While accurate numbers are hard to come by, a 2008 estimate says that Second Wives account for a third of the country's consumption of luxury products. There is a tension between what is officially and socially accepted, however. This contentious consumer group must be viewed in light of a deep-rooted set of Chinese cultural values, including the distinction between marriage and sex and the practical rather than romantic nature of the relationship 'transaction'.
What are societal attitudes to Second Wives?
You have to start with traditional Chinese culture. In order for a man to 'fulfill his mandate to heaven' he needs to produce a son, and women have always been used as a means to an end in propagating the name of the father. So concubinage has been an institution for thousands of years and the Chinese have always had an exceptionally pragmatic attitude toward sex.
Because China has never had a humanist revolution, sex and marriage have always been relatively divorced. That is why many Asian cultures have an immensely commercialized and categorized [sex industry]. The way they separate the two is quite stunning -- the choices are up on neon boards like a McDonald's menu.
Now the caveat is that the core of the marriage is 'commitment', which is to make sure the family remains cohesive. Even today, wives are much more likely to look the other way if the husband has a happy ending at a massage than if he takes on a mistress. If he takes on a mistress, for most unwealthy people, this is a fundamental threat to the marriage. But if a husband is a man of means, and has a significant income, then he can take on a second wife without violating his obligation to his first wife. So there is a whole way of maintaining the system without it resulting in divorce.
Er nai are not socially accepted, but they are not scandalous, either.
When I ask people how much it costs to maintain a second wife -- a trophy concubine -- the average I'm told is 50,000RMB. This isn't just a girlfriend, this is someone who is kept. And she is displayed as somebody that's a result of this guy's power and influence, and access to funds.
The next step up from a flash car, then?
Absolutely. Very few people have really flash cars because they're too conspicuous -- you have the Mercedes or BMW, or better yet the Audi A8 because it's understated, but [cars like] Maseratis are still highly dangerous and no one is going to drive one around that obviously. But among close friends and associates the mistress is a known commodity.
And how does that tie into gift culture? In 2009, 50% of luxury purchases were gifts -- what percentage were er nai gifts?
Well, no one has the exact statistics, of course. The majority of luxury brand gift culture is man to man -- you could call it trust facilitation in a business environment. That's one of the things that makes the luxury market in China absolutely unique; men buy even more luxury products than women do, and this is often to smooth business transactions.
Sometimes those payouts are ill-gotten, and a way of siphoning profit into non-measurable ways, and sometimes it's just a way of currying favor. But the fact is that the majority of gifting in China is men to men. That said, in my casual but extended observation, another big source of volume is men to women for the second wife. And those brands tend to be much more flashy.
Second Wives [like flashy brands] because they have to display that their man is dedicated to them. They lead very insecure lives. They are not independent and need to advertise the fact they have a sponsor.
What impact have er nai had on Tier 2 economies?
Of course you will see it more in Tier 1 cities because that's where the wealth is. But any city that has a middle class is going to have Second Wives. I asked people what percentage of upper middle class guys [had mistresses] -- and this might not be accurate but it gives you an idea of how widespread the perception is -- and was told 85-95%. It's certainly become accepted as a perk of power. Even Jiang Zemin, the former President, had a very high profile mistress -- a singer who appears on the Chinese New Year program every year. And it's not a scandal.
However, the reason the government has policy for officials not to have mistresses is not about morals, it's about corruption. The mistress is often thought to be sustained based on ill-gotten gains and it's a trigger for corruption accusations, because the actual salary of an official is not high enough to support a mistress.
Given that er nai have such a large amount of buying power, are there any brands or businesses targeting them directly?
Certainly not directly -- you'd never say something like this directly. But any flash luxury brand is going to be embraced by these women.
Is there any evidence that distaste towards er nai from first wives is impacting their luxury buying habits?
Well there hasn't been a shift, it's always been the case that Chinese women want to be both elegant and conspicuous. That's what accounts for the appeal of a diamond -- it sparkles not shines -- or Bottega Veneta with its elegant crossweave that's still very noticeable. A Chinese woman wants to reinforce her understated, gentle femininity as well as her desire to move forward and stand up. So those inconspicuously conspicuous brands have always been popular among Chinese women. What you're seeing instead, though, are the growth of the more niche, flashier brands.
Is there's a risk of something like the unfortunate Burberry 'chav effect' happening in China because of certain brands' association with Second Wives?
Well, I think Burberry went downmarket, and it was reborn -- it's extremely aspirational here. The brands that go out are not the ones that become too flashy because they're born flashy, that's their niche from the very beginning. The ones that die are the ones that grow old and don't innovate. But again that's another subject -- Chinese want big brands but they also want to know they're ahead of the trend curve.
How does the question of love tie into all of this?
Second Wife culture is just one part of a much bigger and more interesting area which is the difference between love and marriage in China and the West. Marriage in the west is rooted in romantic passion, and although that passion evolves over time we basically assume that if it's is gone from marriage it's a shallow marriage. Yes, there are other concerns that surround it -- children, money -- but it's not the core of the relationship.
In China it's fundamentally true that a marriage is not between two individuals, it's between two clans. Marriage is a way that people connect into a broader society in which the individual is not the basic productive unit. This has always been the case.
In China, a romance is not ideal unless it is also accompanied by commitment. In Chinese, when we translate "a diamond is forever", we don't mean that passion lasts forever. It translates as "he will do anything for you, forever". And that's why people buy a lot of things for their mistresses -- that affection needs to be demonstrated, too.
There's a TV show about dating whose title translates as "Don't bother me if you're not serious" [where women list the material things they expect from a man]. One of the more infamous contestants, Ma Nuo, caused an outcry after stressing material benefit as the most important thing she was looking for. (Choice quote: "If I am dumped, I would rather cry on the back seat of a BMW than on a bicycle.") People accused her of lacking 'morality.' But she hit on a truth: where matters of the heart are concerned, society forces people to look for tangible return for the sake of future stability. As it becomes more difficult to make ends meet, particularly with the skyrocketing cost of houses, the imperative of a practical marriage becomes even more pronounced.
Of course, this does not mean that the Chinese are incapable of love, or do not want to fall in love. It means that romantic love competes with that transactional element in a society where people are insecure because their individual interests are not institutionally protected.
Interview originally published on Canvas8, a leading trends website