Marriage is an important part of the Chinese social fabric, but with the introduction in 2011 of China’s new marriage law, Karen Tye looks at what a marriage is really worth in today’s China.

There are three questions that a foreigner will frequently be asked in China (or more likely grilled).

The first one being: “Are you married?”

This question automatically leads into one of two, depending on the answer: “Why not?” or “Do you have any children?”

The third is: “How much do you earn a month?”

These three questions not only leave one stumped, but give an insight into the cultural values that are intrinsic to the Mainland Chinese, mainly marriage and money.

Of course, this is nothing too out of the ordinary as such concepts are important to other countries and cultures, including Australia.

However, the societal and familial pressure to tie the knot in one’s 20’s is lost on most foreigners. For example, many of my Chinese girlfriends are shaking in their boots by the time they hit 25 if they are still single, as they are in danger of becoming a shengnv (剩女), literally translated into “leftover woman”.

This applies to a single woman as young as in her late twenties who has good academic credentials and a high income and because of these reasons, is unmarriageable.

Young men don’t have it much easier either as it is customary for a man to provide the living residence for his new bride, something that he can’t bypass by just putting down two months’ deposit and the first month’s rent. Owning one’s own property is one of the mainstays of Chinese culture, and no new apartment could very well equate to a marriage deal breaker for many Chinese girls and their families.

A recently published survey of 50,384 Chinese people by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in conjunction with dating Web site Baihe revealed that among the 92 percent of women respondents, a prerequisite of marriage to a man is “a stable income” while close to 70 percent of women said that a man must own his apartment before tying the knot.

A taxi driver once told me of the 18-hour shifts he would work, just so he could help his son, currently in high school, put the down payment on an apartment when he gets married. He told me: “I have no choice but to save the money now. When he’s at the marrying age, he won’t be able to afford a house after just a few years in the work force. Which girl would marry him if he doesn’t have a house?”

China’s one-child policy has driven many doting parents to give their only sons and daughters the very best in life, so many don’t think it too much of a sacrifice that they toil for years and scrape every penny together for a down payment for their only son, amid skyrocketing property prices.

So boy meets girl, and all that expectation to marry young and procreate means more than often boy and girl get married at around 24, and they live happily ever after, right? Perhaps not.

Divorce, once a word that couldn’t be uttered in Chinese households and brought about shame, is no longer a rarity. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, 2.68 million couples ended their marriage during 2010, up 8.5 percent over 2009.

Before August 13 last year, a couple’s assets accumulated over their marriage were generally split 50-50, but under the new interpretation issued by the Supreme People’s Court in relation to China’s Marriage Law, couples are now thinking twice before taking the plunge or calling it quits.

For example, under the court’s new interpretation, if the man’s parents paid for a house and registered it in his name after he was married, the house would be considered to be his alone following divorce.

“On paper, this all looks very fair, because there are some cases where a girl will marry a guy, only to divorce him soon after for financial gain,” one of my Chinese girlfriends told me. “However, this only applies to a very small number of people and when you look deeper, the law seems to protect men more than women, or at least the stronger party in the marriage. Aren’t laws supposed to protect the weaker side instead?”

In actual fact, this new law was enacted to protect the hard-earned money of parents, who invest their blood sweat and tears to witness their child happily married, but the ramifications are that it leaves the person who has the main responsibility of running the household, most often the woman, with not much if a married couple go their separate ways.

Even the seemingly benign addition to the law that states that a man’s ex-wife will have a claim to the shared marriage funds used to pay off a home loan even if the deed is in the man’s name (because he paid for the deposit), has enraged many women.

This is because the woman’s final compensation may not reflect the true value of her contribution to the property. The main gripe is that while a man is left with property that could have doubled in value, the woman may be left with an amount that might not even afford her a down payment on a single bedroom apartment.

Another friend said this law doesn’t make women feel very safe in their own marriage. “Married men are more likely to get up to no good than their spouses. Us women need to rely on ourselves to earn our own money more than ever,” she says.

“The cost of a man getting a divorce in China now is much too low,” she adds. There is some truth to this, especially when put it in the context of getting divorced in Australia, which also requires a period of separation. In China, both parties simply have to show up at the local Marriage Registration Office to file for divorce, a process that can be completed during one’s work lunch break.

It seems this new legal interpretation highlights the large rift that exists between Chinese customs and modern day issues, and the challenge involved in balancing marriage and family values steeped in tradition amid inflated property prices and rising divorce rates.

While the three questions that I mentioned at the start won’t faze a Chinese person at all, it seems “What is marriage really worth?” will really knock ’em for six.

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