Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television [1st ed.] 9783030477288, 9783030477295

This book is about how the representations of romantic love in television reflect the change and the dilemma of the domi

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Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television [1st ed.]
 9783030477288, 9783030477295

Table of contents :
Front Matter ....Pages i-vii
Introduction: Sampling Love—Romance and Television in Post-socialist China (Huike Wen)....Pages 1-25
Dwelling Narrowness: Mistress Love (Huike Wen)....Pages 27-43
Every Step is Startling: A Time Travel Woman’s Love (Huike Wen)....Pages 45-62
If You Are the One: Love in Public (Huike Wen)....Pages 63-78
Enlightenment on Life: Love Between an Older Woman and a Younger Man (Huike Wen)....Pages 79-95
Apartment Building of Romantic Love/ipartment: Young Urbanites’ Love (Huike Wen)....Pages 97-109
Conclusion (Huike Wen)....Pages 111-118
Back Matter ....Pages 119-130

Citation preview

EAST ASIAN POPULAR CULTURE

Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television Huike Wen

East Asian Popular Culture Series Editors Yasue Kuwahara Department of Communication Northern Kentucky University Highland Heights, KY, USA John A. Lent International Journal of Comic Art Drexel Hill, PA, USA

This series focuses on the study of popular culture in East Asia (referring to China, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan) in order to meet a growing interest in the subject among students as well as scholars of various disciplines. The series examines cultural production in East Asian countries, both individually and collectively, as its popularity extends beyond the region. It continues the scholarly discourse on the recent prominence of East Asian popular culture as well as the give and take between Eastern and Western cultures. More information about this series at http://www.palgrave.com/gp/series/14958

Huike Wen

Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television

Huike Wen Department of Japanese and Chinese Willamette University Salem, OR, USA

East Asian Popular Culture ISBN 978-3-030-47728-8    ISBN 978-3-030-47729-5 (eBook) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47729-5 © The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG. The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland

To D.J., Benjamin and Gavin For love and all emotions

Contents

1 Introduction: Sampling Love—Romance and Television in Post-socialist China  1 2 Dwelling Narrowness: Mistress Love 27 3 Every Step is Startling: A Time Travel Woman’s Love 45 4 If You Are the One: Love in Public 63 5 Enlightenment on Life: Love Between an Older Woman and a Younger Man 79 6 Apartment Building of Romantic Love/ipartment: Young Urbanites’ Love 97 7 Conclusion111 Bibliography119 Index129

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CHAPTER 1

Introduction: Sampling Love—Romance and Television in Post-socialist China

Abstract  This chapter is a brief review of romantic love and its cultural referents in both Chinese and Western contexts, stressing the values of examining the national and collective beliefs surrounding romantic relationships in contemporary Chinese media and cultural discourse. Keywords  Evolution • Socialist • Moral codes • Desire • Individual On September 21, 2013, If You Are the One, the most successful dating show on Chinese television, presented a man’s determined pursuit of one of 24 female contestants. Fan Gang, a healthy, wealthy, attractive man in his mid-30s, who had graduated from a college in England, taught English in Beijing for a few years, and ended up managing a successful family-­ owned business that produces railway parts. He seemed mature, honest, responsible, loyal, and romantic. He appeared on the show specifically to pursue Li Lina, who had caught his attention and whose files he had carefully studied. Because Li had graduated from a technology college in China and taught auto repair and mechanics, Fan believed they were the perfect match in all respects. He was deeply attracted to Li because of her talent, beauty, and her wishes concerning her future husband and life. After Fan poetically and sincerely expressed his interest in Li on air, an entire wall covered with the pictures that Fan had collected from Li’s

© The Author(s) 2020 H. Wen, Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television, East Asian Popular Culture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47729-5_1

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online posts was displayed, a white wedding dress descended from the ceiling, and audience members supported Fan by waving their cell phones showing Li’s picture. The result seemed so obvious—Li would leave with Fan and start a romance. However, surprisingly, Li began to cry, bowed to Fan, and told him, “I know I should say yes, no matter for what reasons. However, being touched doesn’t mean having the feelings. I am sorry.” The show’s host and audience members appeared shocked and disappointed. Fan left by himself, as disappointed as everyone else. The rest of the episode seemed dull and lacking in energy after Fan departed. It was also awkward for Li to remain. She disappeared from the show after the episode and neither she nor the show gave any explanation about her withdrawal, leaving the public wondering why she had left and what happened to her. Li’s dramatic rejection of Fan Gang sparked many online discussions. Most people doubted her sincerity about finding a husband on the show. Comments included “What kind of man does she want?” “Does she really want to find a husband there?” while others wrote, “She probably was waiting for a man, a man that she already knew before she joined the show and has been waiting for for a long time.” Guesses, assumptions, and random criticism appeared all over the internet. There even were rumors that Li had been married before and lied to the show’s producers about her past. Despite these accusations, some netizens supported her choice and suggested rational and logical reasons for her “irrational” decision, including the following: (1) Fan Gan is in the second generation of a wealthy family (Fu Erdai), which means he enjoyed the privilege of studying in England and managing a company without having to work hard or exhibit any talent; (2) he looked good on TV but if he took off his suit, he might resemble a farmer looking for work in a city—tanned and not very tall; (3) he sounded mature and steady but that was to be expected, given that he was already 35; and (4) Li was not interested in luxury brands, so his wealth was not important to her. Thus, Li’s rejection of Fan was not that hard to understand. Although my interest in studying the portrayal of romantic relationships started long before this episode of If You Are the One, I open with this story because it highlights some key facets of the topic. It reflects romantic love as a convergent discourse of public opinion and individual choice and the conflict, consensus, and negotiation between the two. Meanwhile, television seems like a platform that gives the public and individual contestants an opportunity to express and display their views on a

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perfect match. However, the most important element for an imagination of romantic love—passion, or “feelings” as Li Lina said when she rejected Fan Gang’s pursuit—is nearly unspeakable, powerless, and even disappointing when compared to the majority’s perception of a happy couple. These are the key issues that make romantic love a window through which to examine mainstream media’s expectation of a happy life and the media’s “soft power”1 over the topic that may be trivial in terms of its direct political influence yet crucial for individual identity, self-realization, and happiness. Given romantic love’s undeniable significance for Chinese people, especially the post-socialist generation’s attitudes toward possibilities for marriage, life, and self-realization, and its role in Chinese mainstream culture’s construction of a peaceful, content, and harmonious society, it is supremely important to examine how popular culture has portrayed romantic relationships. “While Eurocentric media studies narratives now routinely depict television as a heritage form, in South and East Asia television is far from in decline; on the contrary, in many Asian countries it represents the most powerful and ubiquitous media form, with large and growing investment from the commercial and, in some cases, state sector.” (Lewis et al. 2016) Chinese television is one of the main media providing examples for the popular imagination of romantic relationships. Therefore, this book focuses on Chinese television, whose role as the main cultural source is still undisputed in contemporary China, even with viewers divided among so many different forms of digital media. In Chinese media, the portrayal of love and romantic relationships has always been coded with expectations and desires taken from Chinese mainstream culture and political ideology. Affected by imported media products and social changes, the representation of love and romantic relationships in Chinese television has evolved rapidly in the past two decades. 1  Coined by Joseph Nye in the 1980s, the term “soft power” refers to “the ability to get what you want through attraction than coercion” (Nye 2004, x). Unlike hard powers, such as direct military and economic coercion, soft power aims at shaping long-term preferences and attitudes. Nye’s argument about soft power, according to Cao Qing (2011), provides a new ideological guideline for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to develop its own foreign and domestic policy. Cao argues, with much detail and evidence from Chinese media, that soft power “constructs fresh political identities underpinned partially by traditional values and envisages the revival of a cultural China that the nation has long aspired to, since European colonial encroachments centuries ago.” Popular media undoubtedly is part of and contributes to the rhetoric of soft power in the CCP’s domestic policy.

