October 22, 2006
China’s economic boom has turned the ancient role of the concubine into a lucrative career option. Rachel DeWoskin meets the Prada-clad ‘second wives’ aiming to get rich before they hit 30
The master primarily wants the second wife to provide him with sex and face. The second wife primarily wants the master to provide her with a luxurious lifestyle. Both sides have an obligation to behave with decorum toward each other in public places, so as to win the respect of other people.
Sometimes the ernai’s clothing should be extremely provocative sexually, and sometimes it should be refined and elegant, in order to make other men jealous of the master. The ernai must wear high-class, well-known designer clothing and shoes. She is not permitted to use fake luxury goods.
The ernai will provide the master all varieties of sex. The ernai agrees to have intercourse three times a day, or two hours of enjoyment in bed. Whether they kiss is up to the ernai. No ernai should ever employ any behaviour that would damage a man’s self-esteem, such as suggesting he ‘does not cut it’.
An online Chinese second-wife ‘contract’
At a dinner in Beijing this summer, my old friend Tang brought along a pale wisp of a girl in designer jeans and stiletto heels, whom he introduced as his girlfriend. None of the six of us already seated around a table in Beijing’s stylish Three Guizhou Men restaurant batted a single lash, even though Tang is married with two children – and we all know his wife. Bringing a mistress to dinner in China is not cause for comment, especially in a hip, expensive outfit like this, where patrons have to be rich to afford the food. Our table was covered with gorgeous dishes: translucent noodles draped with spring onions and hot peppers, spicy fish in a ginger broth and racks of tender ribs. Tang’s girlfriend reached her chopsticks out and a small piece of meat slipped off the bone.
I lived in China for six years in the 1990s, and was on a biannual visit there this summer. When I asked Tang’s girlfriend, “What do you do?” I knew it was too direct a question. But I asked it warmly and in Chinese, hoping
not to embarrass but to include her. She didn’t appear to mind.
“She’s a TV hostess,” Tang responded, “very successful.” He put his arm around her, and she smiled in a way that suggested she was both smitten with and amused by Tang.
“Why bother working at all?” one of our male friends joked. “Tang can’t afford an apartment for you?”
“Wouldn’t that make you an ernai?” I asked, hoping for the “foreigner doesn’t get it” forgiveness exclusion. The men all looked at me, horrified. Tang’s girlfriend grinned. “Good Chinese,” she said, as if surprised I knew the word.
But everyone who has ever lived in China knows the expression for “second wife”. And most people know at least one ernai personally. Ernai are a modern version of concubines, as common as colds. They are women kept in luxury apartments and goods by married lovers – mostly overseas businessmen and officials but, increasingly, by men at every level of society. The most successful kept women represent entrepreneurs of a sort, floating in a sink-or-swim economy and providing enticing models for what the new China can offer: genuine Prada stilettos, diamonds, iPods and sprawling villas. They work out in the swankiest health clubs, drive Minis, BMWs and Audis, and carry lapdogs in Gucci handbags. They have role models more glamorous than those of most aspiring careerists: from Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, Madame Jiang Qing, to the actress Gong Li’s gorgeous fourth-wife character in Zhang Yimou’s movie Raise the Red Lantern.
And yet, like women everywhere who trade sex for money, ernai are vulnerable to abuse, unprotected by degrees, careers, or backup plans, and often deserted in their thirties. An increasing number of notable ernai now lead lives complicated by corruption and scandal. They are forbidden by law but flaunted in practice, socially both celebrated and condemned, just as concubines have always been.
In the US, a mistress should be a well-kept secret. In most of Europe, she should be kept with discretion. In China, the keepers of ernai get not only the service but also the face (maintaining face, or an unchallenged public persona, is seen as hugely significant). In a second wife’s lifestyle is a reflection of her master’s capacity to spend. Her beauty is a testament to his taste, her role both public and private.
