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The term polygyny (neo-Greek: poly+gune Many + Wives) is used in related ways in social anthropology and sociobiology.

In social anthropology polygyny refers to the practice of a man having more than one wife at the same time. This is the most common form of polygamy. Polygynous marriage must be differentiated from polygamy in sexual partners. Monogamy, for example, may occur alongside sexually polygynous relations, such as Concubinage, casual sexual partners, paramours, recognized secondary partners, and a range of other patterns. Marriage itself takes an enormous range of forms cross-culturally. In biology, excluding references to marriage, polygyny would refer to a mating practice in which a male has more than one female sexual partner. (The opposite form—where a female has more than one male sexual partner —is known as polyandry). In eusocial insects polygyny refers to situations where colonies have multiple queens, and polyandry refers to queens that mate with several males. There are extensive cross-cultural research findings on polygyny by social anthropologists and others.

Definitions concerning polygyny as formal or persistent relationship structures, might be taken to refer to a system in which a male has relationships with a relatively defined social group of more than one female, or where the females are predominantly bonded to a single male, or where a combination of these features occurs, as in a harem structure where many women are openly involved.

Sororal polgyny is where the man's wives must be sisters.

Animal polygyny[]


Figure 1. Frequency of Marriage Types Across Cultures from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample of pre-industrial societies (Murdock & White 1969)

Monogamy is rare among mammals; only 3% of species are monogamous. Monogamy is more common among primates: about 15% of species. About 19% of human societies sampled for diversity (figure 1) are strictly monogamous, but the data on human polygyny suggest that in most societies most marriages are monogamous even though the majority of societies permit polygyny. Polyandry is very rare among mammals and humans.

There are some important differences in polygyny between humans and other animals. If we were forced to classify humans according to our mating system, it would be difficult to say whether we are “somewhat” polygynous or somewhat monogamous. It’s true that cross-culturally the majority of societies permit polygyny, but it’s also true that the majority of human mating occurs within monogamous unions. Table 1 gives us some sense of the diversity. What is clear is that our species-mating pattern is variable.

Comparison with our closely living relatives, the chimpanzees, suggests that variability in mating may be characteristic of our lineage that we share with our last common ancestor between chimps and humans. Chimpanzees have a multi-male social organization, meaning that groups include several males and several females. Within chimp groups there appear to be several variations on mating patterns: The typical pattern is for several related males to dominate the group. This dominant fraternity shares sexual access to females and prevents other males from mating. A different pattern is for one male and one female to establish a kind of relationship, then when the female enters estrus, she and the male split off from the group for several weeks, when they have sex repeatedly in secluded parts of the forest. These “consortships” are temporary arrangements, sometimes between male and female friends and sometimes males coerce females into consortships. Males involved in consortships may or may not be part of the dominant male coalition. The frequency of consortships varies from one chimp group to the next, hinting at the kind of mating variation we see in humans. Sometimes a single dominant male chimp can monopolize sexual access to females and the group may be effectively polygynous for a time.

Polygyny will reduce the effective population size of a given closed population.

Human polygyny[]

Polygyny has been practiced in many cultures throughout history. It was accepted in Hebrew society, in classical China, and was accepted in many traditional African and Polynesian cultures. In India, polygyny was practiced from ancient times onward[How to reference and link to summary or text]. It was accepted in ancient Greece prior to the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, but after the introduction of the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholicism, one wife, but multiple lovers was acceptable. Sub-saharan Africa was never under the influence of Rome, and has had polygamy legalized for the majority of the past two millennia. Messianic Christianity allowed and still allows polygyny in most non-western or non-Catholic controlled countries; it is regulated in the New Testament but not banned.

Polygyny was banned in the United States in 1890 as a result of laws passed concerning Mormon polygyny. It was allowed in the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon -- LDS) church, but was ended in 1890 after government coercion was given that prohibited Utah from becoming a state as long as they allowed Polygyny. It is still actively practiced by a small number of Mormons. Members of the Mormon church (LDS) may face excommunication for being polygynous. A sect of Fundamentalist Mormons (FLDS) still allows active polygyny. The LDS church does not sanction or consider the FLDS to be affiliated with them any longer. The political and economic rise of European nations from the sixteenth to the twentieth century there was a decline in polygyny as Catholicism gained influence.

Main article: Polygyny in Islam

Although many Muslim countries still retain traditional Islamic law which permits polygyny (the Koran allows up to 4 wives), certain elements within Islam challenge its acceptability. See marriage for a discussion on the extent to which states can and do recognize these forms as valid. Polygyny was practiced by most of the patriarchs in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David, and was practiced throughout the time of the New Testament up until the 11th century. Currently it is estimated that there are as many as 80,000 (non-mormon) Christian polygynysts in the United States.

