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Wanted: Lover to Add Zip to Chinese Marriage

By Cindy Sui, The Washington Post, Thursday 20 April 2000; A25

BEIJING, April 19—Linda Han plans to marry her boyfriend in November. For their future life together, Han, a health insurance saleswoman, wants successful careers, a harmonious marriage—and time to spend with her secret lover.

Han, 28, is seeing an older, married man on the side, someone she finds more mature than her fiance. And she plans to continue the love affair after the wedding, citing her clandestine relationship as a sign of the times.

China is always talking about achieving modernization in agriculture, science and technology by the year 2000. I think people should be able to improve their emotional life as well, Han said. Extramarital affairs are a form of pleasure. It can help a marriage by making up for what you don't find in your spouse.

Han's views are becoming increasingly typical in some segments of the population in China's cities, and even in some towns, where economic prosperity has brought a revolution in attitudes toward marriage and romantic relationships. More and more, according to anecdotal accounts and assessments from social researchers, men and women who have left tradition behind no longer settle for one partner.

There are no studies done on how many people are having extramarital affairs, but I feel there are definitely more people having affairs, said Chen Xinxin, deputy secretary general at the China Marriage and Family Research Institute and a deputy researcher at the Women's Research Institute run by the All China Women's Federation.

We get calls from different parts of China, but mostly from medium-size to big cities, said Chen, who has been studying family practices since 1992 and frequently offers advice to people who call her office. From the calls we get, we know it's more common and people are having affairs more than once.

Other counseling services run by nongovernmental groups in various Chinese cities also report an increase in the number of phone calls regarding extramarital affairs.

In its first year of operation in 1992, a hot line operated by the Beijing Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center handled 311 telephone calls from people having or affected by extramarital affairs. By 1998, the number of such calls had increased to 569.

The number of calls to a similar service, XinYu Hotline in Changchun in northeastern China, increased from 600 in 1995 to 1,000 in 1998, hot-line director Yu Haibo said. And in the southern city of Guangzhou, a counseling hot line reports that calls about extramarital affairs are the most frequent type of query it receives--about 20 percent of 18,000 calls last year, according to the staff.

Conservative factions in the government have tried since the mid-1990s to curb promiscuity by proposing laws to penalize cheaters or home wreckers. But the laws have never passed, primarily due to a growing belief in China's liberalizing society that one's love life is no longer the government's business.

The ancient Chinese custom of concubinage, abolished by the strait-laced attitude of Mao Zedong's Communist rule after the 1949 revolution, has been revived by well-to-do men who keep mistresses. This practice has received official and unofficial criticism. But there are signs that even average people often feel they can seek love elsewhere if they are dissatisfied with their marriage.

The majority of marriages in China are mediocre, said Shi Kangning, a matchmaking-agency director who estimated that 30 percent of his clients are married. People married for political reasons during the Cultural Revolution. They chose spouses from a safe political class. Before, people didn't dare to find a lover, but now it's open season. They're making up for lost time.

As recently as 20 years ago, China punished people who had affairs by demoting them, putting them through critique sessions by their factory colleagues and even jailing them. But no one thinks about that anymore, said Chen, the family researcher.

People are more demanding in emotional satisfaction. Before, they had to worry about where the food will come from. Now, they are rich enough to want fulfillment not only in their stomach but their hearts, she said.

Matchmaking agencies offer services for married people, known as a friendship finder. Clients flip through binder after binder of photos and personal descriptions, claiming to be searching for a business partner or someone who shares the same hobby. The practice is beginning to worry the government, which earlier this year announced it is drafting a law to crack down on the agencies.

Many couples in their late forties to early fifties married during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao sent young adults to work for years in the countryside. Not knowing when they could return to the cities, people married carelessly, choosing one of the few peers sent along with them or a farmer. Others married city dwellers so they could go back.

One indication of the new attitudes is the divorce rate, which has more than tripled, from 3.74 percent in 1981 to 13.36 percent in 1998, the latest figure available. But unlike their counterparts in the West, many Chinese who feel trapped in unhappy marriages do not get a divorce and begin a new life. In fact, divorce due to extramarital affairs is uncommon, said Xu Xinjun, who runs one of the marital-advice hot lines. Instead, affairs go on for years without family breakups because no one wants to hurt the family's only child, and husband and wife generally fear social opprobrium or criticism by their parents.

A 46-year-old woman who requested to be identified only by her surname, Chen, described herself as one of many living a hidden emotional life. For the past five years, she has been arranging clandestine meetings with a manager in her company, a man who she says comforts her in a way her husband has never been able to do in their 20 years of marriage.

My husband is the kind of man who uses the same amount of toilet paper each time he uses the bathroom. Three squares every time. He is a good provider, but he doesn't sense my feelings, said Chen, who lives in western China.

She and her husband were sent to the same village to plant wheat during the Cultural Revolution. We never had enough to eat and we couldn't see our families. In those hard circumstances, you're just happy to have someone care about you, Chen said.

Although her son is grown and living in another city, she said she cannot divorce her husband because she does not want to put her son through the shock, risk ruining her husband's business or face gossip from her colleagues.

Like many Chinese people, Chen lives next door to colleagues in an apartment building provided by the state-owned company where she works. She and her lover can meet only two to three times a month but say they plan to carry on like this into old age.