How the economic boom and deep gender inequality have created a new industry.
Lauren CollinsJune 26, 2017 Issue
Yu Ruojian was pleased to learn that his target ran a sex shop. Someone who worked in retail would be used to talking to strangers, and it would be easy, posing as a customer in such an intimate store, to bring the conversation around to personal matters. In March last year, he visited the store, in Wuxi, a city about seventy miles from Shanghai, where he lives. He told the proprietor, a gregarious woman in her forties whom I’ll call Wang, that he was looking for herbal remedies to help a friend whose marital relations were hampered by shyness. They chatted for half an hour before exchanging contact details. “I’ll be back to pester you soon enough,” Yu said as he left. “You’d better!” Wang responded, unaware that she’d walked into the first in a series of carefully laid traps.
A month earlier, Yu had heard from a woman in her fifties, the wife of a factory manager in Wuxi, who explained that her husband was having an affair with Wang. She had tolerated it for years, but now she’d found that he had spent more than two hundred thousand yuan—thirty thousand dollars—on her, savings that should have been going toward their old age and a house for their son.
Yu, a gentle-looking man in his early forties, with the placid demeanor of a yoga instructor, works as a mistress dispeller, a job that barely existed a decade ago but is becoming common in major Chinese cities. His clients are women who hope to preserve their marriages by fending off what is known in Chinese as a xiao san, or “Little Third”—a term that encompasses everything from a partner in a casual affair to a long-term “kept woman.” Mistress dispellers use a variety of methods. Some Little Thirds can be paid off or discouraged by hearing unwelcome details of their lovers’ lives—debts, say, or responsibility for an elderly parent—or shamed with notes sent to friends and family. If the dispeller or the client is well connected, a Little Third may suddenly find that her job requires her to move to another city. A female dispeller sometimes seeks to become a confidante, in order to advise the targeted woman that the liaison will inevitably crumble. In certain cases, a male mistress dispeller may even seduce the woman. Like all the mistress dispellers I spoke to, Yu said that he never resorts to this tactic, but he acknowledged that there are those who do.
A week after his first visit, Yu went back to the store. He had heard that Wang had recently purchased property nearby, and he let drop that he was looking to buy an apartment in the neighborhood. She offered to take him on a tour and introduce him to agents with properties to sell. In the course of several weeks, Yu and Wang started getting meals together, and eventually Yu invited her to Shanghai for a weekend sightseeing trip. She demurred at first but later accepted, on the condition that she could bring a girlfriend along.
Using his client’s money, Yu put the pair up at a hotel, showed them the city, and took them to sample its culinary specialties. On Shanghai’s famous river promenade, Yu took pictures of the two women and then got the friend to take several of him and Wang with their arms around each other. Once the weekend was over, these pictures found their way to Wang’s boyfriend. “A picture speaks louder than a thousand words, and, in a jealous man’s imagination, it can speak ten thousand,” Yu told me. The man ended the relationship, and returned to his wife, appreciative, if nothing else, of her loyalty. The mission had taken around four months in all.
As Yu spoke, it was hard to gauge his attitude to what he or anyone else had done. He seemed neither proud nor defensive, and offered no judgments on the behavior of those he encountered. He’d had all kinds of jobs, he told me, working in computer sales, right out of college, and then learning about psychology, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese arts. The emotional turmoil he’d caused seemed remote to him, as if his studies had enabled him to regard it with Zen composure. Things had been messy and painful before his involvement, and though the treatment he administered was painful, too, he’d been able to bring about a situation that was, on the whole, better.
Yu told me that he was on his second marriage and had one daughter from each. When I asked why his Wuxi client hadn’t considered divorce, he was incredulous. For a woman, divorce was rarely a sensible choice. “In today’s world, a secondhand woman is like a secondhand car,” he said. “Once it’s been driven, it’s not worth a fraction of its original selling price.” A secondhand man, on the other hand, Yu explained, is like renovated property in China’s real-estate market: “The value only appreciates.”