The economy of polygyny[]

In some societies only the well-to-do among men could afford to have more than one wife, particularly if each wife required maintenance of a separate household. Current traditional form of Islam permits as many as four wives, but this depends on economic circumstance. Fewer than four are more usual. Though the Qur'an itself does have a restriction on the number of wives which is four, the Prophet Muhammad was allowed more than four wives at the same time, the majority of these marriages being to widows of fallen comrades or as a means to form a bond with different clans. Even where accepted, polygyny will probably never involve the majority of men and women. Given a typical male to female ratio, imbalance of percentages of married/non-married people in the society is not a unique situation of polygyny: some men and women never obtain mates in monogamous cultures.

The required inheritance of widows requires men in some societies to marry the widow of a deceased brother. This (Kinsman Redeemer Clause) helps provide support for her and increases his number of wives.

Modern polygamy[]

Polygamous marriages are not recognized in approximately 20% of modern societies. In Societies where polygynous marriage is banned, polygamous male behavior may be observed in the establishment of mistresses, who are openly or secretly supported. Alternatively, polygynous male behavior may also be observed in the observance of pornography or practice of prostitution.

In some cases the male may have a second (or more) family with non-legally recognized wife, supporting her and his children. In some situations the wife not only is aware of the husband's mistress, but also has helped him select one that is "suitable" to his station. The estate of "mistress" or "concubine" does not rank as highly as "wife". In Societies where patriarchy is still practiced, a mistress or concubine will be placed under the authority of a full wife. A man may have as many full wives as he can support, with concubines assigned to each wife to aid in managing the rather large family.

The most prominent American polygynous society is the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a splinter sect of Mormonism. It is centered in Colorado City. In 2005, a meeting was called between the governors of Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico in an effort to economically and politically isolate religious sects that practice polygyny, mainly the FLDS.[How to reference and link to summary or text] British Columbia has also politically isolated its small polygynous religious community, located in the southeastern portion of the province.

The practice of Polyamory is a growing trend worldwide, possibly as an alternative to the male having a secret mistress or concubine.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

For more details on this topic, see Polyamory.

The wives in a polygamous marriage[]

One modern viewpoint(1) adheres to the notion that polygyny degrades women, treating them as property and slaves. The inferior position that women experienced in polygynous societies is not acceptable by modern Western standards; however, the same could be said about the position of women in generally all traditional societies, polygynous or not.

Historically this has not been an accurate assessment. Polygyny is used in some societies to enhance certain genetic characteristics, and to weed out unhealthy or poor characteristics. Also, due to the higher propensity of men to serve and die in wars or labour incidents, this left a great ratio of single women to men, were monogamy the only option. In historical China, a child is considered to have more than one mother. For example, a child may have up to four mothers the first wife being the "big mother" (大媽), the other wives considered as stepmothers. However, it was more of the Concubinage system, where only one wife is considered the real wife, the empress of the household. The concubines usually provide pleasure while the real wife was the one fixed to marriage to the husband.

The sociobiology of polygyny[]

Amongst vertebrates, especially so with mammals, polygyny is probably the most common mating system. The likelihood that a species displays polygyny is increased when the following characteristics are present:

  • Sexual dimorphism, where (in comparison with females) males are:
    • more colourful
    • larger
    • more aggressive
    • better equipped for fighting
  • Uniparental care of the young (with fathers contributing less than mothers to the care of offspring, or in some species contributing nothing at all)
  • Delayed sexual maturity among males (relative to females of the same species, or to males of related species with different mating systems)

Some species show facultative polygamy, with males mating with multiple females only when resource conditions are favourable. Recent research on voles has identified the genetic difference that predisposes one species to polygyny and another closely related species to pair bonding. The brain hormone mechanisms through which this very slight genetic difference acts have also been identified; they involve the response to vasopressin and oxytocin.

Partible maternity[]

In polyandry, a child is considered to have more than one father. Here, a child is considered to have more than one mother. The Chinese family first had the child having up to four mothers or more, in the modern polygyny where only one wife but one or more mistresses are present, an illegitimate child from the husband is to consider having two mothers: the legal wife who is the "big mother" (in Chinese tradition) being the first wife or sometimes referered to as stepmother and his/her biological mother.

Polygyny around the world[]

Legal or otherwise, polygyny has been practiced in many countries around the world throughout history.

Russian societies[]

Ramzan Kadyrov, a militia leader and Deputy Prime Minister of the Chechen Republic, was quoted on radio saying that the depopulation of Chechnya by war justifies legalizing polygamy/polygyny. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

“(Polygamy/Polygyny) is necessary for Chechnya, because we have war. We have more women than men...We must welcome (this idea) and spread (polygamy/polygyny) for the whole Russia because we have ten million lonely women.”[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Greater China region/East Asian societies[]

Procreation, that is -- having offspring, is a very important value in Chinese societies and families. China has practiced polygyny for thousands of years. Polygyny had been legal and was written in the law as recently as the end of the Qing/Ching dynasty of the imperial China(1911).

Confucianism has stressed the ability of managing ones family of several wives. In the book of Great Learning (Daxue) wrote, "a man can first manage himself, then manage a family (of more than one set of wives & offsprings), then he can manage a small country, and then, he shall be able to unify and manage a nation." (格物、致知、誠意、正心、修身、齊家、治國、平天下 listed the 8 steps of learning and progress of the perfection of management skills from knowledge, oneself, one's family... to managing a nation.)

