Marriage and the Chinese Revolution
Before the 1949 revolution, Chinese women were regarded as lower in social rank than men, notwithstanding the general disempowerment of women due to the lower social class that they belonged to. Women were considered chattels, especially by the noble classes, in which families arranged marriages for their daughters in order to secure favors from government officials, warlords and even from the imperial household. Moreover, men could have as many wives as they wanted, notwithstanding the utter lack of power of women to secure a divorce from their husbands, in the event that they were abused and badly treated.
Mao Zedong said this about the Marriage Law, “The Marriage Law affects all people’s interests and is one of the basic laws of China, next only to the constitution…It is the legal means through which to carry out reform of the marriage and family system in China, the weapon with which to fight the feudal family system, and the tool necessary to establish and develop a new marriage and family system.”
For all the faults of Mao’s China, the marriage law which the communists implemented liberated the women from the bondage of a patriarchal society which dictated the terms of their existence, including their choice of a life partner. By decreeing the dismantling of a feudal system of relations between men and women, women were now able to truly choose to marry only those that they truly love. While such a state policy exists, it took more than the marriage law to truly ensure that the social inequality in a Chinese marriage was implemented politically and culturally, to ensure that women indeed held half the sky.
On the other hand, such liberation of Chinese women in marriage then did not amount to utter sexual promiscuity as in Western countries, except at present, where changing partners and spouses seem to be as fast as changing mobile phones and cars in Chinese contemporary society. As divorce is China is as easy as selling the newest Ipod, it is now steadily undermining once more the value of marriage and the commitment that is intertwined in its concept.
If the women were treated as chattels in feudal China that no mutual consent in marriage ever really existed, the present increasing number of divorces seems to manifest that with the increase in personal income and spending of the Chinese is rendering as a commodity the institution of marriage. These things, treating women as chattel and the commodification of marriage, are both social evils which destroy the basic sanctity of marriage, in view of the family as the basic institution in any society.
As the Chinese economy grows by leaps and bounds, it has also led to the creation and reproduction of a new inequality in the institution of marriage, where mutual love and commitment are not at the center of the institution but property relations to outpace all other families in a cutthroat competition for financial security and success.
It is no different from feudal China where families arranged marriages for their daughters because it destroys the long-held idea, even by Mao Tsetung, that marriage should only be based on mutual respect and love by partners with a deep perspective on their relationship and a long-term goal for the development of both partners’ lives in all aspects – physical, economic, social, and even spiritual.
Is divorce China’s new fad?
By Leon D’souza
ZIBO, People’s Republic of China– That China’s revolutionary leader, Mao Zedong, was an incessant womanizer is no secret. For 22 years, beginning in 1954, Dr. Li Zhisui, his personal physician, chronicled the former dictator’s dark private world. In his critically acclaimed book, “The Private Life of Chairman Mao,” Dr. Zhisui writes candidly about the erstwhile chairman’s voracious appetite for carnal pleasure. Mao was constantly hosting dances and card-playing parties to find new young women to indulge his fantasies. He was “married” at least four times and had ten children with whom he had rather distant relationships.
However, for all his shortcomings, Mao was a firm believer in the power of womanhood. He was fond of quoting an old Chinese proverb, “women hold up half the heavens,” and in his “Little Red Book,” which attained Biblical importance during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, he spoke audaciously of the need for equality of the sexes.
“In order to build a great socialist society, it is of the utmost importance to arouse the broad masses of women to join in productive activity. Men and women must receive equal pay for equal work in production,” Mao declared.
The former chairman began a transformation of the submissive role that Chinese women were historically relegated to over centuries of dynastic rule. One of his earliest reforms involved sweeping changes to China’s harsh marriage norms.
Before the advent of Communist Power, marriage was somewhat of an unholy institution in China, a form of socially sanctioned bondage. Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s brilliant film, “Raise the Red Lantern,” tells of the sordid state of affairs in imperial times. Arranged and mercenary marriages were considered normal practice then. A wealthy man could have as many wives as he pleased. Widows were not allowed to remarry and no woman could ever ask for a divorce.
