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Section II: Living in China continued—Dating, Sex, and Relationships

Pathological Narcissism and Grandiose Self Defenses

It is certainly true, in a very broad philosophical sense, that human beings have more in common than not regardless of place of birth. "People are people" so to speak.

However, it is also true that cultural norms do influence upbringing practices and one's childhood experiences most certainly affect personality development. The early childhood experiences of a female child born in southeast Asia (assuming she was fortunate enough not to have been selectively aborted as a fetus, or sold, drowned, or starved to death shortly after birth), on the average, will very likely be significantly different than those born in England or America for example—although, of course, not in every case.

In addition, some people are just constitutionally stronger and emotionally healthier than others and have the remarkable ability to rise above whatever adverse circumstances life has thrown at them. Others—who at least on the surface appear to have been given every golden opportunity life has to offer—just can't manage to get their lives together no matter what.

While it needs to be stressed that not all Chinese women suffer from disorders of the self, the single-child policy combined with pervasive traditional Confucian values and beliefs in regard to the superiority of males has created a culturally-specific and unique vulnerability to the development of pathological narcissism in many of China's female population.

The following list outlines conditions that, if present, would significantly increase the likelihood of the formation of a narcissistic personality disorder and further distinguishes between closet (lower-level) and exhibitionist (higher-level) narcissism.

  1. The female child is a grave disappointment at birth, especially to her father. Whether spoken or not, this leads to either an estranged relationship (most common scenario) or one that is, at best, highly ambivalent.
  2. As an only child, the daughter is nevertheless pampered and spoiled, especially by her mother and grandparents. If the father is conscious of his disappointment, resentment and subsequent guilt, he too may also overindulge his daughter in an attempt at psychological undoing.
  3. This combination of factors leads to a child who feels both constitutionally damaged (i.e., inadequate, inferior at birth) and, at the same time, entitled to special treatment and compensation from the world. One of two types of pathological narcissism will emerge depending on the girl's cognitive and physical attributes:
  1. If the girl is very gifted academically and considered physically attractive, she will become a phallic or exhibitionistic narcissistic.
  2. If the girl is only an average student (or worse) and considered to be no better than average-looking, she will become a closet narcissist.
  3. Where there is a discrepancy between academic ability and physical appearance, or in the case of girls born in rural regions or to poor families, the latter will typically prevail in determining narcissist type.
  1. Where the girls were fortunate enough to have escaped developmental arrest and a disorder of the self, many will nevertheless exhibit at least some of the traits listed below. Prognosis and recovery are quite favorable for this group of women, especially with treatment.

The following table summarizes the main characteristics of exhibitionistic and closet narcissists.

Narcissistic Types
Narcissistic Type
Main Features
Expression in Relationships with Men
Exhibitionistic Consciously feels and maintains a grandiose self of self-importance. Knows she is special and both expects and demands special treatment from others. Is extremely hypersensitive to criticism and perceived disapproval of any kind and will not tolerate it. Surrounds herself with other beautiful or special people who can reflect back or mirror her own grandiose sense of self. Is extremely manipulative and exploitive of others. Is often jealous or envious of others and believes others are jealous or envious of her. Has constant fantasies of unlimited success, money and power. Lacks genuine empathy and can only relate to or “love” others who provide her with ongoing narcissistic supplies. Only seeks men who are perceived as powerful, influential, extremely handsome, well-educated and unique. Typically remains unmarried well into her late thirties as she had never found the “perfect” match and will then frantically seek to couple with the best candidate when she feels time is running out. If married or otherwise coupled, will commonly seek the company of a “better man” when disappointed or frustrated and will justify doing so as her birthright. These women generally suffer from major depression during their change of life, will typically live in their past glory and frequently reminisce about "when they were young and beautiful."
Closet Consciously feels damaged and constantly devalues self, e.g., “I wish I was prettier,” "I wish my nose was bigger," “I wish I was smarter,” etc. Perpetually seeks affirmation of her self-worth from her environment, especially men, e.g., "Do you think she is prettier than me?" and feels “crushed” or “worthless” and then enraged when disappointed and frustrated, or when others cannot be successfully blamed for her failures. Fluctuates often between depressed mood, manifested by sulking and withdrawn behavior, and then irritable and aggressive mood, manifested by both verbal and physical abuse. Will seek and literally cling onto a man who can provide her with constant affirmation of her self-worth but will commonly attempt to defend against potential abandonment by devaluing, criticizing and controlling him, i.e., “I need you to be special so I can feel special, but if you are too special, you will probably leave me for someone better.” Like the exhibitionistic narcissist, will not accept criticism or disapproval well at all and will engage in constant power struggles or will always need to prove she is right. Closet narcissists are usually very distrustful and devaluing of other women, mostly or entirely have male friends, and are pathologically jealous and suspicious.

