Can people in China live together before marriage?

Once I’ve heard a funny story of a Chinese girl living with her fiancé. All was quite normal, at least until the girl’s mother didn’t decide to pay them an unexpected visit. The latter called after having already arrived at the airport so that the couple had just one hour to prepare. While the girl went to pick up her mother, the boy had to…. fetch a mattress to pretend that they don’t sleep together! He couldn’t take the car since his girlfriend was using it, so the only way of doing it was paying the neighbors to lend him one.  The mother arrived to see the mattress (with no bed or anything, just mattress) and some hastily put, clean sheets on it on the floor of the living room.

Of course she exactly knew that they sleep together and the couple knew that she knows but that was not the point. The point is the strange situation surrounding sex life in China even despite the fact that Chinese were traditionally quite open minded about sex as compared to Europe. Nowadays, mainly because of the ruling ideology it’s not exactly the case or at least sexuality is hidden beyond a facade of pretending as well as hidden behind the class divide enforcing asceticism for the poor and promiscuity for the rich.

As everybody know, China changes fast and not only in terms of economy. The laws outlawing relationships before marriage and adultry were amended in the 80s and 90s . Things that a decade or two earlier could have one sent to a labor camp, suddenly became legal. It mostly happened because of economical opening, which forced loosening of control and following western ways. Nevertheless many people will still say that unmarried cohabitation is illegal and there are numerous cases of hotels refusing rooms to people which seem not to be married and who cannot provide a marriage license. In some provincial areas it happens that people “illegally” living together get arrested even though it’s more of a local custom and authoritarian culture than a governmental policy. It’s all understandable however. Thinking about Chinese legal system we have to remember how big is the country and that many laws weren’t codified before the 20th century. Something as important as marriage was regarded as a domain of customary law until the advent of communism in 1949. There was a Marriage Law enacted in 1931 by Kuomintag government(The year of Japanese invasion of Manchuria) however proved to be so unpopular that probably it constituted one of the reasons why the communist forces won the civil war nearly 2 decades later. Peasants liked their traditions too much. But even then, the customary laws of particular places were observed to different extents as long as until the cultural revolution.

In 2001, the People’s Congress(Chinese parliament) changed the marriage law, explicitly stating that cohabitation is outlawed when living with a person of the opposite gender while being married to somebody else. It may seem like a move curtailing personal freedoms, that falls out of the liberalization trend followed by the government. In practice however, it’s supposed to curb taking second-wives by powerful men what is relatively normal in provincial areas[1] and what drew public scrutiny after the communist party was shaken by scandals involving officials having multiple concubines. There is also emerging female version of this practice with middle-age, wealthy, abandoned (MILF) wives taking younger lovers who are really often foreigners.

Going back to normal people now, I need to point out that it’s actually not only the law that interferes with cohabitation. In practice, when it comes to living somewhere, your options may be really limited unless you rent an apartment from a landlord who doesn’t care. If you want to live in a dormitory, or in accommodation provided by the company you work for, sharing it with somebody of opposite gender is going to be impossible. Even when trying to rent on your own, if you are unlucky enough it may happen that the apartment owner will refuse to let  the flat to couples or if you are alone will simply tell you that you cannot bring anybody with you there. IT happened to a girl that I used to “know”:). Of course, for locals this may be a real obstacle in living together before marriage. I used to host people from Airbnb and (a Chinese copy of the former) and sometimes there were couples coming who also lived in Beijing but had simply no place to have sex. One girl even came with her boyfriend explicitly stating that they want to “make a baby”.

Even myself I had similar experiences – after I had got a flat from the company where I worked, it came out that there was another foreign employee coming to the company. She happened to be a female and when they realized that they “cannot” put us in one apartment together, it actually became a serious problem with the girl not getting any flat in the end. Chinese dorms(for students and workers alike) are basically similar to some juvenile detention centers where tyrant receptionists deny entrance to anybody aftern certain hours. Staying in one of those for a while I had suffered  embarrassing situation of having my partner kicked out after they realized that I “smuggled her in” without proper “registration”.  The lady basically knocked my door down looking for the rule offender. On some other occasion a friend of mine was threatened by them calling the police because they suspected that she brought her boyfriend with her without letting anybody know.

So..yes…. in most cases living together and in China is legal and even feasible but only when you are renting your own apartment from a person who isn’t a grandpa and live in a big city.



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