College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
  • Home
  • Professor's book explores female sterotypes in Chinese portrayal of divorce

Professor's book explores female sterotypes in Chinese portrayal of divorce

Friday, May 30, 2014

LAWRENCE – In China, where a skyrocketing divorce rate is the focus of national attention and everyday conversation, popular culture offers cautionary tales of middle-aged women undergoing self-improvement campaigns to save their marriage.

But research by Hui Faye Xiao, an assistant professor of East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Kansas, shows that women trying desperately to keep their marriage intact isn’t the reality in China, where more than half of all divorces are initiated by females.

“The mainstream stereotype is that women have to make self-improvements to achieve a better quality of life for everyone in their family, and as this imagined ultimate cure for the current social unrest,” Xiao said. “But, for some women, divorce means a new life, new opportunity and empowerment, but you don’t see much of that in these narratives.”

This spring, Xiao published the book “Family Revolution: Marital Strife in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Visual Culture,” the first book-length study on Chinese divorce narratives.

Xiao began studying the subject a decade ago when she returned to China for research and found everyone, including her parents, absorbed in the megahit television show “Chinese-Style Divorce.”

Xiao watched the show, which centers on a middle-aged woman attempting to save her marriage, with shock, indignation and intellectual curiosity. The series is just one example she provides in her book on recent portrayals of divorce in China.

Depending on gender, age and class, divorce in China produces different narratives, Xiao said. For well-educated and financially secure women, divorce can be a way out of an unhappy marriage. For their husbands, it can be seen as a threat to their masculinity. And, for some less well-paid or even laid-off women, divorce can leave them vulnerable.

In “Chinese Style Divorce,” the female lead was a hard-working and well-respected teacher. She left her job to care for her son, leaving her financially insecure. In the end, the character strives to save her marriage, including self-criticism in front of her husband and his colleagues.

“It suggests that women in unhappy marriages should make every possible effort to improve their gender qualities instead of seeking a divorce,” Xiao said.

For generations China had seen a low divorce rate, in part due to a combination of social policies and a longstanding Confucian tradition emphasizing domestic order and family relationships. 

Over the past three decades, the divorce rate climbed as China enacted major economic and social reforms

Marriage and divorce laws loosened. In the 1980s, couples could separate based on the mutual alienation of feelings. In 2003, employees no longer needed permission from the head of their work unit to get married or divorced.

The following year, 2004, was dubbed “The Year of Divorce” in China. It was also the same year that “Chinese-Style Divorce” aired.

Since the state no longer provides free housing to married couples, a greater degree of privacy, freedom and autonomy exists in the home. However as more emphasis is placed on domestic life, the burden of maintaining it falls largely on women. That shift has caused a resurgence in traditional gender roles, Xiao said.

Contemporary Chinese society emphasizes self-fulfillment and individual identities, but much of the time domestic order comes at the expense of a wife’s emotional, educational and professional fulfillment. Xiao points to women who were laid-off so they could return to the domestic sphere and the emergence of a quasi-concubine system where wealthy businessmen have one “legal wife” and multiple “second wives” living in different housing units.

“The privatization of domestic life is very much dependent on gendered division of labor, which is why you see rampant gender-related issues,” Xiao said.

See more information about Xiao’s book at the University of Washington Press.


Giving

Diversity

Our Statement on Diversity in support of Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk and the University of Kansas Black Student Union’s efforts to combat racism.
The School of Languages & Cultures serves as a gateway to understanding the diversity of the world, through learning languages, literatures, and cultures, past and present. Through its research and teaching, the SLLC offers students opportunities for deep engagement with a wide range of languages, literatures, and cultures that provide the knowledge and skills to interact with and understand the world. The faculty and students who teach, research, and learn in the SLLC consider issues of diversity fundamental to all of our work. The study of others' languages, literatures, and cultures enables us to develop deep empathy and perspective informs the way that we approach issues before us, whether on a personal, local, regional, national, or global scale. Therefore take it as axiomatic that the SLLC stands for a campus that is committed to the meaningful sharing, contemplation, and discussion of ideas that emerge from multiple cultural perspectives and experiences. We continually rededicate ourselves to the principle of diversity. We strive to create an atmosphere where all students and faculty feel comfortable and welcome to express their views as well as work together to solve conflict. Further, we view our mission as a center of diversity on a flagship campus as requiring us to lead by example.

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
44 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
—ALA
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times
Calendar of Events