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Marriage and the Family in China
Tangible disparity exists between standards of life in China's rural and urban areas, and in their levels of gender equality. This adds complexity to China's overall marital and familial situation. The urban economy and culture are moving in the direction of those of developed countries, as the rural economy shifts from being agriculture-dominated to one co-buttressed by agriculture and industry. Owing to these factors, marriage and the family are believed to be taking on diverse trends in China's rural and urban regions. According to statistics and the opinions of certain scholars, in the cities:

Nuclear families are increasing. The present proportion is 60 percent, and is expected to go higher. Most families now comprise three to four members, and expectations of marriage have changed with improved living conditions. To many people, income, housework and procreation are no longer top priorities; more important is having a loving, loyal and understanding spouse.

People are marrying and having children later in life, and more choose to remain celibate or issueless. Among the West's ever-increasing numbers of unmarried people, most cohabit. This mode of life is gradually being accepted by China's urban youth.

Sex education is now scientific and commonplace, and so inhibits the youth from curiosity-driven sex. But this does not mean that pre-marital sex is on the decrease. Owing to a stronger sense of independence among women and less emphasis on the need to retain virginity, more people go in for trial marriages before formally committing themselves.

Stress is now laid on the quality of a marriage, and an increasing number of couples part when they feel their partnership is beyond redemption. Taking imaginative measures to keep a marriage fresh and enjoyable is becoming a priority. Husband and wife are more equal, and domestic violence has abated. Husbands also share more household chores. The bonds of marriage are affection, mutually fulfilling sex and care, rather than economic security and children as before. The main reason why two people marry nowadays is the pleasure the connubial relationship brings them.

To some of those discontent with their marriage but unable or unwilling to divorce for various reasons, the alternatives are to engage in extramarital affairs or to visit prostitutes.

A comparatively high-tempo work and lifestyle means people have less time for their parents. Supporting elders has become a grave social problem. Elderly people are supported by society in the West, and traditionally by their children in the East. In China more elderly people are accepting the Western mode and starting to live in rest homes.

The one-child policy engenders new challenges as regards children's education. This century tens of thousands of only children will reach adulthood, and are expected to face particular problems when they marry and have children of their own.

Sharing as they do the duties of the breadwinner, women have an equal say in family financial affairs. They often have their own bank accounts, and husbands do not necessarily hand over their salaries to their wives. Some couples have their respective property notarized before marrying. Thanks to developments in the service trade and popularization of domestic electric appliances, less time and labor is expended on housework, so less discord stems from it.

Divorce by mutual consent and trial divorce are signs of social progress. More couples are parting in a rational, rancor-free fashion. Society provides counseling and advice, but it is the couple that actually decides whether or not to carry on with their marriage. The divorce rate is expected to soar. There are now greater numbers of people with a good education who have higher expectations of love and marriage, and who may tire of their spouses. Being more sensitive and less unwilling to overlook the flaws in their marriage, they are more likely to divorce.

People are now aware that maintaining a marriage requires skill, and no longer believe stable connubiality depends merely on a marriage license and children. Some people, however, usually seniors, with no experience in self-reliance, or at being financially self-supporting, worry about the harm a broken home may do to their children. From their point of view, the law should discourage divorce by making it difficult.

Society is growing ever more tolerant towards extramarital affairs, and it is now self-discipline rather than external pressure that preserves a sense of responsibility. Greater freedom and privacy make extramarital affairs more commonplace. The right to enjoy sex and love is exercised, and the sense of self-determination dominates. More are convinced that it is pointless to remain in a loveless marriage, and feel tolerant or even sympathetic towards those who find extramarital love. Traditional attitudes towards virginity have changed, but still hold sway, and are unlikely to disappear completely in the foreseeable future.

Marriage is now viewed as an entirely private affair. Lifestyles have diversified into those of celibacy, single-parent families and cohabitation. People select the mode they believe will make them happy, rather than going along with the majority.

Mixed nationality marriages are on the increase, but to most Chinese marrying someone from the West is no longer a means to getting rich or going abroad, as in the early years of China's opening up and reform. Most Sino-foreign couples marry for love on the basis of mutual understanding and congeniality.

There are now greater numbers of same-sex partnerships. As Chinese society becomes more tolerant, homoeroticism will increasingly come out into the open. More non-governmental organizations offering women self-help and marriage counseling will also be established.

In the countryside things have also changed. Free choice, rather than arranged, marriages are being promoted due to social and economic progress. Rural women have more life choices, particularly those who migrate to cities. Working in the city broadens their horizons, bringing them economic independence. They consequently expect to be mistresses of their own fate. Many of them disdain to marry fellow rural dwellers, but are frustrated that traditional prejudice makes them the last choice of marriage partner for urban men. This situation is likely to continue for a long period.

Thanks to economic development, more equal status for women, the establishment of social security for seniors, and education on reproductive science, the rural convention of early marriage and lots of children is now being rejected. Endowment insurance for rural residents is having a far-reaching influence on farmers' attitudes towards having children.

Gender imbalances have made it harder for men from poor households to find marriage partners. In depressed areas the cost of marrying is ruinous to the man's family, to the extent that many simply cannot afford it. As farmers attach supreme importance to having a family and offspring, some risk the cheaper and more convenient alternative of buying wives.

The divorce rate in rural areas is likely to remain low, as divorce deprives rural women of some of the basic means of production, such as land. Those that work in township enterprises, however, have more freedom. For the sake of family solidarity, husbands now tend to treat their wives more fairly.

The extramarital affair is an alluring but risky concept to rural women -- one that could bring turbulence to and inflict calamity on their lives. So they generally desist.

In conclusion, marriage and the family in rural and urban China are evolving into more diversified, rational, and progressive institutions, as the concept of gender equality becomes more widely accepted.

(China Today March 1, 2003)

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