The Other Side of Chinese Relationships

So much can be heard about social issues in China – about China itself, in fact – it can feel as if the country and its people are, in all their oddities, becoming ever more familiar.

In talking about relationships, for example, one commonly hears about two sides: Men who get rich and find themselves a mistress as one of the pinnacles of luxury consumption; and women who are practical and seemingly go looking for condo, cash, car rather than really seek a consort for their life.

It seems strange, it seems fascinating – and it hides real understanding.

The talk about relationships, for example, is very much just that: talk. And it is a predominantly male perspective.

There definitely are women who go about finding a mate as a business proposal, seeing marrying rich (or at least having a rich lover) as their best and easiest way to a good life.
Amongst my students, there was the one (who found some wannabe-followers, too) who had one boyfriend who was dragged into the stores, another acquaintance who was not the boyfriend but still expected to buy things for her, while her contribution was nothing but looking her best… although, since men will be men, and women need to make themselves their best, snagging a rich man is an art form in China.

There are quite a few who are being bullied into such pragmatic relationships by their parents, or torn out of loving relationships because the parents disapprove, however. The stories of those abound, whether online, or in personal conversation.

There are also parents and partners who don’t meddle quite that much, however. As interesting as all the stories are – parents who seem to have nothing much to do besides ask their working children when they’ll finally get married, arrange for blind dates, go on marriage markets to try and find good mates for their kids – I wonder if they aren’t just the outliers that get attention.

Besides, the fascination with materialistic women and men who take lovers hides the extent to which this is a kind of cultural economy, too.

For the men, having a lover is part of male competition with other males, where being able to attract and afford an ernai/xiaosan is a sign of having made it. Luxury watches have been amongst those status symbols, too, and men’s handbags have been getting there.

Women are also in their own arena of social competition, but it’s either having a good husband or living a luxurious lifestyle – or preferably, both: a handsome and caring husband able to give her a luxurious lifestyle – that shows a woman has made it. Naturally, contexts shape this competition strongly: Shanghai is a very different arena from Xiangtan.

The intersection between the two, in terms of views, is where things get interesting:

The woman with a deluxe life may still be envied when it is based on her being a xiaosan, but she will also be torn down.
Even Chinese women who are with a foreigner are oftentimes victims of badmouthing – and the context shapes that, too: A Chinese man who has a foreign girlfriend is seen as having made it in what may be the ultimate way. The opposite coupling is so normal, and fits in with the stereotypes about materialist women just looking to advance, it can end up being seen quite negatively – even by the woman herself.

A man with lovers may be seen as successful by other males; women may think about all the things he may buy them – but from the female perspective, a man with a lover is not a good one.

It goes so far that there is not only a male near-obsession with virginity. (Chinese men quite often state that they “can” only marry a virgin.) In a somewhat feminist twist, the women, too, will see someone with too much experience, who’s had too many prior relationships, as less worthy of consideration as a potential husband. (In some cases, going overboard in their dislike of what’s come before, as in the case Christine Tan describes here.)

Women as sluts, men as studs – it’s not alien to the Chinese view at all.

The similarities to how these things are seen in “the West” hide differences and the range of perspectives, however – and the focus on the far sides of Chinese society, as important as the trends and patterns they point to are, oftentimes hides complications and even common perspectives that are much less extreme all the more.


  1. Christine

    I posted this on your pingback, then thought it’d be better actually replying here!
    Hey Gerald, enjoyed the post, good points. As much as I love reading about the ‘extreme’ cases in Chinese love, dating and relationships, I somewhat agree that the generally intense focus on these issues (especially in Chinese media… I get most of my ‘inspiration’ re: cheaters, mistresses and materialistic women from chinaSMACK!) may give the wrong impression (to foreigners outside China) that this is exactly what Chinese society is like, all of the time. Most of us within China must know it isn’t — after all, if these sorts of trends were applicable to the majority of the population, then Chinese society would have fallen apart by now, wrecked by these men with xiaosan, and these torturous, demanding leftover women. Instead, normal, healthy relationships and marriages and families MUST be the norm — all those happy couples I see toting their precious beautiful children around! Yuck! (Kidding.)

    But I think there are good reasons why we should continue focusing on the ‘far side’ examples, and talk about them. Firstly, it’s simply boring writing about what is ordinary and less extreme. More seriously, focusing on the ‘far side’ forces one into social critique, becoming a way to reinforce the majority’s values — most of these articles about materialism and love are highly critical of that intersection, and reactions by writers and readers are often what you describe (e.g. the “tearing down” of xiaosan, etc.). We will always pay more attention to the outliers — these strange, strange phenomena — in an attempt to protect what the majority believe in.

    In short — I think what’s important about these stories of extreme examples in China are not the cases themselves, but Chinese people’s reactions to them… that in itself reflects the common perspectives. The more articles there are concerning/questioning/attacking/making fun of rich men, xiaosan, leftover women, and the cultural economy, the clearer it is that these are not common to everyone. When you stop writing about this stuff, that’s when it’s become ‘normalized’!

    P.S. I really love what you pointed out about virginity, and the “feminist twist.” I don’t think many people have thought of it that way. Maybe one of my next posts will be devoted to another sort of ‘extreme,’ ‘far side’ example — a traditional Chinese lady who demands a virgin!

    1. Gerald

      Thank you very much for replying here; I don’t exactly get too many commenters ;-)

      By all means, go on writing about the extremes. How else would I have something more to laugh about, and then to comment on as being so misleading? ;-)
      I’ve just been getting careful, because there’s too much where people write and criticize such extremes, but not in any way that is constructive, except in propping up majority opinions that might be in need of some teardowns themselves.

      I find men being let off the hook too easily, for example, when people comment about xiaosan suggesting that it’s these women (alone, it often seems) who are destroying those men’s relationships… I kinda doubt that’s what’s happening. I’ve always had a rather “feminist” perspective though, at least on the point that maybe men, if they really want to be the strong ones, need to work on thinking more with their brains instead of their you-know-what…

      I think I’m simply looking at it from the background of the cultural anthropologist I am, and as such I’m more interested in the oddities of what’s considered normal (and, as has become only too strong in my recent writing, in how it’s not odd from within a culture/society), rather than the blatant oddities.
      Your observation that not finding it noteworthy would mean it’s become normal/”normalized” is itself very noteworthy, though… provides a nice shift in perspective.

      1. Christine

        True — these majority opinions can be nasty much of the time.

        Wow, you really are a feminist :) I don’t know what I feel about the whole xiaosan phenomena; women are hard on other women, and I admit that I’m partial to thinking “if there weren’t women willing to cheat with them, they’d have a harder time cheating” but of course that obscures the other, finer details… the desire or even need to go outside a marriage in the first place, etc. We need more cultural anthropologists.

        I myself look at all these stories from the background of an English literature major… I’m interested in character-drive, highly personal tales! Am always on the lookout for them :)

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