BEIJING – For centuries, ordinary Chinese have greeted each other on the street 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 with a new question: “Li le ma?” – “Have you divorced?”
In China, where rapid economic growth is creating new hopes and fears and where government interference in personal lives is receding daily, many Beijing residents say one of the most profound changes in their society is the surge in divorce.
The divorce rate in Beijing leapt to 24.4 percent in 1994, more than double the 12 percent rate just four years ago, Beijing Youth Daily reported this month. Although statistics can be misleading – the divorce rate is measured by comparing the number of marriages and divorces in a given year – officials say it is rising all over China, and faster in cities than in the countryside.
The national divorce rate is now 10.4 percent, still far behind the United States, where the divorce rate rose sharply in the 1970s to around 50 percent, where it has remained.
The U. N. conference on women, to be held here from Sept. 4 to 15, is expected to draw attention to the social and economic ills facing women in China and elsewhere.
Yet for women in Beijing, the growing divorce rate is a reflection of a new social and economic freedom, of the rising expectations that women bring to marriage, and of damaging effects from what many Beijing residents say is a remarkable increase in adulterous affairs. More than 70 percent of divorces are now initiated by women, divorce lawyers say, and the most common reason given is that a husband has had an affair. “Only
a few years ago, people would let a temple be destroyed before they would let a marriage fail,” said Pi Xiaoming, a leading divorce
lawyer whose work at the East Beijing Women’s Federation used to involve applying intense pressure on couples not to divorce.
“We did everything possible to keep people from separating,” Ms. Pi said. “If there was 1 percent chance of saving a marriage, we’d expend all our effort to overcome the 99 percent of difficulty.” Now, Ms. Pi and other government officials who once actively opposed divorce support it as an acceptable alternative to an unhappy marriage, and a divorce that once took years to win approval can now be processed in three days if both side agree. Many officials even recognize a positive side of divorce.
“The high rate of divorce reflects a kind of `master of my own fate’ notion among urban residents,” wrote the Beijing Youth Daily. “From an overall perspective, the high rate of divorce represents a kind of social advancement.”
But the government’s shift in attitude is only one ingredient in the rising divorce rate. A larger one seems to be growing demands by women in an era of expanding opportunity.
“My husband used to say, `You have your job, your study overseas, a roof over your head, what more do you want?’ ” said Liang Hua, 41, who divorced last year. “What I wanted was a husband who didn’t sit at home all day, watching sports on television.”
If most Chinese men still look for a stable home and a reliable mother for their children, several women in different professions agreed, women who used to be content with a steady family income now want more: romance, sex, and affection.