[Paleopsych] WSJ: Divorce increasing at 20%/year in China
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Divorce increasing at 20%/year in China
April 13, 2005
By KATHY CHEN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
April 13, 2005; Page A1
NANCHANG, China -- China's success is tearing the Fan family apart.
Qun, a successful 39-year-old entrepreneur in Beijing, bought his
parents a new apartment and takes them sightseeing in other Chinese
cities. But he feels he has little in common with them any more and
less to say to them. His younger brother Jun, 37, is reeling over a
divorce after his wife left him to pursue opportunities in southern
China. He is unemployed after a failed business venture and has been
living with his parents for more than a year.
At a loss over how to deal with his family's situation, patriarch Fan
Hanlin often retreats to his bedroom, usurped in his role of
respected elder. His older son's social standing outstrips his, and
his younger son ignores his advice. Mr. Fan's wife escapes by playing
mah-jongg each afternoon with friends.
"Everyone is unhappy," says the elder Mr. Fan, 70.
For thousands of years, Chinese have made the family paramount, with
generations often living together, and younger members deferring to
their elders. Fathers were the head of the household. But
opportunities born of China's move to a market-based economy over the
past two dozen years are creating new wealth, new hierarchies and new
strains. The scramble to keep up with neighbors, or one's own
relatives, is testing family ties, contributing to a rise in social
Some 1.6 million couples divorced in China last year, a 21% jump over
the year before, according to China's Ministry of Civil Affairs. In
Beijing, there were 800 reported cases of domestic violence in 2004,
double the number the previous year, according to the city's Bureau
Younger Chinese are opting for privacy over extended-family living
and buying parents their own apartments. Others are putting their
aging parents in nursing homes, as convenience trumps filial piety,
an unheard-of violation of Confucian ethics. Over the past decade,
the number of nursing-home residents has increased 40% to more than
In their room at the Beijing Fifth Social Welfare Institution, a
state-run nursing home, one elderly couple explained why they live
there. The Wangs, who declined to be identified by their full names,
say they moved to Beijing after retiring to be closer to their
daughter. But they found it too lonely living in the high-rise
apartment she bought them.
"We didn't want to live with her because...in a market economy,
competition is very fierce and children have no extra time or energy
to take care of their parents," says Ms. Wang, 75. The Wangs say they
like it at the institution, because there is more socializing. They
note their daughter, a securities-company executive, has cut her once
weekly visits to holidays and phone calls. "She has no time," says
Parents of young children are leaving their offspring in the care of
relatives for years, as they seek better jobs far from home. Millions
of peasants have left their rural homes for work in cities, while
some professionals are going abroad. The trend is spawning China's
own generation of latchkey children, numbering in the tens of
Last September, a 16-year-old, whose mother had left their village to
work in the city, and two friends robbed several dozen students at
knifepoint in the city of Daye, say local authorities. The teen was
among several dozen youngsters from a nearby village with at least
one parent working elsewhere. Many had dropped out of school. "These
kids are like land mines who could explode any moment," says village
chief Hu Yunyan.
One of last year's most-viewed television series in China was
"Chinese-Style Divorce." It focuses on a doctor whose marriage
unravels after he goes to work at a higher-paying hospital, backed by
foreigners, to satisfy his wife's demands for a better life. The show
has spawned a best-selling book and pages of commentary and columns
The show's producer, Zhu Zhibing, says he came up with the idea for
the series after observing how the race to get ahead in China is
eroding family relationships. "Everyone is focused on making money,"
he says. "It destabilizes society."
In the Fan household, life followed traditional guidelines when the
children were growing up. Mr. Fan, head of the household, taught
physics at a high school and his wife, Luo Shuzheng, was an engineer
in a state-run factory. They had three children -- two boys and a
girl -- who excelled at school, and tested into prestigious
Like other Chinese children, the Fans were expected to obey their
father without question. "We required [the children] to sit still and
didn't let them fool around," Mr. Fan says.
Usually, just raising his voice was enough, but Mr. Fan says
sometimes he hit the boys. He still recollects with pride how, after
he hit his younger son in an effort to improve his study habits, the
boy scored so well on college-entrance exams that he ranked among the
top in Nanchang County.
The Fans were a tight-knit clan. Qun, the oldest, looked after his
two younger siblings while their parents were at work. Many nights,
their mother stayed up mending clothes and making cloth shoes for the
children. Sundays were a rush of shopping, cooking and housework.
Neither Mr. Fan's nor his wife's parents lived with them, but the
couple set aside part of their small income each month to give to
Like generations of Chinese, Mr. Fan and his wife, Ms. Luo,
envisioned a life driven by filial duties for their own children:
study hard, find a stable job, get married, produce offspring
(preferably male) and support their parents in old age. But in the
late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Fan children were graduating
from college, China's economic reforms were opening up all sorts of
new opportunities, in job choices, lifestyles and ways to get rich.
Qun jumped at the chance to do something different. Bucking the trend
among college graduates at the time to take a state-sector job, he
opted for a marketing position in a joint-venture company of
SmithKline Beecham, now GlaxoSmithKline PLC. He learned about the
pharmaceutical business and Western marketing techniques, befriended
American colleagues and helped the company successfully launch its
Contac brand of cold medicine in China.
In 1996, he started his own consulting company, advising drug
companies on doing business in China. Today, he says, his company
employs a dozen people, including his wife, Li Chunhui. The business
generates annual revenue of more than $1.2 million, he says, and
aftertax profit of 15% to 20% of revenue.
