Of wives, concubines and mistresses

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 2003, 12:00am

I refer to 'Why Hong Kong never really bade farewell to its concubines' (Sunday Morning Post, June 29), by Jason Wordie.

I am afraid that Wordie confuses Chinese wives with concubines.

Monogamy is a mainly Judaeo-Christian concept in which any female sexual partner other than the legitimate wife is considered a mistress. Yet in traditional Chinese society before 1949, any man (as long as he could afford it) could have more than one wife as well as many concubines, not to mention mistresses.

This sort of harem with Chinese characteristics is difficult for westerners to understand. Wives had higher status than concubines because they enjoyed most of the same rights as legitimate wives today.

In traditional Chinese societies of extended families, men married not for romantic love but because their families wanted to establish connections with other families of their level or, most often, higher classes.

All the wives in the family enjoyed the same status, with the first wife simply referred to as 'elder sister' by second and other wives.

All children of the family (regardless of maternal lineage) had to regard her as their mother while children of concubines could only call their natural mothers sai jie.

As it was difficult to divorce wives with such influential backgrounds, husbands in such marriages of convenience often found gratification in concubines and mistresses (who are courtesans). A man who had 'three wives and four concubines' was considered a very successful person in those times.

Concubines were all women of lower classes bought with money, little better than maid servants. Still, they were better than the mui tsai who had to give sexual favours without reward.

While the system was rigid, there were opportunities for upward mobility, such as when concubines were promoted upon the death of the first wife. Or if the first wife was barren and the concubine bore a male heir, she could also be promoted.

TONY WONG, Mongkok

Jason Wordie responds: 'Concubinage became illegal - though still widely practised - during Nationalist times in China, not after 1949, and remained both legal and widely practised in Hong Kong until 1971. By no means all concubines came from 'lower classes', though most mui tsai did.

'Closer attention to plain historical facts, less recourse to sociological theorising, and avoidance of the chauvinistic assertion that Chinese cultural history is inherently 'difficult for westerners to understand' would all encourage a deeper and wider understanding of these fascinating, still-contemporary local issues.'