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


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.

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • Berkeley, CA
Publication year:
  • 2000


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