I have found a very interesting article on this matter on the engrossing Dutch fan web-site devoted to Robert van Gulik, the celebrated author of the Judge Dee mystery novels.
Here is the text of the article, which had originally been published in the 1950s. The highlighted parts have been so by yours truly.
One-Sided Notes On a Many-Sided Subject
R.H. van Gulik
Some time a studious person with much leisure at his disposal might well compile an encyclopaedia containing all the mistaken statements on Far Eastern subjects that may be culled from ancient and modern Western literature.
His would be the work of a lifetime, but it would be far from labour lost. For so complicated has become the tangle of human relations on this small globe of ours, that a study of errors is often much more enlightening than a study of truisms.
To such an encyclopaedia of errors on the Far East, the entry polygamy would occupy considerable space. Except for Far Eastern politics, there are few topics about which one reads so many erroneous statements.
This goes for China as well as for Japan. Since a great many Japanese customs go back to Chinese prototypes, here we shall deal with polygamy in China, leaving the Japanese aspect of this problem for a subsequent occasion. Some writers describe the old Chinese polygamic system as a pool of black iniquity; others praise it as the long-awaited final solution of all our social problems. In fact it is neither of the two. Polygamy in China was the logical consequence of certain social and economic premises, and worked neither better nor worse than any of our own social institutions. And now that these premises are gradually disappearing, polygamy is disappearing together with them.
There are many reasons for the prevalence of erroneous ideas about Chinese polygamy. In the first place, Chinese family life has until very recently been a closely guarded, isolated territory where no persons except members of the family itself could trespass. Among foreigners it was perhaps only the wives of the early missionaries who could obtain glimpses of life in the quarters of the womenfolk in a Chinese mansion. But foreign wives had an avenue of approach only to Christian Chinese families, where there were no secondary wives or concubines.
Even the Chinese themselves found it difficult to obtain information about the “inner courtyards” of their friends. For in China the separation of the sexes has, since olden times, been carried out so firmly that in old-fashioned families it was considered improper to dry articles of male and female clothing on the same laundry line. An unmarried girl of an upper middle-class family had no contact at all with any male person except her brothers, and the contacts of a married woman were largely confined to the male members of her husband’s and her own family.
This separation of the sexes was facilitated by the architectural features of the Chinese dwelling house. Especially in North and Central China, houses spread horizontally instead of vertically. One mansion is in reality a compound consisting of a number of separate courtyards, each having its own buildings and gardens, and connected with each other by winding corridors or covered passages.
This peculiar arrangement of the Chinese floor plan also answered many of the problems of a polygamic family system. Each of the several wives could live in a separate courtyard of her own, with her own servants, and her own kitchen. The architecture eliminated many causes for the friction which is bound to arise sooner or later if one man lives together with several wives under the same roof.
Besides there were a number of other factors in ancient China that contributed to a harmonious home life. One of the most important probably was sociability. In the olden days Chinese women were rigidly excluded from all outdoor activity, and could not take part in the social functions which their husbands so freely attended. It is not without reason that the husband in conversation with outsiders would refer to his wife as “nèiren”, or “she who is within”, and she speak of him as “wàizǐ”, or “he who is without.” These terms are today still used in Chinese colloquial speech although the real situation is nowadays often quite the reverse.
Women being thus confined to life inside their home, the wives provided company for each other, played card games and chess together, engaged in the polite arts such as painting and embroidery, and celebrated seasonal feasts together. The question of personal dignity, as important in China as anywhere else, did not arise because an age-old tradition had fixed the hierarchy of the womenfolk of a mansion, circumscribing exactly the rights and duties of all, from the seventh concubine to the old grandmother of the husband.
With so many people involved, the activities of a malicious person could easily be curbed by gentle pressure, and without interference on the part of the husband, who, if he was a wise man, kept studiously aloof from all quarrels among his womenfolk.
Further, economic factors played an important role. The old Chinese thought it nonsense to let ten women live in miserable poverty, as long as there could be found one man who could afford to let all ten of them live together with him in ease and comfort. Moreover, the primitive means of communication in ancient China often caused a man to live separated from his family for one or two years at a time. He then took unto him a wife in the place to which his official duty or his business had called him. When he returned home, he took this wife and children, if any, with him. They were incorporated into the original household as a matter of course.
As to the origin of the system, Sinologues are probably right when they derive it from the sacred duty of every man to perpetuate the family line, in order to ensure the continuation of the sacrifices to the ancestors. If the first marriage failed to produce male offspring, it was a man’s duty to take a second or third wife, until he had obtained a son. Ethnologists are probably also right when they look for the origin of the system in the archaic belief that the leader of a tribe or clan has a more potent “aura” than common men, and therefore is entitled to more than one wife, as a matter of prestige. It would seem that it is this same question of prestige that is the origin of the old Chinese tradition that a high official should have at least four wives.
Be this as it may, the polygamic system has worked in China reasonably well for more than 2,000 years. There have been the usual number of tragedies, and the usual examples of complete happiness. Since that is about the same as can be said for our own monogamic marriage system, I for one, taking into consideration the special social and economical environment that obtained in ancient China, would not presume to commit myself either way.
There is, however, one point in the old Chinese polygamic system that in my opinion deserves commendation. That is that all children of one father, whether born from the first wife, secondary wife or concubine, are his legitimate offspring and as such have their incontestable rights, including those to a share of his inheritance.
Some Western writers maintain that the Chinese system of polygamy precluded the existence of spiritual love between husband and wife. Chinese literature supplies ample proof that, under the special conditions that obtained in old China, this is by no means true. There were countless examples of two or three cultured women who were happily untied with one man at the same time, in a deep and true love. The secret of such a harmonious household seems to lie in the virtue of forbearance, which is so prominent a characteristic of the Chinese people in general, and in their genius for compromise.
I conclude these random notes with a Chinese joke, one of the very few that can be translated into English, since through a coincidence the word “sour” has in Chinese the same double meaning as it has in English. The story is about a man who had an exceedingly jealous wife, who for many years had prevented him from acquiring a second spouse. By dint of much gentle persistence, he finally secured her consent, and one day he introduced into his mansion a beautiful young concubine.
From then on, at the evening meal there always occurred an awkward moment, when the steward of the mansion had to ask his master whether he planned to stay with his first wife that night, or whether the servant should make preparations in the court yard of the new arrival. As a solution the master instructed his steward when serving the wine always to ask him whether that day he would drink yellow or white wine. It must be noted that Chinese yellow wine will spoil after a month or so, while white wine, which resembles our gin, will last much longer. The arrangement was that if the master answered “yellow,” it meant his first wife, and that “white” would refer to his preference for his concubine on that day.
The first night after this secret arrangement had been made between the master and his steward, the latter duly asked during the evening meal whether his master would drink yellow or white wine; the answer was “white.” The next evening the steward received the same answer, and the same thing happened on the third night. On the fourth evening, when the steward was approaching his master’s chair to ask the vital question, he bowed and whispered: “Master, may I humbly suggest that tonight you drink some yellow wine, lest it grow sour.”