I've met quite a few mistresses to wealthy Chinese men in my real estate career. There seems to be many variations of an age old cultural tradition that dates back thousands of years and it's not just the Chinese. Some call them Xiao San or 'Little Third' which describes a woman who is a girlfriend or mistress to the married husband. Sometimes the wives know about these mistresses, just as many of their own successful fathers had paramours on the side besides their own mothers. It was part of the familial norm and they are used to it. Sometimes the wives have no knowledge about their devious husbands carrying on trysts behind their back. Discovery sometimes led to raging outbursts that make the news including death threats.
Then there is Ernai - 'Second Wife' where the mistress or second wife is welcomed into the inner circle of the married husband as a second wife, not by legal marriage. She is introduced to the wife and her kids and sometimes they all live in the same household and their children. If the second wife or maybe even third and fourth have children, they refer to each other as step-siblings.
I've heard both terms used interchangeably and the role of a mistress is often not as clear cut. Most likely, she is custom blended to fit the needs of herself, her boyfriend and the relationship. Although many might think they are young and beautiful females, that may not always be the case. I've seen them in all ages, genders including transgender varieties, shapes, sizes, social, economic backgrounds and even marital status. Some become mistresses for love, some for financial support or gain. Basically, they all mean one thing - an infidelity occurring in the marriage with a third party that is providing something of value to the relationship.
I’d like to consider the Chinese mistress as modern day concubines. Thousands of years ago when Emperors ruled China, many of them believed that sleeping with many women gave them immortality. In their palaces, there were hundreds of concubines that dwelled along with the Emperor. The men that worked in the palaces were eunuchs to ensure purity in lineage. Sometimes poor rural families would offer their beautiful daughters as concubines to the palace which was deemed an honor. Besides, it eased the pressure on the poor parents in having to feed one more person in the family, especially a girl when they prize a son.
There was one concubine in particular that broke the barriers of being a concubine and rose to becoming the Dowager or Empress of China from her modest beginnings - Xixi. Giving the Emperor his only son, she used her power, intelligence, charm and natural leadership abilities to become the ruler of China during the Qing dynasty for 47 years.
Today, wealthy Chinese men collect mistresses as a status symbol, just as the emperors did before, nothing has changed.
It's been my experience that these calculated opportunists are quite savvy. They received all the financial perks of a wife with the freedom of a girlfriend while being single and free. They didn't have to contend with overbearing and controlling Chinese mother in laws, attend boring and obligatory family gatherings and deal with the cultural norms and expectations of a dutiful Chinese wife. Many received financial perks like a home, car and clothes that they wouldn't be able to acquire on their own. I'm not condoning what they do or praise their chosen path. Nor am I challenging the fundamentals of marriage from a political, religious or moral standpoint. I am simply making an observation.