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From NY Times|
By JIM YARDLEY
Published: October 4, 2005
GUANGZHOU, China, Sept. 30 - In this lush, affluent region where adultery is so ingrained that wealthy businessmen keep their lovers in "concubine villages," infidelity is often tolerated in a marriage. But Cai Shaohong could not put up with it.
So against the advice of her parents, Ms. Cai, 29, decided in June to leave her husband. Five years of marriage dissolved after 30 minutes of paperwork. She celebrated at a teahouse with friends. By August, Ms. Cai was advising a friend who had also decided to end her marriage with an unfaithful spouse.
"Several of my friends have gotten divorced," Ms. Cai said this week during a break at her office, explaining how things are changing here. "My friends think divorce is normal, not an unthinkable thing."
Divorce was once a dreaded fate for women in China. Now, many younger urban women like Ms. Cai view it almost as a civil right, which has helped drive up divorce rates. One government study found that women had initiated 70 percent of divorce applications here in Guangdong Province, where the number of divorces increased by 52 percent last year.
For women, and for men as well, changing social mores have brought changing expectations of marriage. If Chinese couples once recited ancient vows "to remain loyal to each other even if the seas run dry and the rocks crumble," as scholars point out, these days bad food or bad sex is enough to end some marriages.
"In the past, traditional values were the most important thing," said Yuan Rongqin, a psychotherapist in Guangzhou who treats a growing number of people for marriage- and divorce-related problems. "Now, individualism has taken over."
Divorce, then, has become yet another barometer of how Western influences introduced by two decades of economic change have rippled through Chinese society. China now has divorce lawyers, divorce counselors, prenuptial agreements and private detective agencies that photograph cheating spouses in the act. Several television shows about divorce have become popular.
"People's idea about the concept of marriage is changing," said Lu Ying, a lawyer who runs the Women and Gender Study Center at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. "Instead of thinking of having just one spouse for a lifetime, now they are thinking about the quality of a marriage. If it doesn't work out, then they are quietly ending it."
To a degree, China's rising divorce rate is typical for a developing country that is rapidly modernizing and becoming more affluent. But the increase has been sharp since October 2003, when the government streamlined the process in response to citizens' complaints. It also dropped the onerous requirement that couples needed approval from their employers. A process that once felt like an inquisition now can take 10 minutes.
Overall, China's divorce rate, as figured by comparing the number of divorces with the number of marriages in the same year, is about 19 percent, nearly five times the 1979 rate. That is still far below the divorce rate in the United States, which has been about 50 percent in recent years. Last year, the number of divorces in China jumped 21 percent from 2003, with 1.6 million couples splitting up. Roughly 6 in 10 opted against a contentious court divorce and chose the fast, noncontested divorce offered at government civil affairs offices. There, couples need only a marriage certificate, identification card, photographs and a divorce application.
The simplicity of the process has led to a new, if rare, social phenomenon, the "flash divorce" (as well the "flash marriage"). Chinese newspapers have carried accounts of young couples marrying in the morning, arguing at midday and divorcing in the afternoon.
Chang Jie regards her short marriage as a foolish mistake. In September 2003, when she was 24, she married her boyfriend in Beijing the day before she left for a job more than 1,000 miles away in the southern city of Macao. For four months, the new couple communicated mostly by e-mail. When Ms. Chang returned to Beijing in January 2004, her husband asked for a divorce. They had spent only a few days together as a married couple.
"He told me he didn't want to do this anymore," recalled Ms. Chang. "It shocked me." But she added: "It was better to end it. I think a lot of young people end their marriages in two years."
Divorce is much more common in the more prosperous cities than in poorer rural areas. In Beijing, for example, one study found that the divorce rate last year was 50 percent. Even so, divorce is rising in rural migrant families where a husband working away from home may only see his wife once a year.