STATE Of AF­FAIRS

Rock­et­ing di­vorce rates have alarmed the gov­ern­ment— is a cul­ture of in­fi­delity to blame?

The World of Chinese - - Cover Story - - EMILY CON­RAD Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Lily (pseu­do­nym) did not think twice about when a fam­ily friend’s col­league of­fered to drive her home af­ter din­ner. He was sober, her place was on the way, and, be­sides, her friend was a pow­er­ful guy. No one would want to up­set him.

Their con­ver­sa­tion was in­no­cent enough, as they dis­cussed how his 10-year-old son should study to at­tend a top univer­sity like her. But when they ar­rived, he leaned over to forcibly kiss her. For weeks after­wards, he con­tin­u­ously texted her, ask­ing her out to din­ners, clubs, and KTVS be­fore fi­nally tak­ing the hint to stop.

There’s noth­ing un­usual about a story like Lily’s. The pri­vate lives of many mar­ried men are filled with mis­tresses, mys­tery girl­friends, and KTV vis­its, if ru­mors and re­ports are to be­lieved. Ren­min Univer­sity’s Pro­fes­sor Pan Suim­ing, a spe­cial­ist on Chi­nese sex lives, has es­ti­mated that 34.8 per­cent of men had en­gaged in sex­ual re­la­tions out­side of mar­riage—a con­ser­va­tive fig­ure. An on­line poll by Ten­cent had the num­ber even higher, at 60 per­cent (and that’s just those who ad­mit it).

The is­sue is preva­lent enough to have spawned a mi­nor in­dus­try, de­voted to pro­vid­ing so­lu­tions to the prob­lem of hav­ing an un­wanted “lit­tle third” (小三) in your life, as mis­tresses are of­ten called. Teams of ex­pen­sive ex­perts— known as “mistress dis­pellers”—claim to of­fer wives tips and makeover ad­vice to re­claim their wan­der­ing spouses, while promis­ing to ward off mis­tresses with a range of du­bi­ous tac­tics like bribery and threats.

An­thro­pol­o­gist John Os­burg is not sur­prised by these stud­ies. Dur­ing re­search for his 2013 book, Anx­ious Wealth: Money and Moral­ity Among China’s New Rich, the as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Rochester be­friended and in­ter­viewed nu­mer­ous wealthy busi­ness­men in south­west Sichuan prov­ince. “The in­fi­delity rate of my re­search sub­jects was nearly 100 per­cent,” he told TWOC. “Of course, my sam­ple size was rel­a­tively small and the sub­jects had a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties.”

Although in­fi­delity is noth­ing new in so­ci­ety, the is­sue has gained pub­lic at­ten­tion in re­cent years in part due to China’s sky­rock­et­ing di­vorce rate, which has dou­bled in the last decade, with many cit­ing ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs as the cause. In 2017, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Bei­jing No. 2 In­ter­me­di­ate Peo­ple’s Court told the South China Morn­ing Post that 93 per­cent of di­vorces stemmed from ei­ther af­fairs or do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

In an at­tempt to clamp down on di­vorce and pro­mote “tra­di­tional fam­ily val­ues,” the gov­ern­ment is in­tro­duc­ing a “cool­ing off ” for cou­ples seek­ing sep­a­ra­tion, dur­ing which they are en­cour­aged to rec­on­cile their dif­fer­ences through coun­sel­ing. Parental pres­sure may also have

“SOME YOUNG COU­PLES ARE AC­TU­ALLY BE­ING PRES­SURED TO DI­VORCE BY THEIR PAR­ENTS”

helped pre­serve un­happy mar­riages in the past—but, ac­cord­ing to Bei­jing mar­riage coun­selor Li Ken­ing, who has worked for over nine years in the sub­ur­ban Tongzhou dis­trict, the sit­u­a­tion is quite dif­fer­ent to­day.

“Some young cou­ples are ac­tu­ally be­ing pres­sured to di­vorce by their par­ents,” Li told TWOC. “If a woman’s par­ents hear that her hus­band has had an af­fair, or is not treat­ing her right, they may tell her to seek a di­vorce. Like­wise, moth­ers of妈宝男 (mommy’s boys) find con­stant fault with their daugh­ters-in-law— even di­vorce­able faults.”

Bei­jinger Mr. Zheng agrees. Be­liev­ing that city life makes peo­ple more lib­eral, he isn’t push­ing his 31-yearold son into mar­riage, pre­fer­ring him to find a woman with whom he has emo­tional and phys­i­cal chem­istry. How­ever, “If my son fell in love with an­other woman and wanted to leave his wife, I would ad­vise him to work harder to make his first mar­riage work; if I couldn’t per­suade him, I would sup­port his de­ci­sion to di­vorce,” Zheng said. “I am Chi­nese, and it is still im­por­tant to keep the fam­ily tra­di­tion.”