Mao changed all that. His first “Marriage Law” abolished the system of arranged or forced marriage and extended equal protection to women and children. The new legislation forbade bigamy, child marriage and public interference in the freedom for widows to remarry. Mao took personal interest in the implementation of the measure.
“The Marriage Law affects all people’s interests and is one of the basic laws of China, next only to the constitution,” he emphasized. “It is the legal means through which to carry out reform of the marriage and family system in China, the weapon with which to fight the feudal family system, and the tool necessary to establish and develop a new marriage and family system.”
Noble goals notwithstanding, Mao’s reforms weren’t greeted well in a country steeped in a long tradition of patriarchy. Some derided the edict as a formula for societal instability that was sure to trigger an epidemic of divorces.
“It is a law for divorce,” these naysayers argued.
In some ways, they were right.
Divorce is fast becoming something of an emerging trend in modern China, where successive marriage laws have empowered women who now initiate more than 70 percent of break ups. In fact, so pervasive is this trend that in a story some years ago, The New York Times Seth Faison pointed out that it was even beginning to affect the way ordinary Chinese greet each other in the street.
“For years,” Faison wrote, “people have greeted each other with a question that reflected the nation’s primary concern: “Chi le ma?” or “Have you eaten?” Now according to a popular joke in Beijing, people who see a friend on the street voice a new concern: “Li le ma?” “Have you divorced?”
But unlike other countries, where divorce is seen as a social problem, the Chinese seem to view this trend as a sign of the changing tide for women in a country where they were once mere objects of desire.
As the Beijing Youth Daily explained in a story a while back: “The high rate of divorce reflects a kind of ‘master of my own fate’ notion among urban residents. From an overall perspective, it represents a kind of social advancement.”
Financial independence resulting from a surge of women in the workforce seems to be driving the divorce rate. Chinese women now actually do hold up half the sky. They account for more than 46 percent of the total working population according to statistics. Women experts and entrepreneurs have come to the forefront in large numbers, playing key roles in hi-tech industries as well as large and medium state-owned enterprises. This has helped level the balance.
“In the past, women were very dependent on men for survival. They were not allowed to work. Today in China, women earn their own money. They are becoming more and more independent, and so they need not remain married to men that aren’t loyal to them,” said Huang Yan Ling, an English teacher at the Zibo Foreign Language School.
Huang was raised in Zibo, the rural northeastern city in Shandong Province where she now teaches middle school. As a mother herself, and someone who grew up away from the relatively liberal atmosphere of the rapidly westernizing cities along China’s eastern coast, she isn’t a loud supporter of the spate of divorces.
“I think it is very bad for the children,” she emphasized, when asked why she balked at the trend.
Nevertheless, she is delighted that increasing numbers of Chinese women are standing up for themselves, and places the blame for failed marriages squarely on the infidelity of the men involved.
“When most men approach middle age, they have a lot of money. When they have money, they look for younger girls because they just want to have fun. They don’t really love their wives,” she suggested matter-of-factly. “So it is good for some women to file for divorce.”
Nevertheless, there is room for tightening up the law to facilitate separations while preventing the situation from spiraling out of hand. One of the ways Huang points to is increasing the amount of alimony payable as child support.
“In China, if a couple files for divorce, the woman usually gets custody of the child. This places her in a difficult position. The man can get away with making payments as low as 300 Reminbi Yuan (approximately $38) per month,” she explained. “I think this is not right. Men should be made to pay more. That way, maybe they will think twice about cheating on their wives.”
At the end of the day, whether bane or boon, China’s climbing divorce rate is an indicator of significant social change. Mao’s China has opened up for women doors they could never previously have hoped to unlock. Today, women wear the pants in many families here. And although you won’t get their husbands to admit it, most married men live in peril of their wives ire.
Take Yu Ke Hong for example, one of my colleagues at the Zibo Foreign Language School. A month ago, my brother-in-law, Brian, and I, tried to coax him into buying a dog for his family while we were out pet shopping at the weekend “dog market.” Yu laughed when we presented the suggestion, then added candidly that his wife would “throw him out of the house” if he showed up on his doorstep with the cute Chinese Shar-Pie we had picked out for him since she didn’t care much for dogs. Enough said. You know who calls the shots in his household.
Leon D’souza is a frequent contributor to the Hard News Cafe