Marriage, Divorce, and Sexual Relations in Contemporary China

By Bullough, Vern L.; Ruan, Fang Fu | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Autumn 1994 | Go to article overview

Marriage, Divorce, and Sexual Relations in Contemporary China


Bullough, Vern L., Ruan, Fang Fu, Journal of Comparative Family Studies


INTRODUCTION

Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Chinese traditions about sex, marriage, and divorce have been under assault. For much of the period information about what was taking place was difficult to obtain. Either the Chinese government did not collect data or if it did, it did not release it. When it did release data it did so through newspapers which it controlled and a close reading of such newspapers can give information about some aspects of family life. This can be supplemented by observations and interviews made by western visitors to China who were interested in family matters, and by interviews with others who have left China. Beginning in 1990 more social science research of the kind practiced in the west was allowed but the complete results have not yet been published. Only information about some of the findings have come out of China.

Both authors of this paper have spent time in China, observing Chinese family life directly. The second author, a recent immigrant to the United States, lived in China until 1985 and served as a professor of medicine in Beijing. Though the government did not allow the kind of family research that existed in the west, he wrote a column entitled "Psychological Advice or Counsel" in a widely read popular medical magazine, the title of which could be translated as To Your Good Health. Like advice columns in the west it relied upon questions from the readers, a large percentage of which dealt with marriage and family issues. Some of the replies elicited further correspondence, and gave him more detailed information from a larger segment of the Chinese public than previously available. It is this combination of materials, interviews, newspaper reports, official documents, and statistics when available, that this study is based.

The thesis of this paper is that while the Chinese government could nudge and direct reform as far as institutions were concerned, changes in China seem in many ways to reflect those going on elsewhere in the world, and as the government relaxes some of its control, these changes can be seen to escalate.

BACKGROUND

A major objective of the founders of the People's Republic of China in 1949 was to upgrade the status of women and give them greater freedom in the choice of marriage partner. A new marriage law was enacted on April 13, 1950, stipulating that marriage was to be based on freedom of choice, was to be monogamous, both sexes were to have equal rights, and that bigamy concubinage, child betrothals, and dowries were forbidden (Engel, 1984; Johnson, 1980; Meier, 1971; Yang, 1959). Over the years additional provisions were added to the law including, in 1980, a section about family planning ("Marriage," 1983).

Passing a law is one thing, implementing it is another, particularly one so upsetting to traditional Chinese ideology. The Chinese used a two pronged campaign to implement it program: education and enforcement. To educate the public the government relied upon the two groups most dissatisfied with their treatment under the traditional system of family status and authority, women and the young adults. A network of volunteers (almost all members of the Communist Party) was established to inform women and others of changes in the law. Various techniques were developed to assist them including pictorial pamphlets, reoriented folk stories, special plays, and exhibits.

Enforcement was in the hands of the commune in rural areas and the Danwei, its urban equivalent. The goal, perhaps unstated, was to transfer power from the family to the collective. During the first decade of the Communist rule, all work places in urban China were organized into hierarchical danwei administrative units. At the same time free migration into urban areas was restricted, and both job and housing assignments were given by the state. Each danwei was under the jurisdiction of an appropriate occupational bureaucracy. …

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