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Er nai - the modern Chinese concubine

Concubinage is alive and well in Beijing

See also Concubines in Ancient China

Er nai literally means ‘second wife’ – but er nais are not wives in the traditional sense. An er nai is a modern concubine, someone that a man decides to take in addition to his wife, while the first wife is still around.

The couple aren’t married and children are out of the question. The basics the woman is expected to supply are sex and company, and in return the man generally buys or rents a flat for her and pays her some pocket money.

The modern concubine is typically young, pretty, educated, fashionable, and in it for the money. Most people in Beijing either know somebody who is an er nai, or somebody who has one.

Er nai can be spotted whiling away their days in trendy salons flashing around brand new mobile phones and Gucci bags, but they can also be seen accompanying their male patrons on business lunches or evenings out, there is little stigma attached to the phenomenon.

Modern Concubines: To get rich is glorious

In a country where historically, people haven’t married for love, where former Communist revolutionaries declared that ‘to get rich is glorious’, some women see being an ‘er nai’ as a viable career option. A rich husband will not only look after his concubines, but can offer her career advice, maybe even give her money to start a business, and through her ‘husband’, she can meet a whole range of rich and influential people.

For the man, an er nai not only provides sex and enjoyable company, she is a major source of face. The company of an attractive young female shows that he has the money (and thereby status) necessary for her upkeep – something which will in turn be useful to him in his business life.

Modern Concubines: What does the wife think?

Some wives know all about their husband’s er nai and just choose to look the other way, but others are fighting back. A certain Mrs Qian (which, coincidentally, means money) recently made headlines throughout China by attempting to sue her husband’s er nai, Xiao Yun (Little Cloud) to recover money her husband had given her.

Husband Wu Haiyang, a successful Shanghai businessman first met Xiao Yun when one of them accidentally sent a text message to the wrong number. The two began chatting and their relationship slowly grew. The court ruled against Mrs Qian.

Private detective agencies are getting in on the act too – offering to help suspicious wives find out if their husbands have secret er nais holed up somewhere. Many Chinese businessmen have to travel all around the country, so it makes sense to have an er nai in each major city. All she has to do is keep a tidy house for him to stay in and entertain him when he’s in town.

Modern concubines are very unlikely to have a pension

Life’s not all good for er nais. A lot of er nais come to depend completely on their husband, but have nothing to fall back upon if he changes his mind. Unlike wives, they’re unlikely to have the common bond that children provide, or usually any chance to get to know the husband’s family. There are countless stories of er nais who meet men in their early twenties, live a comfortable life until their early thirties, but are then abandoned with no money, no qualifications, no work experience and no friends.

Some argue that there is little difference between being an er nai and prositution. The truth is, there are all sorts of different er nais. Some women fall in love with married men and end up being er nais, others deliberately set out with money in mind. In some cases, the couple set out a contract before the relationship is consummated, specifying what the man will provide to the woman, and how many times he can expect to have sex with her per week.

A recent investigation by a Chinese journalist found that many dating agencies were offering men er nais as a lucrative under the counter sideline. Men were introduced to potential concubines at a day’s notice, without having to give any detail about themselves.

Er nai are increasingly common among university students. As many students struggle to make ends meet, finding a rich man to help them pay their way can seem like a very comfortable option. They not only get money, it may also mean they can afford to move out of cramped university dormitories.

Knowing the husband might even make finding a job after graduation much easier. Most students can name one or two females in their class who they think are er nais, and some male students report being asked by their father’s friends to identify potential er nais among their female classmates.

Concubines, Er nai, Prostitutes, Wives, Girlfriends and teapots

There’s a subtle difference between having an er nai and having an affair, and there’s also a difference between er nais and prostitutes. For a start, er nais are exclusive, whereas prostitutes can have sex with whoever they like. Also, the way men meet their er nais is different, in general they wouldn’t go to a brothel to find an er nai, and there is generally at least a degree of mutual attraction and affection involved. On the other hand, there is no question that er nai are of lower status than wives.

One Chinese person summed up the differences between prostitutes, er nais and wives on an online forum. He/she said:

“Prostitutes are a bit like a paid public toilet, they’re there to fulfil a basic need and anyone who has the money can use them. An er nai is like a private toilet – you need to be fairly well off to have one, noone else can use it, and you take much better care of it than a public toilet. And a wife? Well, you wouldn’t want to compare her to any kind of toilet at all, because she is your equal.”

Recommended Chinese culture articles:

Traditional Chinese Architecture: Evolution and History, Chinese Siheyuan Courtyards

Chinese Religion: How To Tell Chinese Temples Apart, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism

Beijing Arts: Chinese Opera, Acrobatics, Tai Chi, Chinese Gardens

Beijing Society: Er Nai, Lucky Numbers, Chinese Etiquette, Drugs in China

Chinese History: Chairman Mao Zedong, Eunuchs, Chinese Emperors, Ancient History Timeline, Concubines, 20th Century Timeline


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