It was 20 years ago that Deng Xiaoping, the former de-facto leader of the People’s Republic of China, uttered his fabled “to get rich is glorious”; globalisation has since made China’s cities and citizens some of the richest and showiest in the world. Yet most of China’s population remains poor and, as in any country on the fast track to First World status, there have been costs associated with China’s breakneck economic, social and ideological change. The critically widening income gap is one such cost; and like many of globalisation’s side effects, one that puts women in particularly vulnerable positions. Just as China’s citizens are among the world’s poorest and richest, so the women who populate China’s growing sex industry represent the entire spectrum from dazzling opulence to Third World poverty. The country’s curious two-class urban population system denies housing, health and education benefits to migrants, leaving a whole population of women from the countryside limited options for food and shelter. At the same time, millions of Chinese entrepreneurs aspire to be the country’s next millionaire, singers to be its next idol, Chinese beauties to be international movie stars. So it’s no surprise that the sex industry should flaunt the position of pampered second wives as its own glorious pinnacle.
According to Yingying Huang, the deputy director of the People’s University-based Institute of Sexuality and Gender, China’s sex industry is a complex hierarchy – one that borrows from tradition but also mirrors modern Chinese society – with its own class system.
“There are the street workers, at the bottom,” says Huang, “and then the factory girls, who have other jobs, but sometimes act as prostitutes to make some extra money. Then there are the low-level massage-parlour hostesses, then karaoke ones, big, fancy bar hostesses, and at the very top are the ernai. Ernai are the pinnacle. Sometimes their work is a little bit related to love, but they also get gifts and get paid.”
In other words, ernai are both the objects of free-choice attraction, and yet are still engaged in a transactional relationship. If a woman gets only gifts, she may just be a mistress, but if those gifts are given immediately after service, she’s halfway to being an ernai. If actual cash changes hands, she’s formally an ernai. Perhaps predictably, the lines are not always clearly drawn. Some women, Huang says, do it just for money, others for love, and most for a combination of the two.
Our dinner at Three Guizhou Men ended early when Tang left, explaining that he had “other business”, and abandoning his TV-hostess girlfriend with us. She came with me to have our nails done at an all-night manicure and pedicure salon, where she had blue artificial nails glued on, and we discussed ernai. The numerous varieties include average ernai, student ernai, Russian ernai, prima-donna ernai and cheap ernai. A western man in the luxury-goods business also mentioned this last distinction to me, elaborating that ernai from Shanghai (like Tang’s girlfriend, no doubt) are “expensive” and “high maintenance”. Girls from the countryside, he explained, could be “had cheap”, holed up in flophouses by Shanghai’s Suzhou Creek for 100 yuan a week (£6) – exactly the cost of a manicure and pedicure.
In fact, some contemporary Chinese second wives satisfy elements of practicality in addition to luxury, depending on the master’s income level. Many of Greater China’s male business travellers keep more modest ernai in cities like Guangzhou or Shenzhen, in part because being hosted and serviced by an ernai is cheaper than living in hotels, or renting an apartment and hiring help. In Chinese cities, where cash is king, ernai can provide arms and legs for simple daily chores, like paying mobile-phone bills, buying airline tickets or buying business gifts.
I once asked a Chinese friend of mine why he stayed married when he admitted to preferring his mistress to his wife. “For the sake of convenience,” he said kindly and without rancour. Their parents were made happy by the marriage; he and his wife both found security and comfort in it. They just sought romance elsewhere.
Marriage in China has historically been a family matter, and there have been many variations on successful matrimony, some more contractual than emotional. China has a rich history and literature of multiple wives – the most formidable examples those of the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors, a small sample of whose harem quarters are displayed in the Forbidden City, and whose “wives” are said to have numbered 20,000. The concubine bedrooms in the Forbidden City are visible through glass walls; they feature rosewood beds carved to perfection, and lovely antique dressing tables at which women readied themselves for the great honour of imperial conjugal visits.
China’s pre-modern and seminal novel of manners, The Story of the Stone (also known popularly as The Dream of the Red Chamber), relates the estimable advantages of being an ernai. In the novel, more than three generations of the prosperous Jia family are supported by one relative who is a favoured consort of the emperor. There was no higher form of repayment by a daughter to her family.
