Corruption and Concubines

The Los Angeles Times reports that “second wives” have made a comeback in China – and that where “golden canaries” flock, corruption is sure to follow:

China’s economic boom has led to a revival of the 2-millennium-old tradition of “golden canaries,” so called because, like the showcase birds, mistresses here are often pampered, housed in love nests and taken out at the pleasure of their “masters.”

Concubines were status symbols in imperial China. After the Communists took power, they sought to root out such bourgeois evils, even as Chairman Mao Tse-tung reportedly kept a harem of peasant women into his old age.

Now, mistresses have become a must-have for party officials, bureaucrats and businessmen.

“We are in a commodity economy,” says retired Shanghai University sociologist Liu Dalin. “Work, technology, love, beauty, power — it’s all tradable.”

So-called concubine villages — places where lotharios keep “second wives” in comfort and seclusion — are now spread across the nation, in booming cities such as Dongguan, Chengdu and Shanghai.

The mistress boom is contributing to a surge in divorces — and fierce battles over property when relationships collapse. Not long ago, Beijing amended the country’s marriage law to make men who indulge in mistresses pay heavy penalties and to give their spouses greater rights in separations.

Now, local governments are starting to take action.

This year the city of Nanjing issued an order for all public officials to register their extramarital relationships. In Guangzhou, a prosperous city in the south, a major university issued stern warnings to female students about having affairs and wrecking marriages. And last month, state media reported that Hainan province had stipulated that party members who kept mistresses or had children outside of marriage would be expelled.

Government leaders worry that philandering also could have detrimental effects on China’s economy and the credibility of the Communist Party.

State-run banks and agencies have lost billions of dollars to embezzlement and fraud, many at the hands of officials seeking money to support their golden canaries. In a government review of 102 corruption cases in several Guangdong province cities a few years ago, every one involved an illicit affair.

“If a government official has a mistress, there must be some corruption,” says Sun Youjun, a private investigator in Shanghai. “Visits to high-end hotels are not easy with officials’ incomes.”

And apparently, “second wives” rather understates many of these cases:

Li Xin knelt in a hotel room here, wearing polka-dot boxer shorts and a grimace on his face.

The deputy mayor of Jining, in Shandong province, was pleading with his lover not to report him to authorities.

But in the end, the 51-year-old official was exposed and sentenced to life in prison. His crime: accepting more than $500,000 in bribes, which he used to support at least four mistresses in Jining, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Li’s transgressions were minor compared with those of other public officials. A top prosecutor in Henan province, for example, was recently stripped of his post and Communist Party membership after investigators alleged that he embezzled $2 million to support his lavish lifestyle — and seven mistresses.

The Discussion: 12 Comments

I find this an interesting post for what it portends. With a population that already has an overabundance of males vs. females, the status power of having “golden canaries” will increase that disproportion–so what does the average “Joe-Male” do in China?

Plus the fact that the CCP efforts to root out such bourgeois practices as concubines and mistresses (not to say prostitution) seem to have gone up in smoke.

What would the Great Helmsman say? He never had “golden canaries” or at least he did not pay for them.

November 23, 2005 @ 9:05 pm | Comment

Ah, but Jerome, the Great Helmsman had an unlimited supply of young peasant beauties, according to several accounts.

There are a lot of interesting demographic implications. Some sociologists worry about rising crime, which I gather tends to happen when you have a large population of young, single men. It might portend a huge cultural change, if foreign women are allowed to come to China to make up the gap.

I also recall a really interesting conversation I had with this guy in Xian. Really smart guy, worker whose state-owned factory was going out of business; he did all kinds of weird jobs to keep it together, had managed to buy himself an apartment (or so he told me, and I did believe him), and he was pretty sure it was too late for him to marry. He just didn’t make enough money for a woman to be interested in him, he told me. And he also said that a lot of wealthy Chinese women were doing what the wealthy men did – finding “second husbands,” boyfriends for whom they provided support.

Interesting if true.

November 23, 2005 @ 9:37 pm | Comment

Right, now I’ve figured it out.
I’ve been going about my love-life all wrong. I should have said “yes” to those Chinese guys who offered to make me their mistress, and pocketed the dosh.

If you need me, I’ll be trilling away in a golden cage somewhere.

November 23, 2005 @ 11:11 pm | Comment

And he also said that a lot of wealthy Chinese women were doing what the wealthy men did – finding “second husbands,” boyfriends for whom they provided support.

I believe they are known as “wolf cubs”.

Well, the rise of mistresses and prostitution are not so hard to understand if you consider that many or most Chinese still choose marital partners for very practical reasons based on earning potential and security.

As one of my recent (female) adult students explained, only half-jokingly, physical attractiveness is a quality you look for in a lover, not your spouse.

Just last week, during “Singles Day”, there was a great quote from a mother shepherding her daughter at a singles meet-up. Mom said “There are a lot of talented people here, but the most important thing is to find a man with a house and a car.”

