Auntie Meng, who works for a neighborhood committee in Fengxian District, divorced her husband in late July, shortly before she turned 48 years old. Then, she invited friends and relatives to celebrate both her birthday and the belated divorce.
"My husband got addicted to mahjong less than a year after we got married and I almost single-handedly raised my daughter. At times, he could be gone for weeks without calling home," school teacher Meng tells Shanghai Daily. She spoke on condition that her first name not be used.
"I've wanted a divorce since 1992, but friends and relatives all asked me to think about my own career and my daughter's future. Children from single-parent homes were discriminated against," she adds. "And I was working as an elementary school teacher. School didn't like divorced teachers educating the pupils."
Since family and harmony are traditionally considered paramount in China, divorce used to be unthinkable, unspeakable, and even in the early 1990s, it was considered neither wise nor practical to get divorced.
Though the rules were unwritten, a career could get stuck if a man or woman were divorced. Parents often told their kids not to play with children from single-parent home because they might be less well-mannered.
Meng's mother worried that she might get transferred to minor administrative postings if she got divorced. The mother even hid the marriage certificate to make sure Meng couldn't find the paperwork for a divorce.
Relatives and friends also tried to convince her by saying, in effect, "After all, it's better to have a not-so-good family than nothing but a little child.
Life would be very hard for divorced women."
Life still isn't easy for divorced women, but they have toughened up, both psychologically and financially, and the society has also become more tolerant. The divorce rate has increased greatly.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs official site reports 2.87 millions Chinese couples got divorced in 2011, up by 7.3 percent from 2010, making the crude divorce rate (the number of divorce cases over the total population) 2.13 per thousand.
In the first quarter of 2012, 536,000 pairs went their separate ways. The numbers for the same period in 2007 was 266,000 pairs, meaning it nearly doubled in only five years.
According to Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, 38,000 couples got divorced last year, making the divorce rate increase by 4.06 percent to over 35 percent.
Official figures showing age breakdowns are not available, but there are many reports and media articles about rising divorce rate among middle-aged or elderly couples.
Divorce lawyers have also found their clientele today very different from those in the 1980s and 1990s.
More open-minded toward divorce
"There are definitely more divorce cases now. In the 1980s and 1990s, divorce was only a small portion of my business. There wasn't much money involved, unless you represented some millionaires," says local attorney Mike Liang, who specializes in civil court cases and particularly in divorce. "Now it has become my main business and numbers have risen dramatically."
Most of his clients are in their late 30s and 40s, very different from clients 20 or even 10 years ago.
Clients are also becoming more open about discussing divorce. In the past, when he first met clients, many of them felt guilty and started off by saying, in effect, "I know it's bad to get divorced, but I've done nothing wrong, and I've exhausted all possibilities to maintain a marriage."
"They wanted to show that they were not a bad person, even though they were getting a divorce," Liang says.
"That's not true anymore. My clients, young or old, are more straightforward about wanting to get divorced. Most of them don't feel the need to explain anymore," he adds.
Li Zhen, a 39-year-old accountant for a foreign enterprise, was quite surprised when her mother supported her decision to get divorced. She and her ex-husband simply had different lifestyles and values that they couldn't get along after trying for three years. They were incompatible.
"We didn't quarrel or anything, but we were just not meant to be couples," she says. "I thought my parents would be mad because they are quite traditional. I didn't want them to get involved and convince me to maintain the marriage in order to be a wife."
She hid the divorce for months and her ex-husband still made occasional visits to the parents' home to maintain appearances, but their 7-year-old son accidentally leaked it at the dinner table one day.
"We were shocked!" she recalls. "My dad was mad because we lied, and he was also a bit upset that I got divorced. But my mom accepted it right away. She even encouraged me to stay strong and keep looking for happiness. I almost couldn't believe it."
Li's mother told her that "it is better to divorce now than to stay unhappy for a lifetime."
Divorce lawyers are not the only ones who feel the change. Many new business opportunities have emerged with the rising divorce rate. A divorce club was founded in Shanghai in 2010 by a family counsellor. The club, with an online site and a hot line, is dedicated to helping divorced people get over emotional lows through counseling, support groups and matchmaking services.
Many matchmaking companies have also started departments specializing in services for divorced clients. Shanghai Media Group has also put up a matchmaking TV program for middle-aged men and women, attracting many divorced or widowed people to participate.
Some amicably divorced couples even hold a divorce ceremony, a sort of reverse wedding ceremony, to announce the divorce and separate over a friendly meal.
Meng's mother still doesn't like the idea of her divorce, but her opposition has diminished. Over the years, the retired middle school teacher has read news reports and watched TV dramas, movies and talk shows that all gradually changed her perception about marriage and divorce.
"I didn't want her to stay with such a junk for so many years either, but back then, people view divorced women as disgraced, unable to even manage a small household," Meng says. "Women also might get bullied because people knew they didn't have a man to back them up. You were not supposed to expose your dirty laundry, not to mention a divorce."
It's all different now and even TV shows praise divorced women for their independence and sympathize with their difficulties, she says. "People don't value someone by their marriage status as much as before."
When Meng joked about celebrating both her birthday and divorce at her birthday dinner with a dozen families and friends, some of the very people who had argued against divorce even offered congratulations on "escaping the nightmare and being reborn."