A volatile mixture of rapid social change, legal reforms, and traditional attitudes has created something approaching a crisis in Chinese marriage. In the past decade, the divorce rate has doubled. Adultery is the most prevalent cause, accounting for about a third of the cases, and men are more than thirteen times as likely to stray as women are. These trends are seen as troubling in a country that places a high social value on matrimony. Media outlets with close ties to the state frequently run stories with titles like “The Five-Year Itch” and “DNA Testing in China: Eroding Wedlock?” The government has signalled that it takes public morality seriously, in part by exposing the sexual misdeeds of high officials who fall afoul of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crusade. According to Xinhua, the state news agency, Zhou Yongkang, a former security chief who was arrested and expelled from the Communist Party in 2014, “committed adultery with a number of women in power-for-sex and money-for-sex trades.” Wild rumors spread on Chinese media that he had had more than four hundred lovers.
In divorces, women suffer disproportionately. Yu’s view of a woman’s poor chance at remarriage is widely shared, but there are more concrete issues, arising from economic disparity within marriages. Mistress dispellers are only one part of a broader industry that has sprung up to help wives rescue their unions, but their work has aroused particular fascination, as has the figure of the mistress herself, often portrayed in films and TV dramas as a predatory but irresistible homewrecker. While I was in a taxi in Shanghai, a song came on the radio that the driver mentioned was a favorite of his. Titled “Little Third,” it was the breakout single by a Henanese singer called Leng Mo, who sings to a woman about his bitter realization that he could never make her happy, given that “finally you have become someone else’s Little Third.” In another hit—“Di San Zhe” (“Third Party”), by the Malaysian-born superstar Fish Leong—a woman is magnanimous toward her rival, taking responsibility for the loss of her man and insisting that the third party shouldn’t be blamed: “Although your choice has destroyed me, I will take it positively.” It is an attitude that few wives in China can afford to share.
Yu is one of about three hundred employees of Weiqing Group, which bills itself as China’s “first professional transnational love hospital.” Weiqing—the name translates as “preserve feeling”—was founded sixteen years ago and provides an array of services, designed to save a marriage at all costs. One morning last December, I visited the headquarters, on the eighteenth floor of a weathered corporate high-rise.
The company’s co-founder, a woman in her late forties, came out to meet me. She wore a crimson cape coat, which, combined with her swift stride, gave the impression of imminent flight. She introduced herself as “Ming laoshi”—Teacher Ming. Her actual name is Ming Li, but she was formerly a teacher and has kept the honorific, because she still sees her role as instructional. She took me to her office, which resembled that of a high-school principal, adorned with award banners, framed group photos, and gold and crystal trophies. Books with titles like “Women Must Marry Well” and “ ‘Bad’ Women: Modern Chinese Mistresses” lined the walls. “There are no enduring marriages,” she told me matter-of-factly. “Only mistresses who haven’t worked hard enough at tearing it apart.”
While we spoke, Chinese love songs emanated from her pockets, ringtones from five cell phones that she carries at all times. She joked that, although she has been married for twenty years and has a teen-age daughter, her primary relationship is with her work. Weiqing’s hotline is open twenty-four hours a day, and inquiries also come in through every social-media platform in the country. Junior staff conduct an hour-long consultation, explaining the company’s services and fees. A basic course of counselling starts at a hundred thousand yuan, around fifteen thousand dollars. The price rises to three times that if there is a mistress to be dispelled and five times that if, as is often the case, the mistress has a child by the errant husband. During the initial consultation, staffers try to get a sense of what they’re up against—a sexless marriage, say, or a wordless one—and they ask the women questions about their behavior: “Do you nag him?”; “Do you make him feel good?”
These questions typify the company’s approach. There is little sense that a couple should work together to address the underlying dynamics of their relationship. Instead, the clients seek training in how to win back their husbands through unilateral effort, mostly while keeping the consultations secret. One of them told me, “If he finds out I went to a therapist, he’ll think this is a ploy and that I am actually entrapping him with my newly learned techniques.”
Ming’s lessons consist of strategy tips that amount to a kind of Art of War for marriage. A wife who has run out of things to say to her husband might be advised to buy him presents or to plant an unexpected romantic note in his suit pocket. From a Western perspective, Ming’s method offers an odd vision of empowerment, achieved through pragmatic acceptance of a retrograde model of marriage. Husbands are to be flattered, seductive clothes worn (“a relationship necessity”), and all the work of the relationship done by the wife, without the husband ever being aware of it. “Marriage is like the process of learning to swim,” Ming said. “It doesn’t matter how big or fancy your pool is, just like it doesn’t always matter how good your husband is. If you don’t know how to swim, you will drown in any case, and someone else who knows how to swim will get to enjoy the pool.”
