20080225-Divorce wait china daily.jpg
City hall divorce desk
The number of couples who filed for divorce in 2013 climbed 12.8 percent to 3.5 million according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. That compares to around 458,000 in 1985, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Prior to the current surge in divorces, China experienced two other waves of rapidly rising divorce rates, the first occurred in the 1950s when returning victorious Communist soldiers abandoned their farms and rural wives to move to the city; the second came during and just after the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1980.

According to the New York Times “Data released by the civil affairs ministry in February 2021 showed that there were more than a million filings for divorce in the last three months of 2020, up 13 percent compared to the same period a year earlier. The trend was stark in several major cities. Beijing recorded a 36 percent rise in divorces, to nearly 27,000 cases. In Shenzhen, they rose 26 percent, to more than 11,600 cases. In the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, there was a 15 percent rise, to 35,000 cases. In the last two weeks of December 2020, about 40 couples filed for divorce each day, double the number compared to the same period a year ago, a district official in Chongqing told a local newspaper. In Shanghai, divorce filings jumped 53 percent in that period, to 20,000. [Source: Elsie Chen and Sui-Lee Wee, New York Times, February 26, 2021]

The divorce rate is now higher in China than the United States. Divorce rate in China: 3.2 per 1000 per year compared to 2.9 in the United States, 3.9 in Russia and 0.6 in South Africa. The divorce rate in China was less than 1 percent in 2002. Divorce-Marriage ratio in China: 44.4 percent compared to 46 percent in the United States, 52 percent in Russia and 17 percent in South Africa. [Source: Wikipedia wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_demography]

The three major cities with the highest divorce rates in China are Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen where divorce rates are 39 percent, 38 percent and 36.25 percent respectively. Jue Ren wrote of the China Policy Institute wrote: Increasingly, expert opinion is citing an inharmonious sexual life as a reason for divorce. [Source: by Jue Ren, China Policy Institute: Analysis, September 26, 2017]

Websites and Sources: Marriage: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinatown ConnectionChinatown Connection ; Travel China Guide travelchinaguide.com ; Agate Travel warriortours.com : Dating Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection ; Wedding Wedding Customs chinese-poems.com ; Divorce: Divorces in the 1990s tech.mit.edu ; Marriage and Divorce Laws in China International Family Law ; Foreigners and divorces in China china.org

Increasing Divorce Rate in China

In 2019, 4.15 million Chinese couples were divorced — up from 1.3 million in 2003, when couples were first allowed to divorce by mutual consent without going to court. A Communist Party official told China Women’s Daily.“China’s divorce rate has increased steadily since 2003, when marriage laws were liberalised and as more women become financially independent, leading to “reckless divorces” becoming increasingly common and not conducive to family stability” [Source: Lily Kuo and agencies, The Guardian, May 29, 2020]

The divorce rate in China has been rising steadily since 2002,The civil affairs ministry has said 2.47 million couples split in 2009, up almost 9 percent from the year before. The number of divorces reached 4.5 million in 2018, according to Bloomberg.The rate began increasing especially after divorce procedures were streamlined and a requirement that couples first produce a letter from employers or neighborhood committees was dropped in 2003. In the first quarter of 2011, China recorded 465,000 divorces - a 17.1 per cent increase from the same period a year earlier and a pace that implies the dissolution of 5166 marriages every day.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs and the China Daily newspaper, the divorce rate highest in large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. About one fifth of all marriages end in divorce, compared to 13 percent in 1997, 3 percent in the early 1980s and near zero in the 1950s and 1960s when community units were often called to take action if a couple was thinking about getting divorced. Even though the divorce rate has increased dramatically — approaching 25 percent in some urban areas — the rate for China as a whole is still around one forth that of the United States, where the divorce rate is over 50 percent.

