Chinese divorce, modern style

China is experiencing a rapid increase in divorce rates.

China Daily — a government-friendly newspaper — calls the increase “alarming,” and showed the number of divorces since 1978. Using U.N. population numbers, I converted those divorces to a crude divorce rate, or divorces per 1,000 total population.

Because population growth has slowed, the steady increase in divorces has produced an accelerating crude divorce rate. For comparison, this brings China up to where the U.S. was in 1940.

A quick search in the English-language social sciences reveals no systematic analysis of this trend that would help explain its causes, but the China Daily article summarizes the view of Peking University law professor Ma Yinan:

Ma suggests that China’s transformation to a market economy and modernization also began to reshape lifestyles and values, including those on marriage. With material comforts vastly improved, people are no longer satisfied with marriages that merely fulfilled the need to carry on the family line. Especially for women, economic independence has meant power to be emotionally more independent, making them brave enough to walk out of an unsatisfactory union.

This explanation is plausible (though the “material comforts” thing is not universal). But I have two reasons to be unsure. First, the women’s independence story and the post-materialist values story don’ t necessarily go together. In the U.S., for example, divorce has become less common among women with college degrees than it is for those with less education, at least for Whites, who have the highest level of potential financial independence. And second, fitting the Western modern-family narrative over Chinese culture is generally dicey, as argued by historian Philip Huang.

Still, given how fast Chinese demographic trends have moved in the past century — most notably mortality and fertility — rapid change in this area is not a surprise.

One thought on “Chinese divorce, modern style

  1. The reasons behind racial disparity in the U.S. divorce rate within socioeconomic statuses is possibly complex, given that it is difficult for more educated black women to find mates endogamously, possibly leading them to either not marry, or to stick with a not so “pyschologically suitable” mate who at least has parity with her occupationally, economically, and educationally.


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