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Compared to a likely imagined socialist past when everyone knew what love meant, there are many voices engaged in debate today regarding how love should be best expressed—different forms of love are in competition with each other. Contemporary Chinese television programs’ representations of romantic love appeal to viewers’ interest in the topic while attempting to support governmental policies. Although viewers sometimes understand these depictions to be subversive, for the most part the shows (subtly) reinforce mainstream norms, shutting down gestures of protest or criticism. In particular, televisual representations of romantic love enable us to analyze the personal, shared, and governmental conflicts surrounding contemporary manifestations of neoliberalism and capitalism. Therefore, this book is about how the representations of romantic love on television reflect the change and the dilemma of dominant values in post-socialist Chinese mainstream culture. These values mainly center on the effects of individualism, consumerism, capitalism, and neoliberalism, often referred to as Western culture, on the perception of romantic love and self-realization in China. However, I do not want to use romantic love merely as a way to examine social problems in post-socialist China; I want to focus on how romantic love, which plays a vital role in China’s ideologically highly restricted social environment, by empowering people with individual choice, change, and social mobility, must struggle and compromise with reality, specifically the values and problems emerging in a transitional China. I also want to examine how the representation of romantic love celebrates ideals—individual freedom, passion, and gender equality— and promises changes based on individual diligence and talent while simultaneously obstructing the fulfillment of these ideals. To understand the popular imagination created by television, we need to learn what romantic love and its cultural referents have become in scholarly investigations. Discussions on romantic love are ubiquitous and cross several fields: academic and popular; sociological and literary; psychological and philosophical; anthropological and economic; practical and fantastic, and so on. The large body of studies and literature on the topic is insightful and exciting; however, it probably complicates more than illuminates romantic love and its cultural significances and implications in media. In the many writings from different disciplines, the study of romantic love generally centers on a few themes. These include love as a psychological function and reaction in interpersonal communication (Branden 1988, 218–231); a mythical process that should be directed by soul rather than techniques of

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communication and interaction (Moore 1994, xv); an emotion that is historically regulated and manipulated (Kaufmann 2011; Piorkowski 2008, 5; Coontz 2005; Illouz 1997; Ackerman 1994); intellectuals’, especially writers’, views on youth’s engagement in and the revolution of gender roles (Dooling 2005, 103–135); a defense of individuals’ choice or a revolution on dominant familial norms and moral controls (Zheng 2008, 211–241); a Western culture’s difference from and challenge to non-­ Western cultures (Piorkowski 2008, 6; Dion and Dion 1988, 264–289); and a gendered engagement in cyberspace (Feng 2013). It is impractical to review all the scholarly discussions on romantic love in detail, but it is vital to at least acknowledge how romantic love has been discussed as a belief and an ideal in various academic disciplines. The academic discussions, as the above samples illustrate, not only provide tools to analyze the cultural connotation of romantic love but also establish a foundation explaining the importance, and therefore legitimizing the study, of popular romance in contemporary China. Because romantic love is an essential foundation of a modern conjugal family, as well as the most important element that signaled the modernization imported to China from the West in the 1930s, it is imperative to understand the concept’s evolution in the West and its interaction with the ideology that created and sustained Chinese society. As Lynn Pan (2015) argues, there was no comparable concept to Western “romantic love” in China before Western colonial contact, which introduced romantic literature and the idea of romantic love to Chinese intellectuals. Moreover, Pan observes that romantic love was never accorded a higher status than filiality and that it was only in 1934–1935 that polygamy was made illegal for men. These tussles between traditional Chinese values and modern Western social and sexual mores have evolved over time and still have resonances in contemporary Chinese television. Therefore, a few essential studies and concepts that can initiate a serious critical reading of Chinese television programs are summarized below.

Romance in the Socialist Era In her tracing of the history of sentiment in China and exploration of the relationship between individual and community in Chinese society, Haiyan Lee claims that “love is anything but the ‘native’ language of the heart, and … whether it whispers or wails, the heart always already speaks in borrowed tongues” (Lee 2007, 298). Love is a complicated concept, as has

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been shown in discourses on filial piety, nationalism, and revolution in pre-modern and modern Chinese literature. As Lee points out, both the emotion and the subjectivity of love have been linked to moral codes since Confucius’s time. While the moral codes of love were given more emphasis in pre-modern China, revolutionary codes, which stressed nationalism, the liberation of individual choices, and women’s roles, influenced discussions of love in the 1930s and 1940s. A few intellectuals, such as the female writer Ding Ling and the poet Xu Zhimo, were themselves liberated individuals who expressed romantic and erotic love sentiments and had such relationships (Pan 2015). In the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese socialist films had the mission of shaping “correct” values of love and relationship. Contemporary movies such as Liubao de Gushi (A Story of Liubao, dir. Wang Ping, China, 1957), Wu Duo Jin Hua (Five Golden Flowers, dir. Wang Jiayi, China, 1959), and Zao Chun Er Yue (Early Spring, dir. Xie Tieli, China, 1964), were, according to socialist China’s ideology, poisonous weeds, because they praised the positive power of romantic relationships rather than emphasizing the superiority of the revolutionary spirit and class struggle over all other emotions and thoughts (Hou 2012, 7–8). That directive derived from Mao Zedong’s speech at the Yan’an Literature and Art Forum in 1942, in which he claimed that art and literature should serve politics first. Whether a relationship is true love or not, Mao argued, should be determined by the individual’s attitudes toward society and toward his or her career, two issues not directly related to romantic sentiments.2 True love should contribute to and not harm the development of socialist society (Hou 2012, 7–8). In light of these dictates, many authors wrote stories that served to propagate the notion that love and relationships should always be subordinate to the needs of the revolution and the development of socialism. Romantic love was not allowed to constitute the main content of any story. The subordinate status of romantic love in literature and art changed in the 1980s. As Lee (2007, 301) writes, if “socialist writers like Ding Ling sought to eliminate the messiness of romance in order to shore up the hegemony of revolution” during the socialist era dominated by Mao, 2  Ding Ling (1904–1986) changed her focus of writing in Mao’s China. Although her early writing, such as Miss Sophia’s Diary (1927), expressed her views on gender and love, The Sun Shines over Sanggan River, written in 1948, focuses on land reform in a rural village. This novel is considered one of the best socialist-realist fictions and won the Stalin Prize for Literature in 1951. Ding Ling’s writing in Mao’s China followed Mao’s opinion, “literature should serve politics.”

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“post-Mao writers denounced the latter in the name of the former.” Lee (2007, 302) further argues that “revolution and love in China’s modern century have alternately sought to inhabit the space of the sublime and to demote their rival to the realm of the quotidian.” In other words, when revolution retreated from the concerns of dominant values, the discourse of love faced new challenges. Some women writers, such as Zhang Jie (1986), were the pioneers who specifically asked for women’s individual realization and values while questioning the conflict between individual happiness and patriarchal ethics and responsibilities. Meanwhile, women writers from Hong Kong and Taiwan provided many examples for Chinese audiences to imagine how a modern romantic love relationship could occur and develop, usually in an urban space. Among much literature imported from Hong Kong and Taiwan, the work of Taiwanese writer Qiong Yao was the best-known.3 These writers’ stories were both linguistically and culturally accessible to the mainland Chinese audience. Qiong Yao’s were the most accessible because of their consistent plots and the minimal background knowledge needed to understand the stories. Her stories, unsurprisingly, embedded the importance of filiality, male dominance, and familial and community support for the fulfilment of a heterosexual romantic relationship. The popularity of these stories among younger, mainly women, readers speaks to the transition from national ethics to individual and familial values in the discourse of romantic love. Particularly since the 1990s, love and its complicated relationship with consumer culture have occupied the realm of the quotidian, replacing the centrality of the revolution in Chinese literature and mass media. In post-­ Mao China, television has provided one of the most important platforms for representing the changing status of romantic love in relation to family, society, and a rapidly developing material culture.

