PREOCCUPIED BY WEDDING preparations since they set a date, Shanghai fashion retailer Zhang Ming and his fiancee, He Fang, think they need professional help. A consultation with Crescent Moon Wedding Planners convinces the busy pair that they've made the right decision. It's only as the couple leave the premises that they feel a twinge of unease: spotted in the tenants' roster, just above the wedding planners' listing, is a reference to the Tomorrow Divorce Company. The juxtaposition reflects two parallel trends on the mainland: as nuptials become increasingly extravagant, divorce rates are also rising steadily. According to a Xinhua report, spending on weddings has risen steeply since 2000, when the average celebration cost 30,000 yuan. Last year, Shanghai was the most lavish city on the mainland, with couples splashing an average of 187,000 yuan on celebrations. It was followed closely by Guangzhou, where spending was just 5,000 yuan less. But the growing affluence has come with increasing strains on marriages. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, 1.8 million couples filed for divorce last year, up from 2004's 1.6 million - a 21 per cent jump from 2003, when simplified rules made the process easier. Businesses have been quick to see the opportunities. 'The divorce company talked to us about co-operation opportunities, the first day we opened our wedding business,' says Crescent Moon operator Zhuo Ying. 'The reasoning is similar to why KFC and McDonald's tend to open close to each other. With a rising divorce rate in China, major profits are being generated from consultations, legal, and psychiatric services, instead of just wedding services.' In his offices on the floor above, the manager of Tomorrow Divorce, Zhu Wenchang, laughs. 'It sounds harsh, but many of the people who come here today for wedding planning will need marriage consultants not too long after.' Zhang and He shrug off the ominous sign. 'Couples will always encounter problems, no matter how much they love each other,' says He, an assistant at a multinational firm. 'Now, we focus on the wedding; later we may have to deal with other issues. 'Divorce is just the end of marriage. There's nothing shameful about it. It's like being laid off. You just have to seek a new place, or partner,' she says. Zhang, too, says his priority is having the perfect wedding. 'Everyone wants to live happily ever after, but no one can predict the future. If anything goes wrong later, we'll just have to deal with it,' he says. Zhuo says: 'People believe the extravagance signals the start of a happy marriage, so they will go through anything, and spend any amount of money to have better wedding photos than everyone around them, cakes made of a specific brand of chocolate, or an exotic flower that no one else has.' With all the attention on elaborate weddings, Zhuo and his staff sometimes feel that their clients' minds are barely on their relationships. Given increasing family problems due to changing social mores and legal system, and a more affluent population, Zhu says: 'The situation is ripe for [a] marriage consultation industry to develop and generate tremendous profit.' Wei Qing Consultation is one of the first firms to tap in to that demand. 'Attitudes towards marriage and divorce are vastly different now,' says general manager Shu Xin, who set up the business two years ago. 'In the past, couples tried their best to preserve their relationship and families. Now people take a shot in the dark, hoping to find the right partner. If not, they move on. When they move from marriage to divorce, then back to marriage, they need help. That's where we come in.' Other entrepreneurs are taking note. Since 2003, marriage and even remarriage consultants have mushroomed across the country. 'Somehow, material wealth makes people emotionally weak and act irrationally,' says Shu, a former journalist. 'Therefore, they need professionals to help sort out their problems and protect their emotions - and assets.' More popularly known as the 'divorce company', Wei Qing's business has quadrupled in the past two years and now employs 32 advisers, including lawyers and psychiatric counsellors specialising in marriage issues. With charges set between 3,000 yuan and 5,000 yuan per day, Wei Qing's services aren't for the ordinary worker. About 80 per cent of its clientele are upper middle-class women, usually aged 28 and older. Consultations are sought equally before, during, and after divorce. 'Luckily, we handle all these areas including asset disputes, child custody or emotional counselling,' Shu says. 'Generally, the more money a person has, the less time he or she will have for their families, which will create major problems. Only 20 per cent of clients actually file for divorce.' Wei Qing has modified its methods of assessing a marriage. It used to rely on an 80-item questionnaire developed in the US, but found the design inappropriate for Chinese couples because 55 of the questions were sexually related. Now, advisers rate marriages on vague indicators of 'physical, emotional, and economic happiness'. Couples who opt to split are urged to join Wei Qing's divorce clubs. 'We encourage them to celebrate life after their divorce,' Shu says. His firm even stages a ceremony to help new divorcees mark the occasion. 'Divorce clubs give them a chance to get to meet people in similar situations, share their emotional difficulties, and maybe make some good friends,' he says. Still, some people see money as a solution to their problems. Shu recalls a chief executive whose wife suspected him of cheating on her and began to lash out at him publicly, even posting attacks on his company website. 'In order to save his family and reputation with his company, the chief executive paid us 50,000 yuan to offer consultations to his wife,' Shu says. Li, a 27-year-old recent divorcee, says she has benefited from the opinion of a neutral party. Problems emerged in her marriage after her in-laws began to interfere in family decisions, Li says, and she felt almost suicidal. 'So when I saw an ad from the divorce company, I decided to give it a shot,' she says. Having evaluated her marriage, the company advised Li to separate. It handled the divorce paperwork and asset negotiation, and 'me and my ex-husband are pretty happy about it', she says. Responding to the demand for trained advisers, more than 3,000 people last month attended Shanghai's first course for marriage counsellors. They face their certification tests this month, having paid about 4,000 yuan for 120 hours of classes that cover subjects ranging from emotional to legal issues. But the importance of marriage is fading rapidly in the new China, says Gu Jun, a social studies professor at Shanghai University. 'People have more freedom,' the academic says. 'No longer bound by morality and law, they turn to divorce when challenges surface in the relationship.' Marriage consultants are inevitable products of the trend, Gu says. The consultation business does have its critics. 'I find it strange that people seek legal advice from these uncertified consultants,' says Yu Hai, a professor of social studies at Fudan University. 'In the US, marriage lawyers are specialists with years of training. I don't think these consultant companies should take advantage of people's ignorance just to expand their businesses.' Meanwhile, a Shanghai district civil court judge has called for the setting of strict standards for marriage consultancies, saying: 'We have to see to it that it does not become another snake-oil business because that will undermine the standard of legal and moral systems.' But the decision to seek a marriage consultant isn't undertaken lightly, says a 28-year-old university teacher, who prefers to be known only by her surname, Ge. She and her husband were usually able to resolve their quarrels, but recent differences over whether to have a baby rose to an intolerable level. 'I don't believe in a quick decision, since eight years together is a lot of effort and memories,' she says. 'We decided to seek advice from this divorce company. We need to look at this from an emotion-free standpoint. And right now, my husband and I are in no condition to do that.'