Jian, a 42-year-old property developer in the booming southern metropolis of Shenzhen, had acquired just about everything men of his socioeconomic ilk covet: a Mercedes-Benz, a sprawling antique jade collection and a lavishly appointed duplex for his wife and daughter.
It was only natural then, he said, that two years ago he took up another costly pastime: a beguiling 20-year-old art major whose affections run him about $6,100 a month.
Jian, who asked that his full name be withheld lest it endanger his 20-year marriage, cavorts with his young coed in a secret apartment he owns, a price he willingly pays for the modern equivalent of a concubine.
“Keeping a mistress is just like playing golf,” he said. “Both are expensive hobbies.”
As China has shed its chaste Communist mores for the wealth and indulgences of a market-oriented economy, the boom has bred a generation of nouveau-riche lotharios yearning to rival the sexual conquests of their imperial ancestors. Even the Chinese term for mistress — “ernai,” or second wife — harks back to that polygamous tradition of yore.
Judging from the embarrassing revelations to emerge in recent months, such arrangements appear to be commonplace among the corporate titans, rags-to-riches entrepreneurs and government officials whose inordinate and sometimes ill-gotten gains can maintain one or more lovers — many of whom are sustained through stipends, furnished apartments and luxury sports cars.
But these relationships — and their sometimes messy devolutions — have ignited a growing backlash as the public stews over the incessant tales of morally compromised officials, greedy lovers and vengeful wives regularly splashed across newspapers and published on the Internet — unless censors get to them first.
In July, Xu Maiyong, the former vice mayor of the capital of Zhejiang Province, Hangzhou, was executed for bribery and embezzlement worth more than $30 million. Nicknaming him “Plenty Xu,” the Chinese press reported that he kept dozens of mistresses.
Just a few weeks before, an official in Jiangsu Province and his mistress were caught making detailed plans for a hotel-room rendezvous on the microblog Weibo after mistakenly believing their messages were private.
In February, Railway Minister Liu Zhijun, a 58-year-old with a combover, was removed from his post after news reports said he had embezzled $152 million over the years. But a leaked directive from the Central Propaganda Bureau revealed a more salacious side to his misconduct: “All media are not to report or hype the news that Liu Zhijun had 18 mistresses.”
A month earlier, the mistress of a party official in Guangdong Province sentenced to death in a $4.5 million bribery scandal was herself jailed for the Land Rover and property she had received from him.
And in one of the most shocking cases, an official in Hubei Province was detained in December on suspicion of strangling his mistress — then pregnant with twins — and dumping her body in a river after she demanded he marry her or pay $300,000, according to media reports.
The phenomenon has been an official concern for some time now. In 2007, China’s top prosecutor’s office said that 90 percent of the country’s most senior officials felled by corruption scandals in previous years had kept mistresses.
Faced with a spate of legal disputes between mistresses and their lovers over money and with growing public disgust that threatens to tarnish its authority, the Communist Party is trying to stanch the mistress tide through carrots and sticks aimed at women and men alike.
The Supreme People’s Court has considered a draft interpretation of the country’s marriage law that would for the first time acknowledge mistresses, stating that they have no legal right to their patron’s money, property or other expensive trinkets, legal experts said. Likewise, married men would not be able to use the courts to regain the cash and other niceties they had lavished on affairs gone bad.
In an effort to combat the growing lure of the sugar daddy, some local governments have gone on the offensive, preaching against moral turpitude and trying to encourage young women to rely on less carnal skills to survive. To that end, officials in Guangdong announced in March that starting this autumn all girls in elementary and middle school would be required to take a new course in “self-esteem, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-improvement.”
Such efforts are inspired by what many see as a ballooning moral crisis. Indeed, an entire industry has sprung up that lures young women with promises of sexually-oriented shortcuts to success. In April, the police in Beijing broke up one such “college concubine agency” that claimed to connect university students with wealthy admirers for up to $100,000 annually.
“Walk around Beijing and what do you see? ‘Buy a new Audi, look at this Rolex, you need some clothes from Gucci,’ ” said Zhou Guanquan, a law professor at Tsinghua University. “Such things are simply unaffordable, but becoming a mistress can solve this problem.”
Those who see mistresses as victims of the nation’s frayed moral fabric and a glaring income gap say the legal system is merely compounding the problem.
Zheng Beichun, a Beijing-based lawyer who has represented mistresses in court, said the nation’s elite, including judges and government officials, have little desire to tinker with the status quo.
“They are the ones running around with mistresses in the first place, so it’s in their own interest to make defending mistresses’ rights very difficult,” Mr. Zheng said. He said he started a Web site in 2006 offering legal services and counseling for mistresses that drew over 600 desperate women before it was shut down.
Not all mistresses are in it for the money. Three years ago, Lulu, 24, said she fell for a successful artist from Sichuan Province who just happened to be married. But his high profile in the art world, not to mention his wife and young daughter, prevent the two from seeing each other more than once a month, leaving Lulu, who like the others said she was too ashamed to have her full name revealed, alone much of the time.
“I have a relationship with my phone,” she said one recent afternoon, as she forlornly scrolled through some of his latest texts, among them “have you eaten?” “go to bed,” and “I love you.”
Dependent on her lover for money because he forbids her to work, Lulu says she feels trapped. “Leaving him is not an option,” she said bitterly. “I’ve had many men propose to me, but they’re no better than him. They also have their own secret lives.”
Li, the daughter of illiterate peasants from a remote village in Jiangxi Province, said she grew up sharing one quilt with her parents and a brother during winter and hearing the proverb “laugh at the poor, rather than the whore.” At 9, she said, she began working in a brick factory for a few cents a week.
“My parents gave me nothing,” she said. “Just a pretty face and a nice figure.”
After graduating from a university in Guangzhou, Li found an internship at a local electronics company, where she caught the eye of the company’s married middle-aged owner. What began as a series of text messages about work soon turned into clandestine nights in luxury hotel rooms, she said. A few months later the boss gave her a debit card, followed by an apartment near the office.
Now 26, Li has a closetful of Jimmy Choos, a new Porsche and a Cartier diamond engagement ring. In May, after her boss divorced his wife, he and Li got married.
But romance had nothing to do with Li’s decision to tie the knot. “You can’t feed yourself with love,” she said, even as she was making final wedding preparations. Rather than become a housewife, Li will continue working at her husband’s company, where she can earn a decent salary, and more importantly, she says, keep an eye on him.
“A woman should never trust a man, even if it’s her husband,” she said. “A woman can only trust herself.”