3  Dr. Jin Feng (2013) has insightfully examined the impact of Qiong Yao and her writings on readers’ definition and interpretation of romantic love. Qiong Yao emphasizes the superiority of heterosexual romantic relationship over other “traditional relationships” such as brothers and parents while recognizing these relationships’ influences and interactions with the romance.

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Romance Since the 1990s TV dramas (Dianshi Ju) have been the most important narrative form in post-socialist China and have been central in constructing the meaning of love within mainstream culture. Romantic love is particularly important in the genres of youth drama (Qingqun Ouxiang Ju) and marriage–love drama (Hunlian Ju). In her examination of various subgenres of TV drama, Zhong Xueping suggests that in the 1990s, imported Japanese and Korean youth-idol dramas reintroduced the sentiment of modern romantic love into China. These imported youth dramas “have exerted a powerful influence on the development of contemporary Chinese youth culture” (Zhong 2010, 101). Indeed, Japanese “fever” and the “Korean Wave” of the 1990s and the early twenty-first century affected Chinese youth’s fashion tastes and outlooks on urban romantic relationships. Given Chinese audiences’ attraction to imported TV dramas, shows on similar topics made in mainland China attempted to find different ways of portraying young people in order to avoid being criticized as “poor imitations” (Ibid.). The solution has been for Chinese-made dramas to be “more in touch with social reality and social problems” (Ibid.). Chinese dramas about contemporary life tend to deal with topics that go beyond individual passion and romantic relationships and instead connect with social issues such as the impact of changing forms of materialism and nationalism on people’s values. This type of “realistic” concern, however, often bores younger audience members, especially those who grew up watching imported media set in quickly urbanizing, commodified, and romanticized cities. To continue to prosper, the TV industry needs to attract a mainstream audience whose background is much more diversified than the audience it catered to in the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, there are also many more sources, such as online literature and young media producers’ low-budget products, for the TV industry to draw from and recreate. While these televisual representations of love are still mainly based on moral codes, the moral codes of Mao’s China and those of contemporary China are quite different. More than anything else, contemporary China’s moral codes emphasize the impact of materialism and consumer culture on mainstream cultural values. As Zhang Zhen argues, “Large-scale economic and technological transformations and the emergence of a consumer culture ushered in a vast and radically uneven reordering of

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perceptions, values, and gender relations in China, all at a head-spinning pace” (Zhang 2000, 105). Marriage–love dramas have tackled the complicated problems that emerged during the transition from socialist to post-socialist China. As Zhong, cited above, argues, despite the effects of economic reform on family and gender relationships, marriage–love dramas have always emphasized that women’s happiness is connected to (if not completely decided by) their roles within the family (Zhong 2010, 125). To be more specific, Zhong suggests that marriage and marital status still primarily define happiness for the women portrayed in marriage–love dramas. Zhong’s analysis is insightful but it misses an important point: although marriage–love dramas heavily emphasize moral familial codes; they are probably the first subgenre to have brought complexity and ambiguity to depictions of human nature and emotion in mainstream Chinese drama. In part, it has been possible for many marriage–love dramas to escape official censorship from authorities because they have been perceived as innocuous subgenres, focused on domestic issues and interesting mainly to married women. Therefore, two of the main concerns of Chinese authorities regarding the media—its effect on young audiences and its potentially negative reflection of society—have been relatively ignored in marriage–love dramas. Thus, this book will investigate how romantic love, the most explored theme in the media industry, carries the soft power of the dominant ideology and hegemony yet covers it in such relaxing, entertaining, fantastic, and casual forms in Chinese media. As a result, the beliefs and practices behind romantic love powerfully cultivate and reinforce dominant values despite the conflicting messages in its representations.

Romance with Chinese Characteristics Despite the belief that romantic love is capable of crossing borders and that it is represented so in media, the definition of romantic love varies based on each dominant culture’s history and values. Examining the history of love in Western culture, Kaufmann summarizes, “despite all the variations, we can identify two essential forms (of love)” (2011, 9). The first form of love, agape, “has been heavily influenced by the Christian tradition” and “is the love that aspires to being universal, all-­encompassing and systematic” (9). This form of love “is deeply rooted in reality and accepts reality’s limitations or shortcomings” and “is based upon a wisdom

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and an art and uses a loving gaze to metamorphose everything that the accidents of life throw up” (10). The second form of love is passion, which is “almost its [the first form, agape’s] complete antithesis”; “there is nothing universal about passion.” Passion “singularizes everything”; “its love-object is the only thing that matters, and everything else becomes invisible and of no importance” (10). Apparently, there is “permanent confrontation between these two forms of love” (10). As a result, reason comes into play to help people understand the world. But reason is associated with “a mutual benevolence” and is “cold and egotistic” (10). In ancient society, passion was considered dangerous, but since the twelfth century, when individual values began to emerge, passion has become the power that challenges tradition and family. Although passion experienced political failures, it “produced some remarkable innovations in the private realm.” In contemporary society, “consumerist logic (comparing products in order to find out which is best)” deeply affects people’s choice of conjugal partners (12). The “calculating individual” is cold, powerful, and dominant; however, because of its coldness, people who have to follow consumerist logic need love more than ever, to find consolation and heal the wounds from the consumerist culture (13). Kaufmann’s research points out that love never has come purely from the mysterious heart; instead, to be understood, it reaches people’s hearts with reason and values. In defining the forms of love, Kaufmann highlights that romantic love can hardly speak for people’s true hearts in reality, especially because scientific reasoning, rational thought, and economic wisdom are so highly celebrated as the foundations of modern society. Although Kaufmann’s study provides a foundation for understanding the concept of (romantic) love in Western discourse, it ignores the evolution of the concept defined in popular culture, such as popular romance and media in which producers and audiences have been more interactive in the creation and consumption of the narrative. William Reddy (2012) extends Kaufman’s argument regarding the love defined in Christianity—the rival of lust, or in Reddy’s word, appetite. Reddy explains love and appetite–desire and the dyad’s evolution in European history, and in the places that have been influenced by Europe since its colonial expansion, such as South Asia and Japan. In Japanese and South Asian history, love and lust–desire were not as clearly divided as in European history. Reddy’s example is that prostitution in pre-colonial modern Japan did not necessarily involve sexual practices between the prostitute and her patron. Instead, dancing, tea ceremonies, or art appreciation and meaningful conversation were much more in

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demand than sexual intercourse. Yet when Westerners observed and experienced Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they reduced prostitution to sexual consumption, following the European idea that the opposite of love was lust–desire–sex–appetite. Reddy posits that love is mainly an emotion, a longing for association defined in Western and European history even though it seems impossible to find agreement on the meaning of the term for people from different backgrounds, religions, beliefs, and values. Individuals increasingly demand a longing for association in today’s world, in which marriage is often used to prove there is more than lust between two partners (either heterosexual or same-­ sex), The stress on companionship and de-emphasis on sexual passion in contemporary marriage seems to be the opposite to courtly love, the origin of the modern romantic love that was used to deal with a loveless, dull, and boring marriage. Reddy’s study, however, makes clear that marriage, no matter what it represents in the evolution of romantic love (either a loveless responsibility (in the past) or a proof of love (in the present)), is in pursuit of the same purpose—putting one’s body and mind under strict regulation. In the past this required staying in marriage to fulfill a Christian duty, now it demands submission to an institutionalized commitment. Entering a marriage demonstrates “a longing for association” in contemporary culture, in which marriage is not necessary, at least in many people’s view, for romantic couplings. On another topic, the gendering of romance and the targeting of women as the main audience, Reddy’s examination is not as explicit and detailed as that of Catherine Roach (2016). Roach recognizes that Pamela Regis (2003), who has been widely quoted, contributes a clear understanding of the chronological narrative in romance fictions: (1) society defined, (2) the meeting, (3) the barrier, (4) the attraction, (5) the declaration, (6) the point of ritual death, (7) the recognition, and (8) the betrothal. Yet, Roach supplements Regis’s studies and explicitly identifies the “nine essential elements” comprising “the deep storyline or foundational premises” in contemporary popular culture (33). Roach argues that both the readers and the authors of romance are women, and that romance “addresses itself to typical female experiences, interests, and anxieties.” (34) The nine elements are that (1) it is hard to be alone, (2) (especially) as a woman in a man’s world, (3) romance helps as a religion of love, even though it involves (4) hard work and (5) risk, because it leads to (6) healing, (7) great sex, and (8) happiness, and (9) it levels the playing field for women (35).

