CHINESE WOMEN, until the early twentieth century, could not initiate divorce. Their husbands, on the other hand, could divorce their wives by invoking any one of the "Seven Outs": barrenness, wanton conduct, neglect of parents-in-law, garrulousness, theft, jealousy and ill will, and incurable disease. Divorced, a woman had nowhere to go but back to her parents' home (if they would accept her); any children she had borne remained with her husband. According to one anthropologist, social stigmatization of a divorcée was so great that she would have little choice but to become a beggar, a prostitute, or a nun.1
Divorce was very rare in imperial China. But because the divorce law was such a clear expression of women's inferior status, changing it was a priority of almost every family reform program of twentieth-century revolutionary parties. The Guomindang government abolished the old law during the 1930's. Although a new law was entered in the books, it was never widely implemented outside the cities.2 The Chinese Communist Party was more successful in implementing a new law before 1949, but it was enforced only in the Communist-controlled base areas.3 Thus, women throughout China obtained the right to request a divorce for the first time when the CCP promulgated the new Marriage Law in 1950.
Taking advantage of this new law, large numbers of women sought to extricate themselves from arranged marriages, making divorce an explosive social issue in the early years of the PRC.4 As Kay Ann Johnson points out, women's newfound freedom to initiate divorce "threatened to disrupt the exchange of women upon which patrilineal families and rural communities were based."5 Precisely because of this threat to the traditional family structure, she convincingly argues, the campaign to implement the new Marriage Law was terminated. After 1953, although a marriage (and divorce) law remained on the books, divorce was almost nonexistent in rural areas, and in cities an extensive mediation process made divorce extremely difficult to obtain, except for political reasons. Not only did the incidence of divorce dwindle; after 1953 so, too, did public discussion of the issue.