Kept women

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Kept women

Photo by Redux/eyevine

Mistresses are big business in China, where no official is a real man without his own ernai. What’s in it for the girls?

James Palmer is a British writer and editor who works closely with Chinese journalists. His latest book is The Death of Mao (2012). He lives in Beijing.

3000 3,000 words
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Shanshan’s $550 shoes came from her lover, but the soles of her feet, as hard as leather, came from her childhood. ‘We used to play barefoot in the village,’ she told me. ‘All the girls in the karaoke bar had feet like this.’

At 26, Shanshan has come a long way from rural Sichuan, one of China’s poorer southern provinces, famous for the ‘spiciness’ of its food and its women. Today her lover, Mr Wu, keeps her in a Beijing apartment that ‘cost 2.5 million yuan ($410,000)’, and visits whenever he can find the time away from his wife. In his late 40s, and an official with a massive state-run oil company, he was recently in Africa for six months developing an oilfield. Shanshan got bored and decided to improve her scant English by finding a ‘language-exchange partner’ online, which is how she and I became friends this spring.

Shanshan never referred to Wu as her boyfriend; he was her ‘man’, her ‘lover’, and occasionally her ‘uncle’. When she said ‘boyfriend’, she meant the man her own age back in Sichuan with whom she spent much of her free day exchanging text messages and whom she saw twice a year.

She’d walked the common path for country girls becoming mistresses, or ernai (literally, ‘second woman’). She’d gone to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, at 17, where she’d worked as a hostess at a karaoke bar at a hotel, before moving to Beijing to do the same. Her work involved entertaining men, including, if they paid enough, sleeping with them; that was how she’d met her lover, who’d offered to set her up after their fourth ‘date’.

It was an understandable decision on his part: Shanshan was sexy, merry, and smart. And for her, it was an obvious choice. An enormous amount of off-book money sloshes around Chinese business and officialdom, and some of it runs into handbags. As well as paying for her apartment and buying her gifts, Shanshan’s ‘uncle’ provided her with a living allowance of ‘about 20,000 yuan ($3,260) a month’. This was about the average for Beijing; in smaller towns, 10,000 yuan might be acceptable, or even 5,000. At the top end, a mistress might receive 10,000 yuan in spending money every day.

She was adamant that I never visit her apartment because she was surrounded by other ernai. Local estate agents target provincial officials and businessmen looking to put their money into Beijing’s property bubble, and the men fill up the apartments, bought as investments, with their women. ‘Half of the apartments are empty,’ she explained. ‘And the other half are full of girls. Everyone gossips. About money, about men. If they saw me with a foreigner, they’d talk about it for a month.’

Keeping a woman is common among powerful Chinese men. A study by the Crisis Management Centre at Renmin University in Beijing, published this January, showed that 95 per cent of corrupt officials had illicit affairs, usually paid for, and 60 per cent of them had kept a mistress.

Until recent crackdowns forced greater discretion, Chinese official life had two social circles. As the mobster Henry Hill puts it in the film Goodfellas (a key reference point for Chinese provincial officialdom): ‘Saturday night was for wives, but Friday night at the Copa was always for the girlfriends.’

At dinner with Shanshan, Xiaoxue and Lingling — two of Shanshan’s slightly older friends from Sichuan — they all agreed that the social circuit had disappeared of late, and that it had come largely as a relief. ‘It used to be a big part of work,’ said Xiaoxue, who was kept by a businessman back in Sichuan. ‘You had to make yourself look really pretty, and you had to make up to the most important people there, but not so much that the woman they came with would get jealous. But you still had to be…’ she started to flutter her eyelashes and raised her voice an octave: ‘Oh, you’re so clever! Oh, what important work you do! Oh, you’re really 55? You look so strong!’

‘That was how I came to Beijing,’ Lingling added. ‘I was with an official in Neijiang [in Sichuan], and they were hosting an inspection visit. One of the officials who was visiting really liked me, and he asked the guy I was with then to lend me to him, in exchange for connections. So I slept with him while he was in Neijiang, and then he brought me up to Beijing. But it didn’t work out between us.’

‘If you’re an official, you have to have a mistress, or at least a girlfriend,’ Xiaoxue said, ‘otherwise you’re not a real man. I used to have this friend who was a fake mistress. She was best friends with a gay guy — not a “duck” [male prostitute], just a normal gay guy — who was an official’s boyfriend. So the official would pay her to come out with him and pretend to be his mistress.’

Most mistresses are rural women who come to the job through other sex work, picked up at the karaoke bars, massage parlours and nightclubs that are often an obligatory part of business socialising. Their work is about emotions as much as sex. As with western punters who seek the ‘girlfriend experience’ online, Chinese men want the illusion of intimacy. ‘You have to be the girlfriend he wanted when he was 20,’ said Xiaoxue. ‘He wants to believe that you would be with him even if he wasn’t paying.’

She distinguished being a mistress from short-term hostessing, where you had to be a perfect servant, always putting the man’s needs first. ‘If you’re too nice to him all the time, he’ll know it isn’t true,’ Xiaoxue said. ‘If he looks at another woman, you should be jealous and sulk all evening until he apologises, so he knows you care.’

As the saying goes: ‘Old oxen chew young grass’

Zheng Tiantian, a social anthropologist at the State University of New York, worked as a karaoke bar hostess for two years in Dalian to research her PhD. ‘The most powerful men were identified as those who could emotionally and physically control the hostesses, exploit them freely, and then abandon them,’ she writes in her astonishing book on the experience, Red Lights (2009). But the women are equally mercenary. One of her informants comments: ‘I’d rather be a mistress than a wife, because you can make much more as a mistress.’

At the same time, both sides desperately seek real feeling, even as they try to conceal it from their contemporaries. In Red Lights, Zheng depicts men who value ‘real friendship’ and ‘sincerity’ in the women they pay for, and women who ‘inflict scars on their hands and wrists’ in order to ‘remind themselves of the ruthless game they are engaged in’.