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Scholars’ examinations of the history and interpretation of love in Western culture, both classical and popular, although mostly culture-­ specific, help elucidate the main factors that can affect the definition and understanding of romantic love in different cultures, especially in modern society. Although there is not an unconditional-love equivalent to agape in traditional Chinese culture, kindness and a good heart have always been central to Chinese humanity and common beliefs. Furthermore, as Haiyan Lee highlights in her genealogical research on emotions and feelings in Chinese culture, “love was neither wholly imported nor wholly indigenous, but was rather a hybrid signifier that came to play a significant role in the topography of emotions in the early twentieth-century China” (2007, 9). Lee directs our attention to the “signs and meanings” of love (9). Studying signs is to study “how meaning is created, rather than what the meaning is” (Seiter 2010, 31). It is not surprising that in most cultures, the signs and meanings of love in the twenty-first century are more hybrid and entangled with more non-indigenous elements than previously. Based on my examination of the texts from recent Chinese television, I think that modern Chinese romance contains the eight chronological elements described in Regis’s study but differs in varying degrees from the nine essential (ideological and cultural) elements in terms of the gendered claims pointed out by Roach. Detailed analysis in each chapter will show how Roach’s nine elements are identical to, absent from, or replaced by others in Chinese television dramas. To illustrate this point, I briefly summarize the similarities and differences between romance analyzed in Roach’s work and the Chinese television dramas in this book. First, romantic stories in Chinese culture do not really stress that it is hard to be alone in the world: the protagonist, whether a man or a woman, is never truly alone in Chinese literature and media. All individuals exist in the familial and community networks, and romance serves instead of dominating the familial and community relationships. To be in a true love, the protagonist must somehow gain the acceptance of the love interest’s family, although the degree and methods of acceptance might vary. Meanwhile, hard work is central to the narrative of romance, not because romance requires risk, but because belief in hard work (diligence) and perseverance is central to the ideology in Chinese and Asian culture. Diligence and perseverance are the two most fundamental elements for individuals’ self-­ value, self-realization, and self-esteem and for being respected by others in a community. Like romance in Western popular culture, romance in

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Chinese television shows leads to healing, but it does not necessarily lead to happiness. Yet romance, as Roach finds in Western popular culture, “levels the playing field” for women. The analyses of the Chinese TV programs in this book reflect how this element simultaneously takes advantage of and fails the premise of empowering women and liberating them from the roles of being an accommodating and supportive caregiver both in the domestic sphere and in workspaces. It is indisputable that analyses of romantic love in recent Chinese television must be based on a clear understanding of the concept in Chinese history, both ancient and modern. This is so even though the idea was expressed in different terms and carried its own connotations and denotations before the concept defined in Western culture was introduced to Chinese culture in the early twentieth century. Although I recognize the importance of the history, nonetheless, I do not intend to trace the history of love in Chinese culture far into the past, for two reasons. The first is that insightful research has been published that provides the history of love as both an emotion and practice of individualism in China. Scholars such as Lynn Pan (2015) and Haiyan Lee (2007) have published impressive research on romantic love, emotions, and sentiments in Chinese history, especially their interaction with Confucianism and nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Jin Feng’s (2013) research on internet romance literature presents helpful context about the fantasy and identity of young netizens and their imagination and creation of the ideal romance in the twenty-first century. The second reason is that I want to focus on the Chinese media in the new millennium (though I do not mean to ignore or draw a line between the past and present; doing so is simply impossible). As Lee’s research reminds us, “the Confucian structure of feeling” cannot be avoided: Confucian thought is central to the values and ethical codes of Chinese culture, even in constructing people’s emotions and feelings. The “interests of the state and family” (Lee 2007, 15) have always been part of love in Chinese culture (for example, Confucianism emphasizes their part in constructing people as subjects with feelings), although their role is often debated and more controversial than consistent in modern China. In twentieth-century China, literary discourse displayed a confusing view on filial piety and romantic love: Family was often an obstacle to individual freedom and passion but filial piety also was very important in constructing a lovable subject in romantic love stories; the nation’s future often interfered with the individual’s pursuit of romantic love, but the

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heroic subject must have the passion to revolutionize the nation while pursuing the individual freedom. Romantic love is the essential part of individual freedom. The nationalist and communist regime, with the goal of revolution, unquestioningly defined romantic love as the part that “supplements subjectivity” but “does not contest the hegemony of the collective project” (Lee 2007, 16). In mainland China, under socialist ideology, romantic love is clearly defined with standards of what is the right, true, and healthy relationship—both people are willing to submit to build socialism and follow the socialist regime, and the relationship should enhance their performances for and contributions to the nation’s collective goal. “A socialist subject ‘loves’ another socialist subject for his or her class belonging, not for his or her moral qualities, intellectual prowess, economic standing, social status, or sexual appeal. Love ceases to be an affair of unique persons and singular hearts” (Lee 2007, 286). This ideology has always existed in the literature, films, and other media products produced in the era. The representation of romantic love in the twenty-first century did not develop overnight. It emerged from a long process of struggling with values either germinating within China, or imported from outside. But in contemporary China there is not a clear line between what is from within and what is from outside, and, at the same time, multiple elements entangle the perception of love as well as affecting each other, creating a complicated discourse of love. Examining the differences between romantic love in Western culture and romantic love in Chinese culture, Dion and Dion (1988) concluded that the scholars’ discussions mainly focused on love’s basis in individualism or collectivism: whether love is “a fulfilling personal experience” or “an intense interdependency with another person” and whether love is “individual-centered” or “situation-centered” (273–275). Although this type of summary risks creating cultural stereotypes and ignoring individual cases in each culture, it provides some rough guidelines or at least suggests some directions in which to look at the complicated discourse of love, where changes often happen and novelty in the television romance seems to greatly affect people’s views on love and relationship (Sun 2017, 2020). Based on previous scholarship, I compare the influence of collectivism, which dominated Chinese culture in both traditional kinship society and the socialist regime, with the impact of romantic love’s emphasis on individualism. I then analyze romantic love’s role as a mirror reflecting the culture’s views on individuals and their relationship with the larger social environment.

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The TV and Media Environment It is well known, although often assumed rather than acknowledged explicitly, that Chinese media such as television are highly censored by the government, represented by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). The governmental censorship of media has become a convenient political fact for people to use when interpreting and making sense of Chinese media culture. Yet as recent scholarly works have made clear, the relationship between media as a means of ideological control and party propaganda, on one hand, and media as a competitive cultural industry, on the other, has created a situation in which there are contestations and negotiations between central government and provincial media (Sun and Chio 2012, 7). While the power of the central government is ubiquitous, the provincial media definitely won the ratings competition because of their specialized, more entertaining, less political programs. “At the time of writing in 2010, the highest-rated television shows in China are not the news and current affairs programs from CCTV (Chinese Central TV). That honour is held by several dating shows coming out of provincial television stations, such as Fei Cheng Wu Rao (If You Are the One) from Jiangsu Satellite TV, Women Yuehuiba (Take Me Out), from Hunan TV and Wei Ai Xiang Qian Chong (Run for Love) from Zhejing TV.” (Sun and Chio 2012, 6). Apparently, programs about relationships, romantic love, and marriage appeal to many TV viewers. While these dating shows display how provincial media have much more freedom than Chinese Central TV to explore different programming and focus on audiences’ interests instead of directly promoting the central government’s political message, as CCTV must do, the provincial media must respond to and negotiate with central government’s attempts to control audience’s emotions, moral values, and affect. One of the best-­ known and discussed cases is the central government’s pressuring of Jiangsu Satellite TV to bring in a Communist Party member from its local Communist School to be the regular guest host of the show If You Are the One. The incident shows that the provincial media prevailed because of their flexibility and innovative media content, yet they must still constantly negotiate with the central government, which interprets, protects, and educates society on the dominant values. Provincial media are competitive in the media industry mainly because they are always seeking to explore new genres and content, often defined as popular culture in China. Provincial media appear to be following the

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guidelines of and supervision from the central government yet they have substantially higher viewing figures than CCTV’s programs. What this “popular culture” in mainstream television promotes helps to demonstrate the techniques and strategies of consensus and conflict. These techniques and strategies of self-censorship and self-innovation create the “harmonious” relationship among different values. Most importantly, in this book, the representations and beliefs about romantic love will reflect its role as the core element of satisfying individual desires and dreams, maintaining the stability of families and nation, and sustaining the development of all fields in contemporary China (Sun and Chio 2012).

