Li Yinhe: Should University Student Mistresses be Punished?

Li Yinhe’s latest blog post is about her position on the introduction of rules at Chongqing Normal University and Southwest Normal University that ban students from having one-night stands and being mistresses, an issue that has provoked a debate on sexual freedom, human rights, and the involvement of the authorities in people’s private lives. She argues that whilst from a legal standpoint people’s extra-marital affairs are their own dirty business, Chinese people should use the power of shame to prevent people from having affairs.


Recently, a certain university learned that a female student was a mistress, and planned to take disciplinary action, provoking much debate.

If a female student becomes someone’s mistress, it is certainly wrong on a moral level. Even if she is not a mistress, and just a normal lover, it’s still morally wrong, because she has ruined someone else’s family and marriage. This is essentially different to her having a relationship with and living with a single person; pre-marital cohabitation may contravene normal societal conventions, but on a moral level, it is not much of a problem.

The question is whether or not the university should take disciplinary action. The issue of how to deal with the violation of marital morality has been a focal point of debate in recent decades. Before Reform and Opening, extra-marital sex was punished quite severely, with administrative demerits and punishments that would [negatively] affect promotions and pay rises. It is said that during the Cultural Revolution there existed the crime of ‘breaking a family’, which specifically punished extra-marital sex. Since Reform and Opening, this crime no longer exists, work units no longer control the private lives of their workers, and the administrative punishment of this sort of immoral behaviour is no longer carried out. In 2000, when marriage law was amended, there were still those who strongly advocated the use of judicial powers to control extra-marital sex, but after the issue was debated in legal and social scientific circles, they ultimately abandoned this attempt. One reason for this was that studies conducted in Western countries showed an extra-marital sex rate of around 40 per cent. The proportion of extra-marital sex in China was a little lower, but it was still at roughly 16 per cent. If the target of a law renders 16 per cent of the population guilty, then even if it does become legislation, it will exist in name only; there is not enough police power to investigate these kinds of cases and to carry out this kind of punishment.

Aside from this, when we look at the extent to which the powers (judicial and administrative) should control the private morality of citizens, punishing extra-marital sexual activity also becomes a problem. If we are to punish this mistress, then are we also to punish the person who was keeping her (some say that his mistake was even greater, this mistress was, after all, single)? If we are to punish extra-marital sex, then are we also to punish pre-marital sex? Because, although there is no moral problem with pre-marital sex, it is certainly a contravention of traditional norms. If we are to punish this heterosexual activity that violates traditional norms, then are we also to punish homosexual activity, which violates traditional norms even further? The list goes on. This brings us back to the previous question: to what extent should [government] powers control citizens’ private lives, which [aspects] should they control, and which should they not.

My position on this is: the border of control should be whether or not there is personal harm. To put it differently, if someone’s behaviour causes personal harm (such as rape, seduction, obscenity), then punishment should be administered; if it has only violated morality and traditional norms, then criminal and administrative punishment should not be given.

So, how should we deal with behaviour such as keeping a mistress or having an affair? Just let things slide? No. This type of behaviour, we should correct with educational criticism methods. Our culture is often categorised as “shame culture” (as opposed to Western “guilt culture”), and the issue of extra-marital sex is exactly where we should allow this culture to show its strength. We should create a strong public consensus (in fact, this public consensus is and always has been strong), and disgrace those who have affairs and keep mistresses, and let those involved know that to have a mistress is shameful and devious. […]

This way, we can regulate immoral behaviour without having to use (judicial and administrative) powers, [which would] impose upon and control the private lives of citizens; we can both keep an orderly society and protect personal rights, prevent the abuse of common rights and the abuse of private rights, putting public and private rights into equilibrium.


Keeping administrative interference to a minimum? Cool. Doing away with the destructive and often exploitative culture of extra-marital affairs? Awesome. Doing it all the Chinese way? Right on. But whilst the proposed disciplinary policy is ill-conceived and unworkable, that doesn’t change the fact that thousands of female university students feel that their best chance of getting ahead in life is to go and ruin someone else’s marriage. Li is dead right that the problem is cultural rather than legal but, as she says herself, this type of behaviour is already publically deplored in China; when someone is caught having an affair, the media is very quick to shame them. Meanwhile, the practice is still rife in private. This would seem to be the result of a combination of a perceived lack of better options amongst female students (as pointed out by Shanghaiist), a swelling demographic of moneyed pervs, and a relationship culture that often places more importance on how much money your partner makes than on whether or not they’re already married. Whilst Li’s suggested course of action is probably the most rational, the roots of the problem could be far deeper than can be reached by simple “shaming”.

0 thoughts on “Li Yinhe: Should University Student Mistresses be Punished?”

