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.

Within China, intellectuals and scholarly observers cite the behavior of gray women as evidence that socialist values such as gender equality are being abandoned. In their view, such women represent a more general loss of belief and values seen to be afflicting Chinese culture: they not only sacrifice their feminine virtue for money and material comfort but also contribute to the breakup of families and an overall decline in human dignity in Chinese society.

But the gray women themselves tend to answer their critics by using the logic of capitalism: all women, they argue, even those in marriages and with legitimate careers, trade their sexuality for material comfort provided by men. They consider all sexual relations, from a paid sex act to marriage, as part of a single market in which women trade their sexuality for financial security -- a reality reflected in a saying now commonly cited in China today: “As soon as a man gets rich, he goes bad. As soon as a women goes bad, she gets rich.”


It was precisely this transactional approach to relationships that the Chinese Communist Party set out to eliminate as it sought to build a new Chinese society. This meant the abolition of arranged marriages, child marriages, concubinage, polygamy, the buying and selling of brides, and the general conception of marriage as a material transaction involving money or gifts. In their place, the party promoted marriage as a contract between two individuals, entered into freely and bound by mutual love, support, and assistance; on paper, it supported the equal rights of husband and wife within a marital relationship.

In reality, marriage retained a transactional quality, although its values shifted to reflect the new social hierarchies of the communist order. Individuals were reluctant to marry or even associate with anyone who belonged to a stigmatized class, for example. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, husbands and wives were even pressured to divorce spouses who had become the targets of political campaigns or political criticism. And men with a good class background, with official rank, or from a revolutionary family became the most desirable marriage partners, in large part because of the political security their status brought.

In addition to political status, other considerations, including urban residency and social standing, also factored heavily into marriage choices in the early years of communist rule. During the early years of the People’s Republic of China, male party cadres, who were mostly from rural areas, sometimes divorced their peasant wives for women from the city who, despite their imperfect class backgrounds, were still seen as more desirable than peasant women. According to one former cadre I interviewed, a great deal of folklore and jokes from this era involve the scheming cadres hoping to marry or have sexual relationships with daughters of former landlords. Despite their counterrevolutionary class status, these young women were thought to be more beautiful and refined than CCP-approved peasant women. 

The communist goal of removing material transactions from marriage and sexual relationships suffered even greater setbacks following the party’s economic reforms in 1978. Bride price and dowry payments in marriages reemerged almost immediately in many rural areas (and were subject to rapid inflation as rural economies improved). By the early 1990s, various forms of prostitution, concubinage, and even the buying and selling of wives had reappeared. And after an initial period in which male entrepreneurs were viewed with suspicion because of their uncertain political status, their growing wealth made them the most sought-after marriage partners. Once again, intellectuals decried the return of a feudal mentality in marriage. 

Yet today, many young Chinese women feel that transactional relationships -- in which money and status are exchanged for youth and beauty -- are culturally universal. The sociologist Viviana Zelizer has dubbed this line of reasoning the “nothing but” argument: that intimate relations are and have always been governed by market principles. In this view, if marriage and relationships are “nothing but” transactions, part of the same system of exchange as the lowest levels of prostitution, then why not pursue the best price?


One of the main ways that Chinese women access the sexual marketplace is through marriage ads and matchmaking services. Since the late 1990s, hundreds of ultra-wealthy middle-aged men in China have taken out such ads, held exclusive parties, or even organized talent competitions to find brides. One oft-noted characteristic of these tactics is that the requirements for potential brides are virtually identical in each. According to He Xin, a lawyer who has organized ad campaigns and spousal selection competitions for three different men, each with a net worth over ten million dollars, the bachelors all sought the same type of woman: “pretty, young, fair-skinned, cute, and a virgin.” The men desired virgins, He explained, because of their “increasing rarity” in China.

In newspaper interviews, many female contestants in these competitions are forthright about being motivated by money. Once such article quotes a university student from Dalian explaining that at first she was disgusted by her classmates’ relationships with men old enough to be their fathers. After a year in college, however, she “grew up” and came to feel that “only money could give her a feeling of security.”

Many of the applicants express cynicism about marriage. As one woman from Shanghai put it, “If I marry a normal person, it’s possible that I’ll end up with nothing. If I marry a rich man at least I’ll end up with some money.” Although many applicants view the man’s desire for a virgin as feudalistic and out of date, one applicant asked, “Isn’t the point of keeping it” -- virginity -- “to be able to sell it for a good price?”