Around noon, Ming took me to meet the company’s other co-founder, Shu Xin, whom she called Principal Shu, at a hot-pot restaurant nearby. He was late and arrived with a suitcase, packed for a trip to Beijing to see a V.I.P. customer. Both he and Ming dropped hints about government officials and wealthy entrepreneurs whose wives they had helped, but they refused to elaborate. Although Shu and Ming were at pains to emphasize the range of counselling services the firm offered, they said that eighty per cent of their new clients requested mistress dispelling, a trend that they put down to extensive media coverage.
Shu, a compact man in his fifties with wide-set cheekbones, took pride in recounting the origins of the company. In the late nineties, he was writing an advice column for a local newspaper, and Ming was his assistant. Discussions about marriage and family—previously controlled by state authorities—were beginning to be freely aired in the media. Call-in shows and advice columns addressed such topics as affairs and how to deal with in-laws. At the time, marital discord was rarely talked about outside the home in which it occurred, and often not even there. “Emotional honesty can be taboo in Chinese homes,” Shu told me. “What’s more, people don’t know how to discuss it, where to begin.”
Shu’s columns were posted in neighborhood bulletins all over Shanghai, and he started receiving calls for help from beleaguered spouses anxious for advice. One day in 1998, a distraught woman called and asked if Shu could meet her at a nearby park to talk. She turned out to be a fitness instructor in her thirties, who was married to a Taiwanese businessman and lived in Taipei, raising their two children, while he commuted to the mainland. On a chance visit to an apartment they maintained in Shanghai, she discovered women’s toiletries and cosmetics. The first thing that came to her mind was suicide.
“I told her that, practically speaking, death was not a solution,” Shu recalled. “She would be handing her husband over to the mistress. Furthermore, suicide was very irresponsible: who would care for her kids?” As they sat on a park bench, he laid out a course of action. She should accompany her husband more frequently on his business trips and participate in his social engagements, so that the mistress would see that she had no intention of giving up on the marriage. In the long run, Shu counselled, the wife must “gauge her husband’s emotional needs and, whenever possible, smooth out discord before he turns to another source.” Shu talked to the woman for an hour and a half, and, when she got up to leave, she handed him an envelope containing a thousand yuan. “At the time, a thousand yuan was a month’s salary,” Shu said. “I wasn’t even sure I should take it. But I learned two important lessons from that encounter. First, you can collect money from such consultations. And, second, just talking to someone can actually bring about concrete results.”
Shu and Ming set up their company in 2001, just after an amendment to a law made divorce easier to obtain. This new freedom created a business opportunity, and, indeed, Shu framed the threats to marriage in material terms. “Today’s Little Thirds want a good bargain,” he told me. “They are of the post-nineties generation—competitive, shrewd, worldly.” Likewise, the best course for wronged wives was to follow the money: “Secure the marriage to secure the assets. Secure the assets to secure happiness.”
It seemed a cynical view, and yet, as Shu and Ming spoke, it was clear that they also maintained, without any sense of contradiction, a more old-fashioned belief that the social importance of marriage was absolute. Both of them frequently cited a Chinese idiom, “Protect the home—protect the country,” and even seemed to view their work as a matter of patriotic duty. The institution of marriage was changing fast, faster than the attitudes surrounding it, but, as Shu put it, “If the basic unit of society isn’t secure, how can a country be fully at peace?”
I’d asked Teacher Ming to introduce me to some of her clients and, one day at her office, I met an attractive woman in her late forties, who arrived wearing a cashmere coat and dark-brown aviator sunglasses, which she kept on for the duration of our conversation. She wouldn’t tell me her name, but said that her husband was the owner of a successful supermarket chain, which she occasionally helped to manage. They’d been married for more than twenty years and had a son in college.
