The death last week of the writer, playwright and translator Yang Jiang 杨绛 at the age of 105 caused a stir on China’s social media. It seemed that anybody who’d had a college education was posting or reposting articles, mostly flattering ones, about her. Yet the main focus of the commentaries was less to do with her writing or translations than her reputation as the quintessential “Good Wife” to her late husband Qian Zhongshu 钱钟书, the acclaimed author of the masterpiece novel Fortress Besieged.
Born into a well-off and learned family from Wuxi in 1911, Yang attended Tsinghua University, where she met and married Qian in 1935. The pair then studied at Oxford University and the University of London, during which period, Yang gave birth to their daughter. After returning to China in 1938, Yang gained recognition for her novels and plays and translated Western works such as Don Quixote. At the same time, she was a wife and mother too. Her uxorious husband praised her as “the most virtuous wife and most intelligent woman”.
During their 63 years of marriage, Yang was Qian’s supportive colleague, as well as his soul mate and the one who looked after the practicalities of day to day living (her husband couldn’t even light the stove). Qian dedicated many of his important works to Yang and when he was on his deathbed in 1998 (aged 88) Yang prayed that she could outlive him by even just a few days so that she could take care of him to the very end. “It would have been a very awkward affair had it been the other way around,” she wrote later. After losing both her husband and daughter, who died a year before Qian, Yang devoted her remaining years to reading, writing and defending her husband’s literary reputation. At age 92, she published We Three, a collection of essays that served as a eulogy to her family life.
Fast forward to modern day China, where marriage and family seem to me to carry a rather different weight and meaning in peoples’ minds. For the millennial generation, marriage can be an elusive or fickle affair – they are more likely to stay single or marry later compared with former generations. Moreover, the millennials also now account for half of the divorced population, according to a 2015 survey by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The same survey found that the divorce rate in China has steadily risen since 2003 and the divorce-to-marriage ratio stood at 27.8% in 2014, meaning for every four marriages, there is one divorce. The number of divorces nationwide jumped from 341,000 in 1980 to 3,637,000 in 2014.
Divorce rates in major cities are even higher than the national average. For instance, government statistics say nearly 40% of marriages in Beijing end in divorce.
Coincidentally, the day before news of Yang’s death broke, I had a conversation with a 27 year-old from one of China’s largest cities. She is smart, beautiful and works for a fashion brand in Hong Kong. As an only child, she has been under pressure from her parents to get married to her long-time boyfriend but has repeatedly delayed doing so.
Why? She told me few of her married peers seem to be truly happy. She cited the unfaithfulness of her friends’ husbands as the number one factor. One of her male banker acquaintances began an affair within a year of getting married, even starting the romance during his wife’s pregnancy. When the lover also got pregnant, he used it as an excuse to break up with his wife but in an act that only compounded his selfishness ended up dumping the pregnant lover too.
The outpouring of emotion online over Yang Jiang’s death may be telling. The inference of many of the comments is that today’s latte-drinking, WeChat-hooked, young Chinese view Yang as a sort of matrimonial ideal. But as the 27 year-old’s tales of infidelity make plain, in today’s more materialistic, fast-paced and individualistic society, an ever larger proportion of couples won’t emulate Yang and Qian’s experience.
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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