Divorce Trends and the Impact of the Rising Divorce Rate in China

While China’s divorce rate has been rising steadily, marriage and birth rates have been declining to alarming low levels, creating demographic crisis in China. Elsie Chen and Sui-Lee Wee wrote in the New York Times:“China’s steadily rising divorce rate has compounded the challenges facing the ruling Communist Party’s efforts to reverse a demographic crisis that threatens economic growth. The number of marriages has plummeted every year since 2014, and officials have also grown increasingly concerned that more wedded couples were acting hastily to untie the knot. [Source: Elsie Chen and Sui-Lee Wee, New York Times, February 26, 2021]

“In recent years, both ‘flash marriage’ [also called blitz marriage] and ‘flash divorce’ have become fashionable,” Lijia Zhang, a writer, journalist and social commentator, told The Guardian. Sometimes couples use a fake divorce to avoid limits on house purchases. Cheng Xiao, vice president and professor of Law School of Tsinghua University, told The Guardian that changes in divorce laws in 2020 and 2021 were meant to curb "impulsive" divorces. “They may have quarreled about family affairs and they are divorcing in a fit of anger. After that, they may regret it. We need to prevent this kind of impulsive divorce," he told a Chengdu newspaper.[Source: Helen Davidson, The Guardian, May 18, 2021; Julie Gerstein, Business Insider, February 15, 2021]

According to Business Insider the changes are seen by some as a way for China, a country that places "familial harmony" at the center of its culture, to discourage frustrated couples from splitting up. Chinese leadership was hoping the quarantine form the coronavirus would lead to a baby boom, but there were hints maybe the opposite was true. The South China Morning Post reported that after the quarantine, so many Chinese couples wanted to escape their marriages that in some cases, online scalpers were making money by selling appointment slots with divorce lawyers. [Source: Julie Gerstein, Business Insider, February 15, 2021]

Divorce Rules in China

After a divorce the ex-husband usually gets custody of the children and the ex-wife is ostracized and has trouble getting a job. Women in bad marriages usually put up with them rather than endure the hardships caused by a divorce. In the old days, there were even fewer divorces: men simply took a concubine and ignored the wife.

A question-and-answer book called "How to Divorce," which tells unhappy couple everything they need to know about getting a divorce, is available in China today. Question No. 160 reads, "if one side is sold into marriage, and wants a divorce, how does the court handle this?" Answer: "Selling spouses is illegal. Plaintiff has clear grounds for divorce. Purchase price will be confiscated by the state. Parents or matchmaker may be severely punished, especially if the sold party was physically harmed."

On what might occur if a divorce is not amicable, Eamonn Fingleton wrote in Forbes: “It is considered fair game in East Asia for people to pry into their spouses’ lives – and this goes even in happy marriages. In extreme cases prying might involve audio and even video recording. Of course, spying on one’s spouse is not limited to East Asia but the difference is that in East Asia there is no obloquy.” While Westerners imagine a duel played according to Queensberry rules, the reality is kick-boxing clash. [Source: Eamonn Fingleton, Forbes, June 16, 2013]

Some older Chinese thinks it too easy to get a divorce now. One 56-year-old man told the China Daily, "We treated marriage as something sacred. Divorce was considered a shame, so the divorce rate was low. This meant there was no need for any such agreement."

Reasons for Divorces in China

In the old days, there was a considerable amount for shame attatched to being divorced. Couples stayed together even if they were miserable and extramarital affairs went on for years without breaking up marriages because married couples didn’t want to hurt their children or lose face with their parents. There is still a stigma attached to divorce but considerably less than in the past. In some urban areas it has become almost cool to be divorced.

Adultery is the main cause of divorce, more often infidelity of the husband rather than the wife. One third of divorces are the result of extramarital affairs. About 25 percent are related to sexual problems and another 25 percent "emotional incompatibility." Detectives say that many of the cases they handle involve wives seeking information on their husbands and their mistresses. Some of them claim that 80 percent of divorces are triggered by “third parties.” Other reasons for seeking divorce include lack of money, crowded households, arguments with in-laws, one-girl families, and the hardship caused by husbands and wives working in different cities or provinces. Many marriages break up because of verbal and physical abuse by wives. A recent government study showed that many divorces occur after one spouse gets rich, or finds a richer partner.

