Flouting China’s divorce restrictions, one woman celebrated the end of her marriage in style (2024)

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Qian Jin never had a wedding ceremony. When she and her husband got married in 2019, they just signed papers. No vows, no dress, no party.

So after the now 35-year-old posted about her marriage dissolving earlier this year, Feng Xiaogang, an influencer with more than 1.6 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, reached out. He offered to throw Ms. Qian a “divorce party” and invited his fans to join them in central Beijing, to metaphorically cleanse Ms. Qian of a marriage she found stifling and contentious.

“For a long time, I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I had chosen the wrong person, because I didn’t want to admit I’d failed. I didn’t want to be a ‘divorcee,’” said Ms. Qian, dressed in a wedding gown bedecked with stapled-on evidence of her unhappy marriage, including loan documents from when she helped pay off her then-husband’s debts, and selfies. Her former partner could not be reached for comment.

With Mr. Feng seated beside her, attendees came up one by one to help Ms. Qian cut up her sad memories, and slice the hem of her dress, until she could run free, a single woman once again.

Ms. Qian’s ceremony this month was doubly transgressive, not only in celebrating something still widely seen as regrettable in conservative China, but also in running against Beijing’s stated desire to keep people married as part of a bundle of policies intended to boost the country’s birth rate as China faces down a future demographic crisis.

Between 2000 and 2020, the number of divorces in China exploded from around 1.2 million a year to more than four million, as old stigmas against ending a marriage eased somewhat and legal restrictions were gradually lifted. Until 2021, if both husband and wife agreed to divorce, they could file paperwork with their local marriage registration office and their union would be dissolved without the need for a court case.

That year however, a mandatory, month-long cooling-off period was introduced, resulting in a marked reversal in the previous trend. Last year, there were more than 2.5 million divorces, the lowest figure in more than a decade, according to data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

China is not the only country to have a cooling-off period – France and Britain both make couples wait several weeks – and officials have defended the unpopular measure as preventing supposedly impulsive divorces, arguing that women in abusive marriages could still petition a court to immediately grant a divorce.

But getting a court to agree to do so is easier said than done. According to the China Justice Observer, which monitors legal cases and offers advice to plaintiffs, even before the new cooling-off legislation came in, judges often imposed such measures themselves, dismissing applications and telling couples to come back in six months should they still want to separate.

A 2018 survey by China’s Supreme People’s Court found that more than two-thirds of cases were dismissed on the first hearing – research by the Beijing Qianqian Law Firm found judges often denied or ignored women’s claims of intimate partner violence.

Ms. Qian dismissed the idea that women ended their marriages on impulse, saying she had been unhappy for years before finally telling her husband it was over. It was not divorce, but marriage that might need a cooling-off period more, she added.

Women in China are still expected to sacrifice their careers for their family, and to give a large amount of control over their finances to their husband or his parents. Ms. Qian said many younger women may avoid marriage for fear of giving up their economic independence and security, or put off having children – as she did – because they worry it will make them even more dependent on their husband.

Pro-natalist policies such as the divorce cooling-off period have so far disproportionally affected women, with rollbacks on abortion rights and increasing pressure on young women to marry and have children rather than enter the work force.

The ratio of working-age people to retirees in China is particularly imbalanced as a result of the one-child policy that was in place until 2016 – the negative effects of which, including forced abortions, also predominantly fell on women. Beijing has since scrapped all remaining family-planning restrictions, and many local governments have introduced incentives for new parents, but the birth rate has continued to drop, with just over nine million babies born in China last year, the lowest number since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

If the country wants to boost the birth rate, “we need more policies to protect women,” Ms. Qian said. Before the recent legal change, around 70 per cent of divorces were initiated by the wife.

Zhang Jing, a 19-year-old photography student who attended Ms. Qian’s divorce party, agreed. She said she could not imagine getting married, adding that it felt more like entering into bondage than anything else. She said she rarely saw positive examples of marriage, referencing stories she’d read about women being abused or having to give up their careers.

“If society wants me and my peers to get married then we need to see the benefits of doing so first,” Ms. Zhang said.

She was one of around two dozen people who joined Ms. Qian in celebrating her divorce, helping her cut up her dress and sharing stories with the group. Many spoke positively about marriage, provided it was with the right person. One woman said her mother had fallen in love at age 48, after two failed marriages, adding that being brave enough to divorce the wrong person could make someone happier in the long run.

Mr. Feng, the influencer who put on the event, said that older people often see divorce as a black mark against their child, “but it’s not, and if they don’t divorce, staying in an unhappy marriage is also a black mark, one that will only grow and grow.”

He described Ms. Qian as “very brave” and said he hoped the party could help lift some of the remaining stigma around divorce.

“If more people can eliminate this impression that divorce is grey and unglamorous through my videos, maybe more parents will support their children in saying goodbye to bad marriages, rather than urging them to put up with it.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li in Beijing

Flouting China’s divorce restrictions, one woman celebrated the end of her marriage in style (2024)
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