Essential Elements of Romance in Literature and Television Romance Romantic love is an essential element of most, if not all, entertainment television programs in post-socialist China. But romance as a genre has its own consistent plot, necessary to fulfill audience expectations, which means that romantic love on television must follow the plots and promises of romance. To understand the changes, twists, and differences in the large pool of love stories, we can look to scholars’ discussions on romance as a well-established genre. Literature studies scholars have worked diligently to define romance. The general public often confuses the concepts of “romance” and the “romance novel.” In brief, romance is a much broader concept than the romance novel because it includes “Greek ‘romances,’ medieval romance, Gothic bourgeois romances of the 1840s, late nineteenth-century romances and mass-produced romance fiction now” (Radford 1986). In Chinese literature, a romance such as A Romance of Three Kingdoms focuses only on the adventure, brotherhood, and ambitions of the heroes. Marriage, not love romance, is a very trivial part of the story and serves only to explain the relationship between families or the personality and morality of the heroes. Present-day readers in general perceive “romance” as only the romance novel, which scholars have defined based on their own understanding of the genre. The common elements in these definitions are “love between a heroine and a hero; second, the triumphant, permanent, happy ending, usually in marriage; and finally, discounted by Cawelti but emphasized by the readers Radway studied, the importance of the heroine” (Regis 2003, 22). Unlike other scholars’ emphasis on the happy ending of romance novels, Pamela Regis’s

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definition pays more attention to the “actions.” According to Regis, “A romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines” (22). She highlights the fact that the ending in romance novels is not always marriage and draws attention to the “narrative events,” courtship and betrothal. “Analyzing the essential elements of the narrative will yield a far more balanced, significant view of the romance novel. This opening out will also explain the final element of the proposed definition: its focus on the heroine” (23). Regis’s definition of romance novels is more helpful than other literary definitions for understanding television romance, in which the overwhelmingly visual and aural elements often guide the audiences’ attention and interpretation and distract them from understanding the gender roles and values beneath the surface. Focusing on the “essential elements of the narrative” can help one analyze how certain values concerning gender roles and social conflicts are represented despite the happy ending or the importance of the heroine, as the criticism of the genre has always emphasized. One of the most common critiques of romance novels is that they are fantasies and create an “idealized world,” often appealing to the female readers’ perspective. Janice Radway’s (1984) research suggests that fantasy and an idealized world are exactly why some people like to read romance novels, to escape from their mundane daily lives and take a break from familial duties and tedious housework. But scholars do not think this is mere pleasure reading, because romantic love satisfies the fantasy, and “the moral fantasy of the romance is that of love triumphant and permanent, overcoming all obstacles and difficulties” (Cawelti 1976, 42). This fantasy also creates myths, such as love at first sight, about romantic love. As Reznik and Lemish summarize, “two main themes stand out in extant scholarship,” one of which is the myth of romantic love; “the prevalent use of such myths in popular culture may be responsible for romantic illusions that lead to deep frustrations and disappointments when real relationships fail to match them” (2011, 153). The other theme, according to Reznik and Lemish, is “the oppressive gender roles portrayed in many romantic relationships.” These two themes reflect the problems that television romances face. Without doubt, romance novels and television romances still must struggle with the two themes, a struggle largely a consequence of romance as a genre rather than other factors. However, it is apparent that some writers of romance novels make the effort to revise the genre’s narrative elements, to create strong career women, to build

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bridges between the fantasy and the reality. Television romance, because it often is a hybrid of two or more genres, is more explorative and may, therefore, be more illuminating than conventional romance novels in terms of the two themes that so often catch the attention of the critics. How have the narrative and representation in contemporary Chinese television changed the essential elements in traditional romance novels? Does this change show any sign of challenging the fantasy world suffused by love and in which women are the submissive sex? This evolution is difficult because, as scholars have pointed out, “repetition in characterization and plots is actually a fulfillment of the generic expectations of popular romance” (Feng 2013, 42). Readers and audiences want the “familiar phrase, stock description, or stereotypical event” (Radway 1984, 198). The industrialization and capitalization of romance novels and television dramas make it even harder to make changes to the formulaic characteristics of the genre because the industry must ensure the investment is profitable, appealing to a broad market. Jin Feng (2013) has studied the fan fiction (fanfic) culture of internet romance novels in China and found that repetition is also productive when a common topic or theme encourages and motivates the audience to rewrite and share their writings. It is unlikely that television can create the same excitement as online romance novels: television is still mainly a mass communication medium and must, in China, reflect dominant values and cope with censorship. However, to add fresh elements, bring a feeling of novelty for audiences, and echo changing values in society, television must produce different dramas. It does so by focusing on the images and personalities of the actors and actresses. Many Korean TV dramas and other Asian idol dramas amplify the appearance and personalities of the actors and actresses to encourage the audience to pay attention to the consumable fashion, daily life, interior decoration, and so on. Chinese television has developed at a very fast pace during its journey to become a profitable and productive industry. While catching up with the luxury and excessive visual representations of other East Asian television dramas, the Chinese television industry also works very hard to include romantic love in older and more “Chinese” genres, such as dramas about spies during the Civil War (1945–1949) and the Sino-Japanese war in World War II (1937–1945). Whether or not romantic love is necessary in the narrative of the stories, it is made an essential part of defining gender roles, slowing the development of the narrative, and dramatizing heroes’ and heroines’ emotions.

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Television romance must constantly deal with the challenge of staying attractive to audiences while maintaining the repetitive aspects that make it familiar. Chinese television romance, in all its variety of genres or hybrid genres, never stops trying and often actually benefits from its inclusion of content and values that reflect the story’s social awareness, distinguishing it from other, purely romantic-love-centered, dramas imported into the Chinese market. A large body of early scholarly works, such as Radway (1984), critiqued romantic novels and television dramas for creating submissive women, relying more on developing situation than characters in the narrative, and producing only moral fantasies that are acceptable to audience members who hold certain values. In contrast, some feminist scholars point out the power that reading or watching romantic love stories has given to women by teaching them that a woman can only win love by being active, passionate and true to herself (Cruise 1997, 81–93). Meanwhile, internet literature provides women readers and writers the tools and spaces to discuss, revise, and rewrite stories to create unconventional gender roles. Besides being a theme, a genre that can help create an active and passionate community online or in a small town in the world, romantic love stories also help create a cultural region. For example, romantic love stories written by the Taiwanese author Qiong Yao in the 1980s and 1990s created a cultural China in the Chinese-speaking world (Nielsen 2000, 242–251). Similarly, romantic love stories in idol and trendy dramas from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and other East Asian area have contributed to the regionalization of East Asian media, as shown by Japanese scholar Iwabuchi’s (2002) examination of the East Asian media since the 1990s. The truth of both the criticism of romance novels and television dramas, and the changes in the representation of romantic love, must be acknowledged. Standing on the shoulders of these insightful, detailed, and inspiringly critical scholarly works, I want to ask, when I examine Chinese television, how do the narrative elements in the dramas create a feeling of change while assimilating the dominant values, be they traditional, modern, or postmodern? Under bombardment by powerful logic and reasoning from multiple directions, including family, nation, and, particularly, consumerism, how can romantic love win the war in the narrative? In Consuming the Romantic Utopia, Eva Illouz (1997) examined how romance is commodified and how commodities are romanticized in consumerist American culture. Romance and consumerism have intersected to such a degree that it is impossible to imagine a romance without

