'The only luxury we can't afford is love' - China's resurgent concubine culture

The only luxury we can't afford is love

Sally Howard meets the credit-card concubines….

Falling out of bed at 1pm, 23-year-old Little Snow – concubine to a 60-year-old Hong Kong businessman – shakes off her champagne hangover, pulls on her killer Louboutins and begins another typical day in her life: a boozy lunch with the girls, a drunken visit to the sauna, shopping, streaking down the Shenzhen city streets in her midnight-black Z3 BMW. For Little Snow and her girlfriends luxury is the norm… “The only luxury I can’t afford,” she tells me later, recumbent on a lip-shaped sofa in one of the exclusive karaoke bars where Shenzhen’s super-rich entertain their mistresses with flowing Moet and strangled vibrato, “is love”.

Little Snow is lucky. Amongst the hundreds of thousands of young women from across China’s provinces drawn to Shenzhen each year, she’s achieved the ambition of many in becoming an ernai, or ‘second wife’ to one of the Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwanese businessmen whose yuan-padded wallets have turned this skyscraper city into rising China’s pleasure playground. The girls’ prey are China’s rising nouveau riche – drunk on liberation after the joyless Mao years of their youth, men who see it as their professional and personal responsibility to dress the part and live the dream: teeing off on the improbably green greens of China’s new golf clubs, crowding their wardrobes with classic labels such as Dunhill and Armani, and – the status symbol nonpareil – running one, or several, glamorous ‘second wives’, or ernai. “Thirty years ago, it would have been a serious offence to keep a concubine,” explains Lijia Zhang, a Beijing-based feminist commentator and novelist. “During the Cultural Revolution life was about survival rather than fun, no visiting bars or chasing girls. But the return of ernai shows how many Chinese habits, deeply culturally rooted, die hard.”

The Chinese custom of keeping concubines, or gui fei, dates back two millennia. At the height of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the halls of the Forbidden City echoed with the chatter of over 20,000 concubines to the emperor. As the ultimate expression of manly ‘yang’ in the still-current Daoist theory (a school of Chinese philosophy that dates back 2,000 years) the emperor was obliged – for the greater harmony of the cosmos – to copulate with as many women as possible (the repositories of the polar force of yin). Throughout six decades of communism, however, the practice of keeping concubines was outlawed, decreed symptomatic of the bourgeois evils of imperial China the Cultural Revolution sought to eradicate. It’s a party line that obviously escaped father of Chinese communism Chairman Mao Tse-tung who – according to the posthumous reports of his former physician – ran a secret harem of 20 peasant women well into his dotage. President Jiang Zemin (1993-2003) exuberantly embraced this hypocrisy, keeping several women – including a prominent Chinese soprano – as secret ernai during his political peak.

Yet there’s nothing sotto voce about the 21st century spin on ernai culture. In the lexicon of the moneyed businessmen who collect concubines as they do cufflinks, their girls are ‘golden canaries’, who – like spoilt pets – are squirreled away in lavish love nests, pampered and taken out the pleasure of their masters. Little Snow’s remuneration is typical of Shezhen ernai: rental on a fashionable penthouse in one of Shenzhen’s dazzling white apartment blocks supplemented by a 2,000 yuan-a-month discretionary budget for clothing, haircare and skin-whitening treatments. In turn her ‘husband’ – a successful industrialist whose factories stud mainland China – entertains Little Snow once or twice a month, the nights raucous, but the sex lacklustre, to Little Snow “a function, no different from brushing my hair, or drinking a glass of water.” He’s up before the sun rises, sometimes leaving a rose on his still-warm pillow.

Such romantic impulses are, however, lost on Little Snow, who prefers talk of lucre to love. “It’s in my interest to please him, to make myself favoured. One of my husband’s other ernai [she’s aware of two others], in Shanghai, had a house bought for her, and that makes me really mad. After all, this isn’t forever. I’ve seen the girls who are ernai until they’re in their early 30s and their husbands leave them with no ceremony, nothing in the bank… no work, nothing.” Do ernai in her circle share this unblinking focus on financial reward? “Some girls do fall for their husbands, but that’s trouble. If you’re abandoned with a child, you’re stupid.”

However glacial this affair with the man she derides in bleak moods as her “puppet-master”, Little Snow couldn’t conceive of taking a younger boyfriend on the side, as many ernai do. “My mother lived through very dark times, and throughout my childhood she told me: ‘marry well, marry rich’. Many of my generation experienced the same pressure, even more so the only children [as farmers Little Snow’s family escaped the one-child policy’s dictats]. I’m a simple girl from the provinces and I couldn’t find a rich man as a husband, so the next best thing was to become an ernai. I’d never lose face by chasing ‘love’ and having a boyfriend who couldn’t buy me an expensive handbag…” she ebbs to a thoughtful impasse, its implication that, after all, handbags last longer than any love unions she’s ever seen.

Shenzhen’s party girls are merely the outward-looking face of a fashion for keeping concubines that extends across China’s moneyed and middle classes. Beijing-based lawyer Bai Chun has seen its darker underbelly. The go-to man for opinion when ernai scandals make national news, Bai Chun has become an unofficial campaigner for the rights of wronged ernai – girls who have been duped into becoming wives with a specious promise of future payment, girls disposed of when their youthful lustre begins to fade, or abandoned with an illegitimate child who can’t be registered with the authorities (and therefore a ‘non person’ with little hope of a good future). “The worst stories I hear are of gullible educated girls who become ernai very young, often at university,” he tells me, “they’re much more susceptible, somehow, to being flattered into falling in love.”

