Congratulations, Chinese college students: We’ll let you get married!

I think it’s only when Americans read stories like this that they get a glimpse of just how different the Chinese psyche is from their own.

China said it would lift from September a 50-year ban on college students marrying or bearing children but warned the relaxed regulations should not change academic priorities.

Students of legal marriage age — 22 for males and 20 for females — will no longer need to seek approval from university officials to tie the knot, the Ministry of Education said on its website.

For decades students contemplating marriage or who become pregnant have faced the dilemma of whether to give up studying or delay their wedding, or stay in school and have an abortion.

The regulation came under particularly strong criticism from graduate students, many of whom, under the threat of expulsion, were forced to hold off on reciting marriage vows or starting families.

The new rule follows a law enacted in 2003 that abolished the need for engaged couples to request from employers or superiors a certificate of approval to wed.

Until recent years, Chinese remained beholden to the state for the most basic needs such as provisions for housing, a child’s education or the right to get hitched.

Just a couple of weeks ago I read that the CCP has also made some changes in divorce procedures: You no longer have to get your employer’s permission before receiving an official divorce.

Now, to the Western mind this is almost incomprehensible. Ask your boss for permission to get a divorce? Be thrown out of college for getting married? It’s hard for us to grasp that this could actually have been acceptable for generations and even into the 21st century, and that the Chinese simply accepted it. A whole different outlook as to how society operates and the role of the individual.

Meanwhile, it’s good to see they are breaking free of at least some of those restrictions that serve no purpose except to limit personal freedom. God knows, it’s about time.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 19 Comments

Well, I know it sounds very exotic to western ears, but it actually served some purpose except to limit personal freedom.

Most college students are in the age range of 18 to 22. For males, it’s not leagl to get married anyway. For females, the marriage will be such a burden that they’ll probably drop out of school on their own. Or so we’re concerned. Therefore, it’s the wish of the society and not the least of the parents, to see that the schools keep the kids on the right track. Let the individuals deicde for themselves? That sounds quite irresponsible, you know, to put kids to such hard tasks as to choose the right one for a life time. Why not choose after you graduate, when you have the wisdom and knowledge to know good from bad and the skills to earn enough for a better future family? What’s the rush?

As for asking for permission from the boss to get a divorce, it’s more like getting someone to make a last effort to save a marriage. In a society where danwei, or working units, are sort of like an extended family, it’s all but unnatural to consider the boss, who is charged to take care of his subordinates, someone to be of help to mend broken ties, or otherwise stop a family from falling apart. In fact, it’s quite common for the one who doesn’t want to be divorced to come to the boss of the spouse to seek a denial of permission to divorce. Since China has been a country of male dominance for so long, the danwei permission is in place to check the corrupt men’s ditching of their wives, who will probably be left bankrupt, thus in effect to protect women’s rights.

You see, this was the thinking of our society. No harm intended. All for the well-being and happiness of everyone. That’s why it could “have been acceptable for generations and even into the 21st century, and that the Chinese simply accepted it”.

Apparently now we don’t any more.

March 30, 2005 @ 11:43 pm | Comment

That this was thought acceptable, and that people accepted it, says a lot about the Chinese mindset and how different it is from that of many countries.

This is one of the many reasons why you can’t apply non Chinese logic to China, people think so very differently.

I have heard so many foreigners making arguments about how or why something is done in China, but they have often dismissed the real reasons, which are totally obvious to foreigners like me who have spent years living in China, by using the logic that somebody would be have to be mentally incapable for acting in a certain way for a given reason.

No, they’re not dense, they’re just being Chinese.

This is a bit like the pre marital health screening. In the US such a screening would be considered tantamount to Eugenics. In China, people just took it as being part of life.

I offer this article up to everybody who has ever tried to downplay one of my arguments by applying western logic to China.

March 31, 2005 @ 2:31 am | Comment

Is personal freedom inherently good? Does the individual deserve to do what he likes regardless of its effect on society?

March 31, 2005 @ 5:38 am | Comment

Is personal freedom inherently good? Does the individual deserve to do
what he likes regardless of its effect on society?

Well, you shouldn’t be allowed to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, but you should be allowed to get married or divorced whenever you want to. Don’t you think?

March 31, 2005 @ 6:22 am | Comment

Since we’re talking about the wierdness of Chinese thinking, I guess it’s all right for you to hear this. And it has something to do with marriage and freedom, too. It’s about the freedom of the husbands.

