Why do so many Chinese feel so much pressure to get married, but less so in staying married?
One of the things that I was relieved about when I left Indonesia for China was to finally stop hearing my relatives’ push for marriage. In Indonesia where the mean age for first marriage is 23.5 for men and 20.8 for women, many of my unmarried late 20s, early 30s friends and I stick out. Back at home, my single status becomes everyone else’s business, so much so that when a potential match was presented on a silver platter, I was expected to be grateful, instead of the usual “thanks, but no thanks”. I eventually learn to ignore most of the “not so young anymore” comments, but staying positive even towards those who have the best intentions at heart eventually get exhausting*. So, imagine the relief when my Master scholarship offer came in the email.
In China, no one gives a damn about my status, I’m not their problems after all. I am not their daughter, niece or cousin to be worried about. Yet when I speak to colleagues in their late 20’s, they often have their lives planned out: marriage in the next few years and a child thereafter. When I travel to rural areas, some people gasp when I tell them I’m 29, “You look 20 (thanks, a big compliment coming from a fellow Asian)”, followed by an encouragement to find someone in their village and settle down, to which I jokingly replied “Ah I would love to, but I’m sure all the good ones you have are married”. They nodded and agreed most of the time! Seeing ‘marriage markets’ where parents put their eligible children’s info up as well as the proliferation of dating and matchmaking services, evidently the Chinese, urban and rural are feeling the same pressure, the only difference perhaps being the ‘due age’.
However more than 1.3 million Chinese couples divorced in 2003 when the laws were liberalized, and the divorce rate has been steadily rising since then. In 2018, the numbers peaked at 4.5 million. Beijing has the country’s highest divorce rate this year at 39%, followed closely by other first-tier cities Shanghai and Shenzhen, according to a report released by the China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs.
With this in mind, I was confused: despite how hard Chinese are in trying to get married, yet given the staggering divorce rate, is it wrong to assume urban Chinese aren’t trying as hard to stay married? Apart from the obvious reasons for divorce such as infidelity and abuse, why do Chinese couples get divorce? The opportunities to have these answers came when a a Chinese couple I met during a trip asked me all things Indonesians including the realm of dating, romance and marriage. After answering all of their questions, I braved myself to ask them the questions about marriage and divorce in China, and the answer was surprising.
Unlike Marriage, Divorce is One’s Own Decision
The couple said, many of their friends, men and women are pressured to find a spouse, be it by parents, by friends, or even by workplace. Granted, I have been in situations where my Chinese colleagues set up dinners with the aim to introduce a particular eligible colleague to potential partners. I have even heard secondhand accounts of men getting hitched for better prospects in getting promoted at work — because like in many parts of the world, married men are still seen as more stable (hah). In addition, marriage have also become a way for gay men to evade suspicion. If friends are so active in marrying each other off, I can’t imagine how much more invested Chinese parents can be in finding the ultimate son/daughter in-law.
So when a marriage isn’t working out, the individual’s logic may be that, “It’s not my fault this isn’t working out. This is not even the person I chose” and getting a divorce is seen as the first independent choice they make. I was baffled at this logic, but it does sound plausible for children whose life decisions have always been made by others, e.g. parents who choose the school they go to; the tuition they attend; the instrument they play; the university they attend; the degree and/or the career their pursue; and eventually the partners they marry.
Granted, not every Chinese mum is tiger mum. I have heard of Chinese who just want their children to be happy, yet the question remains how that happiness is defined. In an increasingly competitive society, haven’t parents made the justifications of overloading their children so that their children can be more successful and therefore happier in the future? Even in an anecdote shared by a colleague, when parents pull children out of highly academic school into the less demanding international schools, those decisions are made solely by the parents with little consultation with the children. When I asked what the children wanted, it was replied with, “He’s 16. How can he possibly know what he wants?”.
When I asked about the stigma that comes with the title divorcee, I was treated with a bigger surprise. Apparently among 40–50 year old, being single and never been married carries a heavier stigma, compared to having been married and divorced, for both gender. If the logic dictates that society has more prejudice against the older singles, isn’t it ‘logical’ to do the leap of faith and call it quits later on?
On one hand, I agree with friends who firmly believe this approach delays the process to achieving the ‘end goal’ of being happily married but on the other, I also believe that being married isn’t everyone’s end goal. For some, the more immediate goal is perhaps to have others finally stop telling them what to do with their lives.
No more “marry a dog, stay with a dog; marry a rooster, stay with a rooster”
I am not saying we should make divorce more difficult — especially when 18% of female divorcees in China attributed domestic violence as the reasons for divorce. In fact, domestic violence is the second leading cause of divorce in China. The decreasing stigma on divorcees here means that Chinese no longer have to “marry a dog, stay with a dog; marry a rooster, stay with a rooster” a Chinese proverb value often heeded by couples in unhealthy marriages. I do however, find it baffling that a society enforces a ‘due age’ on marriage only to complain when their people call it quits on unhappy homes.
So for now I will heed by this Chinese uncle’s life lesson, “Don’t rush into anything. Take it from me, the most painful thing is to enter a marriage only to find your soulmate elsewhere after”. Listening to this advice, I am not surprised the number one cause of divorce in China is extramarital affairs*.
*”I just don’t want you to be lonely” is not a good justification for meddling with one’s life. What makes me lonely is in fact, coming to realization that the person uttering those words lacks the empathy to understand the topic from my POV and circumstances.
**Beijing No 2 Intermediate People’s Court said in March that 93% of its divorce cases in the 2019 involved domestic violence or extramarital affairs.
This post is part of the Life in China series. It is written based on account from anecdotes, stories and discussions with friends, colleagues and strangers I meet in China. 1. China Survival Guide
Apps that will make your Chinese experience a whole lot better2. China Through Films
Cinematic trips into the voyage of the breathtaking world of traditional and contemporary China, and whatever lies in between.3. Lijiang, The Gateway to Shangrila
For centuries, Li Jiang was a federation of closely-knit villages. Don't miss these 3 villages for a glimpse of old LijiangIf you have anything to add, or if you don’t agree to any of the view presented above, I would love to read it in the comment section.