China’s Second Wives: Navigating Love, Money, and Power

HomeexploreChina’s Second Wives: Navigating Love, Money, and Power

A simple employment ad appeared near the Jiangsu University of Arts in Eastern China. “Wanted: Second Wife. Age 18-28, 1.55-1.75 meters tall. Sweet appearance, fair skin, no ugly legs. Virgin and no experience in love.” The ad went on to detail the desired qualities for the role: “Must possess office skills, take messages, and perform household tasks. Should know how to chat, be fun and creative, know how to sing and dance. Must be able to live harmoniously with the legal wife.” The ‘employer’ further outlined the job responsibilities: “You must cook at least 14 times a week, drive me to work 60 times a month, and engage in sexual relations no less than 18 times a month.” According to the text, successful candidates would undergo a one-month trial period earning five thousand yuan, followed by a monthly salary of 15,000 yuan (approximately $2,500), a BMW car, health insurance, and yearly bonuses.


Advertisements of this kind, which might have been considered scandalous or reported to the police in any other country, are not all that rare in China. More than anything else, they reflect the decay of the communist ideology that dominated China until the late 1970s, to be replaced by the worship of money and status. For over three decades, China has undergone rapid social and economic transformation, quickly becoming one of the world’s strongest economies. 


However, this monumental social experiment has far-reaching implications for Chinese society, as the transition from a socialist, planned economy to a near-capitalist one has exacerbated social and economic disparities among different population groups. As some men lose their economic power while others fight to maintain it, women’s bodies are being commodified and exploited to strengthen a deteriorating masculinity. 


Increasingly, women from various segments of society are becoming what is known as “second wives (ernai, 二奶)” – women who engage in romantic and sexual relationships with married men in exchange for money and gifts. These women skillfully navigate the fine line between prostitution and love: they show their partners love and affection, emphasizing their masculinity and power; in return, they receive money for a comfortable living. This is a calculated relationship system where both sides trade love for economic and status gains. The man uses the second woman to bolster his position among his peers and colleagues, while some women can use this arrangement to gain a small foothold on the social ladder and accumulate some wealth. In the game of love, money is never given directly for sexual services; it is given as gifts of luxury handbags, monthly allowances for shopping, or a luxury apartment in the city.


The phenomenon of second women is a direct product of China’s business and social system, which places participants in a trade-off involving sex, money, and status, while simultaneously shaming them for their sexual behavior. Unlike the classic idea of a mistress, a second wife is seen as someone with whom a man establishes a secondary household, a relationship that may last for several years but lacks commitment and children. While such cases could have been attributed to certain circles or local customs, data suggests that this phenomenon is expanding within the business and government circles, no longer disregarded as a marginal or fleeting trend. This system, larger than the sum of its parts, reflects the profound societal crisis that China is experiencing in the wake of its rapid economic ascent.


In many ways, taking a second wife is a continuation of an ancient Chinese practice – the concubine system, which was prevalent among powerful men in traditional China. Men used to take concubines as symbols of status and for expanding their families, and the number of concubines testified to the family’s wealth. This practice was permanently abolished by the Communist Party in the mid-20th century, with laws prohibiting polygamy and granting women rights in marriage and divorce. Ironically, this practice has reemerged under the same regime decades later.


Who are the women who choose to participate in such relationship systems, and is it truly a “choice”? Chinese media occasionally releases stories about urban second wives from higher social strata, who skillfully ‘manipulate’ men and ‘use their sexuality’ to extract money and expensive gifts. While this phenomenon exists, in reality, urban women from affluent backgrounds are less likely to become second wives. Their advanced education and close-knit family support deter most women from entering into such relationships, which could jeopardize their reputations and future careers; when they do, their status and education position them higher on the “second women ladder,” meaning they receive a higher ‘allowance.’ 


However, most second women come from modest backgrounds – mainly rural migrant women. These women often migrated from rural China to big cities, finding work in factories and manual labor. some end up working in entertainment venues, providing sexual services to numerous men. For these women, becoming a “second wife” is a ticket out of the world of modern-day servitude and prostitution. The harsh conditions they face and their social isolation make them easy prey for men who, in exchange for relatively modest sums, essentially “buy” them, rendering them financially dependent.


The resurrection of the second wife practice is closely tied to China’s business etiquette, which largely relies on personal connections and displays of power. Many business meetings in China do not take place in offices, but in social settings like evening meals and karaoke bars, where businesspeople are required to prove their power through excessive drinking and engaging in intimate interactions with women. These meetings are considered ‘inappropriate’ for the first wife and the mother of the businessman’s children. Instead, they provide fertile ground for the emergence of second wives, who are perceived as more ‘qualitative’ than sex workers and as those who ‘willingly choose’ to ‘date’ the man. 


Yet just like not all Ernais are young urbanites, not all men participating in the practice are glamorous businessmen. Studies show that the second wife practice is widespread among truck drivers and other middle and low-income workers living in Hong Kong, who frequently travel to the mainland. Their needs are often more emotional than professional – They don’t attend dinner karaoke bars to sign deals. Instead, the second wife performs emotional labor – asserting the man’s masculinity and economic power at a time when economic shifts rendered them less desirable in Hong Kong.  


Second Wives: A Political and Economic Powerhouse

Li Wei, now over 60, was a penniless Vietnamese immigrant when she crossed the border into Yunnan province in southwestern China. In a series of affairs involving high-ranking politicians, she accumulated immense wealth, which she invested in real estate and stock. When the police knocked on her door, she turned in her many lovers and testified against them in exchange for a plea deal. The high-profile case led to the indictment of officials from Yunnan province, the party secretary of Jinghong, as well as CEOs, judges, and mayors. Li herself spent a short time in custody and was released with most of her immense fortune intact. 


Li Wei’s story is just a drop in the ocean of ernai-related events, showing that power, sex, and money will always go hand in hand. President Xi Jinping’s war on corruption has also targeted second wives: Research in China found that 95% of corrupt officials conducted affairs with at least one second wife, and many of them even used these affairs to embezzle money or sign dubious contracts. Second wives have become a major concern for the Chinese government, and for good reason: in the late 2010s, it was discovered that one in every ten officials accused of corruption was exposed by his former second wife. In an interesting twist of fate, second wives turned into the unsung heroes of the party’s internal cleanup war.


Second wives have managed to leave a mark on the economy too: data released in the late 2010s indicate that over half of the world’s luxury brands are bought by Chinese people – and more than a third of China’s luxury brands are purchased by second women or for them. This turns second women into an extraordinary economic force that helps shape the Chinese consumer market. The phenomenon born out of a swift transition to capitalism has become one of the driving forces propelling it forward.


And then there’s the demographic imbalance: in a country where the low number of women is projected to leave 40 million bachelors in the next two decades, Policymakers are less than happy to see women spend their 20s in relationships with unavailable men. While it’s not the most pressing problem in China’s looming demographic crisis, it’s yet another reminder that in modern China, family values take a back seat for financial stability. 


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