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Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Inside China’s Mistress-Industrial Complex

If you’re pretty and educated, there’s a booming new job market for women—as someone’s mistress. What the increasing number of females entering these relationships means for China’s economy and demographics.

Spend a Tuesday afternoon in one of the high-end shopping malls in China’s capital city, and you will see for yourself what has China buzzing with gossip—a group of beautiful, young Chinese women with fake eyelashes and sparkling manicures, out to show off their Prada purses and Mikimoto pearls. This is China’s mistress culture out in full force.

Stories of Chinese adultery have splashed across headlines in recent months, as the country’s crackdown on corruption brings to light newfound official indiscretions. Although China’s culture is commonly perceived as conservative, surveys reveal that “non-commercial” infidelity is rife, and anecdotal evidence suggests it is trending up.

The practice of keeping a mistress is, of course, far from unique to China: Mistresses have existed for as long as the institutionalization of marriage, and nations like Russia and France also enjoy their own flourishing class of kept women. However, the real shocker of China’s mistress culture lies in its openly transactional nature, its visibility, and its ubiquity.

Far from being a secret, having a mistress is a new way to show off one’s social status in China. These “luxury accessories” require the maintenance of a set of unspoken rules: fancy apartments, beautiful clothes, and spending money. In return, the Chinese mistress often makes herself sexually available exclusively, dresses in designer fashions and flawless make-up each time she goes out with her beau, and sits conspicuously by his side at business and social functions.

Iris (name has been changed) has become one such “status symbol.” A 20-year-old female college student in Shanghai, Iris grew up in a dusty rural town in China’s interior. In addition to her school work and hanging out with her classmates, she now dates a 40-year-old, somewhat successful, and married man. They met at a karaoke outing, and he took her out to a candlelit Italian dinner on their first date. She appreciates the material benefits their relationship gives her: Her boyfriend gives her attention and monthly spending money, takes her shopping, and sends a car service to pick her up after classes.

Iris has no disillusions about their relationship. She says she doesn’t envision a future together, and called their breakup “inevitable.” However, she is equally pessimistic about the prospects of a relationship with man her own age, who she describes as “knowing nothing and needing attention all the time.” “I might as well have a pampered experienced with someone who has the material means to open my eyes and expand my horizons,” she says.

Iris gets material possessions she covets; her lover gets the company of a young, beautiful women and the appearance of material success. Outwardly, they both look happy. So what’s the problem?

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