Living Single -- a Shanghai divorcé, center, relaxes with friends at a local café. Nationwide, the number of divorces has risen 67% from 2000 to 2005
Until last year, Chen Hong considered divorce an exotic American concept, as far removed from her life in Shanghai as gastric-bypass surgery or an addiction to reality-TV shows. Then she checked out her husband's cell-phone records. Hundreds of calls had been made to a mysterious number, sometimes just minutes after Chen left for work or took her daughter out to play. Like most Chinese women, Chen had abided by Confucian tradition, which advises that a virtuous wife should serve her husband like God, no matter what. But Confucius lived centuries ago, and Chen, 42, is a telecommunications executive with a good salary. "I want to get divorced," she says. "That's the only way my life will have hope again." (Chen's name has been changed to protect the privacy of her husband.)
It wasn't so long ago that acting on such an impulse in China was rare or even illegal. Ending a marriage in China has long been considered shameful, and for years the ruling communist cadres forbade almost all couples to divorce, viewing it as a symptom of capitalism's fickleness. (The injunction evidently didn't apply to Chairman Mao Zedong, who married three times and had dozens of dalliances.) In 1980 only about 3,000 couples divorced in Shanghai, China's largest city. But as economic reforms have loosened the party's grip on people's lives and ushered in Western attitudes, divorce rates have soared, particularly in urban areas. A study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences last year found that for every two couples who got married in Beijing, another untied the knot. Nationwide, the number of divorces skyrocketed 67% from 2000 to 2005 to approximately 2 million, with at least 120,000 more couples splitting up last year than the year before. "Divorce used to be a bad concept associated with a Western, capitalist society, and we thought that people in a socialist society should lead happier lives," says Xu Anqi, a sociologist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "But it turns out that the negative influence of divorce is actually quite small."
Sociologists in the West may debate whether divorce is so harmless, but there's little question that the Chinese no longer feel bound by the death-do-us-part ideal of marriage. Even the government has reconciled itself to the trend, simplifying the process in 2003 from a months-long ordeal to a jaunt to the civil-affairs bureau that can take just 15 minutes. With so many young couples dissolving their unions, a new term has crept into the Chinese lexicon: flash divorces--partnerships that last as long as the average Hollywood romance. "It may be the seven-year itch in the West, but it's the one-year itch in China," says Eva Wong, president of Top Human Technology, which runs relationship workshops in several Chinese cities. "Life in China has changed so fast that if things aren't new or exciting, people just end their marriages instead of working through their problems."
What's most striking about the divorce boom is that it's overwhelmingly women who terminate their marriage. The biggest reason? Wandering husbands. China's market economy has brought with it extra cash to support a mistress, an indulgence common enough during the concubine-laden imperial days but nearly impossible in the socialist era, when wages were minuscule and privacy was almost nonexistent. So prevalent are mistresses today that the central government requires officials to report their extramarital affairs to the state. In megacities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, certain neighborhoods have been dubbed "concubine villages" for the pampered inamorata living in them. "Generally, having more freedom is a good thing," says Shu Xin, a former advice columnist who now runs a private marriage-counseling service in Shanghai. "But freedom can mean temptation, and most Chinese men cannot resist having affairs."
The difference is that fewer and fewer women feel compelled to put up with it. The ex-husband of Li Jie, 34, a sales manager for a Shanghai trading firm, kept a mistress for years, even introducing her to his co-workers. But after Li walked in on her husband and his girlfriend in the bedroom, she ended her six-year marriage. "Women have more expectations from marriage now," she says. "They won't put up with the things their mothers or grandmothers might have, and they're not ashamed about divorce, either." (Li's name has been changed to protect the privacy of her ex-husband.)
Like many divorced women, Li has full custody of and is the sole support of her 11-year-old daughter. The concept of alimony is only beginning to enter Chinese society, keeping some wives from splitting with their husbands for fear of not being able to provide for children. But Li makes enough to care for two people. And she isn't wallowing. She attended the inaugural meeting of Shanghai's first-ever Divorce Club--held on Valentine's Day this year--and joined dozens of other divorced men and women at a matchmaking gala filled with Chinese-style entertainment: ballroom dancing, karaoke and poetry recitation. Li also logs on to a 91,000-member website for divorcés. "I want to find someone to love again," she says. "Just because I made a bad choice before shouldn't mean I can't have another opportunity."
The spiraling divorce rate has presented opportunities for China's entrepreneurial classes. The number of divorce lawyers in the city has quintupled in the past five years. Detective agencies specializing in marital investigations are proliferating. Zhang Kaidong, the self-dubbed "Mistress Buster," employs former policemen, journalists, athletes and bodyguards for his three-year-old private-eye firm in Shanghai. Much of his business involves investigating assets for women who worry that their soon-to-be ex-husbands will lowball their savings in divorce court. "Before, women wouldn't fight for their share because they were so embarrassed about divorce," he says. "But it's a material world now." Zhang is no exception. His fees for a basic case are $1,500, roughly half what an average Shanghai resident earns in a year.
Some Chinese are so spooked by the prospect of divorce that they avoid marriage altogether. Last year 8.23 million couples wed nationwide, 441,000 fewer than in 2004. Those that do get hitched aren't shy about specifying exactly what they want. "For young women in Shanghai, one of their main requirements in marriage is a man who has his own apartment, car and some savings," says marriage counselor Shu. But a fat bank account alone doesn't ensure a happy marriage. "In China today, materialism is being pursued at the expense of traditional values like love," frets Xia Xueluan, a sociologist at Peking University. "With conditions like these, I see the divorce rate climbing for several years to come." That's not the only sign that divorce has lost its exoticism. One of last year's hottest TV series highlighted the pitfalls of modern relationships. Its title? Divorce, Chinese Style.
With reporting by Bu Hua/Shanghai
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