I originally thought of putting this cultural gem in the “11 Observations of Behavior in China” entry, but it is too complex a topic to simply rope in with the eleven behaviors I mentioned. It’s a bit concept with many facets, but I’m just interested in the behavior aspect of it and how I’ve encountered it in my time here.
In China, when a married man has a girlfriend she isn’t called a “home wrecker,” “Skank,” or even a “gold-digger,” no, she’s called a “Second Wife,” (Er nai or even more common lately, Xiao San “little three” because…well…third person).
The male habit of having a girl on the side is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon by any means, but Chinese is one of the few cultures where the idea has infiltrated so many levels of society, and in some areas and for some people, has become accepted.
The practice of having a girl on the side goes back a loooong way in Chinese culture. Having a Second Wife you could take care of while also maintaining a household and all those responsibilities were badges of honor and symbols of a man’s status as one belonging to the upper echelons of society. See, it wasn’t just about carnal satisfaction, it was a demonstration of virility, influence, and …well, ok…just because the mechanics of it spoke to status enhancement, it’s hard to rule out simple, base desires as motivating factors. I mean, who goes out and says, “Ah, yes, there is a gal who could boost my image,” huh? I would bet it’s more along the lines of, “Oh, snap, she’s fiiine. Gotta have some of her lovin’.” But, you know, in Chinese.
There are two types of girls at this point: those who know the man’s married and those who do not. Either way, he pursues her somehow. Eventually she has to find out that he’s married. In which case there are also two kinds of those types: those who desire the security his position and money can bring and those who just follow their big ol’ hearts in the name of passion.
Even television shows and movies have gotten involved. There are a few shows that depict ancient Chinese concubines skirmishing for power, and a very popular Chinese show called Woju had the main female lead become a second wife. She had the wide-eyed innocence that most men in this culture love, but even as her plight became clearer to her, she maintained that she was in love with the guy (who happened to be a handsome, corrupt government official). SPOILER: This became a huge hit here in China, but it was eventually cancelled and the govt official died in a car wreck before he could be brought to justice, and the main girl lost her baby. So, in the end there was some sort of cosmic retribution or a concerted
Another, more recent film, Beijing Meets Seattle (Finding Mr. Right in English), is about a woman who goes to Seattle after watching “Sleepless in Seattle” too many times…well, not necessarily. She’s a pregnant second wife who wants her kid to be born in the States. While there, though, she falls for a stoic Chinese single dad. It’s sort of a boring film, but the themes and ideas in it hit on some pretty hot topics right now.
How does this translate into reality?
Throughout Chinese history Emperors obviously had the best deal, right? I mean, there are some who had hundreds of concubines. Even the Tang emperor, Gao Zong is said to have taken pleasure in about 3,000! Like I said, mistresses, or girls on the side are nothing new, but it was actually quite frowned upon by Mao back in ’49, so the trend was wiped out.
There is a bunch of literature about this topic. You can find out all you need to know about this from any number of sources, but one recent article I read claims that economics is one of the factors that’s brought it all back in fashion. “Second Chinese Wives are Back,” writer, Olivier, says of the Chinese men who have made a buck:
Their social progress is seen by their many luxury expenses (car, travel, home etc.). But now, they consider that it is not enough. The best way to show its rank is the maintenance of young and pretty mistresses. The modern cohabitation thus comeback! This phenomenon is spreading so fast that in most major Chinese cities, there are “concubine villages”, with buildings housing luxury apartments where young women maintained their spending and gifts : jewelry, wardrobe, new technologies…
Villages, man! I know that business men in Hong Kong stick their Er Nai/lai (second wife) in the neighboring city of Shenzhen, but I wasn’t aware of villages. My girlfriend, Xiao Ming, even told me that a lot of second wives get a specific car from their sugar daddy—a BMW—and the first wife (kinda sad that we’ve gone back to numbering them like they did back in the ancient days. What are they, Mormon?) will get a bigger SUV or something like that (I guess it’s so she feels secure in the fact that if the little hussy is too much trouble she can run her over?). Some girls even use this catchy little phrase to sum up their chosen path, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.” The BMW is such a common purchase for this little set up that it’s jokingly referred to as “Bao Ma” or “precious horse,” because, as Xiao Ming explained, you mount both.
The article hints at this, too:
This relationship is organized as a win-win situation. The trend of these new wives is so fashionable that luxury cars have named a segment of their range “car mistress” (often flashy sports cars).
For example, Jian, a 42 years Chinese businessman at the New York Times says “Having a mistress is like playing golf. These are two expensive hobbies”. To maintain his extramarital affair with a 20 year old student, he spends about 4,500 € per month.
Expensive is right, but not just for the man, and not just in regards to cash. I have a friend who was a second wife for a few years while living in Shanghai. As you can imagine, when I learned of this I had a ton of questions, but I couldn’t just interview her about the relationship. Over time I got most of the story, though.
