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The devious conservatism of China's feminist dramas

Supporters of Zhou Xiaoxuan, a feminist who became known during the Chinese #MeToo movement, display placards against a TV presenter during Zhou's sexual harassment in Beijing on December 2, 2020. NOEL CELIS / AFP via Getty Images

One of the key scenes in the Chinese TV drama The Rational Life shows the protagonist, a 33-year-old single woman named Shen Ruo Xin (played by popular actress Qin Lan), who calmly rejects a stubborn suitor. She is gracious but firm, thanks him for his generosity, while cleverly rejecting his attempts to win her heart with expensive gifts.

“It's just a necklace,” he flatters her. "You are considering it." She replies that she “does not have a lifestyle worthy of a necklace like this” and continues, “I know that you are higher than me and have a better view (of the world) than me. But I really hope that through my own hard work, I get to where I deserve it and be rewarded with the sights that are meant for me. I don't want to be carried away by someone else to enjoy the view they are enjoying. "

On the show, the views Shen faces are familiar to many Chinese women. She is a legal manager for an automotive company dealing with gender discrimination in the workplace, family pressures to find a partner, and fear of being a successful woman who sold the dream of "having it all" . Towards the end of the show, on May 11th, The Rational Life was streamed more than 2.34 billion times on Mango TV, an online video platform in China. It was also ranked the most watched drama in 63 cities, and Netflix recently acquired the worldwide streaming rights to the show.

The Rational Life has sparked a lot of discussion on Douban, a Chinese social networking service that has over 200 million users regularly reviewing books, films, and entertainment. "This representation of life (for a woman) is too real," wrote one commentator. “If you wait for your boss at work, you at least get a salary and the prospect of a promotion, while in love life it doesn't make sense to do the same for a man. In another long thread, cast discussed Shen's closing lines on the show's final episode, a rousing defense of being single and being comfortable with oneself. "It ends well," said one commenter appreciatively. "Marriage is just another trap."

Likewise, last year's 43-part hit drama Nothing but Thirty received a whopping 20 billion views on its page on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. As with The Rational Life, the show received praise for women from different social backgrounds making unconventional life choices. In an interview with Beijing News, Nothing but Thirty producer Chen Fei explained how the characters came about: “We incorporated different aspects of the lives of women in their thirties into individual stories in the hope that viewers would get them emotionally. There is a housewife who hates being married; a young woman who feels lost even though she has done everything 'right' according to social standards. "

A scene from the Chinese television drama "The Rational Life". Netflix screenshot

A scene from "Nothing but Thirty". Both hugely popular shows deal with topics such as gender discrimination in the workplace and family pressures to find a partner. Rakuten Viki screenshot

The Rational Life and Nothing but Thirty ride a deluge of Chinese television programs that captivate audiences with their realistic portrayals of the challenges “other women” (sheng nu) face – a derogatory term used to describe women who remain unmarried beyond the end of their lives in their 20s. The genre called Ta Shidai is usually centered around younger, urban women, and some shows have been bolder than others. The Romance of Tiger and Rose, a drama that aired on Tencent Video last year, attracted over 897 million streaming views. Marketed as a light-hearted romantic comedy, the show takes place in an ancient matriarchal society where women dominate key positions in the military and civil service and have the right to pass their last names on to their children. Men, on the other hand, are routinely excluded from employment and socially conditioned to be submissive.

Similar to the West, shows like this deal with increasingly louder discussions about women's rights in society as a whole. But in China there is an additional fold. Theoretically committed to gender equality, the Chinese Communist Party has made great efforts since 1949 to encourage women to enter the world of work. As part of their nation-building project, the party rhetoric focused on the emancipation of peasant women from prostitution in the cities, while the women of the upper class were freed from centuries-old foot ties and crammed into factories and kolkhozes. China had a higher proportion of women than other more developed countries in the world in the early 1980s (84 percent versus 61 percent in the OECD) and, unlike the United States, a smaller gender pay gap.

Last year, the National Bureau of Statistics of China reported that the gender gap in compulsory education (for at least nine years) had been virtually eliminated. And 52.5 percent of college and university students were female, putting China on a par with the United States. Women now make up 43.7 percent of the workforce, which is just above the global average of 38.8 percent.

But since the government's early years of trying to get them into the labor market, women – like men – often worked in pitiful, physically demanding conditions. At the same time, traditional Confucian values, including the very restrictive ideal of xian qi liang mu ("good wife, loving mother"), have been preserved. So while some parts of the country have made progress, many inequalities have not been addressed.

While the government advocates high levels of equality in education and the workforce, it has shifted the course towards a family-centered approach to population growth. This recent appreciation of traditional gender roles has directly collided with China's burgeoning women's rights movement. Despite the relaxation of the one-child policy a few years ago, birth rates have fallen dramatically. Last month's announcement that families would be allowed to have three children is unlikely to be a panacea for China's aging population.

And because of the centuries-old cultural preference for boys, which led to tens of millions of children being murdered during the Cultural Revolution and beyond, the number of unmarried men is also high. Meanwhile, the proportion of educated single women in their late 20s and 30s has risen dramatically, with many choosing to postpone marriage and births in order to pursue careers. State-run Xinhua news agency reported that the gender pay gap narrowed in 2019 for the first time in three years: that year, Chinese women earned around 81.6 percent of what men earned. But earlier this month, Reuters warned of the prospect of that gap widening again, accompanied by cuts in government-sponsored childcare.