Shanshan, who normally held her ‘uncle’ in affectionate contempt, became worried about his stay in Africa. ‘Six months is a long time,’ she said. ‘Do you think he’ll sleep with a black girl? I don’t think so; black girls all have AIDS. He wouldn’t cheat on me. Would he?’

The pragmatic approach of rural women leaves them better off than the educated urban girls who can also end up as mistresses. These urban women usually meet older men through regular work, and the relationship begins through genuine attraction. As they’ve maintained their ‘purity’ through not being involved in other sex work, they have a higher market value than the rural girls, and they’re more socially acceptable at high-end occasions.

A further distinction is sometimes made between ernai, who ‘know their place’, and xiaosan, ‘little threes’ (as in ‘third party’), who try to insinuate themselves between a lover and his wife with the aim of forcing divorce and remarriage. In practice, the terms are used interchangeably, but the difference matters especially to urban girls seeking to distinguish themselves from their rural counterparts.

‘Most xiaosan have a steady job and a higher educational background than an ernai. Xiaosan expect to marry the man because they’ve invested so much: their youth and their love,’ explains the 22-year-old founder of a website for xiaosan in Richard Burger’s Behind the Red Door: Sex in China (2012).

In my experience, many of the women expect never to marry their lover. One urban woman, Yu, told me: ‘I have money. My family is rich enough. I even have an apartment of my own. I just wanted to be his mistress so that he wouldn’t have other girlfriends. Apart from his wife.’

For Wen, now in her early 40s, with permed hair and lacquered nails, the limits had once been equally clear. As a young office worker in Beijing, she dated a north-eastern property developer worth tens of millions of dollars. ‘I knew he had to have a wife,’ she said. ‘I’m not stupid. But I thought I was his ernai, and that he loved me. Then I found that he kept three others around the city. I was his “fifth woman”, not the second.’

Shanshan and her friends seem less like victims, and more like players, astutely using the vulnerabilities of powerful men for their own ends

While a rural mistress might think first of her bank balance, an affair that starts emotionally (of which there has been an explosion) can have dramatic consequences. ‘I never imagined that the one I loved so much, the one who lived four years with me, would become my enemy,’ Ji Yingnan, 26, told The Independent newspaper in July this year after exposing her lover Fan Yue’s corruption. Fan was the deputy director of the State Archives, a position he leveraged to fund a lifestyle of extravagant spending and foreign trips with Ji.

When they met, Fan was middle-aged, and Ji was 22. As the saying goes: ‘Old oxen chew young grass.’ In all such relationships, the age gap is a depressing constant. In high-end restaurants, I like to play ‘Mistress or daughter?’ while looking at the seated couples. Even the waxen former president Hu Jintao was once rumoured to have ‘a mistress younger than his daughter’.

What’s more, some young Chinese women infantilise themselves, often with the aid of plastic surgery, to imitate the big-eyed heroines of Japanese cartoons. The aesthetic is popular with older men, who are aroused not just by the fragile look, but by affected sa jiao, ‘cute whining’, done in the fashion of a demanding child. In their private pictures, the girls look all of 14, while the men play alongside them in childish games or make faces at the camera.

I suspect that the image of innocence reinforces the men’s belief in their mistress’s sincerity, and allows them to believe that they’re not exploiting the woman, but offering protection. The urban women I talked to believed this far more than their rural counterparts. For many of them, the comforting image of a protective father/lover figure prevailed. ‘I thought I would always be safe with him,’ said one woman. ‘I liked him so much I even arranged a threesome for his birthday. And I paid the other girl!’

Chinese men’s penchant for mistresses is sometimes attributed to deep-seated cultural expectations, and it’s true that Chinese culture has rarely paid even lip service to ideas of male fidelity. Yet modern reformers often singled out concubinage as a sign of China’s backwardness, and pressed for stronger roles for women. Some, such as modern China’s first president, Sun Yat-sen, or its first chairman, Mao Tse-tung, did so even as they pressed teenage girls into their beds. Modern mistress-keeping might seem like a step back to the distant past. But this is just an excuse: any society as dominated by male leaders, and with as vast a chasm between the elite and the poor, sees the same exploitation of young women by powerful men.

Besides, Shanshan and her friends seem less like victims and more like players, aware of the limits of their work and astutely using the vulnerabilities of powerful men for their own ends. I admire them; in a system profoundly rigged against women, sex workers, the young, the rural and the poor, they have found a way to get what they can. Although it comes at an emotional cost, they seem to have taken control of their own fates. True, they live off dirty money: the cash conjured up by their lovers is frequently drained from the public treasury, or extorted in bribes from others. But so do hotels, luxury goods stores, estate agents, and the millions of others in China and the West happy to profit from the consumption habits of China’s elite.

The rural women I met were the lucky ones. They had been smart, cynical, pretty, witty, or simply fortunate enough to score the top prize — to escape, relatively young, from the brutality of China’s sex trade, dominated by organised crime, and with rape or assault a daily risk, into positions that granted them meaningful agency.

That said, the toxic intersection of power, money and sex holds its dangers. Mistresses can end up going to prison, or worse. In 2006, Xu Zhiyuan, a Beijing district official, paid his driver to strangle his mistress for arguing with him over ‘trivialities’. Duan Yihe, a senior Jinan official, had his nephew-in-law rig his mistress’s car with a bomb in 2007. And in 2011, Luo Shaojie, another Beijing district chief, had his mistress chopped up and murdered by his assistant after she threatened to expose his corruption.

The popular media portrays mistresses as ‘beauty attracting disaster’, and speaks of their ‘evil, poisonous nature’

‘I know girls who got beaten up,’ Shanshan told me, ‘but my man would never do anything like that. He has a good heart; he loves his daughters so much. He’s always showing me pictures of them and telling me how they’re doing in school.’

In an online age, there are other risks, especially at a time when the gender imbalance caused by selective abortion has meant a shortage of young women and a consequent cadre of sexually frustrated, bitter young men. ‘Slut-shaming’ is a regular habit on the Chinese internet: women exposed by angry ex-boyfriends or lovers’ wives have found themselves the target of a vast wave of abuse, including messages sent to their workplace or their parents.