Did you know that it used to be a common practice in Chinese families for the husband to turn in most of his income to the custody of the wife? He is left with some petty money, enough perhaps for a bus ride or two, but not more. The wife is of course perfectly honorable — all the money will be spent well under her management.

This is a restriction that serves the exact purpose to limit the personal freedom of the husband. And it has been acceptable for generations and even into the 21st century, and that the Chinese (men) simply acctepted it. I swear, if we were a democracy, it would have been voted into law.

But fear not for us, we Chinese men are breaking free. According to a recent survey, a Chinese man has, on average, 16 sexual partners, if you believe that. God knows, it’s about time.

March 31, 2005 @ 6:28 am | Comment

Forgot to sign. The above is from me.

March 31, 2005 @ 6:30 am | Comment

I think, laoxia, that there’s a disconnect here about what we mean by “personal freedom.” I’m not in favor of personal freedoms that result in misery or pain or death or harm to others. And I don’t think Chinese thinking is “weird.” It’s just very different from Western thinking, a whole different mindset. But there is no denying, in my mind, that many of the restrictions of Mao’s CCP were designed to restrict personal freedoms that should not be restricted. The most glaring example is the old hukou system which almost constituted a caste system based on where you were born. There are many other examples of such personal freedoms being restricted that I don’t like, such as the Internet crackdown. That said, I also despise the crackdown on personal freedoms in my own country, and am equally vocal about the president’s pathetic and illegal efforts to intervene in personal family matters.

March 31, 2005 @ 6:38 am | Comment

I’m all humble, richard, and I know that my analogy was a lame one. Nonetheless, there’s still an outstanding question: who decides what personal freedom will lead to misery and harm to others? In the case of an individual incident, it may be readily resolved in a court room. But when it comes to making a policy that affects a lot of people, it’s not always that obvious. When it comes to analyzing a past policy, it’s even more complicated. At least a lot more than giving out labels.

Take the abolishing of the marriage ban in colleges. I’m all for it. But I’m also aware it could lead to inequalities not in favor of the female students. The requirement to get your boss’s permission to get divorced is indeed outdated and has not been strictly observed anyway. But I understand the circumstances in which such regulations were imposed. And I’m also concerned about the protection of women’s rights in the absence of such regulations.

It’s not always easy to see things beyond a predefined set of labels. But it may be worth the effort.

As for your position on Bush’s policies, I know where you’re coming from. If you were not a “member of the reality based community”, I probably wouldn’t even be here.

March 31, 2005 @ 10:51 am | Comment

Laoxia, I appreciate your giving us the background of these laws. My source is the media and the books I read, and unfortunately none of the articles on these laws has explained how/why they were initiated in the first place. So thanks for that.

In my mind, I would hope there’d be a way to protect the rights of women while at the same time allowing people in college to marry. Was a marriage ban the only way to protect women? I’m not being disingenuous. I really see it as a draconian approach that was bound to cause as much grief as it did protection. (And I can only see it from my hard-wired Western perspective, though my experiences in China make it easier for me to understand.)

who decides what personal freedom will lead to misery and harm to others?

That’s what government and laws are all about, and it’s why I am so in favor of pluralism and rule of law. Just this week, in the Schiavo case, we saw this process work as best it can. Someone had to get hurt (the parents or the husband, not Terry, who has been dead for 15 years). No way around that. So we depend on our courts and our laws, and if we feel they are failing us we elect new politicians to rewrite the laws. Imperfect, but it’s by far the best system the world has ever known in terms of sheer workability and fairness.

March 31, 2005 @ 11:11 am | Comment

The abolition of the ban on college students’ marriage should have taken place 20 years ago! The ban itself is a reflection of the thinking that even the basic human needs shall be dictated by the Govt., or any direct authority of the people involved, Danwei, school, factory, company, etc. The argument that Chinese people are different from other peoples in terms of basic human rights or freedom is outrageous, as a Chinese myself, I never thought that my marriage or divorce will have anything to do with the “larger” good of the society and it’s totoally rediculous to me that anybody besides the family of my wife and me could claim that they have a vested intrest in my most personal affair. Laoxia, I don’t know about your age but it seems to me that there is great gap in thinking between you and my generation and I don’t like the way in which you tried to convince others that you can represent Chinese people and you know more of China’s business and Chinese thinking/philosophy than anybody else. To be honest, even my parents, who were born in early 1940s wouldn’t believe in the slightest that the Govt. shall decide whether or not an adult should marry/divorce. So please tell me which China you are living in?

