Love on the rocks: Inside China's marriage counselling boom
From a small office in Shanghai, marriage counsellor Zhu Shenyong livestreams advice over several phones simultaneously to an attentive audience keen to save their relationships.
On his wall hangs the mantra: "Let there be no bad marriages under heaven." But in the earthly realities of modern China, divorce rates are surging, and Zhu's services are in high demand.
"I always say that Chinese marriage counselling is mostly like treating late-stage cancer," said Zhu, explaining the majority of his clients arrive in "absolute crisis".
"Only a minority are considering divorce, but want advice on whether it's the right thing to do," said the indefatigable 44-year-old, who wears a flat cap during his streaming sessions.
Earlier this year, Zhu went viral after claiming that he makes one million yuan ($154,000) a year.
Now he pulls up to 500 viewers whenever he goes online, in a mission he describes as to "avoid unnecessary divorces".
But Zhu is also a realist who strives to help couples find the softest landing as a relationship breaks up, for the sake of their children.
The number of registered divorces in China reached a record 8.6 million in 2020 -- almost double the 2019 total and eclipsing the number of marriage registrations for the first time, according to government data.
After decades of the "one-child policy", China faces a stark gender imbalance with 30 million more men than women. Coupled with rock-bottom birth rates, a demographic crisis is looming on the horizon.
Family pressure to wed early, the competitive grind of urban life, skyrocketing house prices, inadequate childcare and career support for mothers: all these are fraying marriages, especially among a younger generation who prioritise personal freedom.
"From a positive perspective, divorce is a manifestation of civilised society and of women's awakening," Zhu said, adding affairs and money problems are also prime triggers for divorce.
With the birth rate nosediving, The Lancet recently predicted China's population could halve by 2100, falling behind India and Nigeria.
That has spooked the government, which is now encouraging its citizens to get married -- and stay married.
'It's extremely unfair'
Lawmakers last year introduced a mandatory 30-day cooling-off period for divorce by agreement, which previously could be settled within a day.
The aim was to prevent impulsive divorces, but rights advocates fear it is trapping women in abusive marriages as it can be extended indefinitely if one side refuses to agree.
"The 'divorce cooling-off period' has become a 'divorce abuse period', which completely deviates from its original purpose," said Guangzhou marriage lawyer Wang Youbai.
"It's extremely unfair to sufferers of domestic violence ... who are eager to escape from their unhappy marriages."
The other method, divorce by court litigation, usually takes one to two years, said Beijing marriage lawyer Yi Yi, with significantly higher costs.
Many Chinese provinces have rolled out state-organised counselling for tens of thousands of couples, including newlyweds and marriages on the verge of a breakdown.
In central Wuhan, city authorities attributed the 'cooling-off period' to rescuing almost two-thirds of the marriages of the 3,096 couples who applied for divorce in January alone.
Counsellors are also permanently stationed in all marriage registry offices in Beijing.
'We don't think it's shameful'
But for 36-year-old civil servant Wallace, mandatory mediation sessions came too late to alter the course of his divorce.
It was granted by a Shanghai court last summer after a year of pandemic-related delays, ending a three-year marriage which he says failed due to interference from in-laws.
"For those who really want to divorce, (mediation) is just a formality," he said.
Wallace is among a growing cohort of Chinese millennials disillusioned with marriage -- and of the government push to encourage it.
Many of his friends are preoccupied with getting into marriages, and then escaping them.
"Some marry just as a compromise, without having considered whether they can tolerate their partner's weaknesses."
He blames Shanghai's high divorce rate partly on what is locally known as "involution" -- a form of social stagnation in China's hyper-competitive, status-driven urban centres that leaves people increasingly dissatisfied with their lives.
Wallace now likens marriage to a risky bet. "If you know there is a 50 percent chance of failure, would you still want to speculate?" he said.
Pressures persist -- especially on women -- to marry young and have children. But more Chinese women are also refusing to cave in, with marriage registrations last year falling to their lowest level in nearly two decades.
For 31-year-old Vivien, who married after a whirlwind romance, divorce is not something to fear but a path towards emancipation.
"Our elders' mindset is: divorce means nobody wants you... but my generation thinks it is just a personal choice," she says.
"We don't think it's shameful, but instead admire those who successfully divorce."