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China hasn’t said farewell to the concubine

Lady Li, mistress of Emperor Wu during the Han dynasty. Culture Club/Getty Images

A high-flying Chinese businessman once told me his secret for happiness, says Cindy Yu in The Spectator: “Before a man is 35, women are tools; after 35, women are toys.” It’s far from an unusual attitude. Mistresses are “as old as sin” in China. In imperial times, the ruler would have hundreds. Polygamy was banned when the communists came to power in 1949, but in the late 1990s, “when China started to get very rich again”, big-shot businessmen and politicians revived the practice. Usually they picked young, pretty, uneducated girls, although one official in Chongqing required his lovers to have a bachelor’s degree. A neighbourhood in Shenzhen was dubbed “concubine village” because it was home to a reported 50,000 mistresses.

But maintaining harems can be pricy, and often went hand in hand with corruption. After Xi Jinping launched a “root and branch” anti-corruption campaign in 2012, stories about mistresses dried up. Has he scared politicians into monogamy? The case of Peng Shuai, the tennis player who recently accused her high-ranking lover of abuse, suggests “decadence still goes on beneath the surface”. And that’s especially true outside politics: when my businessman friend proposed to his wife, he told her she should never expect him to be faithful. “China hasn’t yet said farewell to the concubine.”