Emperors could have hundred to thousands of concubines. And subsequently rich officials and merchants could also have a number of concubines besides wives. The first wife is head or mother wife, other wives are under her headship if the husband is away, and others are concubines and have lower status than the full wives. Offspring from concubines did receive equal wealth/legacy from their father.

Through the thousand years of Chinese history, the particular nature of Chinese men is distilled down to a saying in traditional Chinese folklore wisdom: "A wife is not as good as a concubine, a concubine is not as good as prostitute, a prostitute is not as good as secret affair..." (妻不如妾, 妾不如妓, 妓不如偷, 偷不如偷不到)[1]

The original wife is referred to as the 正室 (main room) both in China & Japan. 大婆 (big woman/big wife) is the slang term. Both indicate the orthodox nature & hierarchy. The official wife is either called as "big mother" (大媽), mother or auntie. The child of the mistress simply addresses the big mother as auntie.

The written word for the second woman (and literally means "she who occupied the side room") is 側室. This word is also used in both China and Japan.

The everyday common terms referring to the second woman and the act of having the second woman respectively are 二奶 (er nai / yi nai) & 包二奶 (er nai cun / yi nai tsuen). The terms have been widely used in the media. [2] Though illegal, it is still practiced by many richer men who can afford so (supporting a second partner and subsequent children from her). The mass media often report polygyny cases of the Rich and the famous.

People's Republic of China (PRC)[]

In modern mainland China, polygamy is banned under the Marriage Law passed in 1951. Many senior communist leaders who had mistresses and concubines during the Long March were forced to disband them. Polygamy was seen as a characteristic of the bourgeoisie, who were purged.

A number of females become the secret lover or secret concubines of men from Hong Kong and Taiwan. (see below)

Cross-border polygyny is ever increasing between PRC, Hong Kong & ROC. The number of women becoming the secret second wife of Hong Kong & Taiwan men increasing in the Greater China region. Mansions and villages in China are now nicknamed 二奶村 (village of second woman) where a number of second wives may live. [3]

Many men in China now keep a second wife, or more mistresses, at separate residences. Although socially frowned upon, the practice has gained momentum since the beginning of market and economic reforms.


There have been discussions about re-legalizing polygamy due to the imbalance of male: female ratio.

Hong Kong and Macau[]

Polygyny was banned in October of 1971. However there are still people who have multiple wives in Hong Kong and Macau, presumeably married before the ban.

A famous example is Dr Stanley Ho who owned the Macau Casino in Lisboa. He has 4 wives (plus one more lover). His uncle has 12 wives.

In Hong Kong, since work pressure is extremely high and birth rate is the lowest among the world, many Hong Kong businessmen tend to keep a secret concubine across the border in mainland China. One of the reasons is that the cost of maintaining a second family there in the PRC is lower. Girls in mainland China are also more willing to be a full-time mother at a younger age.

In a research paper of Berlin Humboldt University on sexiology, Doctor Man-Lun Ng quoted that the estimation of about 300,000 men have mistresses in China. In 1995, 40% of the extramarital affairs involved a stable partner [4] International Herald Tribune Kevin Murphy had reported the cross-border polygyny phenomenon in Hong Kong in 1995. [5]

Period drama exists and is performed to this day which depicts the former culture of the polygamy (usually polygyny) practice. A famous example: one of the saga (The Deer and the Cauldron / The Duke of the Mount Deer) by Hong Kong famous writer Louis Cha (Jin Yung): he assigned 7 willing wives for the very capable leading role Wai-Siu-Bo (Wei-Shao-Bao) who is a successful double spy good at office politics and human relations. The fiction and subsequent films and television drama became immensely popular among Chinese societies across the world.

Republic of China (ROC) Taiwan[]

Polygyny is illegal. However, it is not uncommon for some richer Taiwanese to have secret second lovers who become concubines not living together with the wife. Taiwanese merchants, businessmen and workers are stationed in mainland China during work trips, and it is not unusual to keep secret lovers or even secret families there.

Trends and future of polygyny in Greater China[]

The cross-border polygyny phenomenon between Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People's Republic of China are likely to continue for some time.

Some of the perceived advantages of polygyny can be considered a potential solution to some of China's problems. If it is assumed that men will have extra-marital sex despite deterrents, polygyny can be seen as a way to help reduce the use of prostitutes and to minimize the risk of sexual diseases and AIDS.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Some argue that using polygyny to avoid the effort spent maintaining monogamy could be spent more wisely, and thus make society more productive.

See also[]

Forms of nonmonogamy

References & Bibliography[]

Key texts[]



Additional material[]


  • Korotayev, Andrey (2004). World Religions and Social Evolution of the Old World Oikumene Civilizations: A Cross-cultural Perspective, First Edition, Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 0-7734-6310-0.


External links[]