The most recent ‘crackdown’ on corruption was launched with great fanfare by the new administration of the Chinese president Xi Jinping. But it has gone after such easy targets as hospitality budgets, official vehicles and foreign trips, while the real muscle has gone into hunting down dissidents, whistle-blowers and journalists who might actually threaten the powerful. As with anti-corruption campaigns of the past, mistresses make a convenient distraction. They feed the public appetite for scandal without challenging the way China’s power networks operate. The popular media portrays mistresses as ‘beauty attracting disaster’, and speaks of their ‘evil, poisonous nature’, as if the poor officials would never have tasted the apple of corruption without a woman to lure them on.

Yet beneath the public flaming, the pragmatism and cunning of some mistresses has made them folk heroes. One such is Li Wei: now 50, she worked her way up from the Vietnamese-Yunnan hinterlands to a personal fortune via a dozen or so powerful men. ‘They’re smart women!’ commented my respectable landlady. ‘These days, a woman has to look after her own bank.’ Women who expose their corrupt official lovers receive praise, ironic and otherwise. Even the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily has admitted to a grudging admiration.

Still, the public crusades against mistresses, no matter how rhetorical can, in some cases, prompt early retirement from a dangerous profession. For mistresses from rural backgrounds in particular, the work is ultimately a means to an end. ‘One of my key informants was kept by a wealthy man for more than seven years,’ the anthropologist Zheng Tiantian wrote to me. ‘Her man bought her an apartment at the central location in Shanghai under her name, handed her a business under her name, and on top of that, bought her parents an apartment in a city next to their rural hometown. Her parents now work in their own supermarket that they opened. As for my informant, after she left the man two years ago, she went to a college to get a teaching certificate, when she met an ideal man [in her own words], and they were happily married last year.’ Zheng noted that most women ‘end the relationship with a sufficient amount of financial capital. They operate their own business while finding a man to marry.’

Or, like Shanshan, they’ll channel the bulk of their money into savings and investments. ‘Do you think mining’s a good industry?’ Shanshan asked me once. ‘My friend’s cousin has money in a Shaanxi mine, and she wants me to put 100,000 yuan in it.’ With other girls, she talked of stock markets, property, and how to get a Hong Kong bank account.

The social aspect of being a mistress can pay off big-time, too. After discovering her lover’s three other mistresses, Wen was able to translate the connections she’d made from socialising with his friends into her own property deals. Today she has ‘one house in Hainan, one house in Shanghai, and two houses in Beijing’, as well as a multi-million-dollar business of her own. Wen’s lover had made a generous final settlement on her because they had a son together. This is rare. Abortion is the norm, voluntary or otherwise.

‘You know about [the billionaire construction magnate] Wang?’ said my friend Li, a middle-aged businesswoman formidably tapped in to Beijing’s gossip networks. ‘He had sex with a karaoke bar hostess at a party a couple of months ago. Now she’s started sending him text messages saying she’s pregnant. But she’s in hiding till the baby is actually born so that he can’t force her to have an abortion. His daughter is at Harvard, but his son has cerebral palsy. So she’s saying that she can give him a healthy son, and she doesn’t want to marry him, she just wants to look after their son. With enough money, of course.’

‘I don’t blame her,’ said Li. ‘Women need to look out for themselves. Men always cheat.’

Read more essays on cultures & languages, gender, gender & sexuality and sociology


  • Pot calling kettle

    "Shanshan got bored and decided to improve her scant English by finding a
    ‘language-exchange partner’ online, which is how she and I became
    friends this spring." Oh really?

    • Guest


    • John

      Looks like James Palmer is trying to get some shady action. Contacting foreign girls to "teach english"

      • Guest

        Shady Shady Palmer

      • Wololoo

        standard procedure

    • J. Scott Burgeson

      What's up with all these tacky comments impugning Mr. Palmer's personal integrity? Journalists go out into the world and cultivate contacts in whatever way they can. It's what they do – no contacts, no stories. Simple, right?

      What's truly "shady" is gossiping about the lives of professional writers under anonymous Internet handles, and without a shred of evidence, to boot. Is your own life so boring that you have nothing better to do?

      • Jessica Lam Hill Young

        Yes it sure is a hell lot easier making fun of hard-working journalists behind a computer screen while munching doritos or whatever than consider the amount of sweat and blood that went into writing an amazing (and entertaining) expose

        • J. Scott Burgeson

          Thank you. One also has to wonder about all those Upvoters. What's wrong with you people?

          In any case, it does raise an interesting question: By definition, the men sponsoring these kept women are cheating on their primary mates. How would they feel if the women they were cheating with cheated on them themselves?

          They probably wouldn't like it very much, but would they really have anything to complain about? Or does the power of the purse trump all moral considerations?

          Oh, silly me: None of these people know or care anything at all about morality, do they?

          • Charlie Zean How

            Of course there are morales!

            Think of it this way: Morality in a civilisation as old as China works in a very different way than those in Western Liberal Democracies. Much like hundreds of various cultures this beautiful world keeps across different corners of the world, one can never really comprehend the doings and practices of others until one recognises the existence of differences at the outset while on top of that, humbling down to the fact not one culture (or morality) is/ought to be/even can be any 'better' or 'superior' than the other, seen through the scope of the beholder's own lop-sided 'cultural balance'.

            Now I'm not saying cheating is any good, in my upbringing as a firm believer in monogamous, mutually-respectful love. Nor is the exploitation of women.
            But what of men if not for our gift to comprehend and cognise - that cohabiting is not the quest to turn fellow human race into the likes of ourselves nor to judge others based on our own arbitrary standards but to accept, and to learn, and to use what we learn to judge and make better our own selves?

          • J. Scott Burgeson

            Ah, yes: The old cultural-relativist argument. How dare we impose our values on other cultures, for every cultural value is just as good as every other one. Is that the point?

