A new interpretation of China’s marriage law is fueling some interesting “debate” in the Sinosphere.
The crux of this new interpretation stipulates the party to provide initial payment on a home or car is entitled to that property in the event of a divorce, unless initially stipulated as joint-ownership. In a sense, it is a mandated pre-nup.
Traditionally in China, the groom’s family will provide the down payment for a new apartment, and the spouse’s will furnish and decorate it. So, by extension, this new rule seemingly guarantees that if a couple is to divorce, the man gets their home. (Note on semantics: Rough guess, I would say 90% of Chinese live in apartments. It drives me nuts when people call them a “house.” Am I nuts here? They’re homes, not houses, right?)
Women are apparently “outraged,” according to some media reports.
Now, before I get into the wackiness of this story in general, let me get something off my chest: The way Chinese conceptualize marriage is borderline insanity.
OK, maybe it’s just bizarre. But for most, and in many ways, it’s like puppy love en masse– all cutesy, and lovey, and cuddly, and teddy bears. And then, at some point, boom! The switch flips, and it’s old school king of the castle, male-dominated, know-your-role-woman kind of stuff.
A couple of quick anecdotes to set a little context here:
1. Studying in Shanghai, I once got into this bizarro-world conversation with a young Chinese girl. When I told her I was heading back to the US to visit my family for Christmas, she responded, “Wow, aren’t you scared? You are almost 25 and don’t even have a girlfriend.” She was 23. And single. After assuring her I was not scared, she sort of scoffed. “Well, I will definitely be married by 25.” Baffled, I asked her how she could be so confident she would meet Mr. Right in the next 14 months. “I will just find someone suitable and learn to love him. You foreigners don’t understand love. We Chinese love each other forever.”
2. I used to work with a young Chinese guy in Shanghai. Real cool kid. Handsome, pretty funny. He worried obsessively about when his parents would buy him a new apartment. He was 24. They had already bought him a brand new car, but he told me it wasn’t enough to woo a Shanghainese wife.
As The Globe and Mail put it,
Owning your own house has long been seen as a prerequisite to getting married in China. A survey released on Valentine’s Day this year found that only 38 per cent of women would be willing to enter a so-called “naked marriage,” the popular term for a wedding held without first purchasing a house and car.
But skyrocketing real estate costs have forced more and more young Chinese to turn to their parents for help in achieving that goal, and the court hinted that its real aim was to protect the rights of parents who invested their life savings in a home for what is often their only child.
I knew a bunch of people like this at the TV station. One host drove a new Mercedez his parents had bought for him. His monthly salary was a shade over a $1000USD/mo. Yet, he was ballin’. For an apartment? A square foot of real estate in Shanghai can cost you up to $8200USD. That’s about the equivalent to most annual salaries.
3. When I was living in Xiamen, I was lucky enough to meet a group of awesome young 30-year-old guys who fell into the “rich second generation” category. Their parents had started factories, and now they were reaping the benefits. Through them I met one character with whom we used to party. He had a mistress who lived in my building, in an apartment he paid for. He had a handful of other girlfriends in Xiamen that he met regularly. Back in his home town, a bout an hour away, he had a wife and a child. All of them new about each other, and they didn’t apparently mind, as long as he could maintain bankrolling all of their interests simultaneously.
So here’s the deal: You’ve got a huge population that faces a lot of parental pressure to abide by traditional rules and marry young. Keep in mind, in China an unmarried 25-year-old is called 剩女, or left-over woman; in Taiwan, they’re called 败犬, meaning “defeated dog”. Endearing, no?
In the case of the average middle-class Chinese, you have a young kid who has lived at home his/her entire life, with the possible exception of college. Growing up, most Chinese kids never work and aren’t even allowed to date, as parents feel time should be spent studying. After all, passing the 高考 to get into college is equivalent to providing your family’s future. So, these kids have little to no experience dating, and have never had to deal with any adult responsibilities.
So, two kids who like Hello Kitty and playing computer games together get married because they are in love. They take some pictures in special outfits. Collect a couple 红包, have mom and dad buy a house, and, just like that, they’re supposed to go hand-in-hand until they “have white hair,” as they say in Chinese.
Now comes the social pressure. It’s all about “Keeping up with the Wangs” and climbing the social ladder. Infatuation with wealth is universal, and Chinese are no different. In fact, the pursuit of wealth at all costs may be even more intense, as China’s booming economy makes it seem easily attainable.
Women, in particular, have dropped the veil on their social aims. Ma Nuo, a now infamous dating show contestant, once rejected a guy saying she “would rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle” with him. And she’s not alone,
“I would choose a luxury house over a boyfriend that always makes me happy without hesitation,” said one 24-year-old contestant on If You Are the One, one of China’s most popular television dating shows.” And my boyfriend has to have a monthly salary of 200,000 yuan [$31,000USD],” she demanded. (link)
Eager to impress, the husband joins the Communist Party to increase his chances of being promoted. He starts going out with the boys club. The bougie banquet dinners, the 白酒 drinking, the dirty KTV– eventually, he finds himself a young mistress. A 小三 or a 小老婆 (literally, a “little three” or “little wife”), is pretty much par for the course in China. I’ve actually met women who tell me they would feel ashamed if they married a man who didn’t merit mistresses.
Where does all this lead? All the pressure to abide by traditional social norms? The powerful, bread-winning man? The young, beautiful bride? Marrying young? Well…
Divorce, once extremely rare in Chinese society, is on the rise. There were nearly two million registered divorces in 2010, up 14.5 per cent from the previous year. The country’s divorce rate has more than quadrupled – from 0.4 per 1,000 people in 1985 to 1.85 per 1,000 in 2009 – since the country began a jarring economic transition that has put far more money, and all the issues that come with it, into the hands of ordinary Chinese.
Mo’ money, mo’ problems for young Chinese.
Does this new marriage caveat really favor men? Or does it protect families?
Does it discount women’s contributions to families and disregard the hardship of child birth? Or does it serve as a warning to gold-diggers?
Does it encourage men to cheat? Or does it promote marriages based on the right reasons in the first place?