As Qun prospered, the distance widened between him and his family in
Nanchang, a city of 4.5 million nearly 800 miles from his new home in
Beijing. He shares few details of his life in the city with his
parents. They don't understand his business, he says, and wouldn't
necessarily approve of his lifestyle. He and his wife each drive
their own car, dine out frequently and retain two housekeepers,
including one just to look after their pet Pekinese. This year, they
moved to a two-story house in a wealthy suburb.
His parents don't have a car or a housekeeper, rarely eat out and
take pride in saving. "If my parents saw me spending this kind of
money, I'd be embarrassed," Qun says, as he and his wife grab a
coffee at a Starbucks shop on the way home from the office. He notes
the few hundred dollars they spend each month on such luxuries as
fresh beef, imported cookies, dog sweaters and a sitter for their dog
is more than his parents' monthly income.
In the past, Chinese families revolved around fathers and sons. But
like other younger-generation Chinese, Qun views his first allegiance
as with his "xiao jiating," or small family unit centered around his
The couple have resisted suggestions by Qun's parents for them to
have a baby. Instead, Qun's wife insists their Pekinese dog, "Wrong
Wrong," should be recognized as a "grandson," proclaiming the dog's
surname to be "Fan." Qun says this offended his mother, and she once
complained that he should find a wife "who listens more." In
traditional China, a son would have quietly accepted such criticism.
But Qun says he told his mother that if she had a problem with his
wife, she should tell her directly. "My main family is with Linda,"
he says, using his wife's English name. Like many of today's
middle-class Chinese, the couple also use Western names, which is
seen in certain circles as a sign of being modern and sophisticated.
Qun also goes by the name of James.
Qun's mother says she doesn't care how they raise their dog, but "you
still need to have a child. How will you get by when you are old?
Dogs can't take care of you."
These days, Qun sees his parents only a few times a year.
Conversations tend to be about Nanchang friends or family, since his
parents have different views on other subjects. "They always complain
about how the government is unfair and society is unjust," says Qun.
"I try to influence them...but I think they'll never catch up to my
way of thinking."
Min, the youngest Fan sibling, also resisted her parents' traditional
expectations. Ms. Luo says she hoped her daughter, after graduation
from college, would return to Nanchang. Instead, Min settled in the
southern city of Guangzhou, where she is married, has a child and
works at a major Chinese insurance company.
Jun, the middle sibling, is still figuring out his place in the new
China. Growing up, he says the constant message from his parents and
school was: "If you just listen, you'll be successful and society
will take care of you." After college, he accepted a job at the local
subsidiary of the state-run China National Machinery & Equipment
Import & Export Corp.
Working as a trader, he exported engines to other Asian countries and
the U.S. and earned more than $10,000 in bonuses, he says. But after
more than a decade on the job, his salary changed little, totaling
about $200 a month.
In 1993, Jun married a fellow office worker, Zhu Yifang. Their
employer provided them with a small apartment and they had a son in
After the baby was born, Jun's mother spent long stretches of time
living with the couple, a traditional Chinese practice. But Ms. Zhu
says she resented her mother-in-law's presence, which she regarded as
interference. "It would have been better if the older generation
didn't live with us," Ms. Zhu says. "But I couldn't refuse," she says.
Unlike wives in pre-reform China, Ms. Zhu could walk away, with more
freedom and job opportunities. In 1999, she went to southern China to
work as the sales agent for a construction-material company, leaving
her husband to care for their son, then 4 years old. In 2000, the
couple divorced. Today, Ms. Zhu lives in Nanchang with a boyfriend
and earns more than $500 a month, she says, teaching English at a
university and running her own English class.
After the divorce, in 2001, Qun offered his younger brother a job at
his company in Beijing to market a vitamin supplement and oversee a
handful of employees. Jun quit his state-sector job and accepted.
But he felt uncomfortable leaving his son in his parents' care, he
says. He couldn't get used to Beijing or his new job. He had a hard
time persuading retailers to buy the vitamin supplement, and after a
year, the venture had lost more than $60,000. He says the company
didn't spend enough to promote the product.
Qun says his younger brother "approached the job like he was still at
a state-run company...He got up in the morning, drank a cup of tea,
and then did only what I told him to." He says his brother "often
complains and finds excuses....We live in different worlds."
Jun says that by his older brother's standards, "I haven't
succeeded...but the goals he chooses are different from mine." He
thinks his brother "doesn't necessarily like what he does, but he
wants to earn money." His own goal in life, Jun says, is to first be
a good father.
Jun returned home and last year moved in with his parents. That is a
reversal of Chinese tradition, in which grown offspring typically
provide for their parents.
Sitting on the apartment patio on a recent day, Jun sipped tea from a
beer mug and pondered his future.
"I haven't thought through a lot of things, like how to raise my kid,
how to be a model parent and how to live with my parents," Jun says.
"I'm just considering the question, 'How successful should I be?'
People drive a [Mercedes] Benz; I don't have a car."
Mr. Fan and Jun often squabble over how to raise Jun's son, now 9
years old. "I tell [Jun] his son should go to sleep at 9 p.m. or
he'll be tired at school. But I talk and no one listens," says Mr.
Jun says that his father "has lived this long, but doesn't know what
family is. You need to show love to your kid, but [the elder Mr. Fan]
doesn't express his emotions."
After initially rejecting his brother's suggestion that he look for a
job outside of Nanchang, Jun recently had a change of heart. He says
he plans to visit Shanghai to explore an opportunity to work for a
trading company there.
Economic changes have given people in China more money, but are also
causing "more pressure" Jun says. "Some contradictions always existed
in our family," he says, "but when life was simple, we just lived
---- Cui Rong and Qiu Haixu contributed to this article.
Write to Kathy Chen at kathy.chen at wsj.com1
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