The participants also tend to view success in these competitions as confirmation of their beauty and traditional feminine virtues, and they frame their desire for wealthy men as a rational use of those resources. Just as the beauty of a man’s girlfriend is understood among Chinese entrepreneurs to be representative of his success in business, the status and wealth of the man a woman successfully courts reflects her desirability.

Young women speak of a hierarchy of beauties based on where they could successfully compete. The most “talented” leave for wealthy eastern cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and the truly exceptional make it to Hong Kong, Taiwan, or even Europe. An unsuccessful contestant in one of the marriage competitions for a wealthy entrepreneur reportedly consoled herself by saying, “Maybe I’m not suited for someone with a fortune of 100 million, but maybe I’m suitable for someone with ten million.”


Although Chinese intellectuals and reformers have attempted to promote ideals of romantic purity, the notion that material support is the basis of marital and other sexual relationships is perfectly acceptable to many working-class and rural Chinese. In my conversations with the mistresses of wealthy men, they often said, “He’s good to me” -- something most evidenced by his providing for their material needs, and even for those of their relatives. Women from poor rural backgrounds in particular often invoked the phrase guode hao (living and getting along well) to justify their relationships as a means of ensuring an easier life. They also cited a man’s ability to provide material support to his spouse or romantic partner as evidence that he was “responsible” and affectionate. They contrasted these responsible (you zerengan) men with “playboys,” or huahuagongzi, who promise many things but, once they get what they want, move on to other women, leaving their lovers behind with nothing.

A reporter for a local Chengdu newspaper, who often writes about family issues, told me that this reliance on wealthy men was a reflection of their typically rural upbringings: “A lot of these women are migrants from the countryside. They just want to have a better life, and having a wealthy man provide for them is seen as an easy way. In fact, they’re raised to think that way. In China, sons are taught that they have to work hard and be successful so they can support others. But girls are taught that they can just marry a good husband and they will have an easy life.” 

Parents are typically supportive of such relationships, viewing them as a way for their daughters to live a comfortable life in the city without having to work long hours for low pay in the service or manufacturing industries. Some parents have their own financial motives as well: a responsible male patron for their daughter would likely take care of them too, perhaps later in life. One wealthy entrepreneur I interviewed, who at one point provided for three different mistresses simultaneously, explained the appeal of relying on a man for financial security: “Part of it is laziness, part of it is vanity, but if you’re just an ordinary worker, think about how many years it takes just to buy an apartment. If they can find a rich man, then all their problems are solved. There’s no need to put forth much more effort.”

Although many mistresses and girlfriends of wealthy men portray themselves as winners in a market that trades in attractiveness for material comfort, others describe their extramarital relationships as pure romantic love, unsullied by all the other considerations that usually factor into marriage. The historian Xu Xiaoqun notes that many women who came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s were influenced by Engels’ writings on marriage and property. According to Xu, they “took to heart Engels’ assertion that loveless bourgeois marriages were immoral and that in the future the sole basis for marriage would be love between the sexes, without economic or other considerations.”

Men, too, see their affairs with lovers and mistresses as a means of expressing romance and passion, and one-night stands in particular as untainted by considerations of money, status, or reputation. In their minds, any lasting relationship between men and women, even of a similar financial background, is bound to have an economic component.


The economic aspects of such relationships are often more than simple exchanges of money for sex. Mistresses and second wives are rarely just passive beneficiaries of wealth but are often active agents in its accumulation. The mistresses and second wives of government officials, for example, typically figure prominently in news reports and official accounts of corruption. A 2000 survey of corruption cases found that 93 out of 100 cases involved mistresses, and another study of 102 corruption cases in Guangdong province found that every one involved extramarital affairs or a second wife. News reports often list the number of mistresses or women seduced by an official to measure the degree of his corruption. And many journalistic accounts of corruption portray mistresses as exacerbating the moral decline and enhancing the greed of corrupt officials. 

Other observers have argued the opposite: that mistresses and second wives have the potential to be valuable allies in the war on corruption. One journalist refers to them as “great servants in anticorruption.” He offers several examples of corrupt officials, including Liu Zhihua, a former vice mayor of Beijing, who were turned in by jealous or unsatisfied mistresses. And he points out that a mistress’s knowledge of her patron’s dealings is often broader and more accurate than that of other members of his network. 

In addition to simply receiving gifts, apartments, and cars, some corrupt officials’ mistresses help them do business and engage in the work of corruption. Mistresses can be particularly useful in this regard, acting as representatives for officials in secret business dealings and accepting bribes on their behalf. Just as they do with their male associates, officials also help their mistresses start up their own businesses. Some even help women with whom they are involved to achieve official positions. 