Many divorces occurred in the 1980s after the Cultural Revolution, when unhappy couples forced together under trying circumstances were given the opportunity to get divorced. Late marriages often do not work out. One survey found that 60 percent of marriage that occur in old age end in divorce. Financial concerns are often an issue and some find it better to live together than to marry. Feminist hotlines encourage women seeking divorce to look for other alternatives. One hotline organizer told the Los Angeles Times she tells women they have to be realistic and pragmatic. “Women can’t expect too much from their husbands,” she said, “the more they expect the more disappointed they will become.”

Divorce combined with China’s One-Child policy and the desire of Chinese to have a son has created problems. George P. Monger wrote in “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons”: “ If a woman bore a female child, it was quite common for her husband to abandon his wife and child for another woman in the hope of getting a son. At one time, having a female child was cited as grounds for around one-third of Chinese divorces. In 1991, the law was changed to prevent a child’s sex from being grounds for divorce. Many husbands ill-treated their wives to cause the woman to file for divorce on the grounds of cruelty. In general, in societies where there is free choice of partner and usually a period of courtship followed by an engagement period, once married it is difficult to undo the contract. But in societies where marriage is arranged between two families, and perhaps there is not such a possessive exclusiveness, there tends to be divorce by consent and a more permissive attitude toward adultery, concubinage, and polygamy. [Source: “Marriage Customs of the World From Henna to Honeymoons” by George P. Monger, 2004 ^]

Three-Quarters of Divorces in China Are Filed by Women

Around 74 percent of first hearings in divorce cases in 2016 and 2017 were filed by women, according to a report by China's Supreme People's Court. In most filings, incompatibility was given as the main reason; 15 percent cited domestic violence. NBC News reported: For Qi Jia, an office worker and blogger in China, the decision to divorce her husband was not one she took lightly. “He became so sloppy and had an addiction to gaming," Qi, 39, who lives in the eastern city of Changzhou, said. "I took care of our child by myself." “The couple lived apart, due to work, for 13 years and had little communication, she wrote in a personal testimony posted on the Chinese social media site, Douban. [Source: Dawn Liu and Adela Suliman and Isabel Wang and Vincent Wan, NBC News, March 27, 2021]

Jiayun Feng wrote in Sup China: Disrupting long-held assumptions that Chinese women tend to endure unhappy marriages due to societal expectations and economic pressures, a recent speech given by Zhōu Qiáng, president of the Supreme People’s Court and China’s highest-ranking judge. Zhou said that roughly 74 percent of the divorces handled by Chinese courts were filed by women. He also pointed out that contrary to the popular belief that most couples start to unravel at the seven-year mark, Chinese marriages are inclined to fall apart as soon as three years after the wedding. [Source: Jiayun Feng, Sup China, November 13, 2019]

“While Zhou didn’t elaborate on when the data was collected or why more women were doing the walking, Chinese social media was aflame over his remarks. Many internet users applauded the phenomenon as a sign of Chinese women asserting more control over their marriages in spite of familial and cultural pressures in Chinese society, where women are expected to stay in a bad marriage — even in extreme cases that involve domestic violence or an unfaithful partner. “This is a pivotal achievement in Chinese women’s liberation. It indicates that they are not willing to put up with unhappiness in marriage anymore,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese). Echoing the congratulatory sentiment, another female Weibo user wrote, “We are able to earn our own living. When we don’t have to rely on someone else, marriage does nothing but place restraints on ourselves.”

“In addition to a shift in their perception of marriage, a number of women on the Chinese internet rightfully pointed out that financial independence also plays a vital part in women’s decisions to divorce. In a recent report released by the real-estate broker platform Bèiké Zh ofáng, it’s noted that about 46.7 percent of all homebuyers were women in 2018. Driven by fear of unfair loss of assets when marriages fail, a growing number of Chinese women purchased their own homes before marriage, which means a divorce without potential economic ruin is possible.

