By Andy Ho
FILM-MAKER Jack Neo's infidelity has been in the news of late.
Some applaud the dignified manner in which Madam Irene Kng, his wife of 27 years, has conducted herself. Others, however, are disappointed that she has not displayed more visceral anger at her husband's behaviour. The other woman - who exposed Neo - has also been excoriated.
It is as if men were innately and naturally promiscuous, so that must be Neo's only shortcoming. His wife had no one to blame but the other woman, not her adulterous spouse.
The usual reason given for Madam Kng's quiet forgiveness is that a successful man's marital infidelity has historically been tolerated in Chinese culture. According to the late Robert van Gulik, a noted sinologist, writing in his 1974 book, Sexual Life In Ancient China, sex was regarded in Chinese culture more as a natural appetite 'than a social encounter'.
Thus, sex was not associated in the Chinese mind with moral guilt as long as the consort and venue were appropriate. That would be a household of san qi si qie or 'three wives and four concubines'. And that with 'five generations' under the same roof too, according to Olga Lang in Chinese Family And Society. This ideal, of course, was achieved only by really wealthy men.
In Confucianist thought, the family unit was more important than the individual. Sex was mainly for procreation whereas overly strong marital ties were frowned upon as they were thought to weaken the parent-son relationship. That would undermine filial piety, thus jeopardising the stability of the family.
Having more female sexual partners around meant that no single woman would monopolise the husband's affections. In this way too, the stability of the family would be maintained.
What we might call 'familism' was the linchpin of Confucianist society, which stressed proper relationships. What should guide relationships between ruler and ruled was care and trust; between father and son, affinity; between husband and wife, a division of roles; between the older and the younger, respect; and, between friends, fidelity.
In practice, it was the male who really mattered in any relationship. This meant that females were, by and large, dominated and marginalised. Socialised into a subjugated role, Chinese women were rendered more tolerant of their straying husbands than they would have otherwise been.
It remains somewhat that way still today. In a survey two sinologists carried out in the mid-1990s in Taipei, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, most respondents felt that the wronged party - usually the wife, of course - ought to remain patient and do her utmost to persuade the wayward spouse to return.
A 2004 study carried out in Hong Kong and published in Counselling Psychology Quarterly reported that Chinese women chose to shoulder an overburdened gender role. They tended to blame what they saw as their own inadequacies as wives and mothers as the reasons for marital problems and family difficulties.
But would this Confucianist view of gender relations still matter so much in westernised Hong Kong or Singapore, what with girls having equal access to schooling and jobs? Significantly, women still bear the brunt of family responsibility in these societies - even if they are employed outside the home as well. Madam Kng, for example, says she was very busy with Neo's business affairs as well as the children.
Because the fact that the wife has to shoulder two roles goes largely unrecognised institutionally, women can hardly renegotiate these roles. In this way, Confucianist attitudes do continue to impact the ability of most Chinese wives to cope.
Modernisation has moved spousal infidelity from the domestic realm (concubines) to the world of commerce (office affairs). Though extramarital affairs affect the domestic realm, they can no longer be incorporated into and be managed within it as in the days of yore. Now the other woman remains a problem to be dealt with outside. But since men are not really at fault - being naturally promiscuous, according to Confucianist understanding - the fault still lies with women.
Whether it is the wife who is responsible for the domestic conditions that impel her man to play the field or just that the other woman had set out to seduce a married man, it is still women who are really at fault. The real enemy of the woman with an unfaithful husband can never be her man - even if she were to catch him in flagrante delicto. It is always the other woman, all feminist notions of sisterhood being moot. We are still as Confucianist as ever.
Unsurprisingly, a 2002 study published in the journal Sex Roles found that mainland Chinese men preferred pretty, chaste and healthy women who were less educated, less intelligent, or had less promising careers than they did. Conversely, mainland Chinese women preferred men who were smarter and financially stable.
Meanwhile, there are also modern, financially independent women with their own careers who are willing to get involved with married men for the romantic intimacy, without eventual marriage in mind. Men thus - even if they were not all wealthy or powerful - are presented today with even more opportunities for extramarital involvement.
Ironically, modernisation in Confucianist cultures thus works hand-in-glove with feminism to undermine women further.