By Yang Wanli, He Na and Zhang Lei (China Daily)
Actor Wen Zhang and his actress wife Ma Yili attend a film festival in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, in 2012. Wen made headlines recently after he admitted having an affair with another actress. [Photo / Xinhua]
China’s rapid economic development has been accompanied by an increasingly open attitude toward sexual matters, leading to greater public indifference about extramarital affairs among celebrities.
However, the power to shock remains.
A recent case in point is that of Wen Zhang, a well-known actor who has admitted having an affair with an actress. On Sunday night, the 30-year-old posted a message of apology to his wife on Sina Weibo, confirming rumors that had been circulating on the Internet for several days.
Within 24 hours, Wen’s message had received 1 million comments and had been reposted a million times. Most of the comments expressed anger toward a man who had previously been regarded as a model husband.
The public perception of Wen as a happily married man had been built through his habit of posting photos of him kissing his wife, actress Ma Yili, or expressing his devotion on TV chat shows. As a heavily pregnant Ma accepted a best actress award at the Changchun Film Festival in 2008, she received an affectionate text message from Wen. Moved to tears, Ma could only utter the words, “Thank you, my love”.
“It’s hard to believe that a man who loved his wife so deeply could break his pledge and cheat all those people who trusted him so much,” wrote one micro-blogger called “Baby Cat”.
“All this news about divorce or sex scandals involving public figures means it’s barely possible to believe in love anymore,” she wrote.
According to Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at Renmin University of China, the growing public acceptance of sex scandals and extramarital affairs involving public figures should not be misinterpreted as indifference to traditional values.
“This does not mean people have changed their negative perception of the nature of affairs. People are aware that the media has created many false ‘virtuous gods’ and therefore they are no longer shocked by news of this kind,” Zhou said.
He added that pop stars, actors, and even government officials are now public figures: “When their lives are played out in full view of the public, they need to be transparent or problems will arise. In particular, Wen has always portrayed himself as a good husband and father. Naturally, this image has formed a sort of public credibility and when that’s damaged, the public figure has to pay the price.”
Even though public opinion appears to have come down firmly in favor of Ma – a 38-year-old who gave birth to her second daughter in February – the divorce rate is rising rapidly.
Statistics from Beijing Maple Women’s Psychological Consulting Center show that the number of consultations involving divorced couples or those on the verge of divorce doubled from 1992 to 2013, with nearly 50 percent of the cases related to unfaithful husbands.
The center’s research found that men between the ages of 31 and 50 are the most likely to have extramarital affairs. “Men of that age are relatively wealthy, and their mature personalities are attractive. After many years of marriage, they are also likely to have grown tired of the relationship,” said Na Lixin, the director of the center.
Nearly 10,000 marriages end in China every day and statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs reveal a rapid rise in the divorce rate during the past decade. In 2012, 3.1 million couples got divorced, a rise of 133 percent from 2003.
Wang Xiuquan, a senior marriage lawyer at Beijing Chang’an Law Firm, said there is no available nationwide data detailing the number of extramarital affairs that prompted divorces, “but in the cases handled by my firm, extramarital affairs are definitely the most-cited cause, and account for more than 70 percent of all divorces.”
The rising social status of women, who now have improved educational backgrounds and greater economic independence, has seen a sharp rise in the number of them having extramarital affairs.
Contrary to speculation that extramarital affairs invariably involve abandoned wives and “gold-digging” young women, sex is only one of the driving forces, according to Wang.
“When pursuing a partner, people often try to show their merits and may even pretend to be more caring than they really are, but usually their shortcomings are exposed after they get married. Trivial complaints, quarrels, a lack of attention and care on both sides, and the sometimes fraught relationship between mothers- and daughters-in-law are among the fundamental causes of failed marriages,” he said.
Wang cited one instance where a man fell out of love with his wife of many years. The man had an affair with his secretary, which humiliated his wife, who worked for the same company. She proposed divorce and made a claim for the couple’s property as compensation. However, when the husband fought the claim, and began investigating his wife’s behavior, he discovered that she had also had affairs.
