Love Comes with a Price Tag, and a Return Policy Too: Controversy over New Marriage Law Interpretations

Posted on August 19, 2011

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“Marriage Law Interpretations, the Third Edition,” (Interpretations) recently issued by the Supreme Court and effective since August 13, 2011, is perhaps the most controversial Marriage Law interpretations in China. According to the Interpretations:

  • In case of paternity testing, refusal of testing establishes the other party’s position;
  • Yields and accretions of premarital personal property is not considered common property;
  • The property purchased by the parents of one party in the marriage for this party is considered personal property of this party;
  • Immovable property purchased by one party before marriage belongs to the registered owner;
  • In case of contested divorce, the articles concerning property settlement in the premarital agreement are void.

Essentially, the Interpretations focuses on two aspects that have been increasingly contested in divorce cases in China: property settlement and the weight of extramarital affairs in divorce cases. That’s not surprising to anybody who has been following what’s going on in China. The soaring housing prices, rampant extramarital affairs of married men, and the still huge gap between genders in terms of social and economic status have been the problems behind many divorce battles. The Interpretations is a new measure in the Supreme Court’s attempt to deal with these issues. If marriage has come with a price tag in China since the country embraced the market economy, now it has a return policy as well.

With little doubt, Chinese public’s reaction to the Interpretations has been passionate. In a widely circulated post, the author “Zhang Lei CYU” interprets the Interpretations and predicts its potential consequences:

  1. As soon as the new Marriage Law was issued, countless families lost their equilibrium; what this one stone has stirred up is more than a thousand waves;
  2. From now on, the husband approximates the landlord;
  3. Those women who hope to become rich by marrying someone will only end up in tragedy;
  4. Tonight will be a night of men’s relief and women’s sleeplessness;
  5. Guys, hurry up and make money, making sure to buy a house before getting married, and then you’ll have a unmovable house and a stream of wives;
  6. Girls, work hard and make money to buy a house on your own, for from now on, men are just floating clouds;
  7. The developers are laughing, and countless parents have to consider buying houses for their daughters just in case; the housing prices will never come down now;
  8. The lovers who are planning to get married are faced with unprecedented challenge; countless couples will split because of disagreement on whether the bride’s name should be written in the deed;
  9. More women will be cautious to get married, and those who are married will be cautious to get a divorce;
  10. Many women can be penniless overnight;
  11. China has returned back to a patriarchal society
  12. Before tonight, many people (especially men) were afraid of divorce because of property settlement concerns, and for this reason love was not pure; after tonight, many people (especially women) will be afraid of divorce for the fear of getting nothing, and for this reason love is not pure; yet from a different perspective, for women, love can become purer: this time, you don’t need to suspect that I marry you for your house, do you?
  13. The parents of the groom now can buy houses happily;
  14. The marriage license has since become a piece of waste paper, no longer having any attached value;
  15. Women all have to become strong career women, and more and more men will go about buying groceries, looking after kids, and knitting;
  16. If the groom paid the down payment before getting married, and the deed has only the bride’s name on it, after the wedding the wife can refuse to pay for the mortgage, and the couple won’t have a life but “cooperation” together.

The author then concludes that:

  1. This Interpretations seems to be reasonable, timely and fair, but it doesn’t take into consideration several realities of marriages in China: First, in China, it’s most likely that the husband will be the one who pay for housing; two, men are more likely to have extramarital affairs; three, which is the most important point, family is not only a house.
  2. Tonight, love is face with unprecedented challenge;
  3. I don’t know how to believe in love.

Many netizens who have commented on this post also lament the lost of innocence in this “crazy times.” However, few realized that marriage has never been so innocent anyway. The question needs to be asked is, whether the Interpretations or the public’s interpretations of Interpretations resolve or begin to resolve the deeply rooted problems that have contributed to Chinese youth’s anxiety surrounding marriage, namely, the inequality between genders, the inequality in distribution of wealth, and the lack of a consistent value system in today’s China. Indeed, an overlooked consequence of the Interpretations is a more heated gender war among Chinese youth.

Speaking from a female position, another widely circulated post is far more sarcastic and combative. In this post, the anonymous author gives women advice in the post-new-Interpretations era:

  1. Keep your own salary. Don’t help pay the mortgage. Wait until you have enough money, buy a house and say that your parents have given it to you as a gift. Then rent it out and pay the mortgage.
  2. Every money, the two of you put the same amount of money into a fund for living expenses.
  3. When you want to have a child, check and see how much money it costs to use a surrogate mother, and request the husband to pay for the same amount of money. If he doesn’t have that money, ask him to write an IOU and notarize it.
  4. Each time when you two have sex, check how much a prostitute charges, and because you’re cleaner than a prostitute, charge [your husband] twice as much. If your husband doesn’t have money, ask him to write an IOU and notarize it.
  5. About your child’s family name, if the child is named after you, it’s free of charge. If the child is named after your husband, as in the case of surrogate mother, he has to pay. If he doesn’t have that money, ask him to write an IOU and notarize it.
  6. Housework is equally divided between you two. If your husband use the excuse that his career is more important to try to get away from doing housework, check how much it cost to hire a domestic worker, and keep the book. Then ask your husband for money. If he doesn’t have money, ask him to write an IOU and notarize it.
  7. If your parents are sick, find an hourly helper, or take care of them yourself. If his parents are sick, send an hourly helper and keep the book. You don’t even need to show up.
  8. In terms of your child’s education, the time for helping with the child’s homework should be divided and schedule for each of you. If your husband can’t do it, he has to pay for it at a standard tutor’s rate. If he doesn’t have money, ask him to write an IOU.
  9. You’d better rent a place. Don’t live in your husband’s house. Otherwise you have to be careful not to step on his toes all the time.
  10. On holidays, you two go visit your own respective parents.
  11. Your body belongs to you, and you can decide what to do with it. If another man gives you money, things, houses and cars, let him have you. It’s worth it. Your husband has no right to protest.
  12. Girls, when you’re young, try every means to make money. Making money is all that matters. Only when you have enough money and buy a house, can you be assured that you won’t become homeless when you’re old and lose your looks.

This world is this cruel. If you want to survive, you don’t have other choice.

Sadly, while seemingly taking the women’s side, this author clearly equates women’s value to sex, reproduction, and domestic service in relation to men. Yet more sadly, what is lacking in the public discourse surrounding this issue is precisely a feminist voice that interrogates the power structure in place that’s based on gender differences and advocates for women’s rights, their protection and the elevation of their socioeconomic status in society in general, including and beyond the family.

As to love, I believe that it’s defined by people in particular cultural contexts. Sadly, in today’s China, where materialism and consumerism have become imperatives imposed on people, perhaps it is accurate to define love in economic terms, like what netizen 月林飞霜 writes: “If your love is true, put your girl’s name on your deed! This is the only way to test true love!”

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