Revolutionizing the Family: Politics, Love, and Divorce in Urban and Rural China, 1949-1968

Revolutionizing the Family: Politics, Love, and Divorce in Urban and Rural China, 1949-1968

Revolutionizing the Family: Politics, Love, and Divorce in Urban and Rural China, 1949-1968

Revolutionizing the Family: Politics, Love, and Divorce in Urban and Rural China, 1949-1968

Synopsis

In 1950 China's new Communist government passed a Marriage Law that ranks as one of the most dramatic efforts ever by a state to change marital and family relationships. The law prohibited arranged marriages, concubinage, and bigamy, and citizens were now given free choice in marriage and easier access to divorce. In this comprehensive study of the effects of that law, Neil J. Diamant draws on newly opened urban and rural archival sources for a detailed analysis of how the law was interpreted and implemented throughout the country.

In sharp contrast to previous studies of the Marriage Law, which have concluded that it had little long-lasting effect in rural areas, Diamant argues that the law reshaped marriage and family relationships in significant -- but often unintended -- ways throughout the Maoist period. His evidence reveals a "bumbling" and at times conflicted state apparatus, as well as cases where Chinese men and women took advantage of the law to engage in multiple sexual encounters (some to "class enemies"), to marry for desire and beauty, to demand expensive gifts for engagement, and to divorce frequently. Moreover, he finds, those who were best placed to use the law's more liberal provisions were not modern, well-educated urbanites but rather illiterate peasant women who had never heard of sexual equality and who even insisted upon maintaining the traditional sexual division of labor in the family; those whose interests were most damaged by the Marriage Law were not women, who have often been portrayed as victims of communist patriarchy, but rather poor men in whose name the revolution was carried out.

Filled with a detailed depiction of the workings of multiple levelsof the Chinese state, as well as many anecdotes about urban and rural family life, this original and provocative book will have broad appeal in political science, legal and gender studies, history, sociology, and history.

Excerpt

This book is about one of the most dramatic and far-reaching attempts by a state to reshape “traditional” marriage and family structures and relations into those seen as more compatible with the “modern” world and with a specific political ideology. Its point of departure is the promulgation and enforcement of the People's Republic of China's (PRC) “Marriage Law” of 1950 and its impact on the Chinese family and conceptualizations of “proper” family and marital relations. Like many other family laws enacted by modern states, the PRC's Marriage Law inserted the state into private and/or community decisions concerning courtship, engagement, marriage, divorce, property arrangements, and even with whom it was appropriate and legitimate to have sexual intercourse. Whom to marry, whom to love, and with whom to have sex, in addition to questions concerning when and under what conditions a couple should divorce, came under the scrutiny of state authorities. But whereas the enforcement of laws and regulations concerning the family is our beginning point, how people—ranging from high-level political officials in Beijing to fruit and tofu peddlers in a Shanghai shantytown—dealt with the new regulations and expectations constitutes the core of this book. In the following chapters, we will see how, contrary to expectations, those whom we would consider the most traditional members of society were the most eager, aggressive, and in the end also very successful in taking advantage of the “modern” provisions of the law (such as making it easier to divorce and choosing a partner of one's individual liking) and new state institutions, while those often described as the most cosmopolitan were the most conciliatory when dealing with family disputes and timid when dealing with the state. We will see the unintended outcomes of trying to use political ideology and language to guide people's intimate decisions in the family, as well as many forms of “un-

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