Case Illustration 1: "Cissy"

This is a particularly poignant and highly representative personal history and detailed illustration of a woman with former closet narcissistic traits that can be found on the Internet Chinese women's support group Chinese Women Today. Cissy painfully describes her violently ambivalent relationship with her father and how it affected her sense of self-worth as well as her relationships with men later on in her life. Pay special attention to how she was conscious of expecting men to "spoil and tolerate" her as a way of compensating her for what she never received from her father.

Many of these girls deliberately seek older men, as much as 25 to 35 years older, and will speak of consciously seeking "double-love": The love of a husband and a father, as Cissy does. About half of her story is reproduced here for the reader's convenience. Cissy is unusually fortunate in that she was able to find help and eventually came to terms with her internalized sense of damage, which she now describes as just a "wound."

Through Sadness and Tears—My Father and I

Written by Cissy, Rewritten by XiaoWa

Someone like me may be described as “damaged”. Yet I prefer to call myself, “wounded”. Damages may not be able to be fully restored, but wounds can be healed.

Childhood Pains

My father was never an alcoholic but his explosive temper could be compared to one. In the middle of playing with me, he could suddenly get angry and give me a slap on the face or pinch me on the arm or leg. He would pinch so forcefully that I was brimming with tears yet did not dare to cry out.

I remember once at my grandmother’s house, my father locked me up in a damp, cold, filthy and stinking bathroom. At first I wailed and pounded on the door, begging him to let me out. After a while, I began to feel scared and curled myself up in the corner of the bathroom, shaking. As a child, I felt as if the end of the world had come.

Under my father’s constant shouts of anger and beatings, my self-confidence and self-esteem were blown to pieces. Because of his unpredictable temper, I never knew security. He never trusted me so I gradually got into the habit of lying. It didn’t matter whether or not I told the truth. It’s not surprising that when I look at my old photos, I cannot find many with a smile. In my childhood pictures, I always had a slight frown, nervously looking at the world around me.

Longing for Love

As I grew older, those wounds in my soul were wrapped up by my satisfactory grades. I immersed myself in modern science and school and tried to forget about them. Problems slowly resurfaced in my life, but back then I did not realize the causes.

Due to severe lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, I lost all sense of proper boundaries and was confusing fantasies with reality. In high school, a friendly eye contact or greeting from a boy would cause me to think he liked me. This often lead me to offer my heart and emotions too early.

When I actually started to get involved in relationships, I subconsciously wanted to obtain doubly from those poor boys the things my father never gave me. I dreamed that in a love relationship, my partner would have to spoil and tolerate me like a father in addition to being my romantic lover and best friend. I thought I would be safe to go anywhere in the world with him, and he would take care of all the problems and difficulties. The higher my expectations rose, the deeper my disappointment grew.

So I kept on looking for perfect love in all the wrong places. My soul was so intensely hungering and thirsting, craving to be loved and accepted. I did not understand that kind of longing can never be satisfied by a man, or anyone. I did not realize that when I could not even love and accept myself, I could never truly love and accept others and receive their love.

Case Illustration 2: "Andy," a foreign teacher in China married to a closet narcissist.

This post was written by a foreign male teacher in China and vividly describes what his life is like being married to a closet narcissist. It is a fairly common scenario in China, especially for Western men married to Chinese women, which is why it is included here.

Even my own wife has admitted (once) that she takes advantage of my temperate disposition and fair-mindedness to try to put it over on me.

My own wife used to be physically violent with me quite a bit. Hitting and scratching, punching, even biting etc., (basically, the untamed 3 year old). One time she smacked me across the head with a heavy book on the bus, and brought blood to my forehead.

She doesn't do it anymore, though. The last time she hit me, about two years ago, I jabbed her back with a short, sharp jab/punch to the shoulder - the only time I have ever hit a woman. It wasn't enough to cause any damage, but hard enough to let her know that physical violence is unacceptable, at least where I come from. And I told her so directly. It was basically like disciplining a child with a smack. We have talked about this since, and she admits that when she was little her father was "very weak" and she was treated like a princess. i.e. she never had appropriate boundaries set. Many Chinese kids get so much attention when they are little (esp. girls) that they grow up with a completely different mindset to western kids. Many expect the world to revolve around them, esp. now with the one child policy.