While the one-child pol­icy has un­doubt­edly el­e­vated the im­por­tance of their child’s per­sonal ful­fill­ment and hap­pi­ness in par­ents’ minds, Os­burg’s re­search pro­vides other in­sights. One ma­jor rea­son that Os­burg’s re­search sub­jects did not pur­sue di­vorce was peer—rather than fam­ily—pres­sure. He cited the case of a busi­ness­man who fell in love with a night­club dancer, but ul­ti­mately de­cided to stay with his wife, out of con­cern for how his busi­ness as­so­ci­ates and peers would view such a part­ner, or judge his char­ac­ter and sense of fa­mil­ial re­spon­si­bil­ity.

On the other hand, Os­burg noted, his sub­jects seemed to be hap­pier— and more “in love”—with their mis­tresses than their wives. The 1950 Mar­riage Law, which abol­ished ar­ranged mar­riages, was not quite the so­ci­etal game-changer it first ap­peared. Class dif­fer­ences were a peren­nial ob­sta­cle, tra­di­tion an­other: Par­ents still had a great deal of say in their chil­dren’s af­fairs, match­mak­ing re­mained preva­lent be­hind the scenes, and there was vir­tu­ally no dat­ing cul­ture. Mar­riages and di­vorces even needed ap­proval by each part­ner’s work unit.

In­flu­enced by new mod­els of ro­mance and part­ner­ship in Hol­ly­wood movies and Can­topop in the re­form era, young peo­ple wanted to marry for love, although many did not know how. Os­burg says his sub­jects of­ten talked about fa­ther­hood, and their pride in their chil­dren, but rarely their sat­is­fac­tion with mar­riage. In­stead, they lamented their lack of ex­pe­ri­ence, or their in­no­cence at the time of their mar­riages. “I went out with [a woman] and ev­ery­body started talk­ing about us get­ting mar­ried, so we did” was a typ­i­cal re­frain.

And while re­form brought back ro­mance, it also marked out new

ONE MA­JOR REA­SON THAT MALE RE­SEARCH SUB­JECTS DID NOT PUR­SUE DI­VORCE WAS PEER—RATHER THAN FAM­ILY—PRES­SURE

MATCH­MAK­ING WAS PREVA­LENT BE­HIND THE SCENES, THERE WAS VIR­TU­ALLY NO DAT­ING CUL­TURE, AND MAR­RIAGES AND DI­VORCES NEEDED AP­PROVAL BY EACH PART­NER’S WORK UNIT

in­equal­i­ties. While an­cient con­cu­bine cul­ture usu­ally came along­side a moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion—get­ting male heirs to con­tinue the fam­ily line—in ad­di­tion to sta­tus-sig­nal­ing for elite men, Os­burg states that the wealth gap has ex­ac­er­bated gen­der in­equal­ity, cre­at­ing a ready sup­ply of young women will­ing to be­come mis­tresses for ma­te­rial gain. His sub­jects lament that some women now throw them­selves at wealthy men, hop­ing that an af­fair would pro­vide them with fi­nan­cial sup­port—or, as the say­ing goes, “A man goes bad when he gets rich, a woman goes bad to get rich.”

As for men, mis­tresses can be a sta­tus sym­bol, es­pe­cially as the gen­der dis­par­ity caused by the onechild pol­icy has made women a rarer “com­mod­ity.” Ten­cent’s sur­vey sug­gests that men with higher in­comes are more likely to cheat, and that IT, fi­nance, and ed­u­ca­tion are the most adul­ter­ous pro­fes­sions. Os­burg ob­serves that many of his sub­jects work long hours out­side of the home, and some worry about be­ing con­sid­ered prud­ish if they do not join busi­ness part­ners and col­leagues in bond­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in­volv­ing al­co­hol and pros­ti­tutes. Then, there are those who ra­tio­nal­ize in­fi­delity as that’s just how men are.

How­ever, Li notes that adul­tery is is now no longer the pre­serve of the wealthy. “It used to be that to keep a mistress, you needed to be rich,” he tells TWOC.“WITH the ris­ing use of so­cial me­dia, we are start­ing to see lots of peo­ple pur­su­ing one-night stands, many of which can bloom into a ful­lon af­fairs.”

As di­vorce be­comes less taboo, dat­ing cul­ture more preva­lent, and par­ents less able to ex­ert con­trol over their chil­dren’s love lives, both sexes are find­ing more op­por­tu­ni­ties to pur­sue their ideal life part­ner—which may, in the end, have a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence on re­duc­ing in­fi­delity. There’s even hope for the cur­rent “di­vorce gen­er­a­tion,” Li sug­gests: “Peo­ple can learn from their failed mar­riages and bet­ter pre­pare for their next one.”

SUB­JECTS OF­TEN MEN­TIONED THEIR STRUG­GLES WITH FA­THER­HOOD, AND THEIR PRIDE IN THEIR CHIL­DREN, BUT RARELY THEIR SAT­IS­FAC­TION WITH MAR­RIAGE

Pro­fes­sional “rec­on­cil­i­a­tionther­a­pists” claim to heal mar­riages that have been af­fected by cheat­ing

The TV se­ries Dwelling­nar­row­ness started de­bate on its main char­ac­ter's de­ci­sion to be­come the mistress of a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial

A pro­fes­sional “di­vorce firm” in Shang­hai ad­ver­tises ser­vices like ex­pe­dited di­vorce pa­per­work and in­ves­ti­ga­tion of cheat­ing part­ners

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