Some eight months before we spoke, she’d begun to suspect that her husband was having an affair. There was an inexplicable business trip and a receipt for a dress. “He’s never bought me a dress in all our years of marriage,” she said. Going through his cell-phone records, she discovered one number that her husband was calling daily, for up to eight hours at a time. One day, he asked her for a divorce, complaining that they hadn’t had sex for six months. (He said nothing about another attachment.) She was shaken, but knew she had a little leverage. “Even while asking for a divorce, he wanted to preserve his own image and wanted me to initiate the proceedings,” she said. “He thought it would look bad for him if other people thought that he was the one who wanted to end things.” So she contacted Ming.
Ming’s diagnosis was that years of being a boss had accustomed the husband to praise and adulation. “Teacher Ming told me that when he came home after a day of being treated like a prince he might have expected similar words of approval from me,” she said. Ming encouraged her to think of her marriage in business terms: “It requires management and upkeep, just as running a company requires hard work after you get it registered and trademarked.” Her sessions with Ming were not limited to the usual advice about flattery and flirting. “So much of what I have learned at Weiqing is the importance of communication,” the woman said. “You have no idea how new these insights were to me. I felt like I was finally getting the remedial courses in marriage that I should have taken long ago.”
Her parents, cadres in the Party, had never encouraged the expression of feelings through words. “It simply wasn’t done,” she said. “If I wanted to tell my parents I loved them, I knew the thing to do was to do well in school or help Mom with chores. To say the words ‘I love you,’ that would be too ridiculous.”
Ming told her client that unexpressed feelings could eventually atrophy or, worse, fester into disgust, and the woman realized that she had carried this reserve into her marriage. For her parents’ generation, this hadn’t been a problem. Divorce and adultery were considered shameful, and the era was one of making do—the prevailing maxim was “Cou he,” or “Improvise together.” People learned to be content with patched clothes, bland meals of leftovers, and serviceable if unromantic unions. But now, she said, economic progress had diversified people’s choices: “Money buys options. Men with cash want upgrades in everything, wives included.”
Turning her face away from me, the woman said quietly, almost to herself, “Something I figured out recently is that, in my bones, I don’t respect him—not his character or treatment of others. I think that, deep down, he knows this.”
I asked her why, in that case, she didn’t consider divorce, and she paused, brushing a finger across the rim of her sunglasses. “You know, for a while, I also asked myself the same question,” she said. “I realized it’s because I’ve sacrificed too much for this marriage. It’s like a house I’ve given my life to construct, but that effort is hardly felt by people on the outside. Then, one day, he decides he wants to kick me out because he feels like it—how can I let him?”
Although her sense of hurt was still acute, she believed that Ming’s advice was helping the relationship “return to the right track.” Her husband came home at regular hours and hadn’t brought up divorce again. He’d proposed taking a trip together and they had resumed having sex. She had originally come to Weiqing with the hope of a miraculous shortcut to marital bliss, but now she said that she was learning to be content with “this gentle slope of slow thawing.” If nothing else, she said, “I get to stay in my home.”
Confucius wrote, in his Book of Rites, “The woman obeys the man. In her youth she obeys her father and elder brother; when married, she obeys her husband; when her husband is dead, she obeys her son.” Confucianism also held that marriage was of supreme importance not so much for the love between two individuals but for the alliances they forged between clans. In traditional Chinese culture, arranged marriages were the norm, and a woman became part of her husband’s family as soon as she was married. Daughters could not inherit property from their parents, even in the absence of sons. Poor families, in a custom known as tongyangxi, or “little daughter-in-law,” often married off their daughters as children to young boys in better-off families. For destitute parents, it meant one less mouth to feed; for wealthier ones, a convenient source of unpaid domestic labor.
These social arrangements went largely unchallenged until the last days of the Qing dynasty, which ended in 1912. Perhaps the most famous feminist of the time was Qiu Jin, the daughter of a scholarly family in Zhejiang. Unhappy in an arranged marriage, she joined a revolutionary group, began wearing men’s clothing, and left her husband and children to study in Japan. On her return, in 1906, she declared that men and women were born with equal rights and wrote about the need for women to obtain financial and political independence. In an essay published that year, “A Respectful Announcement to My Sisters,” Qiu wrote, “We spend our lives knowing only how to rely on men—for everything we wear and eat we rely on men.” She put out two issues of a feminist newspaper, China Women’s News, before the authorities closed it. In 1907, during reprisals against revolutionaries, she was executed, at the age of thirty-one.