Actress Vu Mei defies mother

If you see any indications of this type of behavior while you are dating, you need to address them immediately and make it eminently clear that this is entirely unacceptable. Ignoring, tolerating or acquiescing to it will only reinforce it and make it far worse over time. Keep in mind that if you do try to set limits after having first established a pattern of accepting aggressive or controlling acting-out behaviors, expect the unacceptable behavior to worsen in both frequency and intensity for a brief period of time before it improves (in what behavioral psychologists refer to as an "extinction burst"). However, if the girl does not respond favorably to appropriate limit- and boundary-setting over a reasonable period of time, then you need to either end the relationship or resign yourself to a life of emotional and, perhaps, even physical abuse.

If you do decide to end the relationship, you should do so in a public place only (most Chinese girls will not make a scene in public) and you should first make certain that the girl does not have access to your apartment or anything else you value (for example, if the girl has a key to your apartment, find a way of obtaining it before you speak to her).

Case Illustration 3: Candy, the exhibitionistic narcissist.

This case vignette was written by a 30-year old American foreign teacher in China who had a very painful experience with an exhibitionistic narcissist he had met through an Internet dating service. Unfortunately, many Western men are exploited and manipulated for visas to their respective foreign countries every day in China.

I first met 23-year old Candy through an online dating service. I was frankly surprised at how quickly she answered my private message to her. We exchanged Yahoo Messenger IDs and then spent about two hours chatting online. She told me that all she was interested in was meeting a good man who could love her: that’s all. She wasn’t interested in a man’s wealth or his possessions, she wrote. She indicated that she had broken up with her first and only boyfriend about six months ago, another American who was 42 years older than her, and that she was ready to start a new relationship. Aside from all that, she was also probably the prettiest girl I had ever seen in China, so all of this was really hard for me to believe. But I wanted to believe, so I agreed to pay for a ticket for her to fly her up to meet me.

Chinese girl

When I met her at the airport, I couldn’t believe my eyes: She was even prettier in person than she was in her photos. Inside the taxi, on the way to back to my apartment, I got the distinct impression that something was wrong, that she was distracted somehow, but I tried not to attend to that—I hoped that maybe I was just imagining it because I was so nervous and excited.

When we finally got to my apartment, she simply dropped the bags she had been carrying right next to the door and broke some bottle containing a liquid that then proceeded to leak all over the floor. She didn’t seem the least bit concerned by it and I was the one who would eventually clean it up the next morning.

After she was settled in, and we were both seated at the dining room table, I asked her to tell me what was really going on. I commented on how I realized a girl like her could get any man she wanted, so why would she be interested in a 30-year old guy like me who hadn’t accumulated much wealth and only had a four-year college education? After starring at and sizing me up for what felt like an eternity, while weighing all her options, she then proceeded to tell me the truth. As it turned out, she had lied about everything. She had not broken up with her 65-year old boyfriend at all. She was with me because they had a big fight after he had refused to marry her again. She admitted that her only interest in me was to get a visa to America. She wanted me to marry her and bring her to the states as soon as possible (she seemed to have no real idea about the length of time it took to get a marriage visa). She even offered me $20,000 USD if I would agree.

It’s hard to describe, but I don’t think I had ever been more heartbroken and disappointed than I was at the particular moment in time. I had never been married before so I was looking for a real wife, not a business deal, and I told her so. I then asked her to book a return flight back to her 65-year old boyfriend the next day. That was my third and last try with a Chinese girl. Although I remained in China for another two years before returning back to the states, I never dated another one again. I wouldn’t dare.

I recently received a message from Candy. Leonard finally agreed to marry her and her big dream came true: She has been living in California for the past five months. She also asked if I would come visit her because she wanted to have sex with a much younger man. When I told her that I wasn’t interested, she replied that she had already found a much younger and richer man to marry her after she gets her Green Card and divorces Leonard.

I actually felt sorry for the poor bastard. He probably has no idea.

If you suspect that your girlfriend may be a narcissist, we have included a 25-item questionnaire that you can take to further assess it.

Common Compensatory Behaviors: Issues of Control and Dominance

I think some Western men have fantasies about Chinese women.
They think that the Chinese women pretty, sweet little girls…
but lots of Chinese women really strong-willed.
And they find out Chinese women can be dragon ladies.Source: Li Jia (Chinese women in her 40s), transcribed from NPR audio broadcast "What Chinese Men Really Think of Western Women." Retrieved January 10th, 2009 from

Relationships are difficult under the best of circumstances and, as we all know, the divorce rate in North America is higher than 50 percent: Add to that mix the myriad of cross-cultural differences you two will have to face together and life doesn't get any easier. From our perspective, it takes a Herculean amount of effort—especially during the first year or two—to overcome the plethora of misunderstandings you two will have to sort out owing to not only intercultural differences but often a significant language barrier. Every indication in the literature suggests that cross-cultural marriages are far more likely to end in divorce than others. One such study of intercultural marriages in Shanghai found that there is a direct positive correlation between the incidence of divorce relative to the increased rate in cross-cultural marriages, with Chinese-Japanese and Chinese-Canadian couples having the highest rates of divorce (China Daily, 2007).