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consumption, such as a trip, an expensive dinner, or a luxury gift. The mass media, from advertisements to film and television, from soap advertising to celebrity life, have, without doubt, provided one of the key constitutive elements of the popular imagination of romantic relationships. In the last 100 years (Illouz (1997) examined the period from the late nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth), the codes that originally were used by capitalism to stimulate consumption have become deeply integrated into our perceptions and performance of romantic love. Even the middle class and upper middle class, who sought to “reject the commercial and codified character of romance,” “reported the most stereotypical and the most deeply market-based practices of romance” (265). In postmodern romance, what is consumed is not only material; it is also the disposable time and the knowledge and emotion to be creative and impressive. Consumerism constructed modern perceptions of romantic love with its promises of freedom, individuality, and self-realization, exactly what people need and use to feel empowered and be creative as romantic agents. However, as Viviana Zelizer’s (2005) research has delineated, “economic activity—especially the use of money—degrades intimate relationships, while interpersonal intimacy makes economic activity inefficient” (viii). Love in consumerism also contradicts itself, because the possibility that money can buy romance means that indifference to a love interest’s wealth can be very important for testing if love is true, authentic, and genuine. Zelizer reminds us, in a more straightforward way than Illouz, that all intimate relationships, including coupling, are somehow related to “forms of monetary transfers” (13) and that “money cohabits regularly with intimacy, and even sustains it” (14). Both Illouz and Zelizer mainly focus their research on American culture; none the less, their arguments and conclusions are very helpful in understanding the confusion and dilemmas that romantic love faces in contemporary Chinese culture. While romantic love shaped in consumerism has overwhelmingly influenced Chinese society, it also collides with the morals and values that have upheld Chinese tradition, and therefore Chinese identity, in the globalizing world. Being industrious and thrifty, saving up for the next generation and the future, and living a life of filial piety all stand opposed to the ideology of individual-centered consumerism. However, are there different imaginations of the ways to practice romantic love than those established in consumerism based on capital production? How has Chinese television achieved the goal of the narration of romantic love—a shared emotional appeal and a longing for association in

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its discourse? Answers to these questions may be found by examining the signs and meanings coded in selected Chinese television programs.

Chapter Overviews In working with examples from Chinese television programs, I want to clear a way through signs, meanings, and their significations in the new era to find out how romantic love is essential to create a “new” collective identity under the cover of celebrating individuality, freedom, and choice, which are very similar to hegemonic neoliberalism. This book examines popular, contemporary television programs, which are sampled based on their genres and plots. Each of the five TV programs was the most popular one in its genre when it debuted, and all won not only large audiences but also some kind of authoritative award in China. Dwelling Narrowness is one of the most successful realistic dramas and one of the few critically acclaimed television dramas in post-socialist China. Every Step is Startling is one of the most successful time-travel TV dramas of its kind and reflects young urbanites’ fantasies of escaping reality and engaging in history. The show’s popularity has not only brought bright futures to its leading actors but also encouraged its producers to make a sequel. If You Are the One is the only reality TV show that has lasted more than seven years and has been transformed into an enterprise. The Enlightenment of Life won the National Television Drama awards in 2012 and is the most recognized of the many dramas focusing on the love between an older woman and a younger man, a plot that is strongly supported and encouraged by the dominant ideology. Apartment Building of Romantic Love was the first sitcom, a genre with very modest production values, to use romantic love as the main plot; it lasted four seasons. Focusing on the five most successful programs of their kind, this book aims to find out how romantic love is used to simultaneously criticize, escape from, engage in, resolve the problems of, and ridicule the reality and create a solid identity of “Chinese-ness” in a contemporary Chinese culture that is full of anxiety and uncertainty. The five chapters other than the introduction and the conclusion examine five different (sub) genres in Chinese television. Each genre has its own specific historical background and trajectory, which might convey the sense of different structure. Yet, the chapters basically follow a similar structure—a brief introduction of the theme of the program or genre, a brief review of the historical background, a brief literature review, a

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detailed content analysis, and a conclusion. Because each genre has its own history, some historical aspects are more important for analyzing certain programs. For example, time-travel, sitcom, and reality TV are still fairly new in Chinese television and are more influenced by Western TV than conventional soap opera; therefore, the related Chaps. 3, 4, and 6 provide more information about scholarly critique on the genre at the beginning. Meanwhile, conventional soap opera (Dianshi Ju), discussed in Chap. 2 (Dwelling Narrowness) and Chap. 5 (Enlightenment on Life), has a longer history in Chinese television. That history is clearly introduced in the manuscript’s introduction, and therefore, Chaps. 2 and 5 begin with a focus on the specific plot of the dramas—Chap. 2 is about space and Chap. 5 is about age differences in romantically involved couples. Chapter 2: Dwelling Narrowness—Mistress Love, uses the television drama Dwelling Narrowness (2009) as a case study to examine how self-­ censorship among media producers and governmental censorship make it impossible to present a more complicated portrayal of love and romantic relationships in Chinese television. Chapter 3: Every Step is Startling—A Time Travel Woman’s Love. Extending media scholar Henry Jenkins’s perception of space and the entertainment experience of the new media users, Chap. 3 examines the manner in which the young female protagonists created by one of the most successful media companies, Hunan Broadcasting System, are able to entertain audiences; it also shows how the televisual depiction of the time travelers’ romantic engagement in a hyper-patriarchal context creates pleasure and satisfaction while also reinforcing gender roles in contemporary Chinese mainstream culture. Chapter 4: If You Are the One—Love in Public, examines If You Are the One, a well-known reality TV show that focuses on dating and relationships. This chapter analyzes the interaction between the format of the show and the depiction of masculinity and femininity, arguing that these types of program overly emphasize the conjugal family as the path to happiness; in addition, such programs reinforce stereotypical gender roles while portraying the male and female contestants as revolutionary and liberal. Consequently, neoliberalism’s views on the free market and individual free choice and self-realization are reaffirmed. Chapter 5: Enlightenment on Life—Love Between an Older Woman and a Younger Man, compares Chinese television dramas with television dramas from Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, analyzing the differences and similarities of gender roles and relationships in these programs. The

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difference in age between romantic partners is still a primary concern in East Asian culture. While Japanese television is more tolerant of relationships between older women and younger men, television dramas from China, Taiwan, and South Korea still follow the patriarchal portrayal of gender roles in terms of the woman’s greater age. These dramas depict older women with strong personalities and special talents; however, instead of furthering their own self-realization, the women are required to help their men become prototypically masculine men. This type of representation reveals that gender relationships are still limited by cultural stereotypes: powerful men and caring women. The female characters’ seniority is still represented as a flaw, even though the women in these dramas are portrayed as strong and capable. Chapter 6: Apartment Building of Romantic Love/ipartment—Young Urbanites’ Love, serves as a summary. It examines how Apartment Building of Romantic Love, to a certain degree, sets up a “new” definition of romantic love and deconstructs the romantic love popularized in mainstream media, challenging the traditional opinions on lifestyle, success, and gender roles in relationships. At the same time, the sitcom achieves its “new” definitions by reinforcing heterosexual romantic love as the most important value in young people’s lives and glorifying romantic love as the most attainable way to solve conflicts and create harmony among the young urbanites who come from different backgrounds and face challenges in metropolitan cities. Conclusion. Based on the examination of the samples from contemporary Chinese television, the conclusion summarizes gender roles and gender relationships in romantic dramas, arguing that love and romantic relationships are highly coded within the concerns of the dominant ideology, morality, and consumer culture. Love and romantic relationships are used to reinforce dominant social values and collective identity in contemporary China’s image of a good and happy life. Yet these dramas reflect the evolution of, and the struggle and negotiation of, gender norms in post-­ socialist China.