After college she met this business guy, and really liked him, so she moved to Shanghai to be with him. She dealt with her qualms about him being married by focusing on the time they spent together. He bought her jewelry, a car, clothes, etc. This went on for quite some time, but she wanted more. She lied to her family about what she did, who she dated, and it took its toll. More than anything, she wanted to be with this man “for real.” Then he wanted a baby. His wife had a health problem, and he wanted my friend to trust him. So she agreed. She became pregnant and he bought her a 2Million RMB apartment. Things looked as though they were going the way she had always dreamed, but when he disappeared for an extended period she became distraught. She suspected that he had another girl. When he did resurface, he made her get an abortion, saying that he wasn’t ready even though she had already conceived. After that, the illusion broke and so did her spirit.
Shortly after that she returned to Dalian and, with the help of her uncle’s guanxi and some forged documents, got a job. If there can be a silver lining it’s this: the man put her name on the lease of the apartment. My friend used this to her advantage. She put it up for sale and just two months ago it sold, making her quite financially comfortable.
She’s a very strong and passionate woman, but she’s cynical, angry, and hurt. You can see all of this if you take the time to get to know her. I wonder how much of the pain is from her decision to be with the man and all that transpired because of it.
It’s not just the uber-rich or highest level officials in big cities that have these second wives. Here in Dalian my girlfriend’s father has a brother who just asked him to help him deal with his second wife. Apparently the second wife is just causing a stir and the man needs some advice…you know, beyond the obvious. This man works in construction, and though China loves tearing up roads they have just paved, the construction market has already seen its hay day.
If you’re thinking all men are pigs, think again. Some of the wives know of the Xiao San and let the man do as he pleases as long as he’s a capable provider. Some will even take on a man of their own. The term for the wife’s boyfriend is Xiao Bai Lian, or little white face. He’s the strapping young buck who tends to the woman’s needs while she provides him with clothing and everything else so he can just have a leisurely life. Basically, the husband is paying for his second wife and her financial needs, his first wife and family’s needs, and her boyfriend’s needs.
This cultural trend is not just casually accepted by all. Of course, many women despise the practice, and the men who have a bit more integrity are frustrated over it, but it does happen. It is talked about, joked about, and parodied on the big and small screen. In ’09 some 95% of corrupt officials were reported to have had second wives, for crying out loud! Some corrective measures have been enacted, though. Government officials have been asked by Hu Jintao to curb their lust and, “…refrain from all young women temptations,” classes in HS have even been implemented to teach young girls to value themselves and have higher standards, and hell, a vice mayor of Hangzhou was executed because of corruption charges and he had more than a dozen mistresses.
Economics is a factor in all of this, but some people like to blame another one: Western influence. This just frustrates me to no end and makes me want to gouge eyes out with chopsticks. Take this little new trend that’s apparently catching…
Starbucks has become a place for casual pick-ups. Not like a good place to meet people, no, people come here by themselves, to find other like-minded individuals, and find somewhere to get it on. The way it’s been explained to me is like this. That dolled up, cute girl or that slightly older attractive woman sittin’ by herself playing on her phone…she’s probably scanning Weixin (a messaging system that uses texts, pics, and audio) to make new “friends” in the area so they can hook up. The guy who is glued to his phone, but looks up every time the door opens, yeah. I know women and men who have admitted to getting together this way. Some of them are single while some of them are attached and just lookin’ for something more. I asked one guy why they do this at Starbucks, and he said it’s because it’s a Western place. Granted, this is just his idea, but he didn’t hesitate to express it.
I’m not judging the behavior; I’m just annoyed by the perceived motivation behind the venue. Whatever. Western men already get stereotyped as playboys and worse here. What I do get pissed off about is when guys with these cavalier attitudes directly cross my path. Four times already guys have tried to pick up Xiao Ming after knowing she was with me.
The first time was with my old landlord. Remember him? I mentioned him when it happened. He has a wife in Japan, but that didn’t stop him from telling Xiao Ming he loved her. When Xiao Ming laughed and told him she didn’t have any feeling whatsoever for him he became a dick.
Another guy was the manager at the gym on the fifth floor of An Sheng shopping center. At first he asked her the normal questions about filling out membership stuff, and then after she did, he began asking if she had a boyfriend. When she said she did he seemed excited and kept asking her to bring me along so I could join (he’d comp the first few times for me, he said). She thought he was just being a salesman. Then he kept following her around when she’d go there to work out. He’d open conversations with questions about me. What I did, all that…When he learned I was an American he asked her how we communicated. Xiao Ming has a wicked sense of humor, and responded, “Wai guo ren ye shi ren.” Foreigners are also people. He concurred, and walked away. Later, a few days after that, he sent her a text asking how long we’d been together. She exaggerated so he’d get the hint and said a year. He then responded, saying that he didn’t have a chance. That was the last communication they had. We both laughed at the lack of tact on his part, but it was annoying anyway.