            Well, if stealing from the public coffer to support mistresses – in effect stealing once again from the family coffer – is a "cultural value" that we need to recognize and respect, then:

            Why has the current Chinese President, Xi Jinping, made such a big public deal about going after corrupt officials? Of course, it's largely a dog-and-pony show, but still: There must be some cultural value or norm in China that rejects official corruption, at least in the public sphere, and numerous online campaigns by Chinese Netizens exposing corrupt officials would seem to bear this out. In any event, it's nice that Shanshan has $550 shoes, but has she ever considered that that's roughly equivalent to the average Chinese peasant's pension – RMB55 a month according to recent media reports – for literally five years? Since the money to pay for those shoes was stolen from the Chinese public, she is in effect complicit in this theft, and in so doing helping to keep China's pensions lower than they have any right to be – especially for China's hundreds of millions of peasants and rural families.

            Moreover: If keeping mistresses is an accepted cultural value in China, why do these men go to such lengths to hide these women from their wives and the public? If you go online, you will see plenty of videos of irate Chinese women who have been cheated on by their husbands making very public spectacles of themselves, and thereby shaming both their husbands and their mistresses. Clearly the women who have been cheated on have a "sense of morality," or are you arguing that it is simply impossible to "comprehend" what seems to be a fairly simple moral equation to me and many others?

            In any case, it would have been quite interesting for Mr. Palmer to ask Shanshan how she feels about being the beneficiary of money looted from the Chinese people. Does she feel bad about it every now and then, or does she simply not care? Probably the latter, I'd imagine, which is probably why women like her are so grotesquely materialistic and fond of shiny sparkly things in the first place – without true love, without real ethics or morality or self-respect, it's the only way to distract themselves from what ugly lives they actually lead.

          • Whiskey Neat

            thank you, well said! That Chinese accept cheating with less emotion (and for that matter that it happens in other cultures as well) makes it no less vile.

          • artyxyy

            Once again your arguments stand, funnily enough, from a Western perspective. Strawmen abound.

          • J. Scott Burgeson

            Lol, did you even read what I wrote? Many Chinese themselves are opposed to corruption and marital infidelity. Even the current Chinese President thinks corruption is a bad thing and has said so in public repeatedly. More Eurocentric "strawmen," in your view, or do you actually have a legitimate point to make?

      • Nightrider

        Palmer wanted to give some legitimacy/authenticity to his article and thus the happenstance of meeting Shanshan and of course the old white guy trick of teaching English to or language exchange with local women. This guy probably made up 80% of his story.

    • Rui Rong

      He fucked her.

  • Alfonso

    This is so 2005 , the new ernai are girls studying college or college graduates not the ktv girls.

    • James Palmer

      No, those are the ones you'll see talked about in the media because they touch upon the urban middle-classes; the majority of mistresses still come out of rural backgrounds and various kinds of sex work.

      • Chips

        I agree with Alfonso. What you're describing is not a new phenomenon by any means, but the "urban middle-class" ernais paying their way through school or gathering a nest egg to pursue their future are becoming much more prevalent.

  • tooCents

    Prostitution has been common through out human history. Simple reason is it is a great way for women to make money off men.

    • RoxieVelma

      And without demand from men who need to pay for sex because they arent getting any from willing women. You think the childre. sold off into sex trades are into money?

      • tooCents

        You're smart.

  • sone

    so Sichuan isn't in the south...

    • Alec

      Um, yes it it. South-west China.

  • James Palmer
  • Linghong Hu

    it's high-end prostitution. Nothing special.

    • TOM猫


    • t


  • Mark

    Is there any relation between male leader and female prositutes

  • Terrie

    The "luckiest" ones become mistresses to high-powered and filthy rich officials. The "not so lucky" will grab expatriates (Hong Kong/Taiwan/Western) working in/ travelling often to China to improve their livelihood. You'll be surprised how many families become broken because of this phenomenon.

  • Thorsten Pattberg

    Great article! It confirms developments in Beijing, the Capital of China's mistress culture. I never got used to this aspect of China because I was brought up in a Germanic and Christian society which practices and preaches monogamy. Of course, people in Europe also cheat, but mostly for personal reasons, not, as in case of China, as a social prescription or norm. It is rather sad, but, as the article points out, most Chinese women need money, love adventure, and follow the clear distinction between marriage, romance, and sex for which, obviously, (at least) three different types of partners are required. Most Westerners call adultery a sin, but in China it is mere custom.

    • Pot calling kettle

      Then again, your "Germanic and Christian" societies still produced Anthony Weiner and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

      • Bernard Klatt

        FYI, neither Anthony Weiner or Dominique Strauss-Khan are Germanic or Christian. They are jews. American-jew and French-jew.

    • Linghong Hu

      Apparently the word "Gold Digger" was not created to describe some Chinese women.

      It is NOT A CUSTOM to be someone's mistress in China. For most of those women, their parents either don't know of their kids' lives or feel shameful to talk about it.

      Besides, China ranks HIGHER than most European countries or North America in Labor participation rate of female. That means, Chinese women are MORE likely to GET A JOB and live on their OWN.

      Please go back to school and educate yourself.

      • Shel

        Not a custom to be someone's mistress in China. Then what is? by choice? or Pressure? Whatever that motivates the act of one becoming a mistress (apart from coercion or extortion), it does quite directly reflect these women as Gold Diggers.

        And what does the rate of labour participation has to do with Thorsten's comments? Using an irrelevant point to give yourself or your nation a +1 point does not eradicate the fact that the 'mistress phenomena' is motivated mainly by money. Accept the fact.

        • Linghong Hu

          The Dictionary definition of CUSTOM is:

          A custom is an activity, a way of behaving, or an event which is usual or traditional in a particular society or in particular circumstances.

          Just because some Chinese girls decide to make money in a fast but despicable way, it becomes something USUAL OR TRADITIONAL in China???

          There are lots of Gold Diggers in Western countries, does that mean it is a CUSTOM over there?

          If being mistress is CUSTOM in China, then you won't find so many women in work force and living on their own. Why do you think it is an irrelevant point?

