YANG YOURONG's wife kicks him as they walk upstairs and he falls back a few steps, then follows again at a distance up to the cramped offices of a district-government bureau handling divorces in Chongqing, a region in the south-east. After more than 20 years of marriage, Mr Yang's wife has had several affairs; she is “quick tempered”, he says (she had slapped him earlier, he claims). At the bureau, divorce takes half an hour and costs 9 yuan ($1.40). It is administered a few steps away from where other couples get married and take celebratory photographs. Mr Yang and his wife have second thoughts, however; they return home, still arguing. Most couples hesitate less.
Divorce rates are rising quickly across China. This is a remarkable transformation in a society where for centuries marriage was universal and mostly permanent (though convention permitted men to take concubines). Under Communist rule, traditional values have retained a strong influence over family relationships: during much of the Mao era, divorce was very unusual. It became more common in the 1980s, but a marriage law adopted in 1994 still required a reference from an employer or community leader. Not until 2003 were restrictions removed.
The trend reflects profound economic and social change. In the past 35 years, the biggest internal migration experienced by any country in human history has been tearing families apart. Traditional values have been giving way to more liberal ones. Women are becoming better educated, and more aware of their marital rights (they now initiate over half of all divorce cases). Greater affluence has made it easier for many people to contemplate living alone―no longer is there such an incentive to stay married in order to pool resources.
As long as both sides agree on terms, China is now among the easiest and cheapest places in the world to get a divorce. In many Western countries, including Britain, couples must separate for a period before dissolving a marriage; China has no such constraints. In 2014, the latest year for which such data exist, about 3.6m couples split up―more than double the number a decade earlier (they received a red certificate, pictured, to prove it). The divorce rate―the number of cases per thousand people―also doubled in that period. It now stands at 2.7, well above the rate in most of Europe and approaching that of America, the most divorce-prone Western country (see chart). Chongqing's rate, 4.4, is higher than America's.
Helped by the huge movement of people from the countryside into cities, and the rapid spread of social media, the availability of potential mates has grown with astonishing speed, both geographically and virtually. But many migrants marry in their home villages and often live apart from their spouses for lengthy periods. This has contributed to a big increase in extramarital liaisons. Married people previously had limited opportunities to meet members of the opposite sex in social situations, according to research by Li Xiaomin of Henan University. Peng Xiaobo, a divorce lawyer in Chongqing, reckons 60-70% of his clients have had affairs.
Such behaviour has led to much soul-searching. The notion that “chopsticks come in pairs” is still prevalent; propaganda posters preach Confucian-style family virtues using pictures of happy, multi-generation families. (President Xi Jinping is on his second marriage but this is rarely mentioned.) Many commentators in the official media talk of separation as a sign of moral failure; they fret that it signifies the decline of marriage, and of family as a social unit―a threat, as they see it, to social stability and even a cause of crime. The spread of “Western values” is often blamed.
But marriage is not losing its lustre. In most countries, rising divorce rates coincide with more births out of wedlock and a fall in marriage rates. China bucks both these trends. Remarriage is common too. The Chinese have not fallen out of love with marriage―only with each other.
It is tradition itself that is partly to blame for rising divorce rates. China's legal marriage age for men, 22, is the highest in the world. But conservative attitudes to premarital relationships result in Chinese youths having fewer of them than their counterparts in the West (they are urged to concentrate on their studies and careers, rather than socialise or explore). Living together before marriage is still rare, although that is changing among educated youngsters. People still face social pressure to marry in their 20s. Their inexperience makes it more than usually difficult for them to select a good partner.
Couples' ageing relatives are part of the problem too. Yan Yunxiang of the University of California, Los Angeles, says “parent-driven divorce” is becoming more common. As a result of China's one-child-per-couple policy (recently changed to a two-child one), many people have no siblings to share the burden of looking after parents and grandparents. Thus couples often find themselves living with, or being watched over by, several―often contending―elders. Mr Yan says the older ones' interference fuels conjugal conflict. Sometimes parents urge their children to divorce their partners as a way to deal with rifts.
Women are more likely to be the ones who suffer financially when this happens. Rising divorce rates reflect the spread of more tolerant, permissive values towards women, but legislation tends to favour men in divorce settlements. A legal interpretation issued in 2003 says that if a divorce is disputed, property bought for one partner by a spouse's parents before marriage can revert to the partner alone. That usually means the husband's family: they often try to increase their child's ability to attract a mate by buying him a home.
In 2011 the Supreme Court went further. It ruled that in contested cases (as about one-fifth of divorces are), the property would be considered that of one partner alone if that partner's parents had bought it for him or her after the couple had got married. In addition, if one partner (rather than his or her parents) had bought a home before the couple wed, that person could be awarded sole ownership by a divorce court. This ruling has put women at a disadvantage too: by convention they are less often named on deeds.
In practice, if the couple has children the person with custody often keeps the home―more often the mother. Yet the court's interpretation sets a worrying precedent for divorced women. Their difficulties may be compounded by the two-child policy, which came into effect on January 1st. If couples have two children and both partners want custody, judges often assign parents one child each. Marriage and the family are still strong in China―but children clearly lie in a different asset class.