Zemin, it seems, wasn’t the only powerful Chinese man with an appetite for accomplished young women. “Students at Beijing’s Academy of Music are always favourites as concubines to politicians,” says Bai Chun. “For older Chinese, buying an artistic or musical ernai is like buying culture to your taste… A businessman who likes classical music will choose a violinist as his ernai, for example.” And there’s no shortage of young women willing to take them up the offer. Landing what’s referred to in slang as a ‘tai tai’, or rich older man, is the fixed aim of many Chinese university students, many of whom subscribe to the popular Chinese saying: “Gan de hao bu ru jia de hao” (“It is better for a woman to marry a rich man than for her to have a good job”); the tai tai by extension themselves status symbols to girls indulging the modern Chinese pursuit of wealth above all.

Indeed, so prevalent is the older male/younger student dynamic that in Guangzhou, a prosperous city to the south of China, a major university recently felt compelled to issue written warnings to female undergraduates highlighting the ‘moral impropriety’ of having affairs with older men. Despite the homogenizing impulses of communism China is a country stratified on class and gender lines and – to some students – the ernai route offers a shortcut to rubbing shoulderpads with China’s political powerbrokers. “There have certainly been cases of political men setting their ernai up in business and introducing them to the right people in power,” says Bai Chun. “So you can see how this would tempt an ambitious young girl.”

Cai was one such girl…. For Cai, one of Bai Chun’s clients and a 30-year-old doctor from ‘the grasslands’ of Mongolia, the concept of the older man as a connoisseur of ernai is painfully familiar. At 25 Cai – then a young female student of medicine – became ernai to her 78-year-old lecturer, who supported her through medical college, then lost interest in her as her 30s approached, abruptly withdrawing his finances and affections. “I now know,” she says sourly, tearing at a tissue in her lap, drooping behind her ink-black fringe, “that he wanted me because I was to his taste – a pure Mongolian girl. He’s a healthy man for his age: he doesn’t smoke or drink and his preference is for virgin ernai. But I was naïve; I fell in love with him… in my way.” Picking up on Cai’s glowering blue humour, Bai Chun interjects clumsily. “78 and more virile than a 20-year-old, she tells me… incredible! Ernai have never worked so hard as after Viagra! Ha!” Cai, who has not had a boyfriend since her professor, glumly asserts that she will ever trust men enough to find love.

What, the question begs, does Bai Chun hope he can do for Cai? “It’s a struggle. Even when an ernai and husband have a contract drawn up the courts rarely find in her favour. The process of the Chinese courts is antiquated, judging the girls by daode [in rough translation the ‘system of morality’], rather than objectivity, or even contractual law.” So, although Bai Chun takes on up to ten new cases a month, his successes are few. “My last case is typical. I represented an ernai who had been given 80,000 yuan [£6,000] over a three-year relationship with her husband, and had had a child with him,” he says. “She petitioned for ongoing support for the child, but the court ordered that the ernai should give the original 80,000 yuan back to the man’s first wife. Understandably, the ernai is destroyed.”

If the response of the Chinese courts is routinely unflinching, that of first wives is less predictable. On one hand, the mistress boom is contributing to a surge in divorces, and detective agencies in Shanghai and Beijing report a brisk trade in first wives seeking proof of their husbands’ ernai. Debang, an agency set up in 2006 by a group of divorced women in Chengdu, specialises in chasing down husbands in flagranté with their ernai (and making husbands pay dearly for any indiscretions) and has recently expanded into several cities, numbering a staff of 100. But disenfranchised first wives are but part of the story, claims Richard Chuang, a Shanghai businessman I meet on Beijing’s Sanlitun Bar Street – where the city’s would-be ernai sit in miniskirted ranks, eyes scanning the bar for flush suits out for fun. Sometimes wives play an active role in seeking out concubines for their husbands’ pleasure. “I know a rich woman, and there are many like her, who’s married to some big shot, lives in a huge villa on a compound outside Beijing, is bored stupid – and her hobbies are golf and finding new sex partners for her husband and his ernai. She sees it as her job to maintain diversity in her husband’s sex life and is unapologetic about it.”

To a China perfecting its steps for its waltz on the world stage, its politicians’ thirst for ernai is discomfiting. Not wanting to risk their money ticket, the unwritten code of most ernai is secrecy; but when they do talk, the effect can be explosive. Over the past couple of years, in a rash of salaciously reported cases, ernai have brought down their corrupt communist official husbands – most notoriously Pang Jiayu, the former deputy head of the provincial political advisory body in Shaanxi province, who was expelled from the party when his 11 ernai teamed up to expose him in 2007 and whose taste for ernai earned him the nickname "mayor zipper". And the scandals aren’t restricted to the political domain. In 2005 a media furore was provoked when Shanghai ernai Da Beini auctioned the booty gathered during her relationship with a prominent Shanghai real estate tycoon on eBay, including several opulent apartments, a Lexus sedan and a cache of Louis Vuitton handbags.

But behind the screaming headlines and the champagne-lubricated high living, the loveless liaisons of China’s booming concubine culture betray a more pertinent truth about modern-day China. “China has changed rapidly; but Chinese thinking hasn’t caught up with this new reality,” says Yang Erche Namu (aka Namu), a onetime diplomat’s mistress (“he couldn’t handle me”) turned postergirl for modern Chinese feminism; whose ballsy bestselling books urge Chinese women to pursue emotional and financial emancipation (and have lead to her being accused of “making men feel like nothing”). “Some men are getting very rich with cash to throw around; but at the same time, the wealth gap is widening and the countryside is full of young girls living in poverty. So it’s natural that love becomes a transaction – It’s a simple case of supply and demand.” Namu hopes for a future when feminist thinking in China catches up with the country’s long march from red guard to blue chip: “Chinese women have been locked up in a cage for too long. Now the cage is open, but they have no idea how to fly. It’s our job to teach them.”

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