Beijing's Imperial College, which lies close to the Confucian Temple, was the highest educational administration in dynastic China. Considering the strict and inflexible views on marriage and family that are associated with Confucianism, it might seem strange that a club for single parents was recently established in the neighborhood of the old Imperial College. But a group of 18 single parents, 7 of them women, bravely confronted the traditions of the sage to organize the much-needed group.
Confucius' neighbors reject Confucian tradition
For more than 2,000 years, getting divorced has been all but unthinkable in China, where the ancient teaching of "faithful to one's husband to the very end" has long been revered.
"People got jittery at the mere mention of divorce in the past. But as our society becomes more and more open, the issue has turned into the focus of public attention today," says Ning Li, a single father.
According to Zhang Songling of the Imperial College Community Women's Federation, single parents currently make up 4 percent of the neighborhood's population and the rate is rising.
"Shouldering heavy economic and mental burdens, most single parents are in need of social support and assistance," Zhang states.
The neighborhood women's federation sponsored the establishment of the single-parent club with the aim of helping these households blend into the community. Members can unburden themselves and find support in communion with others in the same situation. They can also seek psychological counseling through the group. Ultimately, it is hoped, society as a whole will care for the members of this group.
Following the example of the Imperial College group, 11 neighboring communities will establish similar single-parent clubs.
"More Chinese people hold scientific and healthy views on marriage, reflecting increasing tolerance in our society," says Professor Ge Chenhong of Renmin University of China.
China's divorce rate is steadily rising. A survey conducted late last year by Horizon Research on courtship and marriage indicates that increasing numbers of people are choosing to divorce rather than to stay in an unhappy marriage. The majority of the 2,719 respondents, aged 18 to 60 and living in Beijing, Shanghai, Dalian, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Xi'an, both understood and sympathized with divorced persons. They feel that it is getting easier to divorce in China. Some 84.2 percent of well-educated respondents in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou approved of divorce.
Trouble doesn't end with divorce
However, escaping an unhappy marriage doesn't mean an escape from all problems. Economically, divorce can sometimes be devastating.
In the Imperial College neighborhood, there are a total of 36 single-parent households. Four of those households have a mentally retarded family member; five contain at least one member over the age of 60; and many are drawing welfare because they don't earn enough to live on, reports Zhang Songling.
Single mothers generally have a more difficult time of it than single fathers, both in terms of jobs and remarriage. The resultant social and financial pressure are tremendous. Says Zhang, "Single mothers easily become a socially vulnerable group."
A recent report by the Shanghai Municipal Women's Federation indicates that single mothers' living standards and mental health both decline sharply after divorce.
A survey conducted by the Tianjin Municipal Women's Federation shows that among 230,000 single-parent families in the city, 17 percent are in straitened circumstances.
In the Zhongshan District of Dalian City, Liaoning Province, 3,236 single-parent households are distributed over 71 communities. Families in which a single mother is the head of the household account for 52 percent of the impoverished households district-wide. Destitute families, which account for 21.3 percent of all single-parent households in the district, can only subsist on governmental subsidies.
Of the 370,000 single-parent families in Taiwan, nearly 50 percent of the single mothers are jobless.
Money isn't everything
Even when a divorced parent is working, the pressures of single parenthood and sole responsibility for the household, often in combination with fears of unemployment or other emergencies, can be overwhelming. While society tends to understand the need to provide financial help to the needy, emotional and psychological help often get overlooked.
Most single-parent organizations are essentially matchmaking clubs for those seeking to remarry. But the focus of the Imperial College group is to offer social and emotional support to single parents, including heart-to-heart talks and professional psychological consultation.
The mental condition of a single parent has a huge impact on his or her child's growth, says Li Jianru of the Chinese Society of Mental Health. Li is a psychological consultant engaged by the club.
Single parents should recover from the effects of a broken marriage as quickly as possible, and cheer themselves up to live a happy life again, Li says.
Ge Chenhong lauds the establishment of the club. For single-parent families, merely providing material support is an act of expediency. The issues these families face must be tackled at the roots, by reaching out to lighten the emotional burdens of single parents as well as the economic ones.
(China.org.cn by Shao Da, March 31, 2004)