Confucian values are important in understanding modern China, but it is also important to recognize those areas where those values can be seen to be fraying at the edges. According to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, by 2009 there were almost 5,000 couples registering for divorce every day in China, an amount equal to 1.7 million couples divorcing every year. While the rate of divorce in China, at 1.85 per thousand in 2009, is still below that of the United States, where there were 4.95 divorces per thousand marriages, it is one of the highest rates in Asia. Singapore and South Korea both have divorce rates of around 0.8 per thousand marriages, for example. As recently as 1985, the Chinese rate of divorce was still only 0.4 per thousand. Why has China turned so non-Confucian in its attitude toward divorce? What has happened to the China that venerated the family, as seen in the saying “Harmony in the family is the basis for success in all undertakings.”4
Traditionally, family members were expected to do whatever it took to maintain the family as a unit. So if a husband’s relationship with a mistress was exposed, the reaction of the wife would be to seek reconciliation rather than divorce. This attitude corresponds to the Confucian edict that the group is of more value than the individual and that individual needs must be sacrificed.
This attitude has changed, especially amongst those born in the 1980s. The younger generation has a much more open and free mind-set toward divorce. In general, this generation is much less willing to submit to Confucian values that it sees as coming at the price of limiting personal happiness. Today’s attitude toward divorce would have been unthinkable even in the 1990s.
It is worth mentioning that the divorce rate in China has grown alongside the incredible pace of economic growth in recent years. Men, and more importantly women, have seen their salaries far eclipsing anything their parents dreamed of earning. These changes have left the current young generation, much like the generation that experienced rapid economic changes in the West after the Second World War, less likely to rely on the advice of parents and elders. Equally, the prohibitions or chiding of the older generation means less to youngsters who may feel their seniors are out of touch with the current world.
Finally, changing attitudes toward divorce may also be the product of fundamental changes to the role of women in China, which we will address in more detail later.