I’ve recently heard the phrase 羡慕妒忌恨 (envy covet hate) to refer to situations where another is happy in a situation that shouldn’t make her happy. For example, someone with a full-time job might envy-covet-hate a part-time worker who is happy with her situation – free time, low stress job, low pay, few high-priced objects. The point, of course, is that those with “everything” the new economy has to offer – prestigious jobs, upscale homes, and fancy cars – aren’t happy and thus envy-covet-hate someone who feels happy with her life. In Mandarin, this deep sense of satisfaction / contentment / happiness is called 幸福感 and friends are quick to point out, published accounts notwithstanding, Shenzhen has one of the lowest happiness indexes in China.
The phrase, 羡慕妒忌恨 comes from the telenovela, The Era of Naked Marriage (裸婚时代) and refers to the feelings that the protagonists’ happy “naked marriage” evokes in the hearts of family and friends. Online, the phrase naked marriage is defined as registering a marriage without having first bought a house, a car, and a wedding ring and without holding a wedding banquet. It is also (according to gossip and online chats) a now accepted form of marriage among the post 80s generation (80后). And yes, their family and friends envy-covet-hate Naked protagonists, Liu Yiyang and Tong Jiaqing’s happiness (幸福).
The issue of naked marriages and envy-covet-hate has come up in the context of debates about the third interpretation of China’s marriage law (婚姻法第三次司法解释). The center of the debates is over how common property is divided at marriage. Previously, common property was split between husband and wife. According to the Third Interpretation, however, the property goes to whoever bought it before the marriage took place. These property rights include any gifts made to the couple by parents. Thus, if one of the couple’s parents bought their house as a wedding gift, the house belongs to that child leaving the divorced spouse without any property rights in the house no matter how long the couple has lived there.
In Shenzhen, purchasing a house remains a sign of a man’s seriousness about creating and nurturing a family. Moreover, in the traditional division of labor, men are freed from housework and childcare in order that women might create a home. Indeed, that’s one of the key twists in The Era of Naked Marriage; how can a woman trust a man who brings nothing to the marriage because she, of course, is bringing her labor and ability to bear children?
Gossip and debate about avarice and marriage are not unique to Shenzhen. Indeed, making women economically dependent on men creates a situation in which marriage becomes a viable career option for women. Now, my friends are angry about the Third Interpretation because traditionally men buy the house and women furnish it. However, in the current market, houses grow in value and furniture is replaced. This means that no matter what she has contributed to the prosperity of a family, with divorce a woman can be swept out her door with nothing. According to my friends and many online, with the Third Interpretation, it no longer pays to get married. Instead, couples should live together, keep meticulous accounts, and live – and on this they all agree – unhappily because emotions can’t be bought and sold.