For centuries, concubines were the ultimate status symbols and playthings of the wealthy. Then, in 1949, the communists recast the practice of keeping ernai as a decadent and corrupt vice. Good party cadres were not supposed to indulge in feudal frivolities. Yet even while slamming old mores and paying lip service to a policy of gender equality, the still-married Chairman Mao chased his fourth wife, Jiang Qing, now among the world’s most famous, villainous mistresses, for her aggressive leadership of the “great proletariat cultural revolution”. Mao was also believed to have a harem of girls from the countryside, well into his – but not their – old age.
During the cultural revolution, marriage was part of an individual’s – or couple’s – service to the state; units of two were better able to serve, and marriage in general increases social stability. The consideration of one’s own romantic leanings was a shallow, selfish matter compared with patriotism. Some argue that this mentality has given way to a commercial, capitalist kind of marriage, one that allows for ernai, one still not about love. Others claim that all such logic is a thinly veiled justification for cheating, one that holds no water with legitimate wives.
The return of ernai has occasioned a new society of righteous legitimate wives, who now can and increasingly do sue philandering husbands. Divorce rates have skyrocketed in the past decade. According to the China civil-administration department, 341,000 married couples divorced in 1980, 800,000 in 1990, 1,210,000 in 2000, and 1,331,000 in 2005. Even though it is widely acknowledged that Chinese officialdom is well provided with ernai, the government has criticised adultery, suggesting connections between infidelity, corruption and divorce. Ernai are costly. The government even passed new marriage laws in the early 2000s, ostensibly trying to eradicate adultery. Under those laws, the existing rule that prohibited bigamy was expanded to include a ban on “cohabitation outside of marriage”, and adulterers could serve up to two-year jail sentences. Legitimate first wives were entitled to the fortunes of husbands convicted of keeping ernai.
This new path of recourse inspired an industry of mistress-hunting detectives, funded by suspicious wives. Detectives prospered in heavily ernai-concentrated cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai. Mistresses and their masters became the central figures in corruption scandals, with plots and characters worthy of soap operas. There was the capture of Cheng Kejie, the former vice-chairman of China’s parliament, who was executed six years ago for bribery. His “evil mistress”, Li Ping, remains in jail, serving a life sentence for being his co-conspirator. In a recent case, a provincial official, his wife, and his ernai were all convicted in a bribery scandal and sentenced to death or long prison terms. One bank official was caught embezzling in an effort to support eight ernai. Last year, after a fight with her master, Shanghai’s “richest mistress”, Da Beini, took her fury public and auctioned off their most valuable belongings (including cars and apartments) online. Her master sued, and in response to the embarrassing public drama that grew out of the private one, the government said it would henceforth require all men to “register” their ernai. It was left vague how or with whom to declare one’s ernai, perhaps since many of the officials proposing such legislation also had reason not to want to see it enacted. In China, having an ernai is part and parcel of being a corrupt official – the same way that having sex with your secretary is a cliché of corrupt politicians in the West. There’s a Chinese saying that works anywhere: men only go bad once they’re rich; women have to go bad to get rich.
In Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen (the city near the border with Hong Kong that Deng Xiaoping touted as a model for all developing Chinese cities), ernai cun or “second-wife villages” have risen in the past decade. These neighbourhoods, often close to airports, are lined with karaoke bars, beauty salons, and apartment compounds in which ernai primp, work out, play mahjong and occasionally dabble entrepreneurially in beauty, real estate or interior decorating.