Barriers for Chinese Women Seeking Divorce

Many divorces are initiated by women who don't want to put up unhappy marriages and have the economic independence to take care of themselves. Despite this husbands can prevent a divorce from taking, at least initially, if they object to breaking up a marriage, and divorces through the court system are often prolonged and unfruitful for many women.

NBC News reported: “Barriers to divorce include a gender income gap, rules on property division that tend to favor men and traditional perceptions of gender roles. Social pressure is still present — family and friends often discourage women from divorcing and Chinese courts tend to rule against divorce in the first instance, in order to maintain social stability. Divorce still leaves a trace of social stigma for many women. [Source: Dawn Liu and Adela Suliman and Isabel Wang and Vincent Wan, NBC News, March 27, 2021]

“Sometimes, even evidence of suffering and domestic abuse does not guarantee a divorce will be granted. In one prominent 2019 case, a woman named only as Ms. Liu, from China's central Henan province, was shown on security camera video being violently assaulted by her husband. Yet the court did not rule in her favor when she filed for divorce in 2020. Liu posted the video online, sparking a debate on social media that pressured the court to grant her divorce.

History of Divorce in China

During most of Chinese history, divorce was considered to be a personal failure or a disgrace to the family. Hsiang-ming kung wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: Divorce in imperial China was very rare. Husbands could initiate a divorce on any one of the following seven grounds: (1) failing to have a son, (2) adultery, (3) disobedience to parents-in-law, (4) gossiping, (5) theft, (6) jealousy and ill-will, or (7) incurable disease. These are so called Seven Outs (qi-chu). Divorce also happened by mutual agreement, but actually required the consent of the heads of the families. Finally, divorce could be initiated by order of the authorities. In each case the welfare of the family was emphasized, not the interests of the couple (Lang 1968). Marriage was infrequently dissolved on the wife's initiative. The poor could not afford divorce and remarriage. The wealthy regarded it as shameful; the taking of concubines thus became a common alternative. [Source: Hsiang-ming kung, “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”, Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“The Chinese considered it sad and tragic for women to be divorced and frowned upon them. They were not entitled to inherit any property, nor would other families consider them suitable marriage prospects. They could only go back to their families, but their repudiation brought shame on themselves and their families as well. Their alternatives were suicide, begging, prostitution or becoming nuns.

“Revisions of the marriage laws in both Taiwan and China alike grant modern Chinese women equal rights on divorce, child custody, and remarriage. Most divorces nowadays result from mutual consent or from insistence by either party, although for women to be divorced due to failure to produce a son still happens occasioinally. The divorce rates in Chinese societies have been increasing (Thornton and Lin 1994). Although marriage laws have been changed, divorced women are still more discriminated against than are divorced men. For example, the court may appoint a guardian in the interest of the children; and court rulings generally favor the father.

Divorce in the 1980s and 90s

The divorce rate in China began increasing at the end of the 1970s. In 1978, some 170,449 couples divorced; 1979, 192,894 couples; 1980, 180,378 couples; 186,891 couples in 1981; 210,930 couples in 1982,420,000 couples in 1983, and 450,000 couples in 1984. In 1985 and 1986, the annual average was 500,000 couples. The divorce figure rose to 587,000 couples in 1987, and 630,000 couples in 1988.In 1989, nationwide official statistics show that 9,851,000 couple applied for marriage; 9,348,000 couples, about 95 percent, were approved and given a marriage certificate. In the same year, 1,307,000 couples applied for divorce; 752,000, about 58 percent, were approved and given divorce certificates. The marriage rate was 16.8 per 1,000 persons and the divorce rate 1.35 per 1,000 persons. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D. Encyclopedia of Sexuality hu-berlin.de/sexology =]

