Love and Marriage in Modern China
For all I thought I knew about China, the Third Judicial Interpretation of the Marriage Law (here) caught me completely off guard. It would be as if an alcoholic, after years of staying sober, had decided to take a job in a liquor store.
So China, which since the days of outlawing foot binding had kept a good front at advocating for woman’s equality, suddenly seemed to take a step which suggested a serious regression in this area. Or so the Third Interpretation of the Marriage Law seemed to me when presented by the half dozen female undergraduates who decided to write on the topic, all of whom opposed the law which had taken effect just weeks before the start of classes.
Actually, on first read the clause of the statute that had everyone so upset sounded relatively uncontroversial. As one Chinese law blog put it: “Properties purchased with a mortgage prior to a marriage belong to the party who registered the property under his or her name.” Who could object to this? But as these relatively innocuous sounding words were explained to me in a series of exchanges with the students, my opinion started to shift.
It’s a Man’s World
To begin, the ruling had altered the prior balance of power in the man’s favor. Before the Third Judicial Interpretation, a house brought into a marriage was considered joint property in case of a divorce. But now, if the husband’s family purchased the home or made the down payment, the home would belong to the husband. As a result of the ruling, then, women had lost a benefit they had possessed prior to it being handed down.
Recently, America is considering raising the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 67. This might be just, this might be necessary and, if George W. Bush were still president, Republicans would be calling it the will of God. But everyone can easily understand why if this happens there will be a lot of pissed off 65-year-olds. Just so, whether or not I agreed with the students, their anger at the decision certainly made sense, like Germany’s with the Treaty of Versailles. Fair or not, they had lost quite a bit in the recent ruling. And unlike Germany, these women hadn’t invaded anyone.
But was their rage more than logical? Was there an element of justice in their claims? The possibility seemed advanced by background information I did not have available when I first read the ruling. As one of the students explained:
In Chinese tradition, when two people got married, the man’s family usually buys the house. But it is also true that, the woman’s family will either buy the furniture and home appliances, or a car. However, with the passage of time, the husband’s assets will appreciate while the value of the wives will go in the opposite direction . . . this is wrong and unfair.
There is an obvious imbalance here. Now it is admittedly not a legal imbalance, since the law does not require men to purchase the home and women to buy the furniture or car. But if the culture routinely engages in a practice that obviously disadvantages one gender or race, doesn’t the law have an obligation to step in? To take an extreme case, if the culture expects widows to jump on the funeral pyre of their dead husbands, shouldn’t the law intervene to stop the practice? At least one of the women saw the large social message embedded in the fates of these respective assets:
As the old Chinese saying goes that: “Forty is a man’s second youth.” It means that a man in his forties is more charming at this time if they are successful, mature, and considerate. They can find another young and beautiful wife. But it is not the case of women whose youth, beauty, and figure have faded by forty.
Another issue raised by the female students involved the fate of women who opt for the life of a homemaker. While women who work outside the home during a marriage can receive some compensation for their contribution to the value of the house (keep those receipts ladies!), those who cook, clean, sew, mop, wash and care for the children receive no consideration for these activities when it comes to the disposition of the major asset in a marriage (no, not the husband’s ego):
Traditional Chinese women, in particular those who work as housewives and have no financial resources, are in a disadvantageous position when they get a divorce. For their whole life, they have devoted themselves to families. And one day, when they are undergoing a divorce, they cannot get a share of the house which they tried their best to take care of, just because their names were not registered on the lease.
If the student was right, the law was certainly falling short in its traditional role of assisting weak and the side of the weak and vulnerable. Finally, all of this could be rectified by simply having the woman place her name on the lease before the marriage. But according to the students, this would happen over the mother-in-law’s dead body:
Besides, to put women’s name on lease will have an effect on the family relations, especially the relation between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. For a long time, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relation is the most difficult one to deal with, and this will only make things worse.
I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on television. But the issues these women raised were both real and well-researched. In their papers they cited section and sub-section of the Third Interpretation of the Marriage Law, and were not simply responding to the latest Weibo chatter.
So I will close with the first, last, and only time I will quote Ronald Reagan on this website: Trust, but verify. Women, trust that your husband-to-be loves you — I’m sure he does — but verify exactly what your rights are, just in case.