Love and Marriage in Modern China

If I were a young woman in China, I would do some serious research before getting married.

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.

Chinese housewives should think twice before getting divorced
Chinese housewives should think twice before getting divorced

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.

16 thoughts on “Love and Marriage in Modern China”

  1. Peter, this is a wonderful account of marriage in China, thank you for sharing it.

    I can’t say this is too far from what I expected, but it’s interesting to note that these legal developments are so recent. Do you think that this tradition is a contributor to China having a lower divorce rate than countries like the United States?

    China certainly is a man’s world, that’s for sure. Years ago I noticed that Japan was similar in this regard.

    I read an article on China Daily months ago (here) about gender equality in the workplace and I was reminded of it last night when I coincidentally watched Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy starring Will Ferrell. There are a lot of jokes about gender inequality in the 1970’s in the movie, with male characters constantly sexually harassing female coworkers and laughing off their plea for equality in the workplace. In my experience China is closer to that reality than to the rigid and serious attitude towards gender equality in the American workplace. I’m sure this will change, but it’s interesting to witness this contrast.

    • sexual harassment at the workplace is pretty common in China and is known as “flirting” to most, and harassment to some … it’s a perception thing methinks.

      I think the US has gone a bit overboard with that. I worked in kitchens in the US and if we were sensitive to that I would have charged Luis with harassment and attempted rape 5-6 times. Good times.

      But again I am not a woman and don’t have to deal with that all the time. Can’t imagine what it must be like to be a good looking girl in this world.

    • I am currently watching Mad Men (a brilliant tv series by the way). Set in New York in the early 60’s, it seems like Shanghai today.

      The treatment of women in the show just makes me cringe.

  2. Interesting article about the perspectives and outlook of Chinese women in terms of marriage. I can certainly empathize with women’s attitudes towards the change in legal treatment of property before and after the Third Judicial Interpretation. I’d be pissed too.

    For full disclosure I am not a lawyer either but I thought that in the States, where the majority of states are “equitable distribution” states, the equitable treatment of marital property doesn’t at all mean equal, but rather fair. These states also look at property attained before marriage as “non-marital property” over which divorce court judges have no jurisdiction. That said, this “Judicial Interpretation” as it appears here seems in line with that.

    The complexity comes in the interpretation of laws which differ state to state. Most places I’m familiar with treat assets (ie. equity or accrued value in property not yet completely owned at the time of marriage, investments, savings, etc.) AND debts attained after marriage as marital property. If a man or woman owns an asset outright before marriage then that asset is off limits in divorce. It should certainly be noted that these equitable distribution states also look at both party’s economic and income earning circumstances, length of the marriage, and a whole bunch of other factors before decisions are made. Judges seem to aim towards fairness in lieu of black/white interpretation of laws. This last thing does seem different here.

  3. On the flip side of things, many young women “require” a man own a house before they will marry him. If they didn’t require such ridiculous things in the first place, this law would not have come about.As the law stands now, this requirement means they are setting themselves up to lose out in a divorce. Perhaps you might ask your female students if they’d marry a man who does not own a house? And if you can be so bold, perhaps mention the opinion (mine) that making such requirements is akin to whoring themselves out ;o)

    • Actually I totally agree with this – the law seems completely and totally fair – it is the cultural requirements that 1) a man’s family must buy a house for him (and his family) and 2) that a man without a house is unsuitable for marriage that bring about the anger and resentment.

    • I was going to mention this.

      There are many marriages in Shanghai that don’t last a single year. Who owns the rights to the house then?

      If I were the parents of the recently divorced son, I would be pretty pissed off to hand over half the rights to the girl and her family.

      There must be many cases such as this in China.

  4. The reason for this is the fact that there are lots of rich government officials that don’t want their kids to get screwed over by gold diggers. Happened a lot lately and courts had to rule in favor of the gold digging wife that quickly divorced after marriage to make a fortune.

    In a day and age of equal opportunities China is ahead of the US with that ruling where even living together with your girlfriend can cause you to lose half of whatever you own in some states based on some cohabitation law.

  5. Yeah my sympathy kinda goes to the young guys (like some of my friends and students here) who unfortunately cant buy a home; the new law seems kinda harsh but its no harsher than “I love you but i will leave you if you dont buy me a home”. what a cold ultimatum that is!

  6. I have to admit to having mixed feelings about this. I certainly sympathize with the guy’s parents and understand the desire of the state to protect their investment. On the other hand, I am cognizant as well of the Chinese male’s predeliction to acquire mistresses. The “woman gets half the house” requirement seemed an added incentive for the guy to keep it in his pants. With that gone, it’s like the last check the culture has against infidelity.

  7. I’m a man and I feel to buy a house, a car, etc… before even hopping to have a chance to get married is a heavy burden.

    About 40yo men who are succesful enough to date young xiaosan, what is their percentage? 5%? less? in my opinion this example is not relevant.

    Now, everybody knows there are more men than women and this is the real problem about monogamous mariage. It should be openly encouraged to share love, monogamous relationship should not be encouraged for women.


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