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Home  /  Inside China  /  Xiao San – Empowerment of Chinese women or keeping them 'small'?
Xiao San – Empowerment of Chinese women or keeping them 'small'? print version
Among several slang terms that mean 'mistress', xiao san (小三, 'little third') has caught most public attention in recent years. While Chinese society regards 'xiao san' as a negative modern development, it also accepts it as a strong motif of modern urban environments. And even if Chinese tradition strongly opposes the permissive practice of 'xiao san', it is Chinese tradition that made 'xiao san' what it is, a distinct form of 'mistress' from the one that exists in Western societies.

Many modern slang terms in Chinese reflect phenomena that are truly unique for Chinese society. On the other hand, some terms seem at first like a pointless Sinicization of concept that exist everywhere. For example shi hun ('attempt marriage') is an expression that simply indicates 'a couple that is living together prior to marriage'. The term xiao san ('the small third') is simply an outer-marriage affair (wai yu) of a married man. But of course, if we truly wish to understand contemporary Chinese society we don't only need to focus on the social phenomena themselves but acknowledge their subtle social constructions, the titles they receive and their impact on popular discourses.

Xiao san seems to be one of the most popular 'keywords' both on and outside the internet, usually representing a gloomy side of Modern China. While xiao san is basically equivalent to 'di er nai' or 'di san zhe', recently it became the most dominant and catchy term for women mistresses. While 'wai yu' simply indicates an outer-marriage affair (of both men and women), 'di er nai' means a 'mistress' explicitly and 'di san zhe' is 'the third party', 'xiao san', 'little third' comprises of an extra humoristic flavor and some sarcasm regarding this awkward situation. 'Little' indicates that this 'third wheel' is normally a younger woman. While she causes disturbance in the bond of marriage, she remains 'small', which can be attributed to her small heart that allows herself to engage in such a 'deal' or the fact that she will always remain in the unprivileged position of the unmarried lover.

The Chinese media, various popular discourses and the immense majority of Chinese individuals with whom I have spoke in Chinese cities see the xiao san as a sad and disturbing creature in the urban jungle. Yet at the same time, it seems that xiao san has also managed to become a solid construction in the Chinese landscape. The same discourses that look down at xiao san at the same time acknowledge that this phenomenon is a product of modern Chinese conditions, which could be the financial difficulties, the pressure of the singletons or the impossibility of purchasing an apartment, which are objective technical obstacles. Xiao san is also coupled with new values of sexual permissiveness, greediness and disrespect to the traditional conjugal bond.

Xiao san is on one aspect no more than an extension of China's rising divorce rates. But when focusing further on the definition of xiao san as society sees it, it is clear that more than tenacious romanticists, xiao san are materialist ladies that choose a rich man who would pamper them. While some xiao san risk themselves with naivety and the hope that they are settling for this 'temporal job' ('linshi gong') only in order to make it a 'full time job' (zhuan zheng) in the near future, many xiao san knowingly compromise. Giving up on the ambition to find a 'rich husband', they go for the 'rich lover'. Xiao san with particularly thick skin can even have the privilege that (most) wives don't have; enjoying several lovers. Once the xiao san engages in several fronts she isn't so 'xiao' (small) anymore.

In July 2010 a new internet portal 三情网 was initiated with the intention of becoming a hub for xiao san. It does not have a manifesto that justifies this seductive practice, but is rather 'a place where xiao san can open up, share their feelings and get advice'. Tutorials, amusing stories and even guides of who to take revenge on their lovers (in case of heartache) are among the content highlights. The portal even promotes an idea to establish an annual 'xiao san day', which shall be held, as you can guess, on 3/3. The 1000+ members participate in a forum and enjoy relevant 'articles'. While this website is subversive in some aspects, its appearance and even some of its content is not so distant from women's pages in popular internet portals.

It is interesting to see how xiao san can be both a derogative term and a synonym of popular and even fashionable culture. Xiao san are by no means role models, but they represent values and vulnerabilities, in the context of love and finance, that many youngsters can identify with. This is reinforced by the fact that every other day a new Chinese star is reported to have a 'xiao san'. Only last week the hugely successful author and blogger Han Han (韩寒) got his xiao san secret exposed, yet his popularity is hardly at risk... Furthermore, as it often happens with provocative phenomena, while 'the voice of morality' condemns xiao san, marketization campaigns realize its economic value as a kinky term that 'turns men on' and therefore they find ways to incorporate xiao san in their commercial 'vocabulary'.

xiao_san_504
                      Possessive feminine rage and one 'innocent' husband...

An article by Zhang Yun of Chinese Yahoo analyzes the xiao san phenomenon and claims that in the US xiao san is much rarer than in China. The author suggests that the reason is that while men are willing to cheat anywhere in the world, US women are their limiting factor as they do not agree to initiate a romance with a married guy. Zhang adds an interesting point; while in the US a man is esteemed for his wealth only if it is the fruit of his own hard work and success (rather than inheritance or wealth through marriage), in China everyone who owns wealth automatically enjoys high status. As a result, while North American women believe that they themselves also need to gain health through work, achievements, or in the worst case as a by product of a sincere romantic bond, in China women feel greater temptation to engage romantically and sexually with masculine wealth.

Needless to say, Zhang's article isn't a well-proven thesis, but what is interesting about it, in addition to the way it portrays US romance, is its implicit indication that xiao san is a Chinese modern phenomenon that reflects permissive and materialistic values while at the same time it might also be influenced by traditional Chinese culture. The traditional paternalistic nature of Chinese society adds up to contemporary 'gold digging' in producing an outcome where women need a rich husband (or at least lover). The traditional customs according to which the man supplies housing for the woman, or the idea that a man's wealth depends on his parents' household as much as it reflects his own resilience, are strongly present in the 'modern' manifestation of romance in China, even in its most urban, permissive and even 'cosmopolitan' forms. While 'san' could be linked to 21st century values, 'xiao' is also an extension of old traditions...

While the simple definition of xiao san reflects nothing that is unique for China, the development of this slang terms and the manner in which it is echoed in popular discourses brings us to core motifs of Chinese society. A high resolution of xiao san displays rapid shifts that turn away from traditional Chinese culture but nevertheless it also paradoxically shows some level of adaptation and conformity to traditional values, particularly in men-women dynamics.

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