Last week in my Chinese class, we read a recent news article. I don’t actually know the source, because my teacher didn’t include it on her handout, although searching “divorce exam” on www.baidu.com (the Chinese google) turns up many different articles. I’ll give a rough translation of the article and then offer some of my own reflections.
“Your score is too high! You can’t get a divorce!” (image source)
If You Want To Get A Divorce, First Take An Exam! After a Couple Born in the 80s Took the Exam, the Court Did Not Allow Them to Divorce! What Do You Think?
“What day is your spouse’s birthday?”, “What is your child’s favorite snack?”, “What is your biggest disagreement as a couple?” These days, a judge hearing a divorce case in Sichuan Province’s Yibin County Court gave a “Divorce Exam,” leading to a heated debate by internet users.
A Score Over 60 Initially Shows the Marriage Is Not Yet Shattered
On September 20, Sichuan Provice’s Yibian City Mid-Level Court shared on their wechat account [functions like Facebook in Chinese society] the story of the Yibian County judge’s “Divorce Exam.” The exam consists of fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and a longer answer sections, totaling 15 questions. Out of the total of 100 points, 40 are for the fill-in-the-blank, 40 for short answer, and 20 for the longer answer.
The fill-in-the-blank questions ask things related to daily life, like the spouse’s birthday and child’s favorite snack. The short answer questions are subjective, for example, “What are some of the couple’s most beautiful memories or happiest occasions?”. At the same time as testing the couple’s feelings and problems, it requires both parties to reflect on their own actions. The longer answer question requires each person to share their opinion about the marriage, reasons for divorcing, and future plans.
The judge expressed that each member of the couple receiving a score of 60 or above on the “Divorce Exam” indicates to him that the couple’s feelings have not fully shattered and there is still room to recapture it. If below 60, then he could believe that those taking the exam have expended very little for their family, they haven’t done what they should, and the couple’s relationship is definitely showing a big problem.
After the Exam, a Couple Agrees Not to Get Divorced
On September 14, this judge, Wang Shiyu, gave the “Marriage and Family Exam” for the first time to a couple who were in the midst of a divorce lawsuit. Taking this test was a couple, both born in the 80s. They have been married for 10 years and have two sons; they also recently bought a new home. Because of their two children, the judge hoped that the two sides would carefully think it over, but each side was each sticking to their own opinion, and the wife persisted in wanting to get a divorce.
In order to better understand the couple’s feelings and situation, the judge had each person take the exam. While taking the exam, the wife accused the husband of liking to gamble and being suspicious of who he loved. She hoped to become an entrepreneur to make money after the divorce. The husband complained that the wife worked too much and didn’t accompany the children. He also agreed to change his mistakes. Finally, they graded each others exams, and the result was the husband scored 86 and the wife 80. Going through answering the questions and scoring the exams, the couple’s morale calmed down and the judge would not agree to the divorce settlement, and they agreed. After the ruling, the husband promised he would change his shortcomings and allow the family to become happy and beautiful.
Through the “Divorce Exam” Understanding the Condition of the Marriage
One of the Yibian county judge’s staff members expressed that divorce cases usually come from thoughtlessly deciding to get divorced and some of the parties involved do not have abundant evidence. The judge wants to truthfully and objectively understand couples difficulties, and hopes that going through the “Divorce Exam” will help the parties involved understand the true condition of their marriage, but confirming that the couple’s feeling is not completely shattered is the important thing.
“Facing a divorce dispute, if you use the traditional approach of gathering evidence, you will always have limitations,” according to the staff member. The judge tried this creative method to better understand both sides of the couple’s marriage, their foundational feelings, and at the same time hopes that going through this method the couple will develop a platform for communication, and allows the couple to share their heart and listen to their other’s most honest voice while objectively examining themselves to avoid divorcing without careful consideration.
The Yibin County Court staff member continued, “The ‘Divorce Exam’ is a stage of mediation, a journey that both parties have to agree to enter. If either party does not agree, the exam method is not appropriate, and they will enter the process to settle the lawsuit.
Another interesting twist to this story is that photos of the couples exam were shared online–I assume in the posting mentioned in the article by the court. They did blur out specific identifying information like birthdates, but the whole world can see their grievances with each other. I sincerely hope the court asked their permission before they shared it, but I’m not optimistic about that. Then, it went viral. Once we looked at the exams in class, I remembered seeing the photos shared by someone in my wechat feed, but hadn’t bothered to stop and read the story. I guess I figured it was about one of the thousands of normal exams people in this country take: to get into school, to pass school, to get a job, to get various certificates, to get new jobs, etc. etc. And, at least in this case, an exam to get divorced.
Our teacher asked what we thought and if this couple would make it. My American classmates (no one else shared their opinions very strongly) pretty much all agreed that they need help to make it. We thought he needs Gamblers Anonymous or something like that, and they need marriage counseling together. Our teacher didn’t think he would qualify for any gambling addiction programs because he isn’t a serious, illegal gambler, instead he is making low-level bets playing mah jong with friends at a tea house. These details aren’t clear from the article, but are clearer from the actual exam answers. We also suggested a professional psychologist could help them. Our teacher said that their friends and family could talk to them and provide free help to keep them from getting divorced. We suggested that wouldn’t necessarily help solve their underlying problems, but I don’t think we convinced our teacher.
There is limited mental health or psychological support available in China. And I think my teacher’s–an educated, professional woman–response was telling. There is a stigma attached and a sense that only people with really big problems need a psychologist, not a casual gambler and the wife that is suspicious of him, or a couple in the midst of a divorce.
At the same time, the family structure has totally changed in the last few generations, and significant amount during this couple’s lifetime. For millenia, multiple generations of family lived together in a compound, centered around the family patriarch. Marriages were arranged, women lived to bear sons, families were large, and divorce wasn’t an option. Then, from the early 20th century, arranged marriages became less and less common, and were eventually outlawed when the Communists came to power in 1949. Mao also said “women hold up half the sky” and officially gender equality became the law of the land (although never fully implemented). In the late 70s, the one-child policy was enacted and in the last 10-15 years the divorce rate has sky rocketed. Many young people have left their villages for a city or a city for a bigger city. The villages are full of old people caring for small children whose parents work in the cities. The pressure from family members to marry and have a child is extreme, and I suspect some people get married out of obligation rather than deep desire. I also suspect some people marry their first possibility out of a fear that someone better will never come and they will end up as a “leftover woman” or confirmed bachelor, resorting to taking a fake girl/boyfriend home for Chinese New Year. Needless to say, what it means to have a healthy marriage and raise children well is a big question and a big challenge.
I hope that this couple does find support and help–either from their family and friends or from psychological professionals or from somewhere else. I hope that they can get to some of their root problems and learn to trust each other again, and actually have the beautiful family life they long for. I hope that they don’t end up back in front of the judge in 6 months because they fell back into their old patterns.