          • Shel

            Is it an unusual phenomenon that more and more Chinese girls are becoming mistresses? Certainly not, that's exactly what the article is highlighting. The word 'custom' would not be the perfect word to describe this 'mistress phenomenon', I've never concurred to that. Since it is not customary, would it be, lets say, obligation? Nobody really cares if it's a custom or not, the point they are emphasizing here is the widespread of this situation. Beyond control. Saying 'some' Chinese girls trying to make money the quick way to describe this epidemic is quite an understatement. Exactly how many are we talking about? You don't get half the district of New York populated with mistresses do you. That's the extent of how serious the mistress situation is over there.

            We can't deny the fact that the number is staggering. Also, the author mentioned of the rising number of 'xiaoshan' who are a part of the work force like you said. Of course, working does not qualify these women from being a mistress. Sadly, the number of xiaoshan does tarnish the reputation of the pure hardworking ladies who are not mistresses themselves. It's not right to pool these two types of women together, but you can't blame the world for stereotyping based on the overall given facts. Just as how the world stereotyped Thailand as a prostitution haven, or Africa for HIV. Facts, whether right or wrong, remain as facts. Not discussing about virtue here.

          • Linghong Hu

            These are your words: "Not a custom to be someone's mistress in China. Then what is?" That is a rhetorical question , isn't it?

            I DO CARE if someone say it is a custom in China. That sounds like portraying all Chinese women as SLUTS. And that is exactly why I made comment to the first poster.

            Why do you think MISTRESS becomes serious problem here in China?? Or in your word "widespread"?? What makes you think so? If you know a thing or two about China, you will know in order to afford a mistress, a man has to be millionaire at least. And how many millionaires are there in China? NOT MANY. Because we are still a third world poor country.

            Besides, how is mistress different from prostitute?? But I've never seen anyone bashing prostitutes on Main Stream Media. Interesting.

          • ibritter

            I wonder if your pride is blocking mind. It is natural to want to stand up for your culture and country. The journalist/author seemed fair enough given their focus and limitations

          • Linghong Hu

            Please read my comments. I was commenting on a fellow poster not the author.

      • whatsis

        China does not rank higher than European countries or North America in terms of numbers in the labor force. Chinese women are not more likely to get a job or live on their own. Show some numbers to support your statement, because having lived in Asia for over a decade and coming from North America, I can tell you that this is not what I've seen, heard or lived for the past fifteen years.

        • Linghong Hu

          Yes it does.
          It is very easy to get those statistics.
          This dataset from World Bank proves me right.

          • Zahra Aamer

            Mr. Linghong Hu, I absolutely agree with you. Mr. James Palmer's article is stereotypical, lacking in facts, apologist and is euphemistically derogatory for women as well as for China.
            The sexual objectification and forced inferior representation of women is not just present in China, it is a WORLD phenomenon which is as prevalent in the West through its highly sexualized portrayal of women as it is in the East. However, please understand that Pakistan, despite its many problems which we have to tackle, esp. its patriarchal structure, is also misrepresented and generally stereotyped. I am a Pakistani citizen, I am a girl, I am completing BSc Electrical Engineering and I have NOT been shot in the head. This is happening in North of Pakistan though and a lot of Pakistani citizens are against it and support female education! Please refrain from stereotyping in our case as well.

      • Powerlurker

        China certainly has a history of polygamy and concubinage among the rich and powerful. My wife's grandfather was a feudal landlord who had several wives before the communists and an opium habit disposed of the family fortune.

        • Linghong Hu

          This article is really NOT about the history of China. I prefer not to shift away from the main topic.

          And I cannot see any difference between polygamy and prostitution. As far as I know, if you count both Polygamy and Prostitution, pretty much every country on this planet is not innocent.

          What's more, compare to many other heinous feudal practices in world history, I think polygamy is pretty uninteresting.

          In the past, women don't have much choice, they cannot become financially independent. Marriage is the only way to survive. It doesn't make much difference if their husband are polygamists or not.

    • Cindy H

      Yes. Cheating among officials (and just rich men in powerful positions in general) has definitely become institutionalised to some extent. My dad used to work for the Chinese government as a civil servant in the 1990s but was one of the few who sacrificed his iron bowl job for a work environment that didn't poison his lifestyle. Most of his colleagues would drink, smoke and cheat. There was one time where they all went out to play tennis and one colleague, who didn't even hold any high up or even middle tier position, brought along TWO mistresses to the courts. He walked them around, introduced them, kissed them, knowing that everyone else knew he was married. And despite that, his actions were condoned (except from my dad, who was disgusted). My dad says that even the few 'good' men are pressured into drinking, smoking and cheating.

      So my dad left China for Australia and completely started over again - it was very difficult those first few years, but he has never regretted leaving his job behind. In his own words, "for successful Chinese men, having a mistress has become more than just a choice practice, but a social expectation." That's pretty much another way of putting your last sentence.

      • terrym

        wow that is very insightful, thank you for sharing.

      • James Palmer

        Cindy, I'd be interested in talking with your dad for another piece I'm musing - think he'd be up for a chat? (Probably by email/phone, though I'm occasionally in Australia.)

  • Lilian

    Great opening sentence

  • YenoMeno

    Oh manI totally love Asian women!

    • Richard Johnston

      Well then take your million dollars and go buy one now man!

  • Frank Leo


    • Melody Tan

      Translation: As a Chinese citizen, I felt this was an objective article. It reveals an intrinsic quality of Chinese society not portrayed by the media. Kudos!

  • 10010101101011


  • Shoesagency - Shoes For Man and Woman

  • AegysLTS

    Well done China, corrupted to the core, the same China of the decadent days...

  • AegysLTS

    If you wanna be a HOE, do it the China way!

  • James Palmer

    Reposting from a friend elsewhere discussing this, with her permission, on dating issues and virginal perceptions in Chinese culture elsewhere

    "So it's a big thing to pressure your kids to do well at school. In a country like Singapore where you have a strong ethnic identification with being Chinese, doing well in school also requires a strong bent towards Westernization, since our education is bilingual and the language of instruction is almost always English, unless you're in Chinese class.
    However, mothers tend to pass down some rather patriarchal ideas to their sons while also encouraging their daughters to adapt to Western ideas so they do well in school, and it leads to this really frustrating, sickening double-standard. That is, that the average Westernized, Singaporean girl may be seen as too independent, high-maintenance and headstrong for their precious sons, and worse still, those guys actually grow up thinking that Western-acculturated girls are good enough to fuck, but not good enough to marry.