Li Zhen, a former party secretary and tax bureau chief from Hebei who was executed for graft in 2003, explained in an interview shortly before his death that he frequently used his power to help his mistress do business and earn money. He ensured that she won contracts for the construction of government buildings, for example. But unlike the truly corrupt, who “have the gall” to get their lovers appointed to official positions, Li claimed, he had only wanted to establish a “one in the government, one in the business world” relationship, a common domestic arrangement in which a couple is able to use the complementary advantages of each arena to generate wealth. 

Drawing on stereotypes about the predatory nature of female sexuality and the inability of men to resist sexual temptation, many officials have blamed mistresses in their courtroom confessionals for driving them to generate illicit income. Bian Zhong, a former section chief in Chongqing’s transportation bureau, reportedly defended his corrupt actions by saying, “I knelt down before [my mistress] in my office, but she still wouldn’t let me go. I was just too weak. She wanted to bleed me dry.” Li made a similar argument: “As soon as [women] become your plaything you become their slave.”

Businessmen I interviewed often invoked the notion that the official or client who “has it all” can still be tempted by sex, in particular by the introduction of an unfamiliar young “beauty.” Li, for his part, also characterized his own feelings for his mistress as more noble than mere lust, invoking another popular narrative -- that of the high-pressured elite man, trapped in an unhappy marriage, who finally finds his soul mate in a younger mistress. He claimed to realize a childhood crush on his former neighbor, who later became his mistress.

But in his interview, he was quick to call his “little lamb” a “poisonous snake.” He then expressed outrage at his mistress’s betrayal to the anticorruption investigators. (During his imprisonment, he discovered that she had revealed his whereabouts when he was on the run from the police.) “In this world, only the kiss of a woman will send you to your doom,” he said. “I want to tell all the men of the world!”

In recounting his version of events, Li drew on a long-standing theme in Chinese culture about the dangers of female sexuality. Classical Chinese scholars referred to the temptations of beautiful women as “fox spirits” who could distract them from studying for the imperial examination. Although those who abstained entirely from the pursuit of young women were mocked for being “henpecked” (paitaitai) by their wives, the entrepreneurs I worked with often cautioned against the dangers of excessive indulgence in sex. This sentiment was most commonly expressed by common sayings such as “too many girlfriends will wear you out” or “having too many one-night stands is troublesome.” The importance of moderation was often summed up by a rhyming ditty:

Don’t divorce your original wife (married in poverty).
Like the new, but don’t despise the old,
Be debonair, not sleazy,
Be romantic but not obscene.

One businessman told me that many wealthy men are also superstitious about leaving the spouses who accompanied them on their rise to business success. Letting one’s sexual affairs get out of hand, or becoming subject to the control of a mistress, was viewed as the first step toward financial difficulty. Such loss of control had the potential to influence men’s reputations among their peers and in the business world, cause strains in their primary household, and siphon away their wealth.


In many ways, popular representations of ambitious gray women and wealthy, philandering men have served as an allegory for the effect of wealth on morality in contemporary China. According to the prevailing narrative, predatory women lead esteemed and successful men into decadence. Falling prey to lust, they quickly become unmoored from morality and social responsibility. Only the most cultivated, high-quality (gao suzhi) men can resist such a decline. 

Women tempted by the power of money in a society that only cares about material success have their own narrative. In the world of business populated by lustful men, women’s other talents and abilities pale in comparison to the power of sexual attraction. Some young women no longer view education as a means of acquiring skills, for example, but rather as way of increasing their value in the market for wealthy men. Men, however, only need money, and even the oldest, ugliest, most uncouth country bumpkin can be transformed by wealth into an object of desire.

Yet whereas men are characterized as the victims of human nature and female temptation, women are often portrayed as actively choosing to disregard morality in order to get ahead. When the lawyer Zheng Baichun started a Web site to help inform mistresses and second wives of their legal rights and protect them from being taken advantage of, a public outcry ensued, declaring that these women were not “weak parties” (ruoshi tuanti) but plotting seducers. Although many in China consider the disloyalty and irresponsibility of elite men as an unfortunate consequence of the country’s opening up, it is largely young women who receive the most blame for speeding the pace of moral decline.

Moralizing critics thus see mistresses as sex workers with better working conditions, and they view car show models and massage girls as ultimately in the same business: trading feminine sexuality for money. Many of them, from intellectuals to average citizens, have called for the adoption of new systems of value and belief to help prevent intimate relations from being contaminated by market forces. They view the immorality of gray women -- combined with the excesses of corrupt officials and the dishonesty of entrepreneurs -- as symptomatic of a more general degeneration of Chinese society.

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  • 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).
  • More By John Osburg