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Modern take on adultery and morality in China

Publication Date : 12-07-2014


Adultery falls into the realm of morality, yet it often manifests itself as a corollary of one's social position. As such, it tends to be perceived in the context of power or money.

A spate of recent announcements from the ongoing relentless campaign against corruption has caught my attention for a subtle change in language.

To most, in the past, adultery used to refer to something simpler. The word was the officially sanctioned euphemism for "abnormal male-female relations" - but now it is also starting to cover a litany of offenses, in an effort to almost increase its shock value.

Because adultery used to be called something else, having the word "adultery" only now making its first official appearance in the litany of offenses, seems almost shocking.

I have to admit that the bluntness is a bit disorienting.

You see, I'm accustomed to "abnormal male-female relations", which had been the approved description for as long as I can remember.

Accuse me of a lack of imagination, but I never bothered to find out how abnormal was "abnormal" even when I was a child. Other places had coloUrful slang terms such as "broken shoes", but in my hometown the official jargon had seeped into everyday conversation a la current-day memes.

As I grew older, I started to hear of stories how some rural areas treated their offenders over "abnormal male-female relations" and, gosh, they were lurid.

They could involve young couples in extramarital affairs being stripped naked and paraded around the whole village.

Now that I look back, I can understand why so many were obsessed with other people's infidelity.

In that era, it was the only channel of voyeurism open to the public and the collective excitement from the festive mood served to elevate everyone onto a moral high ground albeit subconsciously.

In recent decades, people have learned that adultery between consenting adults is a more private matter.

That has not stopped some from passing judgment on others, but in most cases police or neighborhood grannies are no longer acting as sleuths to find out who is cheating on whom.

As is typical for many issues in an age of profound transformation, some are elated by the growing respect for privacy and others saddened by the deterioration of morals.

But the public seems to be united when it comes to hanky-panky by officials, viewing it as a manifestation of the corruption that is gnawing at the social fabric of the country and that the government is working so hard to root out.

Whenever a report of an official being investigated surfaces, it is the number of girlfriends or concubines that grabs the spotlight. And if there is a video clip of him in the middle of the act, you can be rest assured that it will go viral and turn him into the butt of national mockery.

When Lei Zhengfu, a district officer from Chongqing municipality, was videotaped by a young woman hired by a local businessman in an attempt to win government contracts, the sex tape not only undid his career (he was sacked and then sentenced to 13 years in prison for other crimes), but also to his possible self-image as an alpha male (the sex act lasted a mere 12 seconds, winning him the nickname "12-second Lei").

And he was not particularly good-looking in the video, to put it mildly.

What if he looked like a Chinese George Clooney and turned out to be an extremely good lover? Would it have changed the nature of sex as bribery?

Legally it would not, of course, but in the eyes of many he would have emerged as a Don Juan perhaps rather than someone people love to ridicule.

I have often wondered about the scenario when someone in power meets the girl of his dreams and she, unaware of his real professional or income status, falls for him as well.

Wouldn't that be romantic? It would be like the chivalrous tales of old Europe when aristocratic youth pretended to be poor college students to seduce innocent young women.

However, in reality, power or money is often the biggest draw. Even when it is not stated, it is usually implied when one with these advantages courts someone or is courted by someone.

While it is theoretically possible for one in such a position to commit adultery for love or adventure, the public has a reason to suspect that he (occasionally it could be a she as well) is abusing the official power invested in him.

Then there is the school of people who believe that those in power should act as moral paragons. It is not that different from those in the US who wanted to impeach Bill Clinton from the presidency when he was found to have had a fling with an intern.

Did he dole out official favors such as contracts to her or change policies for her? It seemed not.

But he was not being a faithful husband. Suffice to say, those who did not care whether it interfered with his job tended to view it from a moral standpoint.

The same is true in China where morality itself, or rather the lowering of it, could be the offense.

Technically, if you are a Communist Party member, you are also constrained by Party doctrines, which could include clauses on morality.

But legally, everyone is entitled to the right of privacy, and that may include things like adultery unless it is proven that it is connected to other wrongdoings.

Highlighting the number of illicit affairs is seen as the surest way to topple someone from even the highest pedestal. It proves beyond doubt that the person is degenerate.

The Chinese equivalent of Don Juan is Ximen Qing, a fictional character in two classic novels. A shrewd businessman, he is also a pathological womaniSer and a sex addict.

In the books he is depicted as having eight wives and concubines and more than a dozen lovers. Unlike one of the women he married who has been given a feminist twist in the past century, Ximen is perceived as having no redeeming value whatsoever.

It can backfire when hanging out the dirty laundry takes the place of highlighting the infringement on public interests. Some may deduce that the offender did not commit much of a real crime since the adultery he committed is played up so prominently.

The bigger picture is, people are increasingly able to distinguish matters of private concerns and public realm.

Culturally, China is more tolerant of adultery than, say, the United States. Even though we have horror stories from the past in which adulterers were condemned to death, many couples now adopt a forgiving view when the dalliance ends with no noticeable ramifications.

They would place the family and children above the purity of their relationship. As Jackie Chan famously said: "It is a mistake all men are prone to."

In the US, at least as portrayed in Hollywood films, the wife would immediately demand a divorce once the secret liaison comes to light. There seems to be little room for reconciliation, and if the woman does back down, it would be seen as a loss of self-respect.

In Chinese movies, the wife shows her wisdom by playing calm and getting rid of her threat without making a scene.

I'm sure sociologists may trace the difference to male domination in Chinese tradition and the puritanical heritage of American society.

But as Leo Tolstoy wrote in the opening of Anna Karenina, his epic on infidelity: "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 


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