“For people like them in their 50s who have already fallen out of love, the earlier they get divorced, the more liberated and relaxed they feel,” Wang said.
According to Xu Li, vice-president of the dating network True Love Online, marital problems are a direct result of unrealistic attitudes and unwillingness to work to save a failing relationship. “Nowadays, people are too idealistic about marriage. If they find that it’s not as perfect as they’d like it to be, they are tempted to end it as quickly as possible.”
With the increasing social pressure, he said, more people emphasize quality of life, and have higher expectations of marriage. “This is not to say that people are treating marriage lightly; on the contrary, newlyweds pay more attention to the quality of their marriage life nowadays,” he said.
When Xu’s company conducted a survey about attitudes toward infidelity, the results showed that 80 percent of women would opt for a divorce if they discovered that their partner had been unfaithful. The remaining 20 percent said they would try to keep the marriage going because of economic pressures, their children or psychological dependence. However, when men were asked the same question, 99 percent immediately chose divorce.
Wang Jun, manager of the Beijing Weiqing Marriage Consultancy, said that although cheating undoubtedly plays a part in the breakdown of a marriage, the impact of an accumulation of problems in people’s daily lives should not be underestimated.
“People have always considered marriage to be a guarantee of loyalty, so instead of spending time with their spouse, they place greater emphasis on work and other factors,” she said. “Neglecting a partner’s needs can lead to a vicious circle and result in a lack of communication. In the most extreme cases, people become paranoid about their spouses and worry that they will have an affair. When distrust enters a previously harmonious relationship, the effect can be devastating.”
“Family problems are the fundamental causes of many other social problems. This not only affects the lives, work and families of those who divorce, but can also affect their children’s concept of love and life,” she added.
Wen Zhang (right) and Yao Di in the TV serial Naked in Marriage. Wen has admitted that they have been having an affair.
Measures are being considered to tackle China’s rapidly rising divorce rate, according to the Department of Social Affairs at the Ministry of Civil Affairs. In an interview conducted on March 30, Zhang Shifeng, the head of the department, said the measures under consideration include improved counseling services.
In 2013, approximately 164,000 couples married in Beijing, but 55,000 couples divorced, and the capital experienced a 65 percent rise in divorce between 2011 and 2013, according to the Beijing Marriage Registration Office. Other major cities such as Shanghai and Tianjin have experienced similar trends.
Ge Dongsheng, deputy director of the office, said that earlier this year the authorities launched a program that involved inviting trained mediators to tackle marital problems. “The ‘troubleshooters’ will try to help couples that still love each other, but have irrationally decided to divorce,” he said.
Unlike Western countries, where the marriage ceremony usually involves taking vows based on religious practice, most Chinese couples simply sign a registration form and then hold a lavish celebratory banquet. To promote stronger awareness of marital responsibility, all of Beijing’s registration offices will soon provide couples with the option of making voluntary marriage vows before they register.
In January, the marriage registration office in Beijing’s Fangshan district started to provide voluntary premarital education classes designed to teach newlyweds the skills to promote better communications, along with tips on resolving the daily conflicts that are inevitable in a marriage.
“We invited along a couple who had been married for nearly two decades to address the young people. They described their experiences, explained how they resolve their disputes and also gave tips on preserving a harmonious relationship. The details they provided were invaluable,” said Jin Mingxian, the director of the registration office.
Wang, the marriage expert, said couples should communicate as often as possible instead of using a “cold war” to solve their problems. People need to look at problems from the others person’s point of view, put themselves in their shoes and learn to compromise. Failure to do so may result in divorce, and even if the protagonists enter a new marriage, they will still be faced with the same problems.
If an extramarital affair happens, couples need to determine the root causes before considering any other course of action. They need to negotiate to see if they can change, meet each other’s demands and move on.
“If they fail to do that, divorce is the best option. If they stay together, their marriages will always be plagued with similar problems,” she said.