In the rest of the world it’s not unknown for men to take a lover outside of their marriage. Here in China, however this is a formal concept in society. The second wife is essentially a prostitute who only sleeps with a single client. In exchange the man usually rents (or in long-term arrangements buys) her apartment for her, provides a car, an income and supplies a number of gifts across the course of the deal.
This doesn’t mean that his second wife is always exclusively his lover; many second wives have active love lives outside of the relationship that keeps them in clover. What it does mean, is that second wives are at the beck and call of their paymaster. They can spend days or even weeks without their client, but the moment he calls – they drop whatever (or whoever) they are doing and rush off to be by his side.
This phenomenon has been common in China for the longest time, in some cases the real wife knows and approves or even likes the second wife. In other cases the second wife is kept a secret at home but usually a bad one. Why? Because the second wife is always a much younger more attractive woman than the wife, and as such when a Chinese businessman wants to impress clients, business associates or friends at social functions – he will often take his er nai to accompany him.
The reason for this seems to be that when they are young often Chinese men don’t have much money and thus cannot attract the kind of woman they so desire. So they marry, usually to keep their parents happy, and have children with a woman that they don’t feel matches their expectations. Then when the money starts to flow, they can get the woman of their dreams (for a price) and so they feel entitled to do so. The first wife generally won’t object to this, as long as he’s a good father to his children and the money spent on the second wife doesn’t impact on her family’s quality of life – it’s expected.
Second wives are the envy of all sex workers in China, it’s considered to be a plum job. It’s less risky than having multiple sexual partners, it pays better and it means their families will be well taken care of with the money they bring in. And because it has a thin veneer of social respectability, the position carries far less social stigma than other kinds of sex work. There are many ranks of prostitute in China, and the er nai is at the top of the heap. Many KTV girls and high class “escorts” dream of meeting a man that will make them his second wife.
From a Chinese male perspective, it is expected that a successful man will have a second wife (in fact super rich Chinese may have several “second wives”) and thus there’s a pressure to conform to this from his peers.
I’ve spoken to some Chinese women about this and many seem unbothered by the idea that their husbands will one day take a lover. Though when I jokingly mentioned the idea of second wives to my own wife while we were living in Arabia (where in many states Muslims may marry four women), she told me; “Of course you can have a second wife, as long as you don’t mind the first wife killing you when you are sleeping.”