先贫贱后富贵).

Well, girls, take a wild guess how long our marriages would last if we were born in the ancient society.


Cover Image by Max Pixel