Outside the Marriage Registration Office in Beijing's Chaoyang district, a young woman is handing out flyers for a company advertising wedding photography. But on this midweek morning, she is ignoring many of the couples entering and exiting the building in a steady stream. 'A lot of people come here to get married, but a lot come to get divorced, too,' she says. It's not hard to spot the ones who have come here to get the stamp on their marriage certificates - actually little red booklets, this being the bureaucracy-obsessed mainland - that says they are now officially separated. Some couples are still arguing as they leave the building; others stop before going in, and one of the lingerers makes what is obviously a last-ditch plea not to end the marriage. Most, though, simply look downcast, making it clear they are not here to embark on a life of marital bliss. Since August 13, when a fresh interpretation of the marriage law by the Supreme People's Court came into effect, many of the women leaving registration offices such as the one in Chaoyang have more than just the end of their marriage to bemoan. According to the new ruling, residential property will no longer be automatically regarded as being jointly owned and, therefore, divided equally in a divorce. Previously, a 50/50 split was standard unless one party was guilty of bigamy, domestic violence or abandoning their partner and children. Now, whoever paid for the house or apartment gets to keep it in its entirety, regardless of which party wants to divorce and the circumstances that led to the decision. On the mainland, rulings by the Supreme People's Court replace existing law. For the nation's top judges, the new ruling is an ambitious - some might say brutal and unsophisticated - attempt to shore up the crumbling institution of marriage and to rein in an obsession with property ownership. But by those who have made it the most talked-about subject among female users of Weibo, the mainland's version of Twitter, it has been dubbed 'the law that makes men laugh and women cry'. Yang Yiyan can be forgiven a few tears. She comes out of the Chaoyang office with her now ex-husband, but they go their separate ways immediately. The 31-year-old travel agent was married for only two years. 'I knew a year ago we wouldn't last, we've just been delaying the inevitable,' says Yang. With her marriage over, she is now homeless. 'My ex-husband bought the apartment before we were married, so under the new law I'm not entitled to anything. I'm hoping to get the car and half the money I paid into our mortgage for the past two years,' she says. 'It's quite a burden for women like me, but at least I have a good job. It would be much harder if I was a housewife in the country.' There is no doubt marriage is in crisis on the mainland. Among Yang's generation, the 18 to 30 age group, and in the major cities, about one-third of all marriages end in divorce. Once a dirty word, divorce is now so commonplace that in the first half of this year, almost a million marriages were dissolved in the mainland, a rise of 17.2 per cent on the same period in 2010, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Nor is it just the young metropolitan middle-classes who are walking away from married life. In the first three months of the year, the biggest jumps in divorce rates were in the southwestern province of Sichuan and Shandong province, in the east. The number of failed marriages has been growing at an average annual rate of more than 7 per cent for the past eight years, with more than 5,000 couples a day untying the knot. Stemming that tide was the rationale behind the revision of the marriage law. Yet the way in which the Supreme People's Court has chosen to do it has massive implications for home ownership because the boom in property prices in recent years has made apartments and houses hugely valuable assets. The new ruling has also reignited the debate about the status of women in society, and the significant wealth gap between the genders. 'It is obvious that the new law favours the richest person in any marriage,' says Li Chunyan, senior lawyer at lihun.net, the biggest divorce website on the mainland. That is normally the man, because they are most likely to have bought a property before marriage. Indeed, many women refuse to get married unless their future husband owns a home. It has become such a custom that tying the knot with a man who doesn't have a place of his own is known as a 'naked wedding'. Li Mingchun, a law professor at China Women's University, in Beijing, says, 'Under the new law, and with house prices accelerating so fast, it is women who will be the losers in any divorce' because they will be left without a home or the money to buy one. The revision has been prompted in part by perceived public outrage over the materialistic mindset of younger generations. A succession of young women have become briefly infamous through appearances on television dating shows, on which they have boasted of their refusal to consider marriage to anyone who doesn't have both an apartment and a car. The most notorious claimed late last year that she would 'rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle'. 'The general idea of the new law is to protect the property owner,' Li says. 'The Supreme Court doesn't want people to get married just because they can profit if they divorce. But the social security system in China doesn't really exist, so we have to consider how to protect the people who are going to be disadvantaged in a divorce. I don't see any mention of that in the new law.' The lack of provision for those who are not property owners is just one of the reasons why the new interpretation is widely seen by women as being unjust. With most wondering how the ruling squares with Mao Zedong's much-quoted statement, 'Women hold up half the sky,' its introduction has not so far bolstered marital harmony. Instead, it has done the opposite; causing domestic friction as many wives come to realise their husbands are now effectively their landlords. Across the country, demand for the services of lawyers has boomed, with women flocking to legal firms to find out what they can do to ensure they are not left homeless should they leave their husbands. Many women believe it will further encourage the already rampant mistress culture on the mainland. 'We've received inquiries from a lot of women who are panicking,' says Wang Xiuquan, a senior family lawyer at the Beijing Changan Law Firm. 'They think the new law means their husbands can take a mistress without anything happening to him, because if the wife threatens him with divorce he will get to keep the house. Even women in good marriages are suspicious and are calling us about the implications of the new law.' In a few extreme cases, men who already own an apartment have been told by their fianc?es that they will refuse to have children, or care for his parents - the traditional duty of mainland wives - unless they are registered as the co-owner of the property before they marry, the only guaranteed way of ensuring legal entitlement to half the home. 'It's clear from the data of the housing registration institution that the number of women being registered as co-owners of properties has gone up since the new ruling [was introduced],' says Wang. Above all, women feel insulted by the way the court has ignored their roles as wives and mothers. Mrs Zhang is a 36-year-old Beijinger in the throes of a divorce. Married for 12 years and with a 10-year-old son, she decided to leave her accountant husband this summer. 