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Ning Hui

Lonely and Far From Home, China’s Migrant Workers Turn to ‘Temporary Marriages’ to Survive

A Chinese couple prepares to travel during Spring Festival holiday. (via iStock photo)

According to the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, about 80% of the country’s more than 250 million migrant workers are between the ages of 21 and 50. More than 73% of them are married, but most live far away from their partners. Yet not many asked themselves beforehand how they would deal with the lack of companionship while the arrangement persisted.

Liu Li, a member of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) from Anhui province, gave an answer during a recent press conference: “Due to long separations, many of those in the current wave of migrant workers have started ‘temporary marriages.’ It may surprise many to hear it, but it is very common among the group I belong to.” Rep. Liu made news in early 2012 after being the first migrant worker from Anhui selected for the NPC; she previously worked as a foot-washer.

Reactions to the “temporary marriage” phenomenon in Chinese social media have been widespread, with a search for “temporary marriage” yielding over 145,000 results on Sina Weibo, China’s pre-eminent micro-blogging platform. The results might surprise observers used to frequent online expressions of moral outrage toward sexual scandals; of those opinions sampled, many micro-bloggers claimed to feel sorry for the workers. User @媒体人张辉 wrote: “I once witnessed this. Sexual anguish, a flood of loneliness, and hatred toward factory or construction life make temporary marriage a natural result. This society is abnormal; therefore we can’t demand that social elements be ‘normal.’”

Liu Li’s statement also triggered national media response. Beijing Youth Daily commented that “when faced with lust, it’s reasonable that migrant workers would form temporary marriages to solve the problem. Despite the moral condemnation and the risk of destroying families, this after all is safer and healthier than illegal behavior like seeing prostitutes. Moreover, by sharing the cost of renting and cooking, ‘temporary marriages’ can be more economic.” In contrast, a post on Lexun.com, a popular mobile network website, warned, “If we let such loose sexual partnerships go wild, the real victims will be female migrant workers who are in a more vulnerable position.”

In Xiamen, Fujian Province, the Strait News interviewed the migrant worker community. The News described a man called Mr. Zhou (alias), who in many neighbors’ eyes had a typical temporary marriage life. Last summer, he had visitors staying over, a women and a girl, who he told others were his wife and daughter from his home village. He behaved as a “model husband” to his family, helping to cook and coming home on time after work. But one week after the visitors left, another woman appeared in the apartment and stayed with him. It turned out that Zhou had carried on his relationship with the first woman for a long time, but she would “disappear” whenever his family visited, traveling back her own family during holidays.

The phenomenon is not limited to urban factory areas. While many men find themselves alone in cities, their wives are left behind with children and farm work. In a book by Wu Zhiping called A Survey of the Lives of Chinese Rural Women, Wu relates the story of Mei, who while in her 40s lived with another man in her village. Mei’s husband had worked in the city for many years and only came home for spring festivals. “Our marriage life over 24 years has been less than some other couples [experience] in one year. At home, farm work that requires strong labor is difficult for women. I’d be crazy already if there was no helper. I really have no other way,” Mei said.

The story from Wu’s book says that Mei has no friends in her village, and her actions are seen as shameful.

Yet if blame is to be assigned, it is unclear who should accept it. Beijing Times’ report emphasizes factories and companies: “Providing basic living supports for migrant worker-couples [to avoid separation] should not rely on government and society’s ‘kind reminders’ but rather companies’ conscience and social responsibility.” An article in People’s Daily listed more fundamental reasons: “The temporary marriage phenomenon is caused by half-cooked urbanization, hampered population mobility … and an [unequal] urban-rural structure. In the long term, the ultimate solution is to improve migrant workers’ distressed living conditions via institutional reform and systemic improvement.”

As usual, People’s Daily did not actually opine on what “reform” and “improvement” might look like. As authorities try to find answers, social media has kept up its defense of the individual workers involved. @寂寞枫叶正红 wrote, “Temporary marriages among migrant workers are not shameful. Shame on the government who takes advantage of the people.” @不苦的烟 asked, “How on earth can the existence of ‘temporary marriage’ be solved? How many years will it take before housing can be provided so that husband and wife can [leave their villages] and work at the same time? How many families will be broken while we are searching for a solution? Is it so bad that they first find a ‘temporary’ solution?”

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Ning Hui

Ning Hui, or Lulu, is a media enthusiast who has worked in development and currently enjoys exploring China's emerging civil society. She is close to Beijing's contemporary art scene. She holds a BA in politics from Dalian Maritime University and a MA in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is based in Beijing.
  • Pat

    Very interesting development. Thanks for bringing it up!

  • Sumantra Maitra

    Quite similar to Middle East. Common there too…