HONG KONG—It is a fact universally acknowledged—among certain circles in China, that is—that a prosperous businessman or government official with an established family must be in want of a second wife.
So much so that the word "mistress," or second wife, has made it into a recent edition of one modern Chinese dictionary, which defines it: "A woman who is illegally kept by a man who already has a spouse."
Once derided as part of the "old society" of pre-1949 China, emblematic of class struggle and the oppression of women, the phenomenon is making a massive comeback as China takes on more and more freewheeling economic reforms.
"Do you like being a mistress, or were you forced into it by circumstances?" is the title of one forum thread at a Web site set up to protect the rights and interests of mistresses.
"What's wrong with liking established men with a bit of maturity?" asks one female poster to the bulletin board at www.2n88.com. Another says she despises all mistresses, whatever their motivation.
"No, I despise men who keep mistresses," another argues. "If no-one financed them, they wouldn't exist."
"What bliss," rhapsodises a male poster. "We are going back to a system of polygamy!" But another man writes: "What sort of a society is this?"
"I knew a man who kept five women," says another woman. "He built a house for them; one on each floor. They all got along really well. I didn't believe it at first, but everyone said it really was true."
Like the glamorous and self-sacrificing characters of Chinese history and legend, some mistressses have already become well-known, like Liu Qian, who devised a cunning escape plan to save her lover from arrest during graft investigations.
Liu has been pictured wearing prison garb alongside officials accused of corruption, and has been lauded by Chinese netizens for standing by her man.
The Mistresses' Rights site was set up by Zheng Baichun after said he witnessed a woman who had cared for a sick lover set up a civil rights group for mistresses and help two other women to protect their rights.
Often it's the man who behaves badly, and tells them that he isn't married. Mainland women are quite naive. How can we protect them?
He said it wasn't about encouraging women to become mistresses but about protecting their rights and interests under the law, especially when they were disempowered.
But not everyone is supportive.
Ms. Zhou, a teacher from Shenzhen, says wives are the people whose rights really need protecting.
"The Mistresses' Rights Web site wants to speak up for mistresses, saying they are the weakest party, that they are victims of the social system, but I don't agree," Zhou told RFA's Cantonese service.
"I think they destroy other people's happiness and they destroy families...It's the wives and children of men who have mistresses who are the real victims here. I really feel for them."
But a Hong Kong-based businessman surnamed Chu said mistresses weren't always acting out of free will, and should be protected under the law.
"Even mistresses are people, and people are equal before the law. We shouldn't discriminate against mistresses or think of them as bad people. They are people, too, who have to survive somehow," Chu said.
"Often it's the man who behaves badly, and tells them that he isn't married. Mainland women are quite naive. How can we protect them?"
Chu said he was neither for nor against the keeping of mainland Chinese second wives by Hong Kong businessmen.
"It's horses for courses. Hong Kong women are very fierce, and they nag their husbands when they get home from work in the evenings. If their husband isn't earning enough money they complain that he gets home too late from work. They are a real pain...they criticize and they won't take care of the home," he said.
"Mainland Chinese women are a lot softer. They don't criticize so much. If you treat her well she will be happy, and treat you well. Anyone would get a mistresss for business trips to China," Chu said.
Analysts said the re-emergence of mistresses was linked to corruption and growing wealth among China's elite.
"Corruption is the root cause of officials having mistresses," Cai Yongmei, editor of the Hong Kong-based Open magazine, told a recent discussion panel on RFA's Mandarin service.
"It's not just a moral issue; it's a matter of institutionalized corruption," she told reporter Han Qing. "It almost never fails...an ousted official invariably has mistresses. And there is usually more than one mistress. Some have two or three or even four...Many businessmen also have mistresses."
Political science professor George Jan of the University of Ohio in Toledo said economic factors were responsible.
"Whether in old China or in the new China, men have mistresses because they can afford it," he said.
But he said the fact that people were now discussing seriously the phenomenon of "second wives" was a sign that women are more conscious of their rights.
China says it has brought to justice 67, 505 corrupt officials since 2003.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Xia Yu and in Mandarin by Han Qing. RFA Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.