Take one young Peking couple. He was 22, she 20, and both worked for a central government department. They were smitten and decided to wed, encouraged by the prospect of thereby qualifying for their own state-owned apartment from the work unit. After a couple of years they realised it had all been a mistake. There were no children, so the divorce was straightforward. But then they were told there was no other accommodation.
One year after their divorce, they are still sharing the same small apartment, each in one room. 'They don't speak to each other, they hate each other,' said a friend.
Nearly 900,000 divorces were granted by China's courts last year, about four times the number in 1980. According to Professor Wu Changzhen, a specialist on marriage law and an executive committee member of the All China Women's Federation, there are a similar number of divorces that never reach court because the couples agree on the terms, and the process is handled by the neighbourhood marriage registration office.
Shifting social attitudes, greater personal freedom and more economic independence for some women have all contributed to the increase in divorces, though the rate is still much lower than in the West. But obtaining the divorce can often be easier than coping with the difficulties afterwards.
The number of divorces has risen steadily since 1980, but, according to Prof Wu, the historic peak was in 1953 when there were 1.17 million divorces, out of a total population about half the present size. Marriage laws introduced soon after the 1949 Communist victory had for the first time given large numbers of women an opportunity to escape from feudal marriages.
So what about the present increase? The revised 1981 marriage law confirmed people's right to divorce 'in cases of complete alienation of mutual affection, and when mediation has failed'.
'After the policies of economic reform, women want more marriage freedom, and more economic power,' said Prof Wu. 'In the past, particularly in the rural areas, they had to rely on their husbands, but this is no longer the case. So the present rise in divorce cases also shows the rise in women's status.'
'However, we regret the rise of divorces for those who just want to have a change of spouses.' It seems that China's wealthy new entrepreneurs have a penchant for younger, second wives. Nationally, about one- fifth of divorce cases are blamed on the husband's infidelity, but in some of the booming coastal provinces, the proportion is double that.
Interpreting the trends in divorce patterns in China is difficult. Most of those seeking divorce are under the age of 35, said Prof Wu. At Peking's High Court, when just over half the civil cases are divorce suits, Judge Li Dayuan, the director of the civil division, said that divorces citing 'loss of affection' are most common among couples who have been married only three to five years. Couples get married too soon, and no longer feel any compelling social pressure to stay together, despite the traditional importance of the family.
Such situations create the most difficult accommodation problems. Under China's fast- disintegrating 'iron rice-bowl' system, state employees qualify for low-rent accommodation from their work units. Accommodation is in short supply, however, and people usually have to live with their parents until marriage. So there are very few single-person units available for China's new divorcees. Hence the many divorced couples sharing a flat.
A recent television play portrayed the life of a divorced couple, who divided a two-room flat, and the woman's attempts to thwart her ex-husband's new love affairs.
China's reforms provide all sorts of new stresses on marriage. The open-door policy gives many people the opportunity to go abroad for study or work. The family or spouse is usually left behind, and the marriage often ends in divorce.
Overall, 70 per cent of the cases which reach the divorce courts are brought by women, even though they still have more to lose. The wife is more likely to be left without accommodation, even if she takes the child, because the flat is usually provided by the husband's work unit. There can also be difficulties in ensuring adequate fin ancial support from the ex- husband. 'I think those women are so desperate to get out of the marriage, they are willing to endure the difficulties,' said Prof Wu.
Social prejudices also make it harder for a woman to remarry, because there is still loss of face if one's mother takes a new husband. The divorce rate is much higher for second marriages, often because of interference from the respective children, especially the woman's.
That there has been some fundamental shift in attitudes to divorce is most obvious in the courtroom. Before the mid-1980s the main argument was whether or not to split up. Nowadays the legal disputes concentrate on child custody, housing and the division of money.
Judge Li explained: 'They don't think divorce is shameful any more. It is the right of an independent man and woman. From this point of view the rate of divorce is a symbol of reform.'