Marriage reform lets people follow their hearts
Ona summer day in 2004, a young Chinese man and a young woman from the United States walked up to a stage draped in burgundy velvet curtains, before the red national flag and the red-and-gold national seal of China at an office in Shanghai. They stood to the side as a government representative — a 30-something woman with a floppy ponytail — asked them to remain faithful and respectful to one another, to care for their parents, to support each other, and to maintain harmony in the family. Then they signed two small red books on the podium, and held those books up beside their smiling faces, as photographers snapped away and the young government representative beamed. By the powers granted her by the People’s Republic of China, the couple became legally married.
That was the day my husband Jun and I registered our marriage, a moment we had envisioned ever since January of that same year, when he had proposed to me over the phone. But none of this — the proposal, and the subsequent marriage registration — would have happened in 2004 without a very significant change that took place in China on Oct 1, 2003.
On that date, a reform of China’s Marriage Law took effect, abolishing a previous requirement: approval by your employer or work unit to register your marriage. In Shanghai, this change applied to students too, like Jun, who was in a graduate program at the time. The prior regulation had barred us from even considering marriage for a simple reason — universities would not permit it.
Thanks to this reform of the Marriage Law, we could move forward to register our marriage without concern over any impact on Jun’s graduate studies.
The only approval that mattered in the process was our own.
We weren’t the only ones that year who took advantage of the change. According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, 2004 stood out as a boom year for marriage registrations across the country, with 8.67 million couples tying the knot, a rise of nearly 7 percent over 2003. At the time, it represented the largest yearon-year increase in marriage registrations in China since 1986.
Residing in Shanghai proved fortuitous for us, as not every area embraced student marriages with the 2003 reform.
But canceling the need for approval in marriage registrations had generated such a strong ripple effect, which apparently trickled down even to students, despite their university’s stance on the matter.
“After China simplified procedures for marriage applications in October 2003, schools had less ability to keep track of their students’ marital status,” China Daily reported in its story “Huzhou student marries after rule change”, a headline referencing the country’s ultimate decision in 2005 to lift the 50-year ban on student marriages for all universities.
The 2003 marriage reform, and subsequent 2005 reform to permit student marriages, have had an incredible influence in China, empowering individuals to follow their hearts in one of the most important life decisions a person can make. This kind of freedom, a critical aspect of China’s reform and opening-up, has helped transform the country into a more humane place to live.
It means China can better fulfill its promise to “serve the people”, including a young graduate student in Shanghai who longed to marry his US sweetheart in 2004.
A version of this piece was first delivered as a speech on Dec 12 at the Changing China, Transforming World event organized by the China Daily website.