Ask 10 Shanghainese women about their husbands’ annual income, and all 10 will (most probably) immediately state their salary.
Chinese women are supposed to be the family bookkeepers and husbands, at least in Shanghai, traditionally turn their salaries over to their wives who in turn give them spending money. Shanghai men are also famous for holding their wives’ handbags. Shanghai women are famously domineering.
Though many women seem certain of their husbands’ earnings, their spouses don’t always dutifully turn over their money and they tell their wives they earn less than they do. Men have often tucked away secret funds, si fang qian (私房钱), literally “private house money.” Small amounts, nothing too big, in a vase, between books, inside a mattress; as the amounts grew, some opened small bank accounts.
According to a recent online survey of 1,296 men and women aged from 31 to 50 in major cities, Shanghai husbands and Wuhan (Hubei Province) wives rank at the top in secret savings hidden from their spouse. The people surveyed also live in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province; Chengdu, Sichuan Province, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. Research was conducted by Horizon Key Research Co.
Results indicate that the more a husband earns, the more he tends to hide in a small bank account.
“Don’t be surprised, I am one of those men,” says Peter Zhang, a 45-year-old account manager at a multinational advertising company in Shanghai, adding that his secret account benefits his marriage. “I don’t mean to deceive my wife, but I don’t have a better solution.”
Zhang is in his second marriage and he has an older son living with his ex-wife. He pays monthly child support besides alimony, which his current wife knows about.
“But surely it’s my responsibility to give my son more financial help,” he says. “Unfortunately, my wife can’t fully accept that I am not only her husband but also the father of a son. She’s very uncomfortable to see me spending additional money on him. So to ease tension, I had to open another secret account behind her back.”
His wife knows he receives extra, non-salary income, but she doesn’t know how much overtime, per diem on business trips, bonuses and other perks, Zhang says.
“There’s always a way to hide money,” Zhang observes. “In fact, I sincerely suggest that every husband keep his own small bank account, which is very beneficial to the family relationship. It can help avoid many unnecessary disputes.”
Guo Feng, a photographer in his 40s, also has a secret fund, but unlike Zhang, he saves money for his parents.
“My wife and parents-in-law don’t have a good relationship with my parents, because they think their family background is superior to mine,” Guo says. Every week he visits his parents’ home, but he can’t go there empty handed.
“I give all my money to my wife and she just leaves me a few. I would be a laughingstock if I go to dinner with my friends or see my parents without a penny in my pocket,” says Guo, with bit of resentment.
It seems that most husbands’ “secret funds” are typically for family and friends, not personal indulgence, which their eagle-eyed wives would probably spot. Of course, if they had mistresses, they would be hiding large amounts of undeclared money — but that’s a whole different story.
It’s not just in Shanghai that men hide money from their wives.
Men in the Yangtze River Delta region — famous for its refined culture and gentle manners — are famously mild and, it is said, unwilling to confront their wives over money. Hence, they used to bury it, squirrel it away in the house, and now put it in the bank when the money grows.
In the old days before there were banks, many families buried their money, gold or silver, and valuables, in holes in the ground.
Shanghai women are notorious around China for being assertive, shrewd and manipulative, especially with their husbands. They consider the salary their due.
There’s a saying that every Shanghai girl grows up with: “After marriage, mine is still mine, but yours is also mine.”
That “yours” means everything a man owns, and naturally includes the money he earns.
“Before my marriage, my mother told me that all the money my husband earned should be given to me, because for decades my father always gave my mother his money,” says Chen Bing, a 28-year-old TV producer.
“At first, I thought that was ridiculous, but my mom convinced me that there’s a bigger chance for a rich man to have an illicit affair than a penniless man. When I said that to my husband, he willingly gave me his salary, saying it was one proof of his love.”
There are exceptions, of course, and some modern young women don’t like the idea of keeping their husband’s money or being watchdogs. Many of them have their own adequate salaries.
Niu Yi, a 34-year-old university teacher, is strongly opposed to collecting the salary from her husband, who’s a financial specialist.
“That’s unacceptable to me. He has every right to his own bank account and so do I,” Niu says. “This shows the equal status of spouses in the family. I am an independent woman and my husband is an independent man.”
Be that as it may, Shanghai men’s reputation for being considerate to a fault and compliant — plus their lack of easy spending money — make them the butt of jokes in China.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about Shanghai men, since I get along well with them at work — they’re nice and capable,” says Beijinger Ren Jun, general manager of a consulting firm. “But I just don’t understand the way they deal with their wives. Why so humble? Why so weak? Husband and wife should be equal and men should look like men.”
He says it would be unacceptable if his wife asked him to turn over his paycheck. “I wouldn’t marry that kind of woman,” Ren says.
In the eyes of many Shanghai husbands, turning over their paycheck is a way of showing love and respect.
“I don’t see anything wrong with that,” responds Peter Zhang. “Think of it her way: as women age and their looks fade, most don’t feel secure and fear their husband might be attracted to someone younger.”
So if her husband gives her what she thinks is all his money, she feels relieved because she thinks he doesn’t have money to date another woman, he says.
“That’s why it makes sense to save money on the side, for the sake of a wife’s peace of mind,” he says.
“Each marriage is different,” says Shanghai psychologist Feng Yalan. “This practice (the wife taking money and the husband hiding money) depends on the character of the wife and whether she’s keen on the money issue. It’s always important for a husband to understand his wife well and her attitudes about money. The more he knows about her, the more he will be able to play a smart role in the relationship.”
Many wives are aware of this subterfuge and choose not to mention it.
“I know he has hidden a small amount of money behind my back,” says Jane Huang, a 42-year-old newspaper editor. “I bet every smart wife does, but I don’t want to say it.”
Her husband’s younger sister was laid off and he often gives her family money. “Surely, we are not obliged to do this and if he told me I would say ‘no’ or be unwilling to say ‘yes’,” Huang says. When she doesn’t know about it, that doesn’t irritate her so much. “This is about balance in marriage.”
Zhu Kun, a human resources manager in her 40s at an multinational company, says that when she got married, her husband earned far less and all their money went to buying an apartment, a car and rearing a child.
“But now he’s the company director and sometimes brings home a new iPhone or LV briefcase. I never ask where the money came from. It’s a compromise and makes us both feel comfortable,” Zhu says.
Sometimes, women can’t look the other way.
“I once received my husband’s credit card bill showing a US$300 meal for two at a Western restaurant on the Bund,” says a 38-year-old woman surnamed Xu. “I was quite suspicious. It was through that bill and that meal that I finally found out he was having an affair. We got divorced.”