The ideals of feminism gained wider currency during a series of student demonstrations in 1919 that became known as the May Fourth Movement. Among those drawn to the cause was the young Mao Zedong. That year, he wrote an essay about a woman who had slit her throat rather than consent to an arranged marriage. Mao argued that, because women in China could not achieve genuine individuality in life, they were able to assert their will only through suicide, and he concluded that the country needed an overhaul of social norms. After Mao’s revolution, in 1949, traditional gender roles were abolished, at least on paper. “Women hold up half the sky!” he declared, and the Party attempted to boost productivity by recruiting them to the labor force. Women worked in factories for the first time, both on production lines and in administrative roles, competing with men to achieve the highest quotas. They drove tractors and trains and operated turbines; joined fishing crews, the police, and the Army. Those who distinguished themselves most were nationally celebrated as “iron women.”
In 1950, the Party passed the New Marriage Law, which prohibited arranged marriages and concubinage as bourgeois vices. For the first time, women could divorce their husbands. Private life, however, was rigidly controlled by the state. A couple wishing to marry had to obtain the consent of their danwei, or work unit, which invariably denounced people who had affairs. The work unit’s consent was required for divorces, too, and although the law now allowed for no-fault divorce, courts were often reluctant to grant it.
After Mao’s death, in 1976, Deng Xiaoping instituted economic reforms and, in 1981, another set of marriage laws went into effect. Divorce became somewhat easier to obtain, and, in an attempt to curb population growth, people weren’t allowed to marry until they were in their early twenties. As social mobility increased, gender attitudes suppressed by Communism began to reassert themselves. Wage inequality rose and arrangements concerning property—private ownership had been banned under Mao—favored men. In 2010, a nationwide survey conducted by the Women’s Federation and the National Bureau of Statistics showed that only one out of every fifteen single women in China owned a home in her own right. A controversial ruling by China’s Supreme Court, in 2011, further disadvantaged women, by stipulating that property bought before marriage should revert to the buyer after a divorce. Even today, many parents prefer to give money to a nephew rather than to their own daughter.
Grace Gui, a Shanghai divorce lawyer at Watson & Band, one of the largest law firms in China, told me that most of the cases she handles revolve around property rights. “In divorces, many Chinese people transfer assets ahead of time,” she said. “There are three ways they go about it: first, hide the assets; second, register them under someone else’s name; third, overstate their liabilities.” She has seen cases in which husbands take on high-interest debt on purpose. “Most housewives have no way of incurring this kind of debt, so it’s mostly men, especially entrepreneurs, who benefit.”
Occasionally, she discovers that clients have embarked on sham divorces, in order to buy property on preferential terms that are available only to unmarried people. Men have been known to lure their wives into this arrangement and then take up with mistresses as soon as the papers are signed. The phenomenon is common enough that, last year, it constituted the plot of a critically acclaimed film, “I Am Not Madame Bovary.”
Gui mentioned that, during a decade in practice, she has noticed a steady uptick in divorces and that more than half of the ones she handled last year involved a mistress. Accordingly, her job has grown in complexity and scope. “As lawyers, we have to be familiar with property law, company profiles, company shares, the stock market, and so on. More than ever now, we also have to be half-psychologists.”
She told me that courts remain conservative and try to encourage couples to stay together. Judges usually don’t grant a divorce application the first time around, and couples must wait six months before refiling; this leaves an interim period during which the court hopes for reconciliation. Gui acknowledged that, by this stage, reconciliation is often unlikely, but, because there is no legal provision for spousal support in China, many of her clients are determined to preserve even very troubled or abusive marriages.
Although Ming and Shu’s love hospital offers conventional counselling alongside mistress dispelling, other enterprises are scrappier. One morning, in the lobby of my Shanghai hotel, I met a man in his early forties who introduced himself as Detective Li. “The difference between your actual appearance and your WeChat profile is considerable,” he said by way of greeting.
He had brought along a friend, Detective Dai, who was wearing a Louis Vuitton tie and belt and carrying a Louis Vuitton briefcase. Li and Dai are private detectives, and fifteen per cent of their business involves mistress dispelling. Their profession exists in a gray zone in China—they referred to themselves as a “shadow apparatus”—neither outlawed nor officially recognized. Though the government regards detective work with suspicion, there is a ready market for it. State control of information makes it hard to conduct even a simple public-records search, and ordinary people are reluctant to go to the police unless it is absolutely necessary.
