Marriage Unbound
State Law, Power, and Inequality in Contemporary China
Ke Li


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

In this chapter, I first describe the social and historical background against which I have conducted my research on divorce litigation in contemporary China. Then I identify the audiences intended for my book and outline a view of legality at its heart. I also detail the methodologies and data sources that have laid the empirical foundation of my analysis. After that, a discussion is provided to explain why and how this book experiments with a particular style of writing. This experimentation, I argue, serves at once stylistic and epistemological purposes. Finally, a road map is included so that readers can forge their own paths through this book.

1 Audiences, Theoretical Objectives, and Arguments
chapter abstract

This chapter addresses several questions: Who would be interested in the marital disputes of China's "floating population"? Who would deem courtroom battles over divorce pertinent and significant? Why should anyone make time for a monograph on law, legal professions, and courts in contemporary China? Bearing these questions in mind, I devote this chapter to explicating how marital disputes and divorce litigation, seemingly prosaic, serve as strategic research sites to tackle important theoretical issues that concern political scientists, sociologists, sociolegal researchers, and China scholars.

2 Marriage on the Move
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Chapter 2 puts a human face on divorce. Drawing on the experiences of the women at the center of the book, this chapter brings to the fore the links between marital instability and labor migration in contemporary China. It makes plain that participation in labor migration opens up new space for women to reimagine and rearrange selfhood, intimacy, and marriage, on the one hand, and exposes them to unwanted speculations, suspicion, and scrutiny from their husbands and in-laws, on the other hand. Rural-to-urban migration, which is, in and of itself, a product of China's decades-long socioeconomic and demographic transformation, has greatly complicated the intimate lives of the average woman and man.

3 Disputation as a State Enterprise
chapter abstract

Chapter 3 opens with a pivotal shift in the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC): the institution of marriage—once a key vehicle for nation-state building—nowadays carries less political weight than before. Today, women and men, in search of public intervention in marriage and family life, have few options other than taking their grievances and claims to the courts. In that sense, marital and familial discontent, once a thoroughly political matter, has been judicialized. As the chapter segues from the past to the present, it takes history as a window onto the PRC's shifting governance, into an authoritarian regime's former and current efforts to cultivate a repertoire of statecraft. Analytically speaking, this chapter takes the first step toward articulating the complex interplay of culture and the state—the first theoretical objective that has motivated my research.

4 The Rise and Fall of Legal Workers
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Chapter 4 further builds the argument that the reform-era PRC ought to be parsed as a case of an authoritarian regime continually refining its repertoire of statecraft by appropriating cultural resources from divergent origins. In recent decades, legality has become an integral part of that repertoire. That said, state actors' attempts at cultivating and deploying legal techniques, tactics, and personnel—as if they were a set of open-ended devices and could be assembled and reassembled to pursue all goals—do not always deliver. They do not always succeed, because the Chinese state is often too divided to devise highly consistent, coherent, or integrated schemes to instrumentalize legality. This chapter presents a case study of the rise and fall of legal workers to empirically demonstrate the constraining effects of cultural appropriation. In doing so, chapter 4 completes my analysis of the complex interplay of culture and the state.

5 Judging Divorce in the People's Courts
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Chapter 5 provides a close-to-the-ground view of the power Chinese judges have exercised in divorce litigation. This power, it turns out, has a long and tortuous history. Connecting present-day court practices to those in the past, this chapter dissects the mechanisms of power judges have employed to restrain marital dissolution among citizens. Three mechanisms stand out: turning divorce petitioners away through a procedure called withdrawal; adjudicating against divorce; and stalling marital dissolution by imposing cooling-off periods on litigants. Theoretically, this chapter joins the previous one in a united endeavor to reconceptualize the notion of dispute resolution—the second theoretical objective at the core of this book.

6 Onstage and Offstage
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Chapter 6 exposes a paradox inside China's grassroots court system: mediation has long maintained its centrality in divorce law practices; despite that, it has remained impervious to formal, institutional scrutiny and, paradoxically, permeable to informal, outside influences. Because of this paradox, mediation often turns into a seedbed, where those in positions of power may collude to deny the weaker party in marriage crucial rights on the books. The weaker party—oftentimes a wife seeking to break away from her husband and in-laws—consequently suffers from a double or even triple whammy: an unsympathetic court system, a co-opted legal profession, and an indifferent conjugal community. At times, women do push back the frontiers of insubordination. But they do so not onstage but off, usually outside of the court system, thereby engaging in what James C. Scott terms the "hidden transcript" of resistance.

7 Issues and Nonissues
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Chapter 7 shows that most of the women in this book eventually walked away from their divorce suits with little or no marital property, child support, or any remedies for blameworthy conduct, like domestic violence and spousal abandonment. Their husbands, by contrast, managed to retain child custody and family property; those responsible for wrongdoings invariably emerged unscathed from their encounters with the law. In this way, this chapter illustrates how judges' exercise of decision-making power and agenda-setting power has led to stark gender disparities in litigation outcomes. The latter half of the chapter switches to examine consciousness-formation power by solving an empirical puzzle: some issues, such as the allocation of child custody and the division of marital property, were vehemently disputed by women, while other matters like landholding remained unquestioned and unchallenged in divorce litigation.

chapter abstract

In the epilogue, I sum up the latest legal developments in China. And I reflect on how future research can further explore authoritarian legality, marriage laws and regulations, divorce law practices, and rights contention in a continuously evolving authoritarian state.