Zhang Jinqiao/Imaginechina via AP
Chinese newlyweds pose during a collective wedding ceremony in Shanghai in November 2009. But just as fast as young Chinese couples are meeting and marrying, a mix of social and economic reasons are leading to equally quick divorces.
Chinese newlyweds pose during a collective wedding ceremony in Shanghai in November 2009. But just as fast as young Chinese couples are meeting and marrying, a mix of social and economic reasons are leading to equally quick divorces. Zhang Jinqiao/Imaginechina via AP
One in every five Chinese marriages now ends in divorce, double the rate a decade ago.
Beijing has the highest divorce rate nationwide, with 39 percent of all marriages ending in a split.
This trend is sparking concern. Experts fear that the divorce rate will continue to soar, particularly among the younger generation of Chinese born under the country's one-child policy and during China's explosive economic growth.
Six years ago, one of China's most popular soap operas was called Chinese-Style Divorce. It was the tale of a struggling couple, wracked by financial stresses and misunderstandings that were never addressed. The cracks in their relationship grew into a gulf, then their marriage fell apart.
Six years on, that is not the story of today's Chinese-style divorces. For China's "me generation," the latest trend is "lightning weddings" — or instantaneous weddings — which often end in correspondingly fast divorces.
The story told by a vivacious 24-year-old reflects the new trend.
'Married In A Hurry, Divorced In A Hurry'
"We'd known each other three weeks when we went to get a wedding certificate," says the woman, who will only give her name as Cheng. "We were married for six months. We got married in a hurry, and we got divorced in a hurry. It was like a war broke out; we argued, divorce was mentioned, so we got divorced."
Sitting at an outdoor coffee shop, Cheng is eye-catching in brown shorts and knee-high black stiletto boots. She says she has thought a lot since her divorce. She partly blames it on belonging to the generation of spoiled singletons, known in China as the post-1980s generation.
"Marriage requires forgiveness, understanding, tolerance and compromise. Yet we post-'80s generation neglect this entirely. No one will compromise. We just argue. Of all my friends who are married, 100 percent are unhappy," she says.
Li Xuefeng, a 31-year-old divorced man, has set up Happy Divorce Village, an online club for those whose marriages have failed. He says marriages often fall apart over little things, like who should do the cooking or laundry.
Li Xuefeng, a 31-year-old divorced man, has set up Happy Divorce Village, an online club for those whose marriages have failed. He says marriages often fall apart over little things, like who should do the cooking or laundry. Louisa Lim/NPR
When asked whether the single-child generation is too selfish for marriage, her answer is telling.
"Next time I'll look for a husband with siblings," Cheng says.
The One-Child Policy
The figures seem to suggest that might not be a bad idea.
Divorces last year were up 8.8 percent compared with 2008. Statistics from one Beijing district court last year showed the divorce rate among the under-30s had doubled annually over the past five years, with 97 percent of the couples being only children.
Many working in marital counseling blame the lack of responsibility shown by the spoiled one-child generation.
Shu Xin is the founder of Weiqing Divorce Club in Shanghai, a divorce counseling business. He counseled one couple who fell out over what furniture they should buy for their new apartment. They decided to file for divorce just one week after getting married.
But Shu believes the root causes are deeper, involving emotional and financial calculations.
"This generation is very self-centered, very independent," Shu says. "And they have high expectations as to cost and return. They think, 'I've paid out, so you have to love me.' "
Money Complicates Marriage
Some experts blame financial considerations — and the rising price of housing — as factors behind the surge in lightning marriages, and lightning divorces.
Given these money worries, young people may see economic benefits of moving in together as soon as possible, to get out of the parental home and to save money. Even after marriage, many couples remain financially dependent on their parents, causing more problems.
Cheng admits this was one factor in her divorce.
"After we got married, we just spent his parents' money," she complains. "I wasn't really satisfied, but I was a good wife. So I didn't argue with him because we didn't have money."
In cases where the couple has had children, that sense of cold pragmatism, combined with the one-child policy, results in custody disputes.
But there's a twist: In a surprising number of cases, that precious only child is unwanted, says divorce counselor Ming Li.
"Often neither of them wants the child. They want to remarry and have another child to give stability to the new marriage. It's very selfish. That makes up about a third of all cases we see of the post-'80s generation," Ming says.
An Upside To Divorce?
Li Xuefeng's mission is to make life a little happier for those struggling through a divorce. The 31-year-old is the founder of Happy Divorce Village, an online club that organizes events for those who have been through a divorce.
Li has heard a lot of stories. He thinks the cosseted young find it difficult to cope on their own; and in this materialistic world, few can resist the temptation to trade up.
"They think about coming home, and nobody is making supper for them, and then they throw their clothes on the floor, and nobody washes them, and so they start arguing over little things. Then they look around, and wonder whether if so-and-so might be better than their current spouse," Li says.
Experts predict the numbers of divorces in China will soar in the years ahead. But, there is also an upside to the trend.
Until eight years ago, a married couple needed permission from their work unit to divorce, and many stayed in unhappy relationships for decades, scared of social ostracism.
Unlike their parents' generation, young Chinese dare to fall in and out of love; they're reveling in these newfound freedoms, even the freedom to divorce.