Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Just Married--but Living Separate Lives

A number of mostly young, urban couples in China are breaking with tradition by turning to 'walking marriages.'

April 27, 2001|EDWARD A. GARGAN | NEWSDAY

BEIJING — No white gown for Li Rong on her wedding day. No veil either. A husband was there, but Li wasn't planning on connubial bliss.

When Li, 35, a former captain in the People's Liberation Army and a rising star in the world of book design, decided to get married, she hustled down to the registry office with her fiance, signed her name and promptly went back to living alone. "Of course I love my husband," she said. "But we had a mutual agreement. Freedom was the priority."

Across this rapidly modernizing metropolis of 12.6 million people, links to Chinese traditions are being sundered. Much of Beijing's classical architecture--the houses built around courtyards, the temples and traditional shops--have been razed to make way for glass-walled office blocks. And now, a growing number of young Chinese are reworking the traditional marriage to accommodate their lifestyles.

"I'm a SOHO," Li explained, "a 'small-office, home-office' person. I want to work for myself, by myself, to be free."

So-called SOHOs, people who work by themselves, are an increasingly common phenomenon here. And Li has extended her search for freedom with what people here call a "walking marriage."

Translated into the lingo of American culture, women like Li seem to be seeking "personal space," rather than, say, the sexual freedom of the American counterculture movements of the 1960s and '70s. Many of Beijing's "walking married," especially women, were raised as single children; and as adults, they say they don't want to be "crowded" by living with their husbands.

"I don't care what it is called," Li said. "It's just important to be free."

Then why get married in the first place? "You have to consider your parents' feelings," she said. "I wanted to make my parents happy. Secondly, the most important thing is to get a house." Chinese state institutions and companies still control many of Beijing's apartments and offer them only to married couples.

"So, you get married to get a house," Li said. She first rented a flat on an army compound, but eventually the army sold it to her as part of an effort to raise funds.

Walking marriages appear linked to a desire by many women in Beijing not to have children. A recent poll in the city found that 15.6% of people do not want even the single child that Chinese law permits couples who live in cities.

Walking marriages and the choice of childlessness are "disassociated from Chinese traditional culture and . . . absolutely non-Chinese," said Li Yinhe, a research fellow at the Institute of Social Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Science. She said these notions are confined to urban, white-collar workers.

"The traditional Chinese idea about marriage is that the couple must live together and have children. The married couple that is walking is very individualistic. They want freedom and to have their own living space. They do not want their lives to be disturbed."

Li Rong said that she talks to her husband every day or so, and "we meet maybe two or three times a month. That's enough."

Guo Jianmei, director of the center for women's studies at Peking University, says walking marriages reflect sweeping changes in Chinese society. "People's ideas about life have changed tremendously," Guo said. "Some people of the new generation don't want marriage to tie their hands. They seek independence and freedom."

Guo said, "Two groups of people tend to have a walking marriage: those well-educated and economically independent white-collar workers and young people who seek and follow Western trends."

Layered in sleek gray woolens, her hair nearly shorn, Zhen Zhen makes her living following Western trends. As an associate professor of design at China's only fashion school, the Beijing Garment Institute, and the editor of the fashion magazine Fengcai, or Charisma, what's happening in Paris, Tokyo, Rome or New York matters.

Zhen has embraced the idea of a walking marriage. "I've been married 12 years. . . . In the first year, we lived together. But then . . . I found that living together in an apartment with my husband was like a prison. So . . . I wanted to escape.

"So now," she said, "my husband has a home, and I have a home. We need some time to ourselves. If we lived together, we would have no privacy." Zhen and her husband meet on weekends, and, she said, "we call each other very often." Unlike others in walking marriages, Zhen said she has not abandoned the idea of having children.

Li Yinhe, the research fellow, says she doubts walking marriages will gain wide currency in what remains a society girded by traditions. "The concept is a shock to traditional Chinese culture, but this phenomenon will not have much impact on the structure of the population and other parts of the society."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|