THERE IS something I must tell you about China: It is rather morally creative in the usage of its women.
There isn't a hotel, massage parlor, ktv, or conference hall in town that isn't frequented by “little sisters” (xiaojie), escort personnel (baopo), hostesses (peinv), or other types of prostitutes (jinv).
There’s a name for any relationship a female plaything may fall into: Here are the “second wives” (er laopo), women [who may have family or kids but] who indulge in extramarital affairs with men, married or not. Then we have “the thirds” (disanzhe) who are casual love affairs only.
The queen of all female roles, however –in direct competition with the faithful “wife” (laopo)- is the “mistress” (qingren). The mistress, a femme fatal, not only embodies adventure and carnal pleasures, but is also the surest status symbol a man can wish for: She shows you have money!
Technically, only married men can have mistresses; otherwise, if the gentleman is single, we would refer to his female company –however many of them- as simple “girlfriends” (nvpengyou). The Chinese tradition of maintaining mistresses is based on what good Christians would refer to as adultery –a sin; yet in China it is mere custom –a habit.
Consequently, when Westerners first come to China, they are utterly perplexed by the strict division here between marriage, romance, and sex – for which, in Chinese thinking, of course (at least) three different types of women are required.
Xu Qiya, a Jiangsu party official, had clearly set a local record with 140 mistresses; we know because he kept a sex diary; but he isn't an inventor: In fact, I have yet to meet a dulcet Chinese girl who has not been offered a gift from a married man at some time. At least, that’s what they told me.
Accepting any gift from a married man, whether it being a handbag, jewelry, a car, a trip to the beaches of Hainan, is the unspoken agreement of becoming the mistress of that benefactor. It is the lure and excitement of an extraordinary life-style –luxurious, free, illicit, and irresponsible - that drives ever more 20-somethings not to marry, or at least to postpone it until their bodies become less marketable.
Those entrepreneurial women, of course, fill the pool of potential future mistresses in China to the brim. If a woman is not married by the age of 26, she “expired” and is usually stigmatized as “leftover woman” (shengnv).
Now let us talk about the situation of the Chinese married man. Post-marital infidelity is encouraged in China just as pre-marital sex is encouraged in Europe. In comparison to the West, only very few wives in China will file for divorce upon discovery of her husband’s infidelity. It is rather sad.
In China, sex and power are a pair. Xinhua News, a state media, recently found that 95% of all corrupt officials in China also kept mistresses. And Tom Doctoroff, an economist, estimates that second wives probably account for one third of China’s entire consumption of luxury goods.
Let us talk about China’s capital -Beijing: From top to bottom, it isn't a place for connubial happiness: It’s a very patriarchal society (there is mistress culture, but no such things as mister culture), and some of the most powerful men, including the Communist Party of China, create and procreate here, trailed by legions of businessmen, scholars, diplomats, and entrepreneurs, who mostly see no problem in renting a maid for warming their pillows.
In fact, Business Insider, the magazine, quoted a vice-ministerial-level official who insisted that “there is no official at his level who doesn't have at least a few lovers.” It is a must-have.
The victim is the young woman of China: As her feelings for any particular man dwindles (they are all cheaters, no?), she, too, becomes emotionally detached, and regards being a mistress as a form of business, or transactions of favors –a form of consumerism.
There are several grades of “maintaining” (baoyang) a mistress: The cheapest, of course, is to bed a university student. She is young, flexible, poor, and full of romantic ideas in her head. She will eventually marry a fellow classmate, but until then she may want to sneak out and bag a sugar daddy in Wudaokou, Zhongguancun, or Shaoyang district.
Next is the working woman. She is independent, has experience, and owns or rents her own place. (She might be even married, but, with her husband banging the next hostess at the local karaoke bar, she probably thinks what the heck.)
Perhaps the highest cost of maintenance goes to the trophy mistress (huaping, a "flower pot"). Her goal and profession is to conquer the most powerful man she can find at a time. It's a life-style - it's her religion. Enormous financial resources, and a good amount of drama, are necessary to snag such high-profile gold digger.
It has been observed that many Chinese women opt out of the Chinese tradition of cheating husbands and try to find a foreigner, preferably from a traditional monogamous society like Western Europe. Those "foreigners" (laowai) may also cheat on their spouse, of course, but for individual reasons, not, as is the case in China, as a social prescription or norm.
And so the mistress culture of China lives on, from vulgar to lustrous and glittering, and if the endless supply of young women for successful men does not ebb - and if women don't divorce - the husband and his lovers will happily drive the market for luxury goods, hotel rooms, and publications about mistresses, and, almost as an afterthought, minister to their ethical ruin.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Dr Thorsten Pattberg is a research fellow at The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies, Peking University.
(Copyright 2013 Thorsten Pattberg)
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