Bibliography Ackerman, Diane. 1994. A Natural History of Love. New York: Random House. Branden, Nathaniel. 1988. Vision of Romantic Love. In The Psychology of Love, ed. Robert J.  Sternberg and Michael L.  Barnes, 218–231. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.

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Cao, Qing. 2011. The Language of Soft Power: Mediating Socio-Political Meanings in the Chinese Media. Critical Arts 25 (1): 7–24. Cawelti, John G. 1976. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Coontz, Stephanie. 2005. Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Viking Penguin. Cruise, Jennifer. 1997. Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real. Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 1 (2): 81–93. Dion, Kenneth, and Karen K. Dion. 1988. Romantic Love: Individual and Cultural Perspectives. In The Psychology of Love, ed. Robert J.  Sternberg and Michael L. Barnes, 264–289. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Dooling, Amy D. 2005. Woman’s Literary Feminism in Twentieth-Century China. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Feng, Jin. 2013. Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance. Leiden and Boston: Brill. Hou, Jing. 2012. Poisonous Weeds in the Movie Love Narrative Research (Ducao dianying zhong de aiqing xushi yanjiu—毒草电影中的爱情叙事研究) Master Thesis, Henan University, April 7–8. Illouz, Eva. 1997. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press. Iwabuchi, Koichi. 2002. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Kaufmann, Jean-Claude. 2011. The Curious History of Love. Trans. David Macey. Cambridge: Polity Press. Lee, Haiyan. 2007. Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900–1950, 298. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Lewis, Tania, Fran Martin, and Wanning Sun. 2016. Telemodernities: Television and Transforming Lives in Asia. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press. Moore, Thomas. 1994. Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Nielsen, Inge. 2000. Caught in the Web of Love: Intercepting the Young Adult Reception of Qiong Yao’s Romances. Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungricae, 53, nos. 3–4: 242–251. Nye, Joseph. 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. 1st ed. New York: Public Affairs. Pan, Lynn. 2015. When True Love Came to China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. Piorkowski, Geraldine K. 2008. Adult Children of Divorce: Confused Love Seekers. Westport, CT and London: Praeger.

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Radford, Jean. 1986. The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc. Radway, Janice. 1984. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Reddy, William. 2012. The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan, 900–1200 CE. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Regis, Pamela. 2003. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Rezink, Shiri, and Dafna Lemish. 2011. Falling in Love with High School Musical: Girls’ Talk About Romantic Perceptions. In Mediated Girlhoods: New Exploration of Girls’ Media Culture, ed. Mary Celeste Kearney. New  York: Peter Lang. Roach, Catherine. 2016. Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Seiter, Ellen. 2010. Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television. In Channels of Discourse, Reassembled, ed. Robert C. Allen, 31–66. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press. Sun, Wanning. 2017. Bridal Photos and Diamond Rings: The Inequality of Romantic Consumption in China. The Journal of Chinese Sociology 4 (1): 1–17. ———. 2020. Consumption Plus Love: Inequality, Domestic Utopia, and China’s New Politics of the Future. Modern China 46 (1): 49–79. Sun, Wanning, and Jenny Chio. 2012. Mapping Media in China Region, Province, Locality (Routledge Contemporary China series). Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge. Zelizer, Viviana. 2005. The Purchase of Intimacy. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. Zhang, Zhen. 2000. Mediating Time: The ‘Rice Bowl of Youth’ in Fin de Siècle Urban China. Public Culture 12: 93–113. Zheng, Tiantian. 2008. Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. Zhong, Xueping. 2010. Mainstream Culture Refocused: Television Drama, Society, and the Production of Meaning in Reform-Era China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

CHAPTER 2

Dwelling Narrowness: Mistress Love

Abstract  This chapter uses the television drama Dwelling Narrowness (2009) as a case study to examine how self-censorship among media producers and governmental censorship make it impossible to present a more complicated portrayal of love and romantic relationships in Chinese television. Keywords  Censorship • Cohabitation • Housing • Mistress • Punishment As one of the genres with a long history in Chinese entertainment-­ television programming, marriage–love dramas have faced competition from the newer genres and their more accessible platforms and ways of being watched. Compared to the newer genres, marriage–love dramas often require more consistent and attentive watching because of the genre’s slower pace and narrative. Meanwhile, in terms of its intellectual contributions and artistic achievements, the genre is often undervalued when compared to others, such as documentaries or other, masculine, dramas. It is also less exciting or fantastic than the newer genres such as reality TV and competition shows. As a result, it has been trivialized by both academic critics and general audiences in the twenty-first century. Yet Dwelling Narrowness, a drama that was low budget in all aspects including technology and casting, stirred up active discussions among © The Author(s) 2020 H. Wen, Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television, East Asian Popular Culture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47729-5_2

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audiences regarding heterosexual relationships and ownership of a living space in big cities in present-day China. The drama raised questions such as the following: If money and power along with a passionate romantic love can create a comfortable and respected living space and lifestyle for a young woman and her beloved, how can the woman resist the allure and instead adhere to the morality and virtues prescribed in social norms and ethics? For what reasons and in what ways should the protagonists be punished if their love and relationship violate the morality and virtues that are essential to maintaining a steady and peaceful society founded on conjugal families and extended social relationships? As a marriage–love drama, a genre that has been subjected to much less scrutiny than others, Dwelling Narrowness (Wo Ju, translated literally as Snail Dwelling) presented many controversial issues that are of wide concern among Chinese audiences. Focusing on two sisters, Haizao and Haiping, and their efforts and lifestyle choices in a fictional metropolitan city that every viewer can easily identify as Shanghai, Dwelling Narrowness questioned and complicated the relationship among romantic sentiments, sexual accessibilities and practices, and materialistic ownership and political power in a very competitive and stressful space. After Dwelling Narrowness was shown on various Chinese television stations and uploaded online in 2009, it became Chinese netizens’ “favorite TV drama” of the year (Yan 2010). The drama’s success is mainly attributable to the story’s main topics: the skyrocketing cost of apartments in the city, mistresses (er nai), and corruption (Zheng 2010). Liu, who wrote the script for Dwelling Narrowness, said that she did not expect the show to become such a hit, but that astronomical apartment rents and prices in 2009 must have helped the story to become popular (Xu 2010). Many of the show’s viewers commented on the internet that they could identify with the characters’ pain and conflict (Wu 2009; Zhao 2009). The success of Dwelling Narrowness brought fame to Liu, director Teng Huatao, and all the show’s leading actors. Even with its low-budget production values, Dwelling Narrowness managed to become one of the biggest successes in the recent domestic TV market in China. In this chapter, I focus on a complex of issues in contemporary Chinese society about which Dwelling Narrowness provoked extensive discussion—love, sex, and relationships. Specifically, I consider two facets of this television show. One is its appropriation of controversial issues in popular discourse. Although the story appeared realistic to many viewers, the portrayal of the young middle class in urban China reinforced certain cultural

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myths. The show’s creators added depth to the story by skillfully integrating social problems with individual stories, and they used erotic descriptions of love and sex to encourage audience voyeurism. The second facet is the public response to Dwelling Narrowness, ranging from netizens’ and public authorities’ reactions to the controversial issues depicted, to Chinese scholars’ critiques of the drama’s portrayal of sex, love, and relationships. Some argued that the discussion of relationships on the public online forum, Tianya (www.tianya.cn), on which viewers expressed much excitement about the drama (some claiming that Dwelling Narrowness was “the most erotic and exciting TV drama in history”) and on which they actively posted erotic dialogues and images, was one of the main things that drew public attention to the drama (Xu 2010). Dwelling Narrowness also gained public attention when it was banned from Beijing TV after only ten were aired, causing many viewers, including scholars, writers, and journalists, to criticize government censorship of the show. The show’s erotic content, its concern with common grievances about living conditions, and the public’s aversion toward censorship all shaped an active public discourse. I argue the drama adds complexity to the representations and discussions of emotions and economic struggles of urban citizens in contemporary Chinese society. However, in order to give voice to mainstream culture’s worries about interpersonal economic relationships and protect the dominant values regarding love and sex, the drama in the end punished those protagonists who challenged the conventional views on family. Therefore, despite all the controversies it bought up, the drama sacrificed the opportunity to further explore complex emotions, and trivialized issues of gender inequality. As a result, the public discourse it created heavily emphasized patriarchal views on sexual ownership while ignoring feminist voices.

