“Divorced from Reality?”

Susan Glosser highlights an intriguing and seemingly ironic circumstance in, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953, when she explains that despite the fanfare and propaganda that Communists (CCP) made regarding the rights of women and the need to smash old traditions, the new Marriage Law of 1950 made it harder, rather than easier for women to obtain a divorce than under the earlier 1931 marriage code promulgated by the Nationalist government (GMD). While both laws allowed divorce if each party consented, the 1931 code provided ten specific circumstances where either the husband or wife could sue for divorce.1 On the other hand, the 1950 Law required that couples seeking a divorce undergo meditation before the local government and if the mediation failed, the contested divorce could be heard in the county or municipal court where the court’s primary interest was also to reconcile the couple.2 This system seems to be in stark contrast to propaganda used by the Communists to promote their marriage law, “This lawfully expresses the spirit of the Central People’s Government toward the equality of men and women. The fundamental spirit lies in enthusiastically actualizing the uplifting of women and the destruction of the evil remnants of feudal society.”3 Allowing women to escape abuse or abandonment would seem to be in line with the rhetoric of the law, but not the reality. Moreover, at first, it seems odd that the GMD would provide more options for women than the CCP in the realm of divorce. This restriction on divorce appears to be an important lens through which to understand the limitations on women’s rights under the regimes established by the CCP versus the GMD.

The Nationalist and Communist views of divorce seem contradictory to what one would think of their political philosophy and the marketing or rhetoric that goes along with it. Indeed, the Communists’ practices regarding the granting of divorce seem antithetical to their propaganda of equality of the sexes. Moreover, an important element of Communist propaganda and philosophy was to raise the conditions of women in the new state, and initially, it appears that divorces increased under Communist rule, particularly amongst peasant women, but then the numbers rapidly decreased.4 It has been argued that the initial increase in the divorce rate led to difficulties for the Communists because it was negatively impacting peasant families (or more likely male peasants) and that, in turn, hindered support for the CCP’s land restructuring efforts.5 Thereafter, perhaps to no surprise, the ability to obtain a divorce was made much more difficult.5 In addition, it was until 1980 that the marriage law was revised to allow for a divorce if mediation did not result in the couple reconciling.5 On the other hand, one might have expected the Nationalists to be more conservative and less willing to grant divorces to women, given their philosophy expressed by Sun Yatsen, that “‘devotion to one’s own family would expand into devotion to one’s national family.’”6 However, the Nationalists’ marriage code specifically provided for near-equal rights to both genders to be granted a divorce and removed previously abusive practices that allowed men to obtain what was referred to as “arbitrary” divorces.7The GMD code thus seems to support women’s interests notwithstanding the nationalist philosophy that the strength of the family unit is crucial to state success, without which the Nationalist regime would suffer great strains. However, despite this apparent support for women and the fact that the GMD code did seem to provide more options for divorce and less state control over exiting a marriage than the CCP’s Marriage Law, it did not necessarily mean that divorce would be freely obtainable. Nonetheless, the GMD code did seem to provide women with a much greater degree of control over their lives in the realm of divorce than the CCP.4

The Nationalist and Communist policy on divorce might reveal the CCP’s greater need to pander to the peasant’s more conservative views on marriage, at least initially, as well as the CCP’s more effective efforts to engrain state control over all elements of family life. It has been claimed that Mao, when faced with losing support from his predominantly peasant soldiers or promoting women’s rights, stuck with his soldier.8 However, this does not explain why divorce remained extremely difficult long after Mao and the CCP were victorious. In fact, it seems that a critical factor at play was the CCP’s successful implementation of his philosophy that the state must be held above the individual that explains the CCP’s restriction on divorce.4The limitations placed on the ability to obtain a divorce without explicit state sanction and after extraordinary measures to reconcile couples demonstrate that the Communist’s interest in women’s rights was substantially subordinated to the state’s interest in maintaining control over the family unit. Unfortunately, such a stance dooms abused women to remain tethered to their abusers and clearly does not serve to establish real equality between the genders.

  1. Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953, (University of California Press, 2003), p. 172.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid. at 175.
  4. Ibid. at 173. [] [] []
  5. Ibid. [] [] []
  6. Ibid. at 98. []
  7. Ibid. at 111. []
  8. Ibid. at 168. []