Foreign men who report the greatest degree of contentment in and satisfaction with their marriages to Chinese nationals are those who typically prefer being married to, and have deliberately sought out in the past, a strong-willed and dominant maternal-like figure.

Although China is still very much a male-dominated society politically and economically, domestically, it is almost entirely a matriarchal one. Chinese men are expected to hand over their salaries to their wives who control the household finances and, essentially, the women are the ones who direct and oversee all major household and family decisions. According to a recent study reported by Women in China, in up to 90 percent of all urban families, women have an "overwhelming say in their family expenditure, women took control of the domestic finances, deciding the family's monthly budget, what the money was spent on and when it was bought" (Yan, 2008).

As one unattached 24-year old Chinese girl, from an affluent family with excellent English language skills, clarified: "In public, I will give my future husband 'face'. I will not argue with him or yell back at him, but, in the house, I am the boss. I will tell him what to eat and what to wear and he will have to listen to me." Please be advised that this is a very common and typical attitude among educated and middle-class Chinese women. The only real exceptions to this may be found among poor and relatively uneducated Chinese girls. Thus, as a rule, foreign men who report the greatest degree of contentment in and satisfaction with their marriages to Chinese nationals are those who typically prefer being married to, and have deliberately sought out in the past, a strong-willed and dominant maternal-like figure.

Cupid's Arrows

In this context, many Western men, soon after intentions of marriage have been discussed, or, at the very least, once the girl has achieved a certain level of security in the relationship, report how Chinese women metamorphosize into partners who are controlling, domineering and hypercritical. Love and concern are often expressed in a manner that we would refer to as both critical and overbearing. Feelings of love and concern will be expressed with, for example: "Why did you wash your hands before flushing the toilet? You are supposed to wash your hands after you flush the toilet"; "Why did you leave the light on in the bathroom. Are you using it now?" and; "You better do a good job or they won't ask you back!" If you can understand and accept these very common types of condescending admonishments from your Chinese girlfriend or wife as "true love," then you are a better man (certainly a more accepting and patient one) than most.

Keep in mind, also, that Chinese women, as is true of most Asian girls in general, feel an enormous sense of responsibility to provide for their parents in their old age. In China, the first-born son is held primarily responsible for the care of elderly parents (who will often live with him and his wife), but, especially in the case of an only female child, the onus of that responsibility will fall squarely on her shoulders. What this means is that you, as the husband, will be expected to contribute some amount of money to the girl's family on a regular basis, or, at the very least, during special occasions such as the Spring Festival.This financial obligation is actually greater in regard to the families of Thai and Filipino girls. Groom's in Thailand are expected to pay the bride's family a significant betrothal dowry, which ranges considerably in value depending on the status of the girl and her family, and, in the Philippines, Western husbands in particular are expected to contribute a monthly sum to the upkeep of the girl's family in what is referred to as "sustento" or sustenance.

Basically, when you marry a Chinese girl (or one from any other Asian country), you are marrying into the entire family and you are expected to regularly contribute to their financial needs. If this is a responsibility you are completely unwilling to assume, you would be well-advised to reconsider marrying an Asian girl. Many foreign men have come to successful terms with this by having an open and honest discussion with their partners before the marriage, for the purpose of reaching a mutual agreement as to precisely how much will be contributed to the family on a regular basis. Keep in mind, as well, that we are not talking about a lot of money by Western standards. A contribution of only 500 yuan (USD $70.00) per month will hardly be felt by most Western men, and, yet, that can make all the difference in the life of your bride's family.


While it is true that not every woman in China can be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder, it would be fair to say that many Chinese women will, at the very least, exhibit some such traits as described above. Even among those who are not pathologically narcissistic, most (especially women from middle- and upper-middle class families) will develop compensatory defenses and behaviors in regard to men and in the management of their children and households. These are typically expressed in the form of control and dominance, power struggles, hypercriticism, and "cold wars" when frustrated or disappointed.

Despite the relatively high prevalence of narcissistic traits and personality disorders among women in China, we feel the greatest challenge for Western men in finding the right girl centers around what we refer to as issues of unavailability and underrepresentation and these are discussed in great detail in the next unit.


About Us

Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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