'He's not mature at all; he hasn't grown up since we married. He spends his free time playing computer games and doesn't seem able to appreciate the efforts I make as a wife and mother,' she says. To her, the new ruling shows an equal lack of respect. 'It doesn't take into account a woman's contribution to the family, especially the raising of children. In order to take care of my son and give him the best environment to learn in, and to allow my husband to concentrate on his work, I gave up my job two years ago to be a full-time housewife. Everyone in the family has benefited from that: my son, my husband, my parents-in-law. But I don't see any recognition of that in the new law,' says Zhang. Like almost all the women Post Magazine spoke to for this article, Zhang was reluctant to give her full name. Divorce may be a reality on the mainland now but many still regard it as, at best, embarrassing and, at worst, shameful. Another reason the revision has created such anger among women is that some are being forced to go to court, instead of dealing with the issues in private, to fight for a share of the family home. Most of the disputes are over the amount of money paid by women towards bank loans and the compensation they are entitled to. When her husband's parents bought their apartment in the west of Beijing, it was worth 350,000 yuan. Now, it is valued at about 2 million yuan (HK$2.4 million). 'The house is in my husband's name and so he and my parents-in-law are saying that under the new law, I am not entitled to half of it,' Zhang says. 'Neither my husband nor my parents-in-law want us to divorce, so they're using this as a way to pressure me to stay married.' Zhang is set to receive only a percentage of the property's rise in value, based on money she paid towards the mortgage. 'My lawyer says I can get maybe 200,000 yuan,' she says. 'That's ridiculous. The effort I put into the family is priceless. I am really upset about the new law. It just looks at marriage as if it were a business; it ignores the hard work and the emotion that goes into building a family.' Some women feel the ruling is so biased against them that they would not have wed if it had been in effect when they did so. 'I met and married my husband in a very short period,' says Mrs Guo, who is separating after four years of marriage. She has to go to court because her husband and his parents are refusing to hand over half the value of the three million yuan apartment in which they lived, even though she is registered as a co-owner of the home. 'My husband's parents think the new law means they don't have to give me anything, and my husband is supporting them in that,' Guo says. 'I wish the details of the new law had been clear then. I definitely wouldn't have got married so quickly. It makes it clear that you have to be realistic about a lot of details before you marry.' Lawyers, though, say they welcome the changes. 'It makes our work much easier,' says Zou Houfa, a partner at the Yixing Law Firm in Beijing. 'The new law gets rid of all the confusion that was in the previous interpretation and caused arguments. It makes divorce cases much easier to resolve.' Other lawyers argue that it is correct to protect the investment made by the many parents who buy a home for a son who is about to marry. 'With house prices so high, few young people can afford to buy an apartment on their own so they mostly depend on their parents to help them. If the marriage breaks down, it's not fair that the parents lose their life savings,' says lawyer Wang. Buying a house for your child, though, is not usually a conditional gift based on a marriage lasting. Nor is it an investment; few children are expected to return the money made from the increase in a property's value to their parents when they sell it. And if the new interpretation really is partly an attempt to end the fixation with home ownership, then it seems illogical to justify it by saying it is a way to protect a parental investment. However, among lawyers generally there appears to be little sympathy for the plight of divorced wives left with nothing to show for years of marriage. 'There is no law saying women can only marry men with houses,' Wang says. 'Is it fair that men have to provide the family home? Chinese women need to update their ideas in the modern world. They should get wealthy by working hard and not expect to receive half a property that doesn't belong to them when they divorce.' What about the women who gave up their jobs to raise a child and take care of their husband's parents? 'I don't advise women to be housewives. In my opinion, it just makes them more isolated and more prone to having conflicts with their husbands. I think the new law will encourage more women to work and not stay at home,' says Wang. Such attitudes reveal ignorance about domestic life and the ability of most women to make enough money to buy an apartment. While some urban middle-class women make salaries equivalent to those of their male peers, just 20 per cent of married females on the mainland out-earn their husbands, according to the Centre for Work-Life Policy, a New York-based NGO. A 2008 Renmin University study found that, on average, women employees receive two-thirds of what men earn. Given the overwhelmingly male nature of the legal profession on the mainland, it is perhaps not surprising that views such as Wang's are widespread, or that the Supreme People's Court appears unconcerned by the impact of the new ruling on women. While there are more female lawyers and judges at the local level than before, of the 13 judges who make up the court, only one is a woman. 'I think China is still a male-dominated society,' Zhang says. 'The status of women is even lower than in the old days, when women didn't work but stayed at home. At least then they were protected even when they didn't have an income. Nowadays, women face a lot more pressure than men in the workplace; you can find gender discrimination in every field. But at the same time, a woman's obligation to the family is the same as it was in the old days.' Li believes true equality under the law will be impossible to achieve until there is specific legislation outlawing gender discrimination. 'The key thing is to put the principle of gender equality into law in a detailed way. Without that, it doesn't matter how many female judges there are - they still won't be able to protect women's rights.' It was the Supreme People's Court itself that sparked the huge increase in divorces, when it amended the marriage law in 2003. Until then, couples had to get permission from their workplaces, and sometimes their local neighbourhood committees as well, to split up, adding considerably to the stigma associated with divorce. Now the state is once more attempting to make divorce unattractive, by changing the law again. But having opened the floodgates, closing them will prove hard. 'The mentality of people has changed and divorce has become a normal thing, so I think the divorce rate will continue to rise,' says Zou. Women who have experienced the harshness of the new ruling are less convinced, though. Yang believes the sheer unfairness of it will ensure it has its desired effect. 'The new law will definitely lead to fewer divorces, because a lot of women will be left with nothing if they leave their husbands,' she says. If that proves to be the case, though, it will no doubt result in more unhappy marriages.