With rapid economic growth creating new hopes and expectations, and Government interference in personal lives receding steadily, the divorce rate in Beijing more than doubled from 12 percent in 1990 to 24.4 percent in 1994, according to the Beijing Youth Daily. This statistic compares the number of marriages and divorces in a given year. While the national divorce rate in mid-1995 was 10.4, far behind that in the United States and European nations, officials admit that the divorce rate is rising all over China, and faster in the cities than in rural areas. Among the factors contributing to the new trend are the new social and economic freedom, the rising expectations that women bring to marriage, and a remarkable increase in extramarital affairs. More than 70 percent of divorces are currently initiated by women with the most common reason being an extramarital affair on the part of the husband. =

Increasingly, among urban Chinese and even among government officials who once actively opposed divorce, divorce is being viewed as a an acceptable alternative to an unhappy marriage. Many officials even recognize a positive side to divorce. When both parties agree, a divorce can be granted in three days; not long ago, the wait was years. Important as the government’s attitudinal shift is, a larger factor is the growing expectations women bring to marriage today, and their growing demands in an era of expanding opportunity. In the past, women were happy to settle for a stable income, a home, and children. To these expectations, women are now adding romance, sex, and affection. While women increasingly enjoy more independence and choices in career, place to live, husband, lover, they are also more subject to unemployment. Meanwhile, the shift has also brought a resurgence of traditional male values, including the right to have an affair.

Real Estate Divorces in China

Reporting from Shanghai, David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “When the Chinese government announced new curbs on property prices this month, homeowners bombarded social networking sites with complaints. They formed long lines at property bureaus to register to sell their homes before the restrictions went into effect. And some couples went even further: they filed for divorce. Divorce filings shot up here and in other big cities across China this past week after rumors spread that one way to avoid the new 20 percent tax on profits from housing sales was to separate from a spouse, at least on paper. The surge in divorce filings is the latest indication of how volatile an issue real estate has become in China in the past decade and how resistant people are to additional taxes. [Source: David Barboza. New York Times, March 8, 2013]

“They always do this,” said Du Jinsong, a property analyst in Hong Kong for Credit Suisse. “When they implement new measures, people are always trying to circumvent the rules.” On March 1, 2013, a series of new property measures that analysts say unsettled the housing market. In its statement, the State Council, or cabinet, said that local governments should strictly enforce an earlier rule that ordered people selling a secondary home to pay a 20 percent tax on the profit. Almost immediately, housing administration bureaus and real estate trading centers in big cities were flooded with people hoping to sell their apartments before the restrictions took effect. And in a bizarre twist, marriage registration centers in Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan and other big cities were also inundated with couples who admitted they were filing for fake divorces in hopes of avoiding the property tax.

By filing for divorce, many reasoned, a couple with two homes could then claim that each had only one home. That way they could technically avoid having one of the homes classified as a second home, which under the new rules would be subject to the 20 percent capital gains tax if sold. After the divorce and the sale of one of the homes, the couple could file to be remarried. Here in Shanghai, a registration center in the Zhabei district said it had a record 53 divorce filings in one day, well above normal.

A few days later, at a marriage registration center in the Pudong district, a 33-year-old woman named Frances Tao arrived with her husband. She acknowledged that they were filing for divorce, not to avoid the 20 percent capital gains tax on second homes, but to get around another restriction, which requires home buyers to put down a much higher deposit on a second home than on a primary residence. Ms. Tao said that by divorcing, one of them would be able to purchase a first home and put down less money and get a better interest rate. “We don’t have other choices,” Ms. Tao said. “But the government and developers continue to make a lot of money.”

Divorce in 19th Century China

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “It is well known that Chinese law recognizes seven grounds for the divorce of a wife, as follows: childlessness, wanton conduct, neglect of husband’s parents, loquacity (to yen), thievishness, jealousy, malignant disease. The requisites for a Chinese wife are by no means sure to be exacting. A man in the writer’s employ, who was thinking of giving up his single life, on being questioned as to what sort of a wife he preferred, compendiously replied, “It is enough if she is neither bald nor idiotic.” In a country where the avowed end of marriage is to raise up a posterity to burn incense at the ancestral graves, it is not strange that “childlessness” should rank first among the grounds for divorce. It would be an error, however, to infer that simply because they are designated in the Imperial code of laws, either this or any other of the above mentioned, are the ordinary occasions of divorce. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg;Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang,a village in Shandong.]