Shanghai’s Gubei district, near Hongqiao airport, features a horizon of sky-rise apartments with aspirational names like Vienna Plaza. Most have plaques declaring them “model compounds”, wrought-iron gates, glittering fountains, and an average of three beauty parlours and one massage spa per block. On a short walk near the giant Carrefour Gubei shopping centre, I passed six beauty parlours, a two-storey Starbucks and four massage parlours. It was afternoon, and in Starbucks seven groups of women sat separately, sipping from green-tea frappuccinos, gossiping and giggling about men, apartments and travel. In the Carrefour mall’s Sephora make-up store, two dazzling twenty-something girls picked through a rack of whitening lotions. One was wearing shorts and stiletto heels, carrying an umbrella to protect her already whitened skin from the sun. The other was clutching a Coach Signature purse and clump of shopping bags.
“This one makes your skin especially white,” the salesgirl told them, holding out a glass bottle. They made their way to the checkout counter
to pay for the lotion and dozens more bottles of cosmetics, their bills exceeding the average monthly salary in Shanghai: 1,838 yuan (£125).
A 29-year-old American woman who dated a married Chinese man while living in Shanghai explained to me the logic of the ernai lifestyle:
“If he buys you one Louis Vuitton bag, that’s worth more money than you can make in a month. If you’re young and pretty and you can go out with an older guy, he can help with your business ideas, even fund them. There’s no economic reason to be moral.”
Gubei is just one of many neighbourhoods ripe for service and promotion. Women begin by working in the shops, and then, depending on their ability to find high-paying, full-time boyfriends, get served in the shops instead. In one of the salons, a manager who doubles as a stylist told me that she’s 34, can’t find a husband, and is desperately looking for one. Ernai are partially responsible for her predicament.
“I’m not from Shanghai originally,” she said. “I’m from Zhejiang. I have a different work ethic than Shanghai girls have.”
She gestured to the apartments behind us. “They don’t work. They find rich guys, and then the guys support them while they play mahjong, drink, chat, you know.”
But is that true of most women in Shanghai, or just the ones in this compound?
“It’s true of the rich ones,” she said. “To be rich you have to be this kind of woman.”
When I asked her if she had ever considered finding a patron herself, she responded that she preferred to work because of her “personality”, and because of the difficulty faced by ernai as they age. The forced retirement of old ernai is a recurring theme in conversations with and about ernai, second only to the one about women who do it for love versus those who do it for money.
One of the most famous ernai stories in Shanghai suggests a cheerful synthesis of the two themes: a Chinese woman in her early twenties was the mistress of a married French diplomat. She remained his ernai for the duration of his three-year stint in Shanghai, and then he “passed” her to his replacement. When that replacement left, he too afforded a new agent the same courtesy, and so the woman became Shanghai’s “French embassy ernai”, a personal position turned institutional. She worked successfully for the embassy for more than 11 years this way, until her late thirties. When the fourth replacement arrived, he wasn’t interested. So, according to local lore, still beautiful, she found an online mail-order-bride website, and ended up marrying an Australian farmer. She now lives in the outback, a startling if successful arrangement for an urban ernai.
But I heard other, less happy variations of this same story, including one by Xiao Lin, a 26-year-old international tour guide from Beijing, who considers herself an expert on ernai. She demurred when I asked how she acquired her expertise, smiling to suggest she’d perhaps come by it first-hand and suggesting that we talk about her ernai friends and their experiences. Xiao Lin herself leads a wild single life, replete with foreign boyfriends, English and Spanish chatter, and a giant circle of female friends. She lives in her own apartment, a situation difficult to manage without some kind of outside funding. Every facet of her life, including her job (leading retired businessmen on trips to Korea, Australia and the US), is evidence of how Beijing has changed in the past 10 years. She talks with utter practicality and directness about sex, love and the lives of kept women. Her parents, who Xiao Lin swears harbour no illusions about her life, apparently accept “all of it”.
When we met at a Starbucks in Beijing, Xiao Lin was wearing a miniskirt and several tank tops, boho-style. She was carefully made up with lip gloss and a collage of eye shadows. She set her Dior sunglasses, big, white Jackie O affairs, on the table next to a double-skim latte, and laughed. “I mean,” she said of her elderly parents, “what choice do they have but to accept my lifestyle?”
