Identity

The Hidden Economic and Social Power Of Chinese Mistresses Today

Chinese mistresses occupy a historic and unique position in their society—at once feared, respected, and admired for their intelligence and wit. For many young women, being a mistress is equivalent to a full-time career.
April 16, 2018, 3:07pm

Wei Wujun is China’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, but instead of a deerstalker, pipe, and magnifying glass, he’s known for smoking tarry Zhongnanhais (classic Chinese cigarettes) and his knack for imperceptibly tacking GPS tracking devices onto the underbellies of cars owned by philandering husbands. Commonly referred to as the “mistress slayer,” the sixty-year-old detective has made such a name for himself hunting down paramours that he recently had to announce his retirement on Shanghai TV, just so his phone would stop ringing.

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“Most private detectives in China are in the mistress business,” he tells me. “This was my livelihood for twenty-one years. I made so much money, I ended up driving nicer cars than some of my clients.”

Wujun describes one of his more memorable cases—a Taiwanese businessman living in Guangdong who had eight mistresses. “This was in 1995,” he explains. “For the Taiwanese, having a mistress on the mainland was commonplace. The cost of living in China was so low, you could have a mistress for 3,000 RMB ($430 USD) a month.”

Why any man who already had a wife and two daughters would want to add eight more women to his life was bewildering to me, but according to Wujun, this was nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the gentleman in question (let’s call him Wild Oats) had an arrangement with his wife, who not only approved of his extramarital activities but ofen played mahjong—a Chinese tile game requiring an even number of players—with her husband’s lovers.

Things took an ugly turn when Wild Oats decided to get his younger brother—also a partner in the family business—a mistress of his own. Although the brother’s wife didn’t oppose her husband’s infidelity, she had failed to give birth to a son and feared that her husband (whom we’ll call Little Oats) might try to have one with his lady companion.

And so she called Detective Wujun.

“Cavorting is costly, but procreating is exorbitant,” says Wujun, explaining that Little Oats’s wife didn’t so much fear another child but a drain on the family finances. As it turns out, it’s a common scheme among mistresses to try to have a son for their men—and possibly abort if they become pregnant with a girl— because the act of providing a male heir means they’ll be entitled to financial support for a longer period of time, even once they’re too old to live from their looks alone.


**Watch: **Unmarried at 27: Meet China's 'Leftover Women'


There are significant “social compensation fees” for having a child out of wedlock in China, where the progeny of unmarried parents are so frowned upon that they’re not even entitled to a hukou, or residence permit. Without a hukou, a child can’t attend school, access basic social services, or even apply for an identity card. These limitations fuel a black market for fake hukou, which are usually how the children of men and their mistresses become legitimized—unless Wujun is able to intervene beforehand. Over the course of his career, he admits to having participated in at least one high-speed chase to a maternity ward, in a bid to blow the cover of a man and his mistress on the way to give birth.

Mistresses who don’t secure a financial link through child-birth often open businesses, explains Wujun. “They open beauty salons, luxury boutiques—all territory they’re very familiar with,” he says. However, if they haven’t invested well or if they don’t have a good head for business, as they age and lose market value, many end up with much less than they’re accustomed to. “They end up lonely and living day to day,” he says, just before adding, “I think the happiest ones are those who eventually get married.”

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If marriage was a part of Ivy’s master plan, she was certainly in no rush to complete it. Though she is only twenty-seven, one gets the impression that she has lived well beyond her years. The first time I met her in person, she had a Cartier watch encircling her wrist, a Dior bag dangling from her forearm, Chanel earrings illuminating her ears, a cashmere Burberry coat cinched at her waist, and LV patent pumps with small golden bows adorning her feet. She was a veritable pageant of luxury branding, and yet somehow— shockingly—she made it all work.

“In the eyes of many Chinese men, a beautiful girl can only be beautiful so long as she’s useless and completely lost and destroyed without a man supporting her,” she said as we sat down to Hong Kong–style sweets at a small café near her apartment. We were surrounded by royal-purple velvet furniture, endless mirrors, and swirling tentacular chandeliers—a decorative theme that I sensed has somehow become the coat of arms of China’s nouveau riche. “And a smart girl can only be smart so long as she isn’t too beautiful to be taken seriously or to be perceived as much of a threat,” she added.

As for a smart, beautiful woman? That, Ivy proudly proclaimed, is a mistress.

Shortly before meeting Ivy, I came across a report in Chinese media of a busted “mistress ring” run by a Shanghai Finance University student surnamed Ding. He had allegedly recruited female students from fourteen leading mainland universities, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Renmin University, and was charging a premium (between 400,000 RMB and 600,000 RMB or $60,000–$90,000 USD a year) for their services. As part of the deal, he even promised prospective sponsors copies of the female students’ academic achievement certificates and English proficiency tests. This news struck me as surprising—all along I’d been under the impression that Chinese men shied away from intelligent women.

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It turns out they do—when it comes to finding a wife. But where mistresses are concerned, as Dr. X hinted, it seems brains and beauty pack an extra-special punch.

There’s a historical explanation for this preference. In China as recently as the early 1900s, the brothel, courtesan house, or otherwise designated location where a man might procure what in modern terms would be deemed as a “mistress” was a place of extreme social importance. Here, a client’s masculinity was either validated or denigrated by the women he frequented, as courtesans were the arbiters of a man’s sophistication, class, and refinement. There were even guidebooks instructing men as to the correct conduct when in the company of a courtesan. If a man failed to comport himself appropriately in her company, he risked shame, ridicule, and ran the danger of being perceived as a “country bumpkin” by other customers.

This was equally true for prostitutes, who, although of lesser standing than courtesans, were still among the most elite women in society and the social equals of aristocrats, scholars, government officials, and the like. More than carnal pleasure, they provided the pleasure of their company through music, poetry, singing, and dancing, as conveyed by the Chinese character for prostitute, 妓, which means “female performer.”

During the Tang dynasty (618–907), even a special governmental institution called the jiaofang (教坊) was founded, where prostitutes trained in music, dancing, literature, calligraphy, chess, and literary drinking games. Considered a conservatory or high-end finishing school of sorts, it existed at a time when women were otherwise completely deprived of education, which made courtesans and prostitutes a scintillating and welcome escape from innocent and homely wives.

Their worldliness and prestige made them privy to situations and conversations that “virtuous” women would never have access to, and their talents and charms made them the darlings of respected men and poets.

This is an excerpt from Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World's Next Superpower by Roseann Lake, which is available to purchase now.