  1. Oh brother, human rights issue? Involvement in someone’s private life? Marital morality? Give me a break. Maybe they want to stop students and teachers to have ‘personal’ relationships that might jeopardize the image of the school.


  2. FYI, in many workplaces, if an employer finds out that 2 co-workers have a relationship, or have one night stands, or etc, usually, one or both of people involved are asked to leave. Is that some kind of human rights issue?


  3. China should do what japan does, which is to have a law allowing wives of the cheating husbands to sue the mistresses for any an all of the homes, cars, and other assets given by the husband. Of course, enabling the American divorce law which gives half to the wives will also keep husbands extra marital activities to a minimum.


  4. The problem with this woman is that she presupposes a “correct” direction of societal development (i.e. maximization of personal rights and freedoms, and minimization of communitarian guidelines and cohesion). She has the right (and the ability) to think and say whatever she wants, but she would do better to keep an open mind.


  5. The other big question is what are traditional norms?

    Most of the ideas being voiced here are relatively new in China’s long history. There is a much longer history of concubines etc, if you want to reach for traditions. Okay, maybe a bit facetious, but you probably get the idea… it is hard to decide what is “normal”.


  6. Li Yinhe seems quite confused actually, as most people are on this issue. Not only does she call mistresses/lovers “morally wrong”, she blames them for “ruining” marriages and families. What a sexist viewpoint. Why does she assume it must be females who destroy marriages and families? Is she really so naive to think that adultery in China only involves married men and female lovers? And since when is the mistress or lover entirely to blame for adultery? Aren’t both parties equally to blame? Personally, I don’t believe adultery is morally wrong. Adultery is a natural response to the unnaturalness of monogamous marriage, which inevitably destroys a married couple’s sex life, usually within a matter of a few years. Adulterers are desperate to regain love, life and passion.


  7. Spoken like an ad for Ashley Madison David. Although I can’t say I disagree with you. I’m no feminazi, but it definitely seems to me like too much of the blame is being thrown onto the mistresses here. It takes two to tango. Also does anyone find the 16% adultery rate for China highly suspect? Finally does anyone think this woman is wearing a green hat herself and hence her feelings?


  8. 16% of extramarital affairs? I’d like to get a more detailed break-up for this figure: men vs. women, characteristic of surveyed population and so on (or at least citing the research paper itself).


  9. @ David, indeed. People all over the world ‘cheat’ on their partners – always have and always will – but it’s less commonly suggested that maybe there is something inherently mismatched in marriage and human nature. Not that I advocate sneaking around and hurting your partner, but I think is a good one and part of wider debate maybe we should be having on a fundamental rethink about how we look at male/female relationships in most societies.


  10. Rhys, I agree that cheating is unfortunate. People are forced to cheat when they are not allowed to frankly raise or share their sexual needs and fantasies, in the monotonous pressure cooker of strict and unrealistic monogamy. Cheating could be avoided by an open (and open-minded) acknowledgement of sexual frustration and an attempt to negotiate new sexual terms in a relationship, whether that means some kind of open relationship or swinging.


  11. Yeah, good luck getting even a slim fraction of the world’s people to swallow their pride, set aside their ego, and say “go ahead, honey. Jump in the sack with someone else.”

    Btw @chaji,

    Yeah, fuck those human rights.


  12. Are you kidding me? Seriously, if China=chaji, then you’ve got far bigger problems than me lecturing anyone. Also, seriously, does this really mean me sarcastically poking at chaji’s denunciation of something that, in my experience, the Chinese themselves hold in high regard constitutes lecturing? Do you also cry if you drop a hot dog? (<–masterful seinfeld reference)


  13. No Josh, this whole ‘Human Rights’ thing in China is used so much needlessly is like beating a dead horse. If I am not taking your lecture seriously, then what are you doing? Trolling?


  14. Again, taking a stab at chaji hardly qualifies as lecturing, much less beating a dead horse. Chaji’s post suggested that li yinhe was behaving abnormally for arguing for individual freedoms, something that falls under the banner of human rights. Maybe you should berate her for beating a dead horse as well.

    As for what I was doing, you could call it trolling. I thought I was just being funny.


  15. Can you really blame this girl?

    What does the average young China-lady have going for her? She has received constant reinforcement throughout her life from parents, friends, teachers and society to seek after one goal: Marry rich.

    As a young foreign business woman in China, I all too often made plenty clear of the gender imbalance… put more plainly, I’m viewed as flesh by the type of overly-wealthy, uneducated, middle-aged businessman who tosses through mistresses like these young girls do purses. The fact that I don’t respond to the disrespectful text messages and phone calls by these absolutely disgusting laoban is beyond their ability to comprehend.

    Modern China is morally relativistic. The University’s considering whether to ‘outlaw’ such behavior does nothing to resolve the fundamental problem, and any such ruling will be therefore ineffective.


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