Divorce En Vogue in China

When 33-year-old Liu Xiao found out her husband had been cheating on her and lying about it, she saw no other option. She decided to divorce him. A short time later it was done.

Liu's in-laws were not happy. But for a growing number of young Chinese, divorce -- a choice that would have been unfathomable in China 20 years ago -- has become a perfectly acceptable way to remedy an unhappy relationship. As cultural norms change in China, particularly in the economically flourishing cities, divorce rates are increasing fast. In 2006, nearly 2 million couples divorced, five times the number of breakups in 1979.

Chinese officials have blamed the simpler marriage and divorce procedures for the sharp increase in the divorce rate over the last few years.

Just five years ago, separating couples needed their employers' permission before a divorce could be granted, and that was rarely given. Under new rules passed in 2003, couples can obtain fast divorces from register offices by bringing their marriage certificates, ID cards and a signed statement that they no longer want to be married. At the cost of little more than a dollar and 10 minutes time, the marriage is officially over.

Professor Fucius Yunlan, who runs counseling groups in Beijing, sees the increase in divorce as a positive step. Fucius argues that divorce is often a measure of wealth, not a true measure of the quality of marriage.

"It means choice," she said. "It is usually women who have acquired their own wealth and don't have to depend on their husband anymore financially."

Shao Ming is a 49-year-old divorced man in Beijing. His wife divorced him 15 years ago over money. "I was too poor at that time," he said.

His wife came from a well-to-do family, and despite an eight-year marriage and a young daughter, her mother urged her to split and find someone who was more successful. Shao said it was difficult for him at first. When they met, they fell in love fast and got married in three months. "It was love at first sight," he said. But now he admits that if they dated longer, they never would have tied the knot.

Shao is very successful these days and his ex-wife wants him back. He's not having it. "She's pretty crazy," he said.

One-Child Policy Has Consequences

As China becomes more socially liberal, with the influx of Western ideas and norms, critics warn that young people feel free to rush in and out of marriage. Fucius offers another explanation: China's one-child policy. She said the Chinese government's policy of curbing population growth by urging families to have only one child has had some unintended consequences.

This is the first generation of Chinese to grow up in one-child families, and they are often so spoiled that they are unable to make the sacrifices and compromises required of marriage. Fucius said only children are less trained in sharing and equal understanding, but there is an upside.

"They have more information about what they should expect in terms of quality of marriage, from sexual experiences to good economic partnership to a happy life," Fucius said.

While Liu Xiao had to move out of her husband's apartment and is living with her parents, she has no regrets. She is looking for something more.

"Although I am alone, life is better," she said. "I need an honest man," she said.

And despite the older generation's general disapproval of divorce, it is becoming more accepted. Shao Ming said he's never felt a negative stigma in the 15 years since his divorce.

"Society is so open now. Nobody cares, especially in the cities," he said.

Sex, Cohabitation Also Increase

Divorce is not the only Western trend that is spreading in China. Premarital sex and living together before marriage are more accepted as the younger generation ignores pressure from their seniors and the government.

"If you ask someone over 40 about premarital sex, they say it's absolutely immoral," Fucius said. "If you ask someone under 30, they think it's OK. If you ask an 18-year-old, they say, 'I want more.'"

Zhang Peng, a single 24-year-old personal trainer in Beijing, agrees. He said 90 percent of his friends have sex before marriage. If his parents knew this, they would be very unhappy.

"Sex before marriage is not necessarily a good thing, but it is natural," he said.

For Zhang, marriage is not about upward mobility, and most of his friends agree.

"We are looking for feelings beyond language," he said. And what about divorce? "The option is a good thing. To leave someone you don't love quickly is better than staying together painfully."