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Amid news of hidden marriages, TWOC explores China’s polyamorous past and present.

Even though polygamy might seem a little last century, it is still making headlines in 2019.

It was revealed in early January that a Suzhou man had tricked the system to marry three women at the same time; even buying them all apartments in the same Kunshan complex. The man, surnamed Zhang, discovered there is no national database of marital records, and exploited this loophole to register each of his marriages in a different province.

Zhang was finally caught and arrested in 2018, but claims that he was not aware of any illegality; though his first wife had divorced him, he added that he plans to rejoin whichever of the other two forgives him.

Entering a bigamous or polygamous marriage has been illegal on the mainland since 1950. Hong Kong only banned it 21 years later, and the SAR is still home to numerous conspicuously polygamous characters, such as billionaire Cecil Chao and casino magnate Stanley Ho, who is known for his array of scandalous affairs, four wives (three of whom still live together), and 17 children.

Despite an imperial history of male emperors with a harem of female (and male) consorts, the Huffington Post found that polygamy has “a surprisingly female-friendly history in China.” Confucius’ teachings, however, only allowed for men to take several concubines, as long as there were valid reasons for doing so. One such reason—besides monogamy being a social construct—was to increase the odds of producing a male heir.

Polygamy can be divided into polyandry, a woman taking several husbands, and polygyny, a man taking several wives. Although a rare sight, polyandry is still prevalent in certain rural areas of Tibet. Historically, polygyny tend to be practiced among the higher classes, particularly rulers and tycoons who needed capable heirs to run their empires. By contrast, polyandry was, and remains, more common among the impoverished, with the main reason being economic security for the woman. It also tends to take place in communities where women possess a higher-than-usual level of sexual freedom.

It is estimated in 2017 that there are 33.5 million more men than women in China. In 2015, Xie Zuoshi, an economics professor at Zhejiang University, suggested that polyandrous relationships might be the much-needed solution to this alarming gender imbalance.

Xie proposed that these bare branches, (光棍, guang gun), should simply latch onto another branch and join them in matrimony but received a lot of criticism for his suggestion; one prominent women’s rights activist, Zheng Churan, argued that Xie discussed the efficient allocation of women as if they were a commodity. Xie rebutted that, if no action is taken, over 30 million Chinese men will end up unmarried, with no one to take care of them as they grow old.

With a increasingly ageing population, China wants growing birth rates. Although, as in Zhang’s case, it may be morally despicable to keep wives hidden from each other, some argue that, yes, polyamorous relationships might just be the answer to China’s baby drought.

Cover image from Pexels


author Ebba Isaksson

Ebba Isaksson was an intern at The World of Chinese in 2018 – 2019. She primarily writes about Chinese society and culture, and is especially passionate about women’s rights and the role of women in contemporary Chinese society. Ebba holds a master’s degree in China Studies from Peking University.

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