Love & Marriage in China – 1980
NPR Journal
Produced and reported by Gail Pellett
Aired on: NPR      Date: 1982

Model Middle Class Family with TV, 1980 store window in Beijing; An ideal, not reality

In 1981, when I was working at Radio Beijing in the People’s Republic of China, I had the opportunity to interview a group of graduate journalism students at the Peoples Daily Journalism School. (My friend, Judy Polumbaum, was their professor).   I had just finished giving a talk in their class about American broadcast journalism;  in return they agreed to be interviewed about social and sexual attitudes, love, romance and marriage.  They were an unusually candid group of young adults. And our conversation ranged from attitudes about virginity, divorce and qualities of a good marriage partner.    Compared to the rather sober and reticent social style of my colleagues at Central Broadcasting, these students were a breath of fresh air — telling jokes, interrupting and disagreeing with each other.  The men often delivered traditional platitudes about pre-marital sex, expectations during marriage and divorce, while the women were much more forgiving and broad-minded.

Generational war, gender separation and one-child policy

Crowded housing; several families share kitchen, water pump, courtyard

They addressed the generational war currently taking place in Chinese cities, between young people who think they should have more freedom to “Play” — which means dating —  and parents who were still suffering the effects of the Cultural Revolution when people could be persecuted for having affairs.  Gender separation in work places — factories set up strictly for men — or work assignments in different cities — played havoc with finding a mate or keeping a marriage together.  And they all bristled at the one-child policy although they understood the imperative.  Most of them pointed to Confucius for China’s patriarchal attitudes toward women and puritanical ideas about sex and marriage.  And they spoke about how different the minority peoples were regarding their social and sexual practices.  That it was the dominant Han Chinese who were so puritanical.

Sex education non existent

The students revealed that birth control and sexual education is almost completely absent.  An occasional book or pamphlet might recommend cold showers and exercise to inhibit sexual desire.   Birth control pills are not available to unmarried students.  After you marry, it’s the neighborhood committee that will come by and check on your periods and offer birth control methods.

Students interviewed at the People's Daily Journalism School; Judy Polumbaum's class

Attitudes about divorce

Although after Liberation in China the 1950 marriage law made it easier for women to divorce, in the ensuing years divorce once again became difficult.  A survey released during the year I was in Beijing indicated that most divorces were rooted in financial tensions or conflicts between the wife and the mother-in-law. In 1980 the Marriage Law was revised to make divorce easier again but still attitudes worked against a divorced woman in particular.

One child families -- more boys. What next?


Breaking News

These interviews sound quaint and charming given the transformation in China since 1980. Mobility in work, improved incomes, choice in housing have meant a loosening of social mores - acceptance of pre-marital sex, popular culture filled with sexual imagery, and the return of prostitution. Given the negative attitudes about Confucius expressed in these interviews in 1980, the contemporary promotion of Confucianism by the People's Republic is a curious development. Back then Confucianism was blamed for the legacy of patriarchal attitudes. Now it's heralded as thoroughly Chinese and a way to maintain stability and a moral order.

Perhaps more important, we now have novels by Chinese authors translated into English that reveal some of the complexities of romance and relationships. I did not ask these students about homosexual relationships perhaps because I already knew how forbidden that conversation was in 1980. And besides, my own culture wasn't yet ready for a conversation about gay marriage in 1980.

When I visited Shanghai in 2007, I was shocked to see the Sunday afternoon ritual in People's Park downtown. Dozens of older couples from the surrounding suburbs come there to promote the virtues of their sons or daughter to match-make a marriage. They are loaded with photos and statistics on paper. Given the imbalance of genders with the one-child family (caused by female infanticide or aborting female fetuses), the families with daughters have much to leverage. It may also indicate that the sexes are still segregated in huge factories where women's work is still differentiated from men's and the hours are long, leaving little time for finding Mr. or Mrs. Right.


One Response to “Love & Marriage in China – 1980”

  1. Bob Machover says:

    The students have such an appealing and intimate presence. Once again a product of the radio documentary form. The content is fascinating. I wonder how things are today. It would be really worthwhile to do a documentary comparing policies and attitudes from let’s say 1945 to today (going back earlier might not be very feasible).

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