Entering Splitsville, China

Times Staff Writer

Farmer Yan Shihai was happily married for more than 30 years. Then late last year, seemingly out of the blue, the 57-year-old grandfather and his loving wife got a divorce.

Within months, all three of his adult children and their spouses also split up. So did almost every other married person in Yan’s village of 4,000 -- an astounding 98% of Renhe’s married couples officially parted, according to the local government.

It was as if a spell had been cast over this once-quiet rural community in the Chinese heartland. Everybody suddenly seemed to have fallen out of love. The oldest among them were in their 90s and barely able to move. The youngest had just tied the knot. Some had babies.

But instead of tension or tears, the couples waiting in line at the local registry to end their marriages were practically jolly. They believed they were taking advantage of a legal loophole that allowed them to get an extra apartment.


In a country where the government has seized farm after farm to feed a building boom, the villagers figured that if they were going to lose the land that had supported them for generations, they should at least try to get a better deal.

“Basically, it’s the government that forced us into this mess,” said Yu Changle, a 70-year-old grandfather whose three children are also divorced. “They are not paying us enough to leave the land behind.”

As they understood the compensation deal, each married couple would receive a small two-bedroom apartment in return for their land and farmhouse. Those divorced would get a one-bedroom apartment each. The villagers figured that would be a better deal, that they could live in one apartment and make a little extra income from selling or renting out the extra one.

So, whereas farmers elsewhere took to the streets with their picks and plows demanding higher compensation in protests seen across the Chinese countryside, the folks in Renhe took a gamble with their marriages.

“Divorced? How could I not be divorced? It’s now a local custom!” Yan said as he sat on the stoop outside his new apartment building with a handful of neighbors -- all divorced, of course. “Even if we hate it, we have to do it. Divorce gives us a chance to sit on a longer bench. Don’t get divorced, and you sit on a small stool or in the dirt.”

But if what happened here is any guide, breaking up is hard to do, even if you don’t mean it.

Most of the villagers eagerly parted ways based on the assumption that after the new apartments came through, they would remarry and return to their old life. But authorities found out about the mass divorces, and changed the compensation package early this year.

If farmers who divorced after the rules changed still wanted an extra apartment, the government said, they had to pay close to market price for it. Of course, none of the farmers could afford to do that.

And for most of those who split up earlier, it’s a long wait before they will see the new apartments, if at all -- the government didn’t build enough one-bedroom apartments to accommodate the unexpected demand from a village where nearly all the couples are divorced.

Meanwhile, most of the former marriages are in tatters. Considering the prospect of a future without financial security, remarrying now simply seems too much of a hassle. Promises are souring. Stunned villagers are watching their life partners drift off. Some have found new love. Others are deciding to try out freedom from a marriage they never thought they wanted to leave.

Although the marriage registrar reported that a few couples have remarried, most in the village seem to be waiting for their new apartments to come through.

The blocks of apartments that have been built so far, in a kind of prefab urban ghetto, are packed with uprooted villagers, and as more and more residents arrive, the unhappiness only seems to worsen.

“We are miserable! There are broken families everywhere,” said Wang Fen, a 58-year-old grandmother who lost her husband of 40 years to what she considered a fake divorce. “We were very happy before. But he had a change of heart and married a younger woman.”

As Wang spoke in the stairwell of her new apartment building, 30-year-old Zhou Qin started climbing the stairs to her brand-new eighth-floor flat, a kitchen cabinet strapped to her back.

“Look at her,” Wang said. “Married only one year and divorced. Now she has no husband, no baby and no money to even hire a mover.”

Liu Chunlan, 60, is still living with her ex-husband. He is sick and needs her care. That’s not all she has to worry about: Her son got a supposedly fake divorce when her grandson was just 3 months old, and she’s been taking care of the baby ever since because neither newly single parent wants the responsibility. Her daughter’s husband also took his divorce seriously, and Liu is looking after this former couple’s toddler too.

“I got up at the crack of dawn and stood in line for three hours,” Liu said, recalling the day of her divorce last year and the long queues that made it seem like a festive occasion. “I had no idea I’d end up like this.”

Local officials don’t exactly know what to do about the situation except to point out that everything the villagers did is perfectly legal.

“In the face of the law, there is no such thing as a fake divorce,” said Xue Xiang, an officer at the local marriage registry who oversaw the wave of divorces. At its height late last year, up to a hundred couples showed up at the office every day. “Every citizen has the right to marry and divorce. As long as it’s voluntary, we have to follow the rules and grant them their wish. We can’t help it if some people have ulterior motives.”

Until a few years ago, divorce in China was a long and embarrassing process that required employers’ permission and sometimes years of counseling from neighborhood committee members trying to talk estranged couples out of ending the marriage.

Now that China is in the midst of great change, the state has been retreating from the bedroom. Although it still tells couples how many babies they can have, it now permits divorces that take only minutes.

When divorce fever hit Renhe, life changed utterly. Mah-jongg games and family meals were interrupted by couples running off to break up or meet up with new mates. Conversations centered on one topic.

Even greetings were to the point. Instead of the typical Chinese phrase, chi le ma? “Have you eaten?” In Renhe, it became li le ma? “Have you divorced?”

Now, months after the fever struck, many of the divorced couples are wishing it were all a bad dream.

“I just want to go back to my farm,” said Li Xin, 31, whose wife went off with someone else after the divorce, leaving him with their 3-year-old daughter, plus living expenses he can’t afford. “At least there I can grow my own food. Here I have to pay for everything -- food, water and electricity. Where do I get the money?”

But the farmhouses they gave up have been demolished and the land is off limits.

Nearby Chongqing, once a transportation hub on the Yangtze River that was part of Sichuan province, is now a municipality on the scale of Beijing and Shanghai. Its mandate is to remake itself as the gateway to the Chinese interior.

As a suburb of Chongqing, the area around Renhe is becoming a new industrial development zone that locals say will one day rival the east bank of Shanghai, which was transformed a decade ago from rice paddies into a financial center with glittering skyscrapers and high-tech parks.

To realize that goal, authorities have intensified the rural land appropriation, moving about 18,000 of the estimated 21,000 rural residents off their farms.

Already, Renhe looks nothing like it did before, its once-lush farmland having sprouted expensive apartments, with many more luxury high-rises under construction. Huge billboards along newly paved boulevards beckon a new kind of resident: Palm Springs. Lakeside Paradise. A Spanish Housing Dream.

Meanwhile, the farmers, with few prospects for new jobs, have plenty of time to reflect on what happened.

“It’s definitely strange that so many of us are divorced,” mused grandpa Yan, still officially separated from his wife as they wait in their corner of Renhe for the extra one-bedroom apartment. “If it weren’t for the extra room, why would we want to divorce? At our age, what’s the point? If it turns out they won’t give us the new apartments, there isn’t a darn thing we can do about it.”