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If you don't beat your wife every three days, she'll start tearing up roof tiles." Or so an old Chinese saying goes, meaning a wife not beaten is a wife out of control.

"It means there's nothing wrong with beating your wife and, moreover, that it should be done," said Chen Mingxia, a law professor and co-ordinator of a project on domestic violence.

Domestic violence was not an issue that the Chinese public talked about, let alone thought about including in a law, until the 1990s.

That is set to change this month as China's top legislators gather for their annual two-week session.

They will discuss a revised marriage law, last changed more than 20 years ago, which would outlaw domestic violence as well as detailing grounds for divorce.

"This is very, very great progress for China," said Prof. Chen, who has been campaigning for years for recognition of domestic violence, a problem state media say affects 30 per cent of households.

"In the past, it was seen as something very normal, something that should happen," she said.

Legislators are also trying to keep the marriage law relevant in a country where people have more wealth, are increasingly heading to divorce courts and where the number of rich businessmen keeping mistresses is on the rise.

They are proposing to add clauses on inheritance and property rights, as well as detailing compensation rights in a divorce, when they revise a relatively simple law first promulgated 50 years ago that was long on principles but short on detail.

To tackle the problems, legislators published Draconian revisions nearly three years ago for discussion.

It soon became clear the majority vigorously opposed new clauses that would make adultery illegal and require a three-year separation before divorce.

Now, watered down and more palatable to the public, the amendments are to be debated this month by the National People's Congress, China's top legislative body.

Legislators stopped short of making adultery illegal but will consider making transgressors liable to compensate their spouses in divorce settlements.

Extramarital affairs are covered by the phrase: "It is forbidden to engage in bigamy and any other activities that harm the system of one man, one wife."

Some think the clause should not have been watered down.

"I think they should have kept the clause making adultery illegal, because it's becoming more and more common nowadays," said a 57-year-old worker surnamed Lin.

However, Li Yinhe, professor of sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Services, thinks excluding the clause was right.

"You cannot, in reality, use the law to punish adultery. I think that moral standards should not go into a law. There's no need and it's not suitable," Prof. Li said.

About 8 per cent of respondents in a survey by the All China Women's Federation last year admitted to having extramarital affairs.

The revised bill also sets out what can cause a "breakdown in mutual affection," which is grounds for a divorce. Such a definition was missing from the law passed in 1981.

It says mutual affection has broken down if spouses are separated for two years, and they can request a divorce. That clause has caused heated debate.

"I think the longer the time, the better," said divorcée Wang Suge, 52.

"I think the length of time is connected to a higher divorce rate," because it makes divorce too easy and people might not make an effort to make the marriage work, she said.

Official figures show that more than one million people divorced in China in 1999. The divorce rate in urban centres has hit 25 per cent.

But Prof. Li said there were many positive changes to the law, especially on property rights. Clauses establish who owns what in a marriage, prenuptual agreements and debt obligations.

The revisions change the old way of dividing everything and have already caused some couples to decide against marrying, Prof. Li said.

"It proves there are people with property concerns who think at the end, if they don't get anything, they won't marry," she said.

Prof. Chen, who was consulted during the drafting of the revisions, said it would serve as a lesson for future legislators.

"There has never been a law before the revision of this marriage law that has stirred up so much attention and attracted such a wide-ranging and long-lasting public debate," she said.

"If every legislation could be like the revision of the marriage law, to open up such an open debate, then I think there is great hope and future for the perfection of China's democratic laws."