To meet the challenges of an aging population, the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping has stepped up efforts to bring traditional “family virtues” back into fashion and to introduce messages that recognize the role of women in caring for children and the elderly. Xi's International Women's Day speech this year focused on motherhood: "Without women, there would be no continuity of the human race or human society," he said. His national address on the same occasion in 2019 was even clearer in its message: it was titled “Teaching Women to Love Their Families and their Country”. The last two points of his speech were entirely devoted to “helping women deal with family and work” and the enhancement of family virtues, which he felt to be “benevolent” and in line with “socialist basic values”.

In addition, there is a new mandatory 30-day cooling-off period before Chinese couples can file for divorce; The Communist Party said the rule should "strengthen family stability," the diplomat reported. In the public sector, 11 percent of job postings now indicate a preference or requirement for men, while reports have surfaced of women having to sign contracts stating that they must not become pregnant while in employment. In the case of married couples whose greatest asset is their own home, these properties are often only registered in the name of the husband, even if the purchase was made possible by the wife's family.

Some of the frustration with this condition is expressed in the battles the characters experience in Ta Shidai dramas. Whatever the tone or style, these shows typically revolve around what it means to be a woman in China today when lifestyle choices are constantly threatened.

Ta Shidai dramas, borne by their attractive, predominantly female cast and supported by high production budgets, are tolerated by Beijing as a palatable form of feminist resistance. A prominent Chinese feminist activist, who writes under the pseudonym Mimiyana, explained on Zoom in May why these shows do little to offend the state. "It's the kind of selective feminism that only glorifies women who look good the conventional way," she said. “They are not threatening (for men) and do not question the norm. What I would like to see is feminism celebrating women who don't necessarily have the purchasing power to look beautiful. ”Mimiyana's WeChat account has been suspended four times and the Department of State Security has brought against her on suspicion of her work and education determined abroad.

A scene from “The Rational Life”. Netflix screenshot

A scene from "Nothing but Thirty". Rakuten Viki screenshot

Other activism also ended in a recent raid. On April 12, Douban joined more than 10 feminist groups, some of which were affiliated with 6B4T, a radical online feminist movement that advocates not having male sex partners and boycotting misogynist products and brands. The platform considered these beliefs "extreme" and likely bowed to government pressure.

The backlash was quick: Feminists across China banded together under a Weibo hashtag, which translates as "Let's unite, women," which has been viewed over 60 million times. On another trending hashtag, “Douban Feminism,” a Weibo user defiantly commented: “You will never silence us. … How dare you assume that we will not fight back? I am a woman, (but) first of all I am a person, not a sheep waiting to be slaughtered. "

Suffragette Xiao Meili described her ordeal of being silenced by the state in voice messages broadcast on Signal in May. Often associated with the Feminist Five, an open group of women's rights activists who were constantly criminalized and placed under state surveillance, Xiao went on a 2,000-kilometer march in 2013 and 2014 to raise awareness of the blame of victims of sexual assault cases . She also hosts the A Little Pastoral podcast, which covers issues related to women's rights. In one of the best-recorded episodes of the podcast to date, Xiao interviewed “marriage refusers” – women who are politically inclined to reject marriage.

On March 29, Xiao was at a Chengdu restaurant with friends when she got into an argument with a man who smoked indoors (public smoking bans have been in place for years, although they are rarely enforced). The man threw hot liquid on Xiao, but was not charged. Xiao wrote about the incident on Weibo. It earned widespread public sympathy until nationalist trolls uncovered photos of their support for Hong Kong's independence in 2014.

From then on, things went downhill: A flood of attacks found their way onto their Weibo and WeChat accounts, and some threatened her with death. Their online store on Alibaba's own Taobao website, one of the largest e-commerce sites in China, has been targeted by right-wing internet users. Just days later, the Chinese government sided with the trolls and closed their Weibo and WeChat accounts. She was also forced to stop selling fashion items with feminist slogans, a clear attempt by the state to link the rise of feminism with an anti-establishment sentiment.

"I felt extremely depressed," said Xiao. “More and more people are discussing (feminism), but that also means some of the most outspoken voices like mine and Yang Li (a stand-up comedian accused by a national media guard of“ preaching hate ”) are struggling a lot of violence. But I think whenever these incidents happen, it creates debate and awareness. ”And that was“ a good thing, ”she concluded.

Xiao Meli speaks to a reporter in Beijing in 2014. Simon Song / South China Morning Post via Getty Images

As for the Ta Shidai dramas, Xiao is skeptical. “Ultimately,” she said, “a lot of the characters are Mary Sue types who are meant to be loved by men. … There is nothing really revolutionary. ”But maybe that's why they could last.

Yaqiu Wang, in her 30s, does research for Human Rights Watch on internet censorship and the protection of civil society in China. In a May call to Zoom, she said the bottom line about censorship in China is that the state cares less about the essence of a particular discourse than about stamping out nonconformity.

"It's never about the content – it's about people trying to think independently," she said. “That is why there are student Marxists who are censored even though they are Marxists. It is because they are trying to break away (from control). "The same goes for the feminists:" They have Mao's 'women who hold half heaven', so it makes no sense for the government to censor feminists, until you understand that these women's rights activists are trying to think and stand up for themselves. "

Ultimately, while Ta Shidai dramas provide a welcome space for Chinese feminists to envision a world where women have more choices, they are held back by government-sanctioned, cultural regression in the opposite direction. For now, those who hope for real steps towards gender equality are still holding their breath. In a poetic blog post from 2019, Mimiyana wrote, “For those (like us) who are not recognized by the system and refuse to be part of it, you are scum, fools, poor, losers, wandering ghosts, wretched dogs. But my wasted heart will always love you. "

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