Confucius (d. 479 BC) was an ethical teacher who laid down guiding principles for intending mandarin rulers in a feudal society. He stressed the importance of observing traditional rites to elicit harmonious responses from the Will of Heaven. A central part of his teaching was the duties of husbands towards wives and the correct responsibilities of wives towards their husbands, and the practice of filial piety. He never intended to found a religion and did not speculate about the nature of deities or the origins of the universe.
Notwithstanding his attachment to the landowning, urban business and courtly ruling classes Confucius’s teachings have influenced the attitudes of all classes, including the landless peasantry, over the centuries. Confucianism as a body of philosophy is studied by scholars today, but is not officially taught to the masses. Communities have made up for themselves packages of beliefs blending elements of Buddhism, Taoism and animism with ethical pointers derived from Confucius.
Sun Yat-sen became modern China’s first President briefly after the revolution of 1911 overthrew the Qing Dynasty. He and his western-educated Christian wife Soong Chingling abolished the feudalist practice of female foot binding and encouraged educational and health services for girls and women. After the communist victory in the civil war against Jiang Kai-shek’s Guomingtang in 1949, the communist government in 1950 moved to give “socialist protection and dignity” to married women. Mao Tse Tung’s Marriage Law blended socialist gender equality ideas with puritan Confucian ethical traditions.
In 1950, the Chinese communist government enacted China’s first marriage law. It banned arranged marriages, concubine relationships and child betrothal. It allowed divorce but only after “mediation and counselling” had failed. The 1950s saw a surge of politically driven divorces as many Chinese women opted out of arranged marriages.
In 1980 the Marriage Law superseded it, allowing divorce if one party was found guilty of extramarital affairs, domestic violence, or addiction to drugs or gambling. It also accepted “complete alienation of mutual affection” as grounds for divorce and allowed one party to ask get it, even if the other party opposed. A husband may not apply for divorce when his wife is pregnant or within one year after giving birth to a child or within six months after abortion. This restriction does not apply where the wife applies for the divorce.
For many years, couples needed written permission from employers or neighborhood committees to end marriage. Many unhappy couples stayed together just to maintain privacy and standing. In 2003, however, a revised marriage law simplified procedures, enabling couples to get their divorce certificates more discreetly.
In 2011, the ‘Third Interpretation of Several Issues concerning The Marriage Law’ was promulgated, addressing the question of property rights after divorce. One section caused anxiety, especially among married women. If a wife and her parents purchase a lot of furniture and fittings for the marital home these revert to the wife after divorce, but the home remains the property of the divorced husband. If parents buy a dwelling for a young man before he marries, and this is common among the urban middle classes, an intending wife’s name cannot be ‘inserted’ into the purchase or lease documents without the likelihood of formidable objections from in-laws.
The Marriage Law is intended to strengthen “the socialist marriage system”, maintain family harmony and promote social unity. Gratifyingly it is based on “freedom, monogamy and equality between man and woman. The lawful rights and interests of women, children and old people shall be protected. Birth control shall be practised”.
Either party may become a member of the family of the other, if this is agreed. So a foreigner marrying a Chinese person may as a bonus get an extended family, with rights and duties.
Marriage arranged by any third party, mercenary marriage (including via trafficking) and any interference in the freedom of marriage are prohibited.
Familial violence and maltreatment or desertion of any family member are prohibited.
Spouses shall be truthful to and respect each other. Family members shall respect the old, take good care of the underaged, and help each other so as to maintain an equal, harmonious and cultured matrimonial and familial relationship.
The Confucian tradition and the Marriage Law insist that familial peace is the important foundation of social stability. It thus encourages love and mutual help, cultured matrimony and diligence and thrift in running the household, between family members.
The wife has equal rights and obligations in every field, such as political, economic, cultural, social and familial relations. In the event of divorce, both husband and wife must agree upon the disposal of the jointly owned property; if they fail to reach agreement, the People’s Court shall decide the disposal thereof, following the principle of favouring the children and the wife. This has no equivalent in Western societies
Although the socialist system offers women equality with men, due to ancient Chinese customs many people still treat women as inferior. Marriage Law offers special protections to the rights and interests of women.
The Marriage Law stipulates that parents shall be obliged to raise and educate their children. The relationship between parents and children does not end when parents divorce. Both a Chinese father and a foreign mother shall, after divorce, have the right and the obligation to raise their children.
Desertion is prohibited – of spouse, children or even of elderly relatives in need. Protection of old people is an important family obligation and it is a Chinese ‘traditional virtue’ in conformity with the teachings of Confucius. Filial piety is found in most world cultures and is the Fourth Commandment for Christians, for example. Marriage Law, and the Confucian traditions, declare that children shall look after their ageing parents. If a grown child fails in this matter, the dependent and infirm parents may seek a maintenance order in the courts. Foreigner spouses may find themselves surprised by this socio-legal obligation.
Birth control is one of the major principles of the Marriage Law in China. It was included in the 1950 law and then stressed in the 1981 law which enacted the One-Child policy. Both husband and wife are obliged to practise birth control. The Marriage Law also stipulates that when marrying, the man shall not be younger than 22 years old and the woman shall not be younger than 20. Late marriage and late child birth shall be encouraged.
Urban couples may have only one pregnancy, except – more recently – where each partner is an only child, in which case they may have two children. Farming couples and members of the 56 recognized ‘minority groups’ in China may have two children. If twins are born this counts as one pregnancy and the married mother may try for a second pregnancy. Where the couple intend to live abroad the stipulation is often breached.
One effect of the one-child policy is to enhance low-wage growth as it encourages citizens to migrate from the countryside, where wage expectations are meagre, to the higher-paying cities in pursuit of jobs which the declining urban-born population cannot fill.
Infanticide is of course illegal but devious concealment of baby girl births, abandonment of newly-born baby girls, gender-specific abortions (now made impossible by the imposition of a ban on pre-natal scanning), the sale of rural babies and children to childless urban couples, and bribing of officials to secure registration of illegal second births have arisen over the years as many couples juggled desperately with the conflicts between man-made laws and the pursuit of natural instincts.
The one-child policy has drawn criticism from abroad. Much domestic discussion has taken place, diffidently reported in the state-monitored media, and the government in Beijing may amend the family limitation laws. Nevertheless a 2008 Pew Center study reported that 76% of the Chinese support the policy which is enforced at the provincial level through fines that are imposed based primarily on the income of the family.
According to a survey by Tsinghua University and lifestyle magazine Xiaokang, a total of 2.87 million marriages ended in divorce in 2012 – a 7.65 percent increase from the previous year.
The state-run newspaper People’s Daily cited a statistic according to which 1.2 million Chinese couples tied the knot in 2009, but in that same year nearly 2 million filed for a divorce.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs has released statistics showing an increase to 1.71 million couples divorced in 2009 from1.19 million couples divorced in 2006
Still, marital breakdown in China is not nearly as prevalent as 30 to 50 percent in some western societies. •