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Money and Mistresses in the Middle Kingdom
JOHN OSBURG is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester. This essay is adapted from his most recent book, Anxious Wealth (Stanford University Press, 2013).See more by this author
Since the early years of the twentieth century, Chinese social reformers, including leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, have repeatedly attacked the traditional family structure and sought to purge marriage and romantic relationships of their transactional qualities. Many communists were influenced by the German socialist Friedrich Engels’ account of the loveless bourgeois marriages that plagued capitalist societies, and one of the CCP’s first reforms was to ban arranged marriages, prostitution, and the buying and selling of brides. Such efforts were successful, at least in part. Notions of pure love and romance, untainted by financial interest or familial interference, have since come to serve as important reference points for many Chinese. In recent decades, however, the country’s wave of new wealth, combined with an overheated real estate market, has returned material considerations and transactions to the forefront of relations between the sexes.
At the center of this new reality is a type of woman the feminist economist He Qinglian calls “gray” -- one who stands somewhere between the legitimate, “white” world of marriage and the illegitimate, “black” underworld of prostitution. These so-called gray women include the mistresses and “second wives” (ernai) of wealthy, powerful men, as well as the hostesses and massage girls who entertain the elite. They are often the beneficiaries of the ill-gotten wealth of shady businessmen and corrupt government officials, and they play a key role in mediating ties between elite men. This class of women, He argues, is a direct product of China’s current period of “primitive accumulation,” or early-stage capitalism, in which economic changes are dramatically transforming social and sexual relationships.
Though many such women hold legitimate positions as corporate secretaries and the like, critics often view the difference between “chickens by the road” (lubiande ji, the lowest class of prostitute) and mistresses to powerful men as one purely of status and income level. Like rent-seeking, corrupt government officials, these women are criticized for making money off of their youthful beauty without creating anything of value for society or the economy. They are thought to be parasites that leech off the wealth of others, funneling it away from its proper channels of investment and family support.