    This kind of came to a head with one of my exes, as he was Catholic and expected his bride to be a virgin, but was also strongly pressuring me to have sex. When I called him on that, he sort of tried to make sense of me as prospective bride, or his prospective bride being me, and sort of had a miniseizure, I think. In Singapore the development is, at least for cretins of that sort, to import brides from Vietnam - not China, because they're too materialistic and also because there's a large amount of anti-Chinese-migrant backlash in recent years (apparently developing after my departure from the island), but a Vietnamese girl? She comes from a traditional culture and knows how to treat her husband.

    ... Yeah. So I (and people like me, like my sister) face the unique and aggravating pressure to go to a good university and get a great job, and then to immediately sacrifice it for husband and children the moment the right guy comes along, because that's what good Chinese girls do. And then we're supposed to ignore everything we've put into career and education to spawn? Fuck that shit.

    Because of this rejection of the sexist-double-standard and the tendency of cross-cultural Chinese/white marriages to be a Chinese girl and a white guy, the assumption is therefore the girl is stuck-up and thinks that Chinese guys aren't good enough for her. Why then, you wonder, aren't those mothers letting their sons marry white girls? Because white girls are seen as loose sluts, and worse still, won't bring up their kids to be properly Chinese.

    So young Asian "men's right activists" often couch their BS in terms of women like me who are not married to Chinese guys as trying to exterminate the race/aiding in ethnic cleansing because not only won't we put up with sexist Asian men, but we also won't bring our daughters up in proper Chinese fashion to be submissive and obedient and thus even their own sons won't get a chance."

    • Dan

      Hey Palmer, why don't you go back to "teaching english" than writing. I'm sure there are girls all over the world that want to "learn english" from you (latin america, russia,etc). They'll pay you back in other ways...shady man

    • Dan

      I hear Columbian girls really really want to "learn english" from you. Of course they'll learn from you looking up.

    • Guest

      That's very interesting and well-articulated. Thanks to your friend.

    • Angela

      Your friend, James, is simply trying to put the blame off herself and onto everyone else. I know plenty of Singaporean women who have married Singaporean guys, and still work quite happily, thank you very much.

      It's simply racism and the result of a world long dominated by White westerners.

      Racism? Yes- Ask her if she would date or marry a man with the same personality as her White Husband, but he were from Bangladesh, Africa or India. Of course she won't.

      And for over a century, domination of the World's economy, corporations, powerful military, and daily television and movie media has ingrained in people that White men are socially at the top, the strongest, most "alpha". This constant subliminal messaging is why 28% of American Asian women now marry white men. It's no differrent when educated Singaporean/Hong Kong etc women marry white men.

      And as for getting a Vietnamese bride- that's just a tiny proportion of Singaporean men- mostly those uneducated poor ones over 50 years of age who were born and raised when Singapore was still a poor Third World Country. Again no different than the old, poor, uneducated White trash who go to Thailand and the Philippines to marry poverty stricken uneducated women.

      That friend of yours sounds like she's blaming everyone else, but ignoring her own role.

      Women have always been attracted to those who are socially and economically higher.

      She's simply the result of a world wide environment which puts white men at the top.

      • J. Scott Burgeson

        "This constant subliminal messaging is why 28% of American Asian women now marry white men."

        Oh dear, another angry race-warrior with a fondness for making delusional pronouncements as if they were objective statements of fact.

        The US population is roughly 311 million. Asian-Americans comprise about 5% of the population, or 8 million folks. I believe there are more Asian-American women than men, but let's just say there are about 4 million Asian-American men living in the US today.

        At the same time, white makes up about 75% of the US population, or some 234 million people. Divide that in half and you have 117 white men in America. What does this men? It means that there are over 14 times more white American men than Asian-American men, who represent just 7% of 117 million. In other words, if you went to a race-neutral club, there would be 14 white men for every Asian-American man, right?

        What's surprising, then, is that only 28% of Asian-American women marry white American men, when in reality only 7% percent of them should be marrying Asian-American men relative to their overall percentage of the larger dating pool (I am only including whites for now, and leaving out blacks and Latinos for the sake of simplicity). It would seem to me, then, that Asian-American women have a clear bias in favor of Asian-American men, and not white American men, which is the precise opposite of your above argument, Angela, if I am not mistaken.

        Indeed, you seem to be arguing for even more bias against white American men in favor of Asian-American men. And you presume to lecture us on discrimination and prejudice with such a strident, self-righteous air? Surely you're joking!

        • bob

          You're assuming that women actually marry men they meet clubbing, as opposed to through school activities like Asian student associations which yes, have a cultural (not racial) bias.

          Also why the fuck do you think there are more Asian American women than men? Immigrants are almost universally more likely to be male.

          • J. Scott Burgeson

            Jeepers, the club was just one example!

            As for gender distribution, I believe there are more younger Asian-American men but women tend to live longer than men, often by many years, so it may even out over time. I did read that there were more Asian-American women somewhere but can't find the link at the moment. Here in South Korea, for example, I seem to meet far more younger women who want to live or study abroad than men. Also, from Wikipedia: "When the Korean War ended in 1953, small numbers of students and professionals entered the United States. A larger group of immigrants included 'Western princesses' married with U.S. servicemen. As many as one in four Korean immigrants in the United States can trace their immigration to the wife of a serviceman."

            In any case, my statement was only an aside and I divided the two gender groups up evenly. You don't have to swear about it, do you?

    • That Singaporean Guy

      This reply holds little relevance to this article, other then your friend stating that Chinese women from China are gold-diggers.

      As a Singaporean guy, I find independence an extremely attractive quality. I have no desire for a woman who would be totally dependent on me. Nothing would thrill me more then to meet a girl who is ambitious, and wouldn't want to drop what they have worked for to be a housewife.