Dwelling Narrowness as a Marriage–Love TV Drama Dwelling Narrowness paved a new road for marriage–love dramas on Chinese television. While focusing, as have other Chinese marriage–love dramas, on the individual pursuit of a happy life, the show differed in its concentration on Chinese material culture and social issues such as urban youth’s growing anxiety about living conditions. It did not criticize Chinese society directly, but by focusing on individuals’ common frustration over the unfeasibility of ever owning an apartment in a big city, the drama transformed commonly accepted facts (the existence of expensive housing, corruption, and adultery) into topics for public media discourse.

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Dwelling Narrowness portrays three couples, Song Siming and his wife, both in their 40s; Guo Haiping and Su Chun, who are in their 30s; and Guo Haizao and Xiaobei, who are in their 20s. The choice of these three couples to represent the three generations most affected by the transition to a post-socialist China was deliberate. Unlike other TV dramas that have used a positive tone to evoke audience sympathy and appeal to “good” men and women, Dwelling Narrowness brutally points out the shortcomings of moral, responsible, hard-working people who want only a decent and comfortable life. The drama also compassionately displays some lovely and touching moments in the lives of its anti-heroes, who challenge morality and laws and even hurt other people. These characteristics distinguished Dwelling Narrowness from other Chinese TV dramas, which generally have avoided portraying complex characters. For the flawed characters of Dwelling Narrowness, love is a luxury, an ambiguous and perhaps even impossible thing; even so, the possibility of this kind of romantic love undoubtedly drives the story. Dwelling Narrowness was very different from earlier 1980s and 1990s mainstream TV dramas made in China and in East Asia. While these other dramas represented what true love should be, Dwelling Narrowness seemed unable to say definitively what true love is. The main characters’ ambiguous emotions (love or lust?) and uncertain behaviors (to love or to possess?) are influenced by power, money, and desire in a highly masculinized patriarchal society. As noted above, this fictional TV drama was perceived as realistic by many audiences. In post-socialist China, the “reality” represented in the drama was created by publicizing private topics while downplaying controversial issues related to gender, such as in the representation of the reality of premarital cohabitation between heterosexual partners. Dwelling Narrowness turns mundane sexual relationships into sites of endless struggle with the realities of material culture and in doing so evokes sympathy and pity for its individual characters. Ultimately, this kind of selective representation in Dwelling Narrowness reinforced the concerns and the values of contemporary mainstream Chinese culture.

Rationalizing Cohabitation of Young Urban Chinese From the beginning of the 2009 series, Dwelling Narrowness naturalized premarital sex among the young Chinese generation of the late 1990s, with the characters Haiping and Su Chun moving into a small room immediately after graduating from college and finding jobs in the city. The

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couple initially keep their living situation a secret: Haiping tells her mother over the phone that she is living by herself. The clear difference between the younger and the older generation’s attitudes toward love and premarital sex is highlighted in the very casual, taken-for-granted manner of this scene. Haiping and Su Chun represent a new generation of well-educated Chinese citizens, who have their own beliefs and the courage to work in the big city, far away from their home towns. In retrospect, their hopeful and positive attitudes at the beginning of the show operate in clear contrast to the pain and trouble the characters experience in negotiating a way through a rapidly developing society as the drama progresses. Their relationship and living situation are eventually exposed by Haiping’s younger sister Haizao, who visits them in the city on her way to take the national college-entrance exam. Haizao teases the couple and jokes about telling their parents about the cohabitation, to which Su Chun pragmatically responds, “we just live together to save money from paying two rents.” Later in the drama, Haizao casually agrees to let her own boyfriend, Xiaobei, move into her apartment. The drama portrays the two young couples’ cohabitation as a natural and practical financial choice. The city, as an expensive and alienating space, provides opportunities for the younger generation to live as they prefer without parental supervision. At the same time, the economic realities of life in the metropolis legitimize as well as naturalize the adjustment of traditional moral beliefs concerning sexual relationships between young people. Of course, the drama makes it clear that these couples will eventually get married. The mainstream culture can accept this challenge to traditional morality only as a prerequisite to a traditional outcome—marriage. In Dwelling Narrowness, Haiping and Su Chun (set in 1998) and Haizao and Xiaobei (in the twenty-first century) plan to get married but are waiting to do so until they are financially ready. By trivializing public opinion on the controversial topic of cohabitation and rationalizing the economic practicality of cohabitation by two young people, the drama provides consolation to a multigenerational audience, naturalizing the new modern relationship while preserving traditional values. Regardless, this representation of premarital sexual relationships remains very rare for prime-time television dramas on CCTV (Chinese Central TV) and provincial TV stations alike. Finding the right tone with which to represent cohabitation on television has been a major concern for East Asian TV dramas so as to avoid the criticism that they are exerting a negative influence on young people. Although the mainstream media acknowledge that

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this constitutes the new “reality” in the cities, they still want to minimize the depiction of premarital sexual relationships and convey to young people that premarital sex is not right. The negotiation between what is right and what is real has led to a middle ground of “live together now but get married later.” In the twenty-first century, partially as a result of Chinese media’s concern for realism, TV dramas made in China have become more open in depicting cohabitation. One example is Struggle (Fen Dou, Shanghai TV Station, 2007), another television drama, which was released in 2007 and likewise portrayed young unmarried couples living together. All the couples on the show ended up getting married despite rocky moments in their relationships and dramatic separation periods. Struggle was a big hit with viewers, but some criticized it as being too unrealistic because the characters represented only a small portion of rich and upper-class Chinese youth. Unlike Struggle, Dwelling Narrowness is gritty and down to earth, reflecting the living conditions of everyday people in the cities across various age groups (Zhu, He, and Hu 2010, 19–22). By focusing on housing, and thus exposing the cruel reality of rising apartment prices in Chinese cities since the late 1990s, Dwelling Narrowness reveals the impact of living spaces on sexual relationships and rationalizes young people’s challenges to traditional beliefs and values (Zheng et al. 2011, 497–511). In fact, the issue of premarital sex is still very controversial in China (Ibid.). Whether women or men are more stressed by premarital cohabitation remains one of the most widespread and unsettled discussions on the internet (Yoka.com.cn and PCLady.com.cn). Although, as noted above, “cohabitation before marriage is still seen as immoral” in Chinese society (Li 2008, 193), Dwelling Narrowness presents premarital cohabitation as an acceptable choice by focusing on the impact of financial concerns on heterosexual relationships in urban environments. While premarital sex itself is normalized in Dwelling Narrowness, other complicated issues involving love, sex, and morality are questioned, specifically the controversial status of the “mistress,” a role taken by Haizao in relation to Song Siming, a successful, middle-aged married man. This relationship created ambivalence for both the producers and the audience, toward the characters (should they be disapproved of or sympathized with?) and about the meaning of love.

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The “Slave” of House and the Victim of “Love” Debate about mistresses has existed in both the popular media and the academy in China for a decade. In Zhang Zhen’s examination, the phenomenon of mistresses (that is, women with whom men have long-term sexual relationships outside the men’s marriages) constitutes an example of the fetishization of the physical appearance of young women in a money-driven value system. Zhang points out that the depiction of mistresses in some Chinese films reflects the ironic correlation between a young woman’s sexual freedom and her “occupation as a caged bird.” For women who are mistