Reasons for extramarital affairs are deep-rooted

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-05-27 08:01
Large Medium Small

Reasons for extramarital affairs are deep-rooted

Mid-life extramarital affairs are often aided and abetted by power and wealth, but their universal cause goes much deeper. And women from different cultures tend to cope differently.

The revelations of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest and Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child were big news in the West, yet they were totally eclipsed in China by Wang Gongquan wanting to dump his wife for a younger woman.

"Wang who?" you might ask. Well, we asked the same question as Wang Gongquan was not exactly a household name. It turns out he is a wealthy venture capitalist with billions of yuan in assets, which he said he is willing to give up for a chance to live with the woman he loves, a billionaire in her own right.

Now, nobody is denying the super-rich their right to romance. There is just this little inconvenience of an existing wife, whom Wang somehow managed to avoid mentioning in his Twitter-like announcement to the world.

She is certainly no Maria Shriver as she has not shown up on any television talk shows. As a matter of fact, nobody has sought her out and asked for her side of the story. Yet, she undoubtedly belongs to the "first wives club", to which Maria Shriver is inching closer and Anne Sinclair, a.k.a. Mrs. Strauss-Kahn, seems to resist with all her might.

Reasons for extramarital affairs are deep-rooted

The three stories, though not identical, share similarities that point to the mid-life crisis of men with power and money. A dramatist could not have come up with three better story lines that run parallel with one another without any unnecessary overlapping and seem to draw a composite of middle-aged men in high standing.

If we broaden the timeframe, there are indeed Chinese equivalents to what happened to the former IMF boss and the erstwhile Terminator. In May 2009, 44-year-old Deng Guida, a local official in Hubei province, forced himself onto a young hotel worker in an attempt to sexually assault her. In self-defense, she slashed his throat and chest with a fruit knife, which turned out to be deadly. If the accusations against the skirt-chasing Strauss-Kahn are true, the one-time presidential hopeful of France should consider himself lucky that the maid from West Africa did not protest in a more brutal manner.

Compared with the bad behavior that crosses the legal line, Arnold's amorous pursuits seem more mundane, or as Jackie Chan would call it, "the mistake every man is prone to make". The Hong Kong action star freely admitted and profusely apologized when he was discovered to have fathered a child out of wedlock. Instead of losing his fan base, he actually won more hearts by his candor.

The one-liner from Jackie Chan was as much a challenge as a self-justification. He seemed to be asking every man of his age group: "Can you resist the temptation as you get old?"

When media commentators in Western countries saw the twin scandals of Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger, they overwhelmingly interpreted the incidents as manifestations of power. Power did play a role here, but was it the determining factor? It is not unheard of that male guests in cheap motels harass female workers with unreasonable requests. And you really think men with little means do not cheat on their wives?

It is not that powerful men tend to be philanderers. It's just that powerful men caught in sexcapades tend to make the headlines. Men of anonymity committing the same acts would attract only their neighbors' interest when their wives find, wail and threaten to kill themselves, their husbands or both. That is the formula for Chinese melodrama, and is what I witnessed in villages when I was young. Imagine my surprise when I first saw the reaction of Western women - in movies, of course - who did not say anything vaguely suggesting hanging themselves but demanded divorce and a large alimony - usually in a cuttingly cold voice.

For me, that was a significant East-West divide, perhaps with implications beyond the family. When a Chinese wife learns of her husband's infidelity, she often reacts in a way that would baffle a Western wife. If she causes commotion that spills into the street, with curses to the man that would be taken as death threats in the Unite States, it does not mean she wants to kick him out of the house. On the contrary, it could be a histrionic yet indirect plea for him to leave the girlfriend for good and come back to her. If she keeps mum and carries on as if nothing has happened, it does not mean she does not believe in the rumor of his hanky-panky. It often implies scheming, or a battle of wits - how she will get her man back without tearing apart the facade of harmony.

Take Joan Chen's character in Lust, Caution, Ang Lee's massively misunderstood film. I read several reviews in the American press where film critics laughed at her "foolishness". They thought she did not know her husband was cheating on her. They would be surprised that not only was she aware of his affair with the young woman who wandered into their lives, but all the female mahjong players at the table had been involved with him in one way or another. By not bringing the secret in the open yet keeping her rivals close as friends, she was able to keep them in check and maintain her status as the queen of the household.

That rationale is rooted in the Chinese social structure in which men were in control of all resources and women were subordinate. Should she dare confront him, she would risk losing more than his wandering eye. In Pearl S. Buck's Pavilion of Women, the wife goes so far as to take the initiative to search for a young woman for her husband, thus preempting random adventures on his part that could have worse consequences.

Those stories happened before women were seen as "holding up half the sky", to borrow Chairman Mao's phrase.

However, the fundamental quandary has not changed with women achieving economic independence.

Men still want concubines, so to speak. And women are coping with more mature responses.

In Feng Xiaogang's 2000 family drama A Sigh, a middle-aged writer falls for his female assistant. When his wife finally meets up with her youthful nemesis, she does not launch into a moral diatribe. Instead, she quietly recounts how they fell in love. By the end of her narration, the younger woman leaves - and also leaves the man.

The wife's message was subtle yet powerful: "His passion for you is a repetition of what he felt for me while he was younger, and by extension, what is happening to me could happen to you down the road." Or more plainly, "He could leave you for an even younger woman."

The refrain in the media chorus is: Men are pigs. Yet, few have bothered to look beyond the obvious factor of power as aphrodisiac.

People of a certain age are prone to personal transgressions not just because they are more risk-taking, but they have the urge to relive their youthful dreams. It may be much more complicated than what appears on the surface.

Is Wang Gongquan, the mogul who is giving up a business empire for love, a romantic hero or a romantic villain? It depends on which woman you side with and whether passion or family responsibility takes the priority.

When men forfeit reason for love or lust, it will come off as either chivalrous or ludicrous.

(China Daily 05/27/2011 page18)