The next guy hasn’t out and out asked her to be with him, but he’s a bit older and possibly more cunning, but not by much. She met him when she and her cousins and aunts went to KTV. He’s the friend of her aunt or something. Well, that night nothing happened at all. But then a week later, Xiao Ming and I run into him at a bar. The two of them chat a few minutes and I chime in here and there, but then we go our separate ways. At first I thought nothing of it, but then when he said, “Oh, I don’t want to disturb you two,” and Xiao Ming responded, “You’re not disturbing us. We’re together all the time,” I had to wonder. I asked her why she added that. Not because it wasn’t true, but because I could tell it went beyond her normal pattern of speech. She said she felt a little strange when he looked at her.
He had shown an interest in French culture, she said, and when she told me that he’d begun texting her about this I told her to watch out. He even began one line of dialogue by saying I was handsome. What the hell is that about? I explained what he was doing and she saw it, too. The guy did have a bit more tact, going at her through an intellectual route, but it wasn’t going to happen. And then a week later I had dinner with a buddy of mine and then a drink. He and I were having a good time when Xiao Ming texted me and wanted to hang out. She told me that she’d just stepped into one of our favorite places and the guy was there. She told me she thought I should head over because he was talking about using her as a translator on his next trip to America. She laughed about it, on her guard, and when I showed up the guy’s eyes got a little wide, and then sad. I walked over, made it obvious she and I were together, and then joked about him in English with her. She cracked up, and I let the two of them continue chatting for a bit. Then I started picking his brain on where he was traveling to, made some recommendations.
When he tried to tell her that he’d pay for everything, that he’d even sleep on the floor, it was my turn to crack up laughing. He spoke in Chinese, but I had understood and told him it wasn’t happening. Soon after that he and his pal left and Xiao Ming, my friend, and I all kept having a good time.
The fourth guy went about things a bit more discreetly but more explicitly, and that’s why I am still waiting for a chance to see the little bastard. I met this guy first, about a year ago in Starbucks. He and I are not close friends, but we’re at that superficial, by-you-a-round-shoot-the-breeze level. Ever since he and Xiao Ming exchanged numbers (something she only did because she felt that, as my friend, he was ok) he had a thing for her. She told me that he once made an inappropriate joke about sleeping with her and that she had shut him down rather harshly, saying that if he said it again they would never talk again. That was the end of it until recently.
He’s moving back to Shanghai this month, a move to change his boring, lonely life, he says. This has made him rather desperate, I think. One night while Xiao Ming and I were out, we met up with him and two others for a drink. We hung out a bit, but then she and I wanted some food. We told them we’d meet up later. After food, though, we just wanted to hang out on our own, so we told him we’d catch him another time. Then, as she and I were playing pool (we are two of the worst players ever) her phone is lit up with weixin messages. She’s annoyed, I could tell. Her face took on that pensive look she gets.
When I asked about it she reluctantly said I shouldn’t be angry, that he’s just lonely. Apparently he kept asking her where she was, where she’d be staying tonight, and then flat out asked her to spend the night with him. She responded to each of these with irritation and told him that she wasn’t like that, that she was with me. He said it’d be just their secret, but she refused, saying that she’d know, and that she only thought of him as a friend, and now not even as that. I was livid. Man, I wanted to deck him right in his fat face, but I let it go…for a bit. At the time I was just focusing on making her feel better because she felt pretty upset about the whole thing. She wondered what it was about her, what was she doing to get this sort of attention…
I made jokes, I soothed her, I praised her, but I couldn’t let go of one thought: it was me. It’s true, she’s a great woman, and embodies all the ideals of beauty that Chinese men seem to value, but I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that when they see her with me, a young American, some Chinese men automatically judge her based on other preconceived notions of these types of pairings. Suddenly her status is in this hectic blender that they have no right to put her in. I don’t care about the looks I get, but shit, it really irritates the life out of me when I see first hand how this crap affects her. I haven’t gotten a chance to run in to this maggot since that night, but even if I do, I’m not sure how I’ll handle it. My first instinct is to break bones and listen to the snaps, but I’m in China. I may just make it obvious that she’s told me everything, and enjoy the fear in his eyes. Xiao Ming says to leave it since she’s already taken the rest of his Face, but the Y chromosome in me wants to exact masculine vengeance.
I fear I’ve stumbled off into a digression. Please forgive me, and understand that I am not holding any of this up as a general statement of how things are here, but rather as an indication that people can be douche bags on every continent.
Link to the article I quote: http://marketingtochina.com/second-chinese-wives-are-back/