Li showed me a short video on his phone. In a hotel room, a man and a woman were in bed together, apparently naked under the sheets. After a few seconds, the door to the room burst open and a man with a beer belly came charging in, pointing and yelling, “The police are on the way! Don’t get dressed!” Li told me that the fat man was the woman’s husband, his client. Li had engineered this moment of exposure so that the client could call the police. Evidence from private detectives alone would never be considered admissible in a divorce case, but, once the police were involved, the adultery became a matter of official record.
The detectives said that clients often approached them when they realized that they couldn’t get what they wanted through normal channels. Sometimes people came with outlandish plans for murder or maiming, seemingly cribbed from Hollywood thrillers. “They are usually very desperate people at the end of their wits,” Li said. Both men said that they would never countenance physically harming anyone, but such attacks have occurred. In Beijing, a woman called Zhang Yufen has, for more than a decade, been helping wronged wives track down and punish mistresses and has become popularly known as “the mistress killer.” (No one has actually been killed.) Zhang’s services include sheltering women thrown out by their husbands, but her specialty is coaching clients on confronting and beating up the mistresses. She recently told a Chinese newspaper that violence was therapeutic for the wives: “Those who don’t dare to beat will develop diseases including esophageal cancer, uterine cancer, lung cancer.”
The expense of hiring a detective and funding the many bribes the work entails means that Li and Dai’s clients tend to be wealthy—most often the wives of businessmen, or Party officials, such as judges and mayors. “Those with the most have the most to lose,” Dai explained. But, like other detectives I spoke to, he and Li were from humble backgrounds, having grown up in peasant families. What they lacked in education and resources they made up for in ambition, ingenuity, adaptability, and an outsized appetite for risk.
“We are chameleons,” Dai told me, with satisfaction. “If you spend all of your time watching and analyzing people, you come to some conclusions about broader patterns in society.”
Their attitudes toward marriage were more cynical than those of Teacher Ming, and the pair were contemptuous of the idea that therapy could help a marriage. “That’s all empty words,” Li said. “Every day, we get orders to collect evidence about professors, surgeons, artists, and writers. Their wives are looking for actual solutions, not time on the couch.”
Dai agreed: “China is moving fast, and it needs problem solvers. It’s the current reality that’s created odd creatures like us.”
On my last day in Shanghai, Teacher Ming told me that she had another client for me to meet. The woman was in her early sixties, and dressed in loose dark linen. Alone among the clients I met, she insisted that I use her real family name, Li. (She kept her given name to herself.) We sat down to tea in an empty consultation room at Weiqing, and she explained why she was keen to talk: “I think I’m a person of my time, and I want to record it.”
Li was born in Shanghai in 1954, and came of age during the Cultural Revolution. In her late teens, like millions of other urban youths, she was dispatched to the countryside to take part in peasant-run brigades. There she met her husband, “an earnest, solid man,” who eventually became an elementary-school teacher.
They returned to Shanghai in the period of Deng’s economic reforms and she went to work in a bank. It was a time, she said, when a few people were leaving their “iron rice bowl ”—a secure government job—and entering the business world, a decision whose novelty, uncertainty, and risk were expressed in the phrase “descending into the sea.” Money was tight and Li was restless. She had just given birth to a daughter and took advantage of her maternity leave to get a job in a steel company. “Others were doing it and I thought, Why can’t I?” she said.
Li describes herself as “social, outgoing, and self-reliant,” and it was easy to imagine how good she’d have been at creating the networks of friendships upon which so much of Chinese dealmaking depends. She quickly found that she had a head for numbers and, in the construction boom that followed Deng’s reforms, business went very well indeed. Often, she was the only woman at the negotiating table. “Back then, it was all men. They were the adventurous sort willing to take a gamble,” Li told me. “For a woman of that era, I was distinctly ambitious.”
Li paused and took a slow sip of her tea. “There was one man named Yu, with whom I got along particularly well,” she said. He was the first man she’d met whom she could talk to endlessly. “There was mutual respect and admiration,” she said. “And, over time, something more.”
