WHEN Taiwanese Yu Yang-hsing met Gui Yajiu on a hometown visit to China in 1991, marrying a mainlander seemed like a good idea.
"In the future, I want to return to live in China," says Mr. Yu, a retired doorman who fled the mainland with the Chinese Nationalists in 1949. "Since I am old, I need a spouse to take care of me and to live like a friend."
Now, two years later, Mr. Yu has some doubts. As he waited to apply for his wife's visa at a Taipei government office, he noted that his prosperity and the prospect of spending a few years in Taiwan seemed to be changing his mainland bride, whom he met through his sister and brother.
"Before marriage, she had a job as a housemaid and was energetic," he said about the 44-year-old Ms. Gui. She has two children from a previous marriage, and he now sees her only for a yearly visit. "But since marriage, she quit her job and stays home, waiting to come to Taiwan."
With marriages across the Taiwan Strait on the rise, such personal contacts are complicating relations between the two Chinas even as they bind them more closely. As Beijing and Taipei remain bitter political rivals, and Taiwan frets over fast-growing economic ties to the mainland, people-to-people exchanges are the only officially sanctioned path for reducing more than four decades of tension.
In 1987, when Taiwan lifted restrictions on cross-strait humanitarian contacts, for the first time families split by China's civil war were reunited, academic exchanges took place, telecommunications links were established, and Chinese in both countries could travel to attend funerals, visit sick relatives and, in limited instances, even settle. Fed by a deep Chinese identity and strong emotional ties to the motherland, those contacts have continued to broaden, with more than 1 million Chinese visitors t raveling both ways annually via Hong Kong. A Taiwan-China first
Recently, Taipei announced the additional step of lifting a ban against travel to China by Taiwanese officials who handle mainland matters. And this year, the heads of the quasi-official agencies handling nonpolitical issues between China and Taiwan will be meeting face-to-face for the first time. That meeting, between Koo Chen-fu, chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation of Taiwan, and Wang Daohan, chairman of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, is planned for Singapore. It wo uld be symbolic for both sides.
Mr. Wang said recently he hoped the discussions would lead to regular communications that will "tear down psychological and material barriers, leading to the eventual reunification of China." However, the people-to-people links also underscore the sharp divide between the two Chinese societies. Despite widespread talk of reunification and booming trade and investment, the two pursue separate political paths.
Taiwanese officials say the six years since the island opened its doors to the mainland have created new problems and intensified existing ones, such as illegal immigration, fishing and maritime disputes, and smuggling - including drugs and guns. Those results have left officials ambivalent about humanitarian links. Taiwanese, already crammed onto their small island, are worried about being swamped by their giant, overbearing neighbor and its massive population. Opening a small door
No issue encapsulates those dilemmas more than the cross-strait marriages, Taiwanese observers say. "This is a hotly debated issue: whether we should relax further and encourage these marriages," says Ma Ying-jeou, vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, the official agency handling mainland issues. "We have opened up a small door to accommodate such people, but we should not go too far."
At present, only a handful of the marriage partners can reunite in Taiwan. In 1993, the quota of immigrating spouses is 300, up from 240 from last year. Before 1987, when the policy was liberalized and quotas were imposed, separated couples who had married before 1949 could be reunited if adequate evidence was produced.
The more than 2,000 applicants on file at the Straits Exchange Foundation, the quasi-official agency, now face a lengthening wait of at least two years before they can emigrate to densely populated Taiwan. However, pressure is growing to open the official doors further. As an expanding legion of Taiwanese businessmen becomes more deeply involved on the mainland, the number of instant courtships and marriages increases.
With an estimated 1,000 mainlanders attempting to enter Taiwan illegally every month, according to the Taiwan Provincial Police Administration, the government decided last year that mainland spouses can be deported along with other illegal immigrants. That triggered protests at Taipei's legislature by Taiwanese and their mainland spouses facing deportation. Marriages arranged
According to the Chinese and Taiwanese media, hundreds of new cross-strait marriages are arranged every year through family members in China, a network of new matchmaking agencies cashing in on the new trend, or even special marriage tours.
But the materialistic motives driving many of these instantaneous matches disturbs some Chinese observers. Many mainlanders see marriage as an easy path to a better life abroad. The first choices are Taiwanese, whose average per-capita income of more than $9,000 dwarfs the mainland's $300, and other ethnic Chinese.
Critics also say that many Taiwanese men go to the mainland looking for maids, not wives. As prosperity and jobs have drawn Taiwanese women out of the home, men think they can find traditional values more readily on the mainland than in Taiwan. While in the past, husbands were a lot older and more educated than wives, the age of the groom has been steadily dropping, according to the Taiwanese and Chinese press.
"The man is the boss and the woman is supposed to rely on him," says Yu, who is divorced from a Taiwanese woman.
"From a social point of view, these marriages are often not healthy," says Chen Rong-jye, an official with the Straits Exchange Foundation. "Our big concern is the discrepancy in their way of thinking and living standards. Adjustment can be a big problem."