      Everyone is different, perhaps sharing a similar mindset due to cultural influences, but ultimately we are all different and unique. We all have different expectations in our potential partners.

      Stop the stereotyping without having the facts which doesn't involve personal experiences. By all means call out the individuals for their faults. But there is absolutely no reason to stereotype the Vietnamese and Chinese women, local men and women as well as their families the way she did any more then she stereotyped herself as a westernised woman.

      • Guest

        oh right, not all men
        how could we women ever forget

  • Vicky

    As a Chinese citizen, I am not surprised by this situation, but I am shocked by what my university friends have told me. It seems that they prefer keeping a long sexual relationship with a man no matter weather he has got married or not, rather than being married with a permanent partner. I think women want to be free since they have been tied up for such a long time, so being a mistress would be the fastest way for them to be economically and psychologically independent.

  • J. Scott Burgeson

    They're not selling their bodies or hearts. They're selling their self-respect, which is priceless, at a bargain-basement discount.

    It's all quite sad, really.

    • SUKI

      yeah,this is only one side. But i also know that many Chinese girls are braving enough to say no to the old "money and power",especially those who have walked into church to learn how to be brave and keep self-respect in the .mutant society.

    • terrym

      Well another way to look at it is that women in China are much more empowered than women in Western countries. in the west, usually the pimp takes a big cut from prostitutes. So, these women in China are not working for someone else, and they end up have a stable income for themselves and their family. When I talk to my friend about this story, we discussed and think the difference between US and China is that there is a more "volunteer" culture in US. The analogy is that the politicians and businessmen in Asia are viewed in high regard by society, which is analogous to the high school, college football players, the rock stars, rappers, professional sports players in US. However, the difference is that groupies look up to them and provide sex for free whereas in China they demand money. Sucks to be a guy in China, no?

      • kim lee

        Interesting point, terrym! However the "sucks to be a guy in China, no?" left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. In my opinion, considering the men are valued by the dowry system and there is a current gendercide going on (I recommend the documentary "It's a Girl" for my info) complete with many many forced abortions and female infanticides, it seems to me that it sucks to be born a girl in China

        • kim lee

          more info not my info! apologies

  • Careful Photographer

    Are the two young women in the picture actually mistresses? Or are they two university students out for a night on the town? Captions, by their inference, can destroy the subject of the image. Be careful.

  • frankino

    Shenzhen is plenty of there "second wife" due to the proximity with HK money... lot of opportunities for the writer to find new "language-exchange" partners.

  • James Palmer

    Just because there's been some speculation about this on Chinese-language sites - the "Wang" in the last paragraph is a pseudonym! In particular, it's not 王石. The poor man has enough problems with his love life.


  • revoltman

    I mean every civilization has this problem but does china really have these many "ernais" ? Hard to believe. If true, then it will be the downfall of an entire generation till everybody becomes poor again.

  • DonnaCabel0

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. WORK LESS EARN MORE ⅇ­x­i­t­3­5­.­c­ℴ­ℳ

  • lee

    ‘Women need to look out for themselves. Men always cheat.' what a society!

  • Whiskey Neat

    all a bunch of whores...the men and women both.


    as far as I know, these are absolutely true in China.

  • Marta Purriños

    Love this culture and lifestyle

    Happy Monday :)


  • r_s_g

    Another great piece James!

  • Bob Wang

    I wish I was rich. This is just so common all around the world, even in America. Example: Bill Clinton. Females who are rich might be doing this too, looking for younger guys who can pressure them.

  • The Truth is…

    Having a mistress in China is not new in fact this behavior by Chinese man is in their culture including their officials from their president down the line to the youngest official...I lived this situation myself...

  • Claire

    Yupp... my dad did the same thing. He's German. He's got two children and a wonderful wife here in Germany, but naaaaahhh... let's fuck around in good ol' China and keep yourself a 'mistress'. Let your daughter find the mails and thousands of (explicit) photograps the two of you wrote, because you kept them on your computer like they're your holy grail. Four years ago. Good job, old fucker.
    Terrie? You have a good point there. This destroys so many families. Sadly, this isn't only happening in the area around China. As I said... GERMAN.

  • Neobooper

    That last line is shit..... I've seen plenty women cheats that would last me a lifetime.
    Women are as bad as men, but you know.....
    If a man speaks in the forest and there is no woman there to hear.... Is he still wrong?

  • Rice Cake?!

    Hi James, I really like this journal! May I share this article on a Chinese website called "zhihu"? The hyperlink is:

    I translated a little part of this article. If you do not like it, I can delete that post immediately.

    • James Palmer

      Always happy to see translations!

  • sheed

    Too long didn't read.

  • ho

    Anyone who refers to this stuff as "exploitation" deserves to be punched in the face.

    These girls are exploiting these men to get at their resources. Only a western, feminized piece of shit would refer to non rape as anything negative.

    • kim lee

      Most women involved in prostitution seek these men's resources simply because they are trying to survive and have no resources in their own. In any case, your language here is very disrespectful and saddening. Please open your mind to other points of view and stop wishing violence on people. Such anger only makes you look weak and does nothing to harm your enemies.

  • globalgestalt

    "In the beginning there was as yet no moral or social order. Men knew their mothers only, not their fathers. .. remember the I ching. (See Global Gestalt and truly share learning) Humans are still mired in barbaric behavior. Still waiting for sage leaders. Meantime... narcissism is a pandemic malady.

    Mistresses, multiple wives, cheating... total wuwei.

  • A passer-by

    Well-written though not especially new in content, this is a story about a group of women who knows what they want and succeeds in getting what they want. That makes me wonder about women who were less successful in using their bodies (nothing wrong with that) as a mean to an end.

  • Lucy Lu

    Very insightful Palmer....Having a ernai is so common place in China. I just tried, and named 8 ernai quickly among my friends, worker parterners and relatives, in my mind really quick:)))))
    I think power is one thing, maybe the thousand- years-lasting traditional view of having a ernai to prove one's power and strength is another?Taking a young, "shajiao" women is a great prestige. Getting an ernai must means a lot of things for these guys--to prove they are wealth, attractive(mostly not), and functionally working(you must know Lei zhengfu, the famous 12 sec offical)...

