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Romantic Materialism print version
Are couples in China nowadays less into romantic love and are more focused on material benefits? Were the early days of the PRC filled with romance or rather suppressing sexuality? Here are some key events in the in the development of the marriage institution and related norms in China in the last several decades.

Women of older generations, born in the 40's, 50's and even 60's cannot identify with the materialistic aspects of romantic relationships, themes that are strongly associated with the urban middle class in contemporary China. One can argue to which extent has the Marriage Law (1950) and the socialist reforms improved the status of women and the intimacy and equal choice in romantic relationships, but under Mao's rule it is at least certain that romance was material-free.

Although materialism is well associated with modern ‘western' value systems, it is sometimes promoted by rather traditional Chinese norms, such as the fear of ‘losing face' that leads women to choose a husband of a good status, job and salary, for the sake of protecting the social reputation of themselves and of their family members.

The Marriage Law (中国第一部婚姻法 zhōngguó dìyībù hūnyīnfǎ, May 1st 1950) stressed the importance of choosing one's spouse freely and banned practices such as selling brides, arranged marriages for children and having multiple wives. The government's aim to blur boundaries between classes and remove any traces of feudalism have often lead people to marry a spouse of a lower ‘class' (later on, during the Cultural Revolution, marriages between city youngsters and peasants were promoted more aggressively). Still, some values were still more important than complete freedom of choice. Couples still needed their parents' approval and the approval of authorities (at their neighborhood committee and workplace). Obtaining an approval for divorce was an almost impossible task...

Things changed under the reality of the reform era in the beginning of the 1980's. In 1980, the first amendment to the Marriage Law was issued, and an argument called ‘incompatibility', a concept which was previously considered amorphous and worth neglecting, was added as a legitimate reason for filing for a divorce. Perhaps the birth regulations policies, implemented since the beginning of the 80's, lead to a reality in which sex became recognized as much more than simply a tool for producing children, and perhaps it was the growing capitalist market and exposure to western culture that promoted the emergence of a new concept of ‘love'.

Though with the dramatic shifts from a socialist state to an intense free-market economy, experienced in big Chinese cities, some people, scholars and officials are warning against a process of ‘value deterioration' and claim that things have gone too far. A romantic and sexual liberation, besides leading to a dramatic rise in the divorce ratio in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, has also brought back phenomena such as concubines and possessing a second wife (二奶 èrnǎi). This is practiced by couples of the same economic level, though growing social gaps within China evidently tend to ‘connect' between attractive young peasant women and middle class sugar daddies.

Another amendment was added to the Marriage Law in 2003, this time taking a step backwards by stating that it is prohibited for married person to cohabitate with a third side (第三者 dìsānzhě). Though faithfulness cannot be enforced completely, any dispute within a marriage or a relationship between a married person and a third side would lead to the court's strictness towards the unfaithful one.

With the often contradicting views between different generations, which experienced different realities in their younger years, and with quick shifts in value system, it is almost certain that China's marriage institution will experience some more twists in its future plot.

Related Source: China's Marriage Law, adopten on the Fifth National People's Congress 1980, as it is viewed here.

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