Li characterized her marriage as “thin and colorless, like water.” Two years after meeting, Yu and Li decided to leave their spouses. “He had a son about seven years older than my daughter,” she said. “You can’t imagine the kind of scandal this was at the time.” Both her husband and Yu’s wife fought the divorces, and all the families disapproved and tried to mediate. “I felt genuinely brave, despite everything, like we were breaking new ground and doing something truly revolutionary,” Li said. “I’d always been independent-minded, which is perhaps what makes me odd as a Chinese woman. I was doing this thing for myself and for love.” She eventually married her lover, in 1992, and set up a business with him, selling rebar. Although they paid generous child support, they were each legally forbidden from bringing their children to the new home.
When comparing the experiences of her two marriages, Li used the words “heaven and earth.” “My first husband wasn’t a bad sort,” she said, but, amid the poverty of rural China, there was little to their relationship beyond day-to-day survival. “We needed each other to just keep our stomachs full and our bodies warm at night,” Li said. The kind of desire Li discovered with her second husband, with its “somersaults of excitement and yawns of blissful fatigue,” was an awakening.
Li paused again and drew a deep breath. “The enemy of marriage is time,” she said, smiling. By the eighth year, the honeymoon period had long given way to “the salt and vinegar of daily life.” “Even the tongue and teeth occasionally get in each other’s way,” she said. One day, a friend hinted that Yu was spending nights at the home of his ex-wife and his son. At first, Li rationalized away her concern. She knew that he felt great guilt about abandoning his child and wife, and that his son missed him deeply. But eventually she confronted him, asking if he was intent on “mending the broken mirror of his first marriage.” He was silent, and then said that he very much wanted to raise his son well.
Li moved out, bought a house of her own, and consulted Teacher Ming for the first time. “I was feeling very alone and despondent,” she said. “I wanted to know if it was a mistake to have left my second marriage and whether it would be too late to fix it.” Ming told her, “You were a Little Third, do you know that? This is the fate of a Little Third.” Ming’s comment made her reassess how she’d arrived at her situation. “Chinese women of my generation are conditioned to accept their fate,” she said. As Li spoke, her cheeks grew slightly flushed. I offered her some more tea, but she shook her head. “Marriages are their own kind of confinement,” she said. “The institution was never designed to be fair to women.”
Li, who is now retired, told me that she was using some of her savings to travel. On a cruise to Japan, four years ago, she met a man of around her own age, a former mid-level government official from Shanghai. The two struck up a friendship. They shared a love of classical Chinese poetry, and would send each other verses over WeChat late into the night. Soon, they began travelling together, and, on their third trip, Li spoke candidly about her family and her divorces. The man had previously mentioned a son, and when Li asked him directly if he was married he admitted that he was. “I was developing feelings for him, but that stopped me in my tracks,” she said. The man confided that, although he no longer had sexual relations with his wife, he had built his life around his marriage and could not leave it.
“He asked me why we couldn’t be lovers, and it tortured me,” Li said. She again consulted Ming, who asked, “How can you consider being a Little Third after all you’ve been through?” The problem with being a mistress, Ming said, was that the man retains all the power: with no social or family ties, he can drop you at will. Li told her friend that they couldn’t become involved unless he was single.
Li told me that she doubted she would ever remarry. “The truth is, in China, at least, the last thing a marriage is about is the relationship between two people,” she said. “It’s about property, the children, and the vast and various entanglements of those two things.”
She went on, “Sometimes I look back and think my generation is long gone. What we’ve been through, no matter how absurd and incomprehensible, it’s all history. We’ve given so much of ourselves to our country, our family, our values, our past.” Her daughter was now thirty-six, a bank manager, married, with a six-year-old son. Despite it all, mother and daughter had a good relationship. “Occasionally, I tell her that she must face up to the reality of this world and pamper her husband and mother-in-law,” she said with a laugh, “or else she’ll suffer a fate like mine.”
Outside, it was getting dark, and Li took out her phone to check the time. On the home screen was a picture of a toddler in bathing trunks, her grandson. She hadn’t yet shared with her daughter the full story of her life and her marriages: “I told her that someday, when her child has grown up, when she’s not so busy herself, I would, but that she could not judge me. ‘This is your mother’s life,’ I want to tell her. ‘You can approve or disapprove, but I lived it, it’s mine.’ ” ♦