    I have this close friend--a business man I worked with him for one year in Inner Mongolia,I only knowing he has a wife and a son at home. He introduce me to his wife who is taking care of his son back at Yiwu, and two weeks later invite a ernai to move in with him in Mongolia--a very nice Sichuan Girl. What surprise me is he introducing his ernai into our friend circle, and doing it so naturally as if men mean to have two wifes. All my guy-already-married-friends admire him.Then I started thinking if the idea of polygamy is just so welcomed by Chinese man, and accepted women---considering the great amount of tolerance they gave to their husband. And interestingly I found out most men and ernais I know didn't go to college, that may means their sense of tradition is stronger? I don't know.

    PS:I also think what make the young mens "sluting-shaming" is also felling of imbalance and jealous; under great political srctutiny, they can't belabored the one with powers, but they can turn their target to the KTV girls...I some times feel glad that I don't need to bring a Ernai to prove my masculinity, but if I am a young, newly graduated man, I will certainly grudge the officals---who dominated power and much more competitive when chasing young women..
    The more I write, the more complex and perplex I feel,good job Palmer,at least you can analysis this thing...while most chinese like me will still trying to figure out why my high educated aunt or friend suddenly becomes a ernai without any notice....

  • Don’t Blame Me!

    Great piece! Now the question is - how does a decent-looking and well-educated Chinese American girl like me land a gig like this? I worked in Hong Kong for almost two years and visited Shenzhen frequently, but no luck. The job market for fresh grads is rough out in this world! Please, do a girl a solid and hook me up! :p

  • jimcraq

    ‘Oh, you’re so clever! Oh, what important work you do! Oh, you’re really 55? You look so strong!’ Would probably work on older men in most countries.

    But the author says, "The pragmatic approach of rural women leaves them better off than the educated urban girls who can also end up as mistresses.... [Urban
    women] have a higher market value than the rural girls, and they’re more socially acceptable at high-end occasions." So how are rural women better off?

  • Ernai Keeper

    James Palmer quotes: "...keeping a woman is common among powerful Chinese men..., illicit affairs..., most mistresses are rural women...,Chinese men’s penchant for mistresses..., tasted the apple of corruption..."

    Palmer lumps together sex-for-sale and 'ernai' as prostitution. After which he joins the two into a kind of phenomenon peculiar only to China that he then liberally scatters innuendoes on western term as being immoral, decadent and corrupt. Long on anecdotes, Palmer is acutely short on actual data to paint the picture of prostitution as "big business", whether low or high end (ernai being the latter). This is how, for example, Palmer is being deceitful with his anecdotes which he camouflages as statistics: "A study by the Crisis Management Centre at Renmin University in showed that 95 per cent of corrupt officials had illicit affairs...." Note the phrase, "95 per cent of corrupt officials". He stops there, insinuating it to mean all officials and all the powerful, rich.

    And what is it to be "illicit"? Illicit on whose terms? White man's laws? Or Christian (note the biblical language, "apple of corruption")? What does Palmer mean by "common" among the powerful? And he says, "most mistresses". Most? Palmer did a head count in all of China and came up with more than 50%? And then this: "Chinese men’s penchant for mistresses". Penchant? What? Palmer's groin does not stir at the sight of a naked woman, prostitute or ernai? Only Chinese men do?

    Palmer represents the army of 20- and 30-something reporters from the West, who think they know Chinese society - and Chinese women. Never mind that he is being apathetic, but you have to wonder whether he keeps a mistress or a Chinese whore? Has he gotten sexual favours (unpaid?) to get the anecdotes he cites with such a cavalier attitude? Clearly, as his article demonstrates so well, he knows nothing about China's deep Confucianist culture (hence the amoral attitudes towards, say, sex) nor its rural, family-farm economics (that has led to city migration), nor its humanist social mores (that has given the women so much gumption on how to conduct their lives independently of men). Palmer & Aeon: you are so pathetic.

    • Jay K.

      absolute face palm...

  • a.b

    all black girls have AIDS? I think not!!!!!!

    • kim lee

      I agree, it was very disheartening to hear her say such an ignorant thing. added in a whole new layer

  • Stan Pat

    I'm not Singaporean but this is my take. I find Singaporean girls a bit confused about their identity. I feel on one hand, they can't beat the China girls in terms of absolute beauty. Yet, they try so hard to act like ABC girls, but it comes off fake. And they lack the traditional wife instinct of neighboring Asian girls, such as Indonesian Chinese or Thai Chinese, whom by the way are just as educated if not more, from Ivy League colleges.

    What's my point? I feel that Singaporean girls offer no advantages from any angle as a prospective bride.

    If I want a westernized Asian girl, I go marry a Canadian or American born Chinese, much more stylish yet simple and more worldly and knowledgeable, with more cool factor and some even speak Cantonese and Mandarin and are proud of it (unlike Singaporean girls who routinely acts like they can't speak Chinese when they learned it all their lives).

    If I want a traditional and educated girl, I look for a Thai or Indonesian Chinese girl, who are just as westernized.

    Singaporean girls offer the worst of both, educated but not worldly enough, Asian but without the Asian values. Singaporean girls are neither here nor there, neither banana nor twinkie.

  • Chief Tishomingo

    Hello I would to just give my opinion . My cultural allows three girlfriend if your first one gives permission. I am a exporter to China of different food products. I do very well. I would love to have a pretty young Chinese mistress bring her to the US. Treat her with respect and proper, I think its each to his belief. If your first agrees. I hope a beautiful young Chinese lady will Respones. There are a lot of men that agree with me.. If you can afford a mistress . I don't have to hide or sneak,, my Chinese mistress can come to the US,, work for our company and live with me. Trust will come in time.. That's just my opinion


    Give women equal access to education, employment, and a life free of male violence, and these problems would all but disappear.


  • sgrafis

    to many urban middle-classes. how supervision at home?