people's republic of desire

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 12:00am

It wasn't so long ago that the physical and psychological problems associated with stress were not major concerns for Chinese people.

This was a time when performing a job required little more than showing up and displaying the right political attitude. It was a time when six people were assigned to do the job of one, and yet you still couldn't get anyone to serve you at the counter of your local department store. It was also a time when western notions of psychiatry, psychology, wellness and physical training were considered just another odd thing about foreigners, along with butter and Big Macs.

Nowadays, along with the trappings of success that include personal assistants, multiple homes and imported luxury cars, more Chinese people are dealing with the complexities that accompany their improved quality of life. Their industriousness requires them to be cold and calculating in business. After all, it's a cut-throat world out there. And although your employer may not seem to care when he fires you and gives your job to his new sister-in-law, eventually his conscience will catch up with him. Well, maybe.

Another problem that will soon fuel a burgeoning self-help industry in China is the number of contradictions in people's lives. At a time when women are redefining their role in society, displaying sexual and economic independence and an ability to compete with men for a slice of the Chinese dream, they still feel under pressure to show they have traditional values when it comes to their families and their personal lives. How can a woman who has slept all her integrity away claim to be a woman of pure virtue? Just keep your eyes fixed on the newspapers for gossip about the injustices suffered by China's young actresses and pop stars.

Today, Niuniu goes to the fitness centre with her new friend, May. May is one of the Chinese women who would prefer to be the second wife of a rich man, or even an old rich man, rather than be treated as a goddess by a poor husband. From behind a foggy blanket of hot steam, May talks about her married lover, Da Chen: 'I haven't complained about his never having time for me. It's always 'My wife wants me to do this' and 'The kids need me to do that', and there's never any time for me.

'So, I decided that we're going to take a little local vacation together, and I made reservations for a hotel here in Beijing this weekend. I figure he can say he had work to do at the office or whatever.

'It's all settled, and we're talking about this all week, and then this afternoon he suddenly calls me and asks if we can change plans. He says he has a family emergency. I say, 'OK, I'll cancel the reservation', and he says, 'No, don't cancel it', because he's going to use it anyway.'

'Uh-oh,' says Niuniu.

'Yes. And so I ask him what he's using it for, and he tells me that he forgot it's his wife's birthday this weekend, and he's going to take her out to a show. And, since the show is near the hotel, he thought he'd stay there with her.'

'So, now you're his recreational booking agent?' asks Niuniu.

'Can you believe that? I have given myself to this guy for years. First it was my virginity, then my youth. This is how he treats me? I like to think I'm a modern girl. I don't want to be jealous of his wife. I knew what I was getting into when we started this. But don't I deserve better than this?'

'Why don't you dump him?' asks Niuniu. 'What can you possibly get out of a relationship with a married man who doesn't really respect you?'

Niuniu wonders why there are so many women who think like May. They're modern when they sleep with married men, but they become traditional again when it comes to sexual values. They think that, as women, they're the ones who are taken advantage of in a sexual relationship.'After all the times I have given myself to him?' asks May, 'No way! He's not getting off that easy. I want a return on my investment.'

'So, what are you going to do?' asks Niuniu. 'Book another weekend?'

'No, I'm going to make him buy me a diamond,' May says. 'And a big one, too! Just like Kobe Bryant did.'

'But Kobe Bryant bought the diamond for his wife, not his girlfriend,' says Niuniu.

'That's why I don't mind being called a second wife. At least, I am partially entitled.'