“It is always difficult to arrive at just conclusions in regard to facts of a high degree of complexity, especially in regard to the Chinese. But so far as we can perceive, the truth appears to be that divorce in China is by no means so common as might be expected by reasoning from the law just quoted. Probably the most common cause is adultery, for the reason that this is the crime most fatal to the existence of the family.

“But it must be distinctly understood that in every case of divorce, there is a factor to be taken into account which the law does not even consider. This is the family of the woman, and, as we have seen, it is a factor of great importance, and by no means to be disregarded. It is very certain that the family of the woman will resist any divorce which they consider to be unjust or disgraceful, not merely on account of the loss of “face,” but for another reason even more powerful.

“In China a woman cannot return to her parent’s home after an unhappy marriage, as is often done in Western lands, because there is no provision for her support. Enough land is set apart for the maintenance of the parents, and after that has been provided for, the remainder is divided among the brothers. No lot or portion falls to any sister. It is this which makes it imperative that every woman should be married, that she may have some visible means of support. After her parents are dead, her brothers, or more certainly her brothers’ wives, would drive her from the premises, as an alien who had no business to depend upon their family when she “belongs” to another. Under this state of things, it is not very likely that a husband would be allowed to divorce his wife except for a valid cause, unless there should be some opportunity for her to “take a step,” that is, to remarry elsewhere.

“Next to adultery, the most common cause of Chinese divorce is thought to be what Western laws euphemistically term incompatibility, by which is meant, in this case, such constant domestic brawls as to make life, even to a Chinese, not worth living. It is needless to remark that when things have reached this pitch, they must be very bad indeed. Every one of the above cited causes for divorce evidently affords room for the loosest construction of the facts, and if the law were left to its own execution, with no restraint from the wife’s family, the grossest injustice might be constantly committed. As it is, whatever settlement is arrived at in any particular case, must be the result of a compromise, in which the friends of the weaker party take care to see that their rights are considered.

19th Century Chinese Man Poisoned by Wife: Should He Divorce Her?

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “A Chinese friend called to ask advice. He had a nephew thirty-six years of age, who until recently had never been married. He is a dull witted man, with very little property, and had never been regarded as a desirable match. About five months previous to the recent occurrence which led to the request for advice, a girl aged sixteen was found who had a deformity in one limb preventing her from making a match. A go-between proposed her for this bachelor and it was arranged that he should pay her family eight strings of cash for “bridal outfit,” and in due time the marriage took place. As might have been expected it was a conspicuously infelicitous one. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899]

"On the twenty-sixth day of the first moon of the current year, the husband ate a bowl of millet which seemed to him to have a singular taste, but he did not suspect poison until he had taken it all, when he saw arsenic at the bottom. After violent retching he was somewhat relieved. The next day but one the same thing occurred, the symptoms being graver. He vigorously remonstrated, and his bride left for her home some miles away. The husband was now very ill, and was waited on for some days by his uncle, at the times of whose visit for advice the nephew’s life was supposed to be out of danger.

"The uncle wanted to know what should be done about it. In an empire where “talkativeness” is a legal ground for divorce, it naturally appeared to an Occidental that repeated, albeit clumsy attempts at poisoning might be equally so. But the uncle explained that there was a sister-in-law who objected. Why? Apparently because having invested eight strings of cash in a wife it was a pity to lose her for a mere trifle like this! The matter was put into the hands of peace-talkers, who arranged that the relative who had brought the bride the arsenic should kotow to the man poisoned by the arsenic, and that the family of the bride should pay the injured husband fifteen strings of cash wherewith to recruit his depleted vitality. Meantime the bride remained at her mother’s home, where one of the women was said to have beaten her a little. She is not divorced, her husband being reluctant to proceed to such extremities, in part on account of the large investment originally made, and in part for fear of ridicule. In due time she will probably be sent back to his home to resume her experiments in the art of making home happy."

Image Sources: China Daily

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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