Western culture was little different a century ago, so I’m hoping this is a transitional stage — especially hoping so, now that a brothel opened in my own apartment building! As if my neighborhood needed yet another (maybe half a dozen now).

November 24, 2005 @ 2:02 am | Comment

Western journalists should stop at reporting what they knows and learn not to make absurd comments on Chinese culture.

This particular writer, Don Lee, obviously failed to understand the difference between mistresses and concubines. While keeping concubines was perfectly acceptable in Imperial China, keeping mistresses was not. Due to this misunderstanding, most of his latter comments make little sense.

This line is also amusing:”In Chinese society, the practice of keeping concubines is thought to date back to the Qin Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago, when Confucianism took hold and women were considered inferior.”

It seems Mr.Lee wasn’t aware that Confucian books were burnt and scholar buried during the Qin Dynasty. Oh, Qin Shi Huang must be a feminist, buried Confucian scholars alive so they can’t teach everyone to keep concubines.

Anyway I’ve seen too many otherwise good articles on China marred by ridiculous claims about Chinese history/culture. Those journalists need to realize good China reports can be written without pretentious comments on Chinese culture.

November 24, 2005 @ 4:05 am | Comment

Wuliao, amen.

Because, of course, no other culture in the world features powerful men stealing funds to help support lavish lifestyles, including mistresses.

November 24, 2005 @ 7:19 pm | Comment

“State-run banks and agencies have lost billions of dollars to embezzlement and fraud, many at the hands of officials seeking money to support their golden canaries.”
Those of us who pay taxes here can always rest assured that our tax dollars are going to an excellent cause.
Building schools out in the western provinces? Ah, fuck that! Let’s buy some more of those black Santana’s for officials and their seven girlfriends!

November 24, 2005 @ 8:08 pm | Comment

Can someone please lay out why the keeping of concubines is allowable and mistresses is not; I need the right nomenclature etc. to explain it to my wife

November 25, 2005 @ 3:32 am | Comment

‘Concubine’ has a specific meaning when people’re discussing (imperial) China. It corresponds to the Chinese ‘qie’, women in imperial China contracted/sold to men to have a recongized sexual relationship (but not marriage).

Despite having a recongized relationship, concubines were considered servants to the household, not as memebrs of it(although concubines had to live with the household). Monogamous marriage were legally enforced during most of the Imperial times, and men with concubines but no wife were considered unmarried. Starting from Tang dynasty it’s illegal to marry one of your concubines as wife.

In theory, concubines were employed solely to produce male offsprings, and people should not buy/contract concubines for sexual desire. For example, according the Ming dynasty legal code, only the Emperor and imperial Princes could have counbines unconditionally, all other people could have counbines only if he is old and still heirless (even then the number of counbines is limited, a ordinary subject could not have more than one counbine). But as you can expect, those laws were very hard to enforce.

Mistresses were different from concubines as the relationship is not officially recongized, having mistresses was adultry therefore illegal during the imperial times (adultry were decriminalized on the Mainland after Communist take-over, although it’s still illegal in Taiwan, which has a more traditional Chinese society).

The current practice of keeping mistresses does not come from traditional Chinese culture becase
1) Mistresses are not used to produce male heirs, which is the traditional Chinese reason for keeping concubines.
2) Keeping mistresses, as an act of adultry, was not legal (and considered immoral) during the imperial time, and is still illegal in Taiwan where traditional Chinese values were better kept.
3) Agruments for keeping mistresses are usually based on Western liberalism, as the sociologist has said, “Work, technology, love, beauty, power — it’s all tradable.” It’s O.K. as long as those trades are free and fair.
4) The practice is not gender-specific. There are ‘secondary husbands’ as well.

November 25, 2005 @ 2:15 pm | Comment

A further question here; where in all this nomenclature does the Hsiao tai-tai fit in; i.e. if monagamous marriages were legally enforced, what about the 2nd, 3rd, 4th wives etc.

November 26, 2005 @ 6:12 pm | Comment

I say castrate them all! anyone caught steeling taxpayers’ money to keep concubine etc should be castrated and dump in jail and let them have a taste of sex life in jail!!
It makes my blood boil when there are hundreds of millions of people suffering from poverty and these few assholes get away with such crime!

November 26, 2005 @ 10:00 pm | Comment

Monagamous marriage wasn’t legally enforced during the Qing dynasty (probably because Manchu was polygamous?).i.e. you won’t get jail term for attempting to marry a second wife or husband during Qing dynasty, unlike in eailer dynasties (I think during Tang dynasty man would get one year for marrying a second wife and woman would get two years for marrying a second husband). But multiple marriage is not legally recognized either during Qing. Most man still had only one wife (possibly with counbines).

I’m not a language expert but Hsiao tai-tai sounds quite modern to me. Perhaps it’s a word coined during the Republican period? Anyway after slavery was abolished people can no longer buy counbines, so people may try to marry 2nd, 3rd, 4th wives. This a post-Imperial practice though.

November 28, 2005 @ 2:13 am | Comment

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