March 31, 2005 @ 7:51 pm | Comment

It is amazing what the Chinese governemnt does ‘for the good of society’ isn’t it.

As a non Chinese I find it very hard to understand how the Chinese governemnt can consider that it has the right to interfere in people’s live so much.

I suppose that it is all part of Beijing’s control mentality and a remnant of China’s legalist history.

Beijing has to control everything, it might be relaxing one law, but there are stil many more to go, some of which are newly penned.

March 31, 2005 @ 8:25 pm | Comment

Good to see a fellow “mainlander” here. I have no dispute over your assertion that we Chinese do desire freedom and rights, just like anyone else. Trust me, I would hate to have to get my boss’s permission if I’m about to divorce my wife.

That said, I do try to look at things from a perspective other than my own. That’s perhaps because I’ve seen too many things not turning out to be ideal in this country. No, you and I don’t need the government to nose into our personal lives. But think of other people, especially the poor, the powerless, who have no outlet of a voice and are still hopelessly dependent on the government to provide some sort of basic protection.

Let me give you an example here. You must know about the new traffic laws which make the driver responsible in accidents involving pedestrians even if the driver is not at fault. As I myself drive a car, I find it nothing less than outrageous. Nonetheless I acknowledge I have to share the cost that arises from the mere fact that most people still have no other means of transportation than on their own feet.

I have no doubt that one day we’ll have what we deserve — freedom and rights for all. I simply don’t believe the process can be positively helped through misunderstanding and ignorance.

March 31, 2005 @ 9:23 pm | Comment

Reading Laoxia, I’m surprised to find out China’s poor and needy are actually ‘dependent on the government to provide some sort of basic protection’. What a compassionate government! Are you talking about Cheng2 Guan3 and their baton of mercy? Was Mr. Sun Zhigang one of those lucky ones being helped?

As for the capable hands of the Chinese government ‘always working for the wellbeing of the people’, they have already decided that bullets are the best answer for peaceful protsters, and the nation as whole. You are free to propaganda on their behalf, but you should not be free to murder, I’m afraid.

April 1, 2005 @ 6:21 am | Comment

Maybe relative maturity is also a factor in the marriage age restriction. I’m not sure how well this applies outside of urban China, but it seems clear to me that young people here in Shanghai socially mature somewhat later than western kids of the same age.

I am not sure if this is good or bad. One one hand, it seems odd that a person in their twenties might have to go home because their mother decided what time they must be in bed. On the other hand, not many Chinese teenagers have the kind of first-hand knowledge of drugs, alcohol, violence, alienation, etc that some of their western peers may posess. Maybe that’s not so bad.

Many of the urban 22-year-old Chinese males I meet seem to me to be on about the same level of social maturity as an urban American 18-year-old. Like I said, not good or bad, just is.

What western males under age 18 could freely get married? Maybe that’s why this strikes westerners so, but seems perfectly acceptable in China.

April 2, 2005 @ 12:06 am | Comment

Shanghai Slim:

Your observation surely has some merit – for example, in terms of anger management, dispute settling, or EQ, some Chinese 22yo or even 30yo are not matured to that American 18yo do. Some of them probably will never get there. And it’s certainly true if you count in social responsibility, individualism, and self-descipline.

But, at the same time, some Chinese 18yo are ‘cleared-minded’ to know what they want in life, and what’s the give and take. For example, some flock into the Communist Party not because they are communists but simply need the privilege, preference and a carte blanche to corruption. In which age group Americans can be so cynical and, ‘mature’?

April 2, 2005 @ 4:30 am | Comment

Bellevue

That’s a little bit of a strong way to word things but….

I agree that you’re average Chinese youth is less used to thinking on their own than their western counterparts, and that they are more used to defering or doing what is expected of them.

I suppose that this comes from the education system in China. It is lead from the front a lot more and isn’t built to encourage people to develop their own ways of doing things.

Then again, my country has a much more regimented style than the US, but less so than China, and I think that teens in the US are less mature than we are, particularly because they often appear to act without thinking, and are not encouraged to take responsibility early on.

At least that’s how I see things from where I’m standing.

Laoxia

China’s new auto law carries sections that allow for the culpability of the driver to be reduced until nothing if it is found that the driver could not have avoided what happened. This is a good example of how some laws in China are becoming far more flexible (in a good way).

If it can be shown that a pedestrian was too close for the car to stop, then the culpablity of the driver is removed and it placed on the pedestrian for walking into the driver’s path.

April 3, 2005 @ 3:46 am | Comment

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