A Glimpse of Ancient Chinese Divorce Systems

June 4, 2013
By Li BeiEditor: Amanda Wu

It might surprise some to know that in ancient China, divorce was quite easy, as a rigid marriage system was not yet established. If the husband and wife got along, they would continue the marriage but if they did not, they could simply break up.

A couple in ancient China draws up their divorce agreement. [xsnet.cn/Zhang Pei]

A couple in ancient China draws up their divorce agreement. [xsnet.cn/Zhang Pei]

The male-dominated marriage and family system was established only during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC) and the patriarchal system did not develop a solid foundation yet from the Western Zhou Period (1046-771 BC), the first half of the Zhou Dynasty, to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

For example, the Classic of Changes, one of the oldest of the Chinese classic texts that dates back to the 3rd or 2nd millennium BC, keeps a record of wives leaving their husbands.

On his inspection tours, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (259-210 BC), discovered that many men lived with their wife,s family and took their wife,s family name after marriage. Some widows also left their children to get remarried.

Accordingly, he gave orders for people to maintain the stability of their families.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279), the patriarchal idea continued to be strengthened. In relevant laws, women had low social positions. Wives and concubines could not arbitrarily leave their husbands but they could appeal to the authorities for divorce if their husbands ran away.

Ancient nobles had certain rituals for divorce. According to the Record of Rites, one of the Five Classics constituting the core of the traditional Confucian canon, rituals should be observed for the husband divorcing the wife and the wife divorcing the husband, and both sides were supposed to show remorse for his or her own actions.

Divorce certificates preserved in historical materials of the Tang Dynasty show that men and women enjoyed almost equal status. A divorce certificate usually consisted of three paragraphs.

The first paragraph would usually state that the husband and wife should cherish their marriage. The second paragraph would describe their current situation, such as incompatible personalities leading to frequent conflicts and family disharmony.  In the third paragraph, the two sides would wish each other well and hope that the other would be able to make a better marriage in the future.

At the end, some divorce certificates would also record the alimony amount for the woman. Divorce certificates were usually signed with parents and relatives of both sides as witnesses.

In ancient patriarchal society, a woman was taught to have 'three obediences and four virtues'. That is, a woman was supposed to obey her father before she got married, obey her husband while she was married and obey her son after being widowed. The four virtues included fidelity, physical charm, propriety in speech and efficiency in needlework.

However, neither could a man arbitrarily divorce his wife, since divorce was seen as affecting people's sense of family and the clan system.

The Collection of Bai Juyi Works by Bai Juyi (772–846), a poet and government official during the Tang Dynasty, records a story about such a divorce.

A wife, who was delivering a meal to her husband working in the fields, met with her hungry father on the way and thus presented the meal to her father. The husband flew into a rage and insisted on divorcing the wife. The wife refused to accept it and then reported the case to the local government.

Bai, who made the verdict, said, "In accordance with women's three obediences, a wife should obey her husband, but repaying her father's love comes naturally. The wife should bring meals first to her father and then to the husband. Filial piety comes before obedience to husband, so the husband may not divorce his wife."

Despite the ease of getting divorced, social stability was greatly important in ancient China, divorce was not encouraged and the divorce rate was quite low.

The Classic of Changes said, "The marriage bond should never break up but be maintained for good."

The Guanzi also listed a regulation that government officials who divorced more than three wives should be expelled from the country. Guanzi is an encyclopedic compilation of Chinese philosophical materials named after the 7th century BCE philosopher Guan Zhong (720-645 BC).

Feng Yan, a poet of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), divorced his wife in his old age and was criticized. From the Song Dynasty onwards, people considered those who divorced their wives to have bad manners.

In the countryside, divorce was even rarer because it would result in the reduction of labor force in a family, while remarriage would increase the family burden.

In addition, ancient people also attached importance to their social status and would hesitate to get divorced, as it would reflect badly on them. 

(Source: lrb.dayoo.com/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)

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