Boss Ladies

04.09.1312:44 PM ET

Getting Married to Get Ahead in China’s Business World

China’s richest businesswomen are often still tied to the fortunes of their husbands.

Why are marriage and business so intertwined in China?

Chinese has a word, laobanniang, or “boss lady,” that originally meant “the boss’s wife.” Eventually, it came to be used for female bosses as well. But, because businesses in China tend to be run by husband-and-wife pairs, “boss lady” often implies, “the boss’s wife who runs the business.”

This setup exists at every level, from couples selling drinks by the roadside to restaurants and boarding houses, all the way up to many of China’s biggest corporations. DangDang, China’s equivalent to Amazon, is founded and run by a couple, Peggy Yu and Li Guoqing (who married after three months of dating). Yu is chairwoman; Li is CEO. China’s largest real-estate developer, SOHO, is run by celebrity couple Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi. Zhang is CEO; husband Pan is chairman. And of course, let’s not forget Wendi Deng, Rupert Murdoch’s wife, who was interning for Star TV in Hong Kong and allegedly met Murdoch by crashing a company gala. Deng has played a leading role in her husband’s China investments and was chief of strategy for (the now-failed) MySpace China.

Historically, Chinese have always had an über-pragmatic attitude toward marriage. Brides were expected to come with dowries, a practice that still exists in parts of the country. And in the absence of good social-welfare programs, marriage is higher stakes than in the West–a means of simultaneously providing financial support, health insurance, and retirement care to not just the happy couple, but their families and relatives on both sides. One bum gambling cousin on either side can mean a lifetime of getting hit up for loans.

Little surprise, then, that marriage in China is sometimes treated like a merger between companies. Wendi Deng comes off like a gold digger to Westerners, but Chinese are split on whether she’s that or a role model.

Companies like Dangdang might also exist simply because China’s economy exploded so quickly. While we don’t see a lot of husband-and-wife company execs in the West, mom-and-pop shops feel normal. In a way, many Chinese corporations are simply mom-and-pop shops that grew really, really fast.

Amy Hanser, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia who studies gender and work in China, also speculated that historical timing is a factor. “Women in the U.S. were excluded from the economic sphere for such a long time, especially in these high-flying business environments, and we forget but it’s actually fairly recent that women have started to have a significant presence there,” she said. “Whereas in China, their economic boom and the growth of modern business and corporations has happened in an environment where–I wouldn’t say that it's an equitable one for women, but far more than the one under which large American businesses developed.”

Marrying into a business partnership can also be one of the only ways for women to play a prominent business role in China. Wheeling and dealing in China famously involves a lot of heavy drinking and smoking, in a culture that still fundamentally frowns upon women who touch alcohol or cigarettes. The Chinese business world also involves a lot of dinners and karaoke with young women who are paid to sit and drink with men, sometimes crossing over into prostitution.

“Business partners establish their ties with each other through the consumption of women’s services,” said Hanser. “I imagine it’s very hard for women entrepreneurs to participate.”

And finally, while Americans prefer to keep career and personal life separate, Chinese actively prefer to hire within family and personal networks. “There’s a greater emphasis on the family economy in China,” noted Hanser. “That doesn’t seem weird to people in the way that it seems disparaged here somewhat.” The Murdochs have made efforts in recent years to convey that Wendi Deng no longer plays a major role in her husband’s company; it’s hard to imagine an exec in China feeling any need to do the same.

That is, not yet. There is growing resentment in China toward political elites and their families. Children of government figures are referred to as “princelings” and stereotyped as rich, spoiled brats. So far, China’s business tycoons command respect for being largely self-made, but as China’s economy advances and more people inherit their wealth, it seems natural that anger toward business elites could dampen the tendency to keep things in the family. In 2007, a 26-year-old woman named Yang Huiyan suddenly became China’s richest woman out of nowhere when her father quietly transferred most of his Country Garden Holdings to her, just before it debuted in Hong Kong.

Last year’s richest woman Wu Yajun, chairwoman of Longfor Properties, lost her title when she divorced and handed 40 percent of her shares to her ex-husband–who of course, cofounded the company with her. (With Wu’s fall, young whippersnapper Yang once again became last year's richest Chinese woman.) Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi also made headlines last year because Pan publicly admitted to having fathered a child outside his marriage. Zhang has publicly forgiven Pan, and SOHO is a private company, but what if it were public? A company undergoing marital strife in the boardroom seems like a shaky investment.