Spend a Tuesday afternoon in one of the high-end shopping malls in China’s capital city, and you will see for yourself what has China buzzing with gossip—a group of beautiful, young Chinese women with fake eyelashes and sparkling manicures, out to show off their Prada purses and Mikimoto pearls. This is China’s mistress culture out in full force.
Stories of Chinese adultery have splashed across headlines in recent months, as the country’s crackdown on corruption brings to light newfound official indiscretions. Although China’s culture is commonly perceived as conservative, surveys reveal that “non-commercial” infidelity is rife, and anecdotal evidence suggests it is trending up.
The practice of keeping a mistress is, of course, far from unique to China: Mistresses have existed for as long as the institutionalization of marriage, and nations like Russia and France also enjoy their own flourishing class of kept women. However, the real shocker of China’s mistress culture lies in its openly transactional nature, its visibility, and its ubiquity.
Far from being a secret, having a mistress is a new way to show off one’s social status in China. These “luxury accessories” require the maintenance of a set of unspoken rules: fancy apartments, beautiful clothes, and spending money. In return, the Chinese mistress often makes herself sexually available exclusively, dresses in designer fashions and flawless make-up each time she goes out with her beau, and sits conspicuously by his side at business and social functions.
Iris (name has been changed) has become one such “status symbol.” A 20-year-old female college student in Shanghai, Iris grew up in a dusty rural town in China’s interior. In addition to her school work and hanging out with her classmates, she now dates a 40-year-old, somewhat successful, and married man. They met at a karaoke outing, and he took her out to a candlelit Italian dinner on their first date. She appreciates the material benefits their relationship gives her: Her boyfriend gives her attention and monthly spending money, takes her shopping, and sends a car service to pick her up after classes.
Iris has no disillusions about their relationship. She says she doesn’t envision a future together, and called their breakup “inevitable.” However, she is equally pessimistic about the prospects of a relationship with man her own age, who she describes as “knowing nothing and needing attention all the time.” “I might as well have a pampered experienced with someone who has the material means to open my eyes and expand my horizons,” she says.
Iris gets material possessions she covets; her lover gets the company of a young, beautiful women and the appearance of material success. Outwardly, they both look happy. So what’s the problem?
China’s mistress phenomenon is often linked with the country’s materialistic culture, the result of cutthroat competition amid a populous society for the dazzling but limited opportunities that the country’s transition to capitalism presents.
The very recent and real memory of poverty spurs Chinese to place great importance on material wealth, and to find new and ever-more eye-catching ways to display it once the prize has been won. In a society where ostentatious displays of wealth and status are seen as the pinnacle of achievement, Chinese mistresses compete for lavish gifts such as apartments, villas in Phuket, and LV and Hermes bags (a trend that the West’s major fashion houses should be thankful for), and Chinese men compete to provide these status symbols.
But underlying the Chinese tendency towards conspicuous consumption, much more complex social, cultural, and economic factors are at play. The moral vacuum left by the near-universal disillusionment with Communist ideology undoubtedly helps to explain China’s unbridled materialism and the remarkable prevalence of mistresses. Yet rampant corruption, entrenched patriarchy, and a long history of concubinage also play a role.
Corruption is innate to all emerging markets. However, China is uniquely handicapped by its status as an emerging and centrally planned economy, which lacks an independent media and judiciary, as well as rule of law.
Corruption has trended up since 2008, as China’s massive stimulus program encouraged the growth of state capitalism and cronyism. So too has the mistress industry, permeating into all walks in life, including those typically considered better protected from the whims of secular materialism.
Take a look at the lines of limos waiting outside of university campuses on a weekend night. What makes a good mistress today goes beyond youth and good looks to a college education and social skills. Gifts go beyond bling and LV bags to tuition for advanced degrees and money for international travel to make these status women more sophisticated and interesting.
China’s entrenched patriarchy and a long history of concubinage has also allowed for the rise of the mistress class and its social acceptance. The role of “the other woman” was institutionalized very early on in China: Confucianism, which valued the family above all else, condemned extramarital affairs but not concubines, since concubines could give birth to heirs within the structure of the dynastic family. Both Confucianism and Daoism preached the subservience of women to men, and prostitution thrived throughout much of Chinese history.
More puritanical views on sex came back into fashion under the Qing Dynasty and continued under Mao Zedong. Until 1980, adultery was a crime punishable by jail under a law against “harming the family.” But as China has carried out market-oriented reforms and opened its economy to the world, sex-related business has started to boom again.
Without a doubt, China’s “kept women” in many ways resemble prostitutes because most are explicitly exchanging their bodies for material goods, unlike mistresses elsewhere where a relationship could be the priority.
But despite the transactional nature, what sets Chinese mistresses apart from prostitutes is the appearance of love in the forms of lavish gifts, rather than cash. There is a reason for this, says Chris Haagen, a consumer analyst in Beijing, gifts such as apartments create dependency and the appearance of a relationship, while cash facilitates freedom.
A Legacy of Dizzying Urbanization
The rising mistress industry with Chinese characteristics—transactional, open and ubiquitous—all comes down to breakneck economic and social transformation.
Urbanization in China has brought hundreds of millions of people from rural locations to the bustling coastal metropolises. But the urban workforce is not often a friendly place for young, unskilled and under-trained Chinese women.
Migrant women in urban areas earn on average one-third less than their male counterparts. Help-wanted ads for waitress and shop clerks regularly list height, age, and beauty requirements for female applicants: 26 years old is a common cut-off for such positions. Even once-coveted factory jobs often require twelve-hour days, offer sweatshop-like working conditions, and run the risk of the management arbitrarily withholding already bare-bones wages. Increasingly, young migrant women turn to hostessing in karaoke bars, a form of prostitution that creates a pool of potential mistresses looking to improve their financial security.
It is difficult to make moral judgments with a broad brushstroke. As long as the mistress business involves adults with sound minds and without coercion or intimidation, one could argue that the exchange of company and sex for money is not that fundamentally different from selling one’s manual labor or mental capacity.
Iris doesn’t appear to have moral qualms about having a relationship with a married man. “It was a little weird at the beginning, but I got over it quickly.” She says she assumed his wife was middle-aged and not attractive, and didn’t ask any questions about her. “Morally, if he didn’t care, why should I? I am not obligated to another woman’s happiness.”
But while Iris and her beau are happy, China’s mistress culture does have negative consequences. When looked at from a broader perspective, the trend further divides Chinese society and could potentially weaken social stability.
China’s booming mistress class means it’s harder than ever for the country’s surplus of young men—a result of the soon-to-be-amended one-child policy and traditional favoritism for boys—to find wives. By 2030, projections suggest that more than a quarter of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. This only increases the pressure on young men in China to produce and demonstrate material wealth, the priority in young women’s minds when it comes to finding a mate.
The trend also puts traditional values, already weakened by China’s rapid transformation and the rise of materialistic culture, under further strain. The reality of today’s China is so far at odds with the ideology of communism and the government’s preoccupation with “building a harmonious society” that many Chinese can’t help but lose faith in traditional ideology and values in favor of the cold, hard logic of money.
The effects of this unprecedented change on China’s economy and society remains to be seen. The rise of the dazzling mistress class represents yet another example of a rapidly developing China rushing into uncharted territory. Amid this rapid social change, Chinese are struggling so much to keep up with the present, they don’t have much time to consider the future.
Iris, too, is living in the moment. “When I see him, I feel like his woman,” she says. “When I’m not with him, I don’t think about it. I don’t think about him or our future. I am just experiencing life.”