Most of her friends’ parents, she explained, understand that their daughters are “supporting themselves” and doing well. But by supporting themselves she means serving as ernai, and she has recently taken to advising her friends to secure backup arrangements.
“My best friend was an ernai for a Hong Kong businessman for seven years,” Xiao Lin told me. “She had no education, no job, and no prospects. When she turned 30, her lover left her for a 19-year-old new ernai.”
It’s an interesting variation on the second-wife tradition, since older ernai used to stack up and live together in increasing numbers. China’s polygamous society allowed wives to live together, if not in harmony at least in relative security. But the pace of modern life, and the cost of keeping an ernai in an urban setting, require them to be discarded. Xiao Lin’s friend is a good example, since even though her lover did end up divorcing his first wife, he still chose not to marry her. This seemed to me to have been a sound, if unsavoury choice.
If he had married her, I proposed, wouldn’t he still have found a new ernai?
“At least she’d have a baby, though,” Xiao Lin said, to my surprise.
A fatherless one, though, right?
“Maybe he would have taken care of them for ever if she’d had a baby. She loved him. I think she would have liked to keep him in her life – maybe with a baby. There are two kinds of ernai,” she said, summing it up, “the ones who do it solely for money – they’re like, ‘You can use my body for sex and I’ll use your money and apartment and car for a luxurious life.’ Then there’s the other kind, who love the money but also love the man. They get left with nothing.”
By the time an ernai turns 30, she needs to have secured either a lot of love or a lot of money. At Xiao Lin’s urging, her friend, heartbroken and broke, set about earning a degree at “pet beauty school”. She is now single, panicked, and employed grooming the poodles of China’s elite, including other ernai.
Perhaps most revealing are the numerous online “contracts” that come up with a simple Chinese internet search for ernai. I showed samples of these to dozens of Chinese friends this summer, and nobody could agree whether they are intended to be legitimate or satirical. In addition to the contracts, there are also online application forms that require full disclosure by would-be ernai on matters ranging from breast augmentation to disabilities. There are also hundreds of newspaper reports about local court cases where various ernai-related disputes were adjudicated; generally the courts hold that ernai contracts, written or verbal, are not binding.
Yet the contracts make certain facts clear. Even darlings of the sex industry lead precarious lives. And their history, glamorous though some of it may be, bears this up. Concubines had low social status, even if they lived luxuriously. Considered the chattel of their masters, they were often given as gifts, bought and traded. Well-known tales range from those of concubines murdered by the jealous offspring of first wives, to those of second wives buried alive to keep their masters company in otherwise lonely tombs. Warring states gifted beautiful women to ingratiate powerful rivals.
China is not alone in its efforts to face the challenge of reconciling mating traditions with the demands of modern life. In the US, conservative Mormons still reject the laws prohibiting polygamy and juvenile marriage. In China, new laws often confront old traditions. The ernai case is one such example – of a practice kept under wraps for an era, now re-blooming and raising the question: have old habits modernised? The name brands and context are new, but much of the original concubine content remains unchanged. Take the gender balance. As far back as the Qing dynasty, scholars worked to justify why Chinese men were allowed to have multiple wives but Chinese women were not permitted to have more than one husband. One popular explanation went: “One teapot is always set with four cups. But have you ever seen a cup with four teapots?” Needless to say, although there are women who confessed to me to having affairs, and men who said their wives are also allowed “their own business”, married women do not bring lovers to dinner parties. There are no contracts, legitimate or satirical, that forbid a man to imply that a woman “just doesn’t cut it”; no stories of female diplomats passing a hottie from old woman to old woman until he’s too old to perform.
The China Daily, China’s biggest English-language newspaper, reported this August that a new “anger release” bar had opened in eastern China, at which clients can take out their aggression by punching and kicking male servers. It noted, without analysis of why this might be, that the clients are mostly karaoke and massage parlour hostesses, mostly angry women.
Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China, by Rachel DeWoskin, is published by Granta Books, £12.99. It is available at the BooksFirst price of £11.69 including p&p. Tel: 0870 165 8585