On Dr. Psychology

I did a show some time ago on why married men cheat on their wives and what goes on inside the mind of the other woman. Today we are talking about the subject in China. I am joined by two young women who are writing books on extramarital affairs in China, one with me in the studio, the other online from Shanghai. Thank you for joining us today.' Thunderous applause from the studio audience.

'You told me Susan that the modern equivalent of the mistress in China translates literally as 'second breast.' A pretty graphic word I must say to describe a woman who cohabitates with a man but is not married to him. Susan brought to my attention something a Chinese netizen recently said about the differences between prostitutes, 'second breasts' and wives on an online forum. I’d like to share that with the audience and our home viewers.’

All eyes on a huge plasma television screen in the studio:

 Prostitutes are a bit like a paid public toilet, they’re there to fulfil a basic need and anyone who has the money can use them. An ernai [second breast] is like a private toilet – you need to be fairly well off to have one, no one else can use it, and you take much better care of it than a public toilet. And a wife? Well, you wouldn’t want to compare her to any kind of toilet at all, because she is your equal.

'From what I’m reading, says the doctor, 'I take it the taking on a lover or mistress in China, for those men who can afford it, is pretty common.'

'There’s plenty of talk of mistresses kept by wealthy Chinese elites,' intones Susan, 'the least being that they are idle women kept in gilded cages. Some are extremely rich, others are not. Some sign mutual agreements, while others are given broken promises. I’d love to be the fly on the wall when 'business'  is discussed or when the cock of the roost lays down the rules. What interests me and disturbs me at the same time is that it is seems to have become an accepted practice among certain men and women.'

'I’d like to pick up on your point of how prevalent it has become among China’s rich elite', says the host., 'but I’d like to bring in Rebecca in Shanghai to get some historical perspective on mistresses and concubines. Can you tell the nation about concubines in China, the antecedents of those second breast?'

There is a brief pause before we hear Rebecca.

'In imperial China', Rebecca begins, 'men could have several women though most men could only afford to have one wife. The Chinese graph for concubine describes the position of subservience, made up of two characters meaning ‘a woman who stands.’ Men’s wives were commonly called ‘rooms’ or ‘persons of the room’ and while she was not caged in the room 24/7 like some captive bird, a room had a particular connection to the husband’s wife, the bedroom where they procreated and had children.'

'Does that mean that men of means in China could have more than one wife?', asks the good doctor.

'If we turn back the clock to twelfth century China and earlier, a man was legally permitted to have only one wife,' continues Rebecca. 'Monogamy did not mean that a man could only have one woman, but it did mean that he could only take one wife. There were very strict legal codes at the time defining a wife and a concubine. So there a tradition of married wealthy men in China having other women, but I should point out, that it is a tradition that is obviously not unique to China. I’m thinking not just of concubines, but imperial harems in other cultures, the Eurasian empires, particular those of the Romanov empire in Russia and the Ottoman empire in Turkey as well as harems among the Mughuls.'

'Powerful men who kept harems as part of their conquests,' chimes in the host. 'What particularly interests me about harems is what strategies women used to cope and survive considering their circumstances.'

'You raise an interesting point there, if I may interrupt, says Susan, 'and one that does not really stray from our topic at all. Concubinage was—and is in China a highly lucrative avenue for some women, some receiving allowances from one or more men, as well as gifts like apartments, and cars as well as other perks. They can do what they wish with the money: spend it recklessly, invest it, or use it to start a business. Rebecca and I have a mountain of personal stories between us that we could share with your viewers, but I'm fascinated how open the topic is discussed among people in China and that if you are a married man or woman and you don’t have a lover on the side then something is wrong with you.'

'Yes, is does seem to be rare these days if two people can stay together and not be tempted to play around,' says Rebecca. 'There’s a joke here that everyone here in Beijing has a lover regardless of their socio-economic status, including those itinerant workers who collect the garbage.'

'When men or women tell me in America that there having an affair I never know how many people they have told the story to', says the doctor..

'After the break,' continues the host, 'we’ll talk to one Chinese mistress who waited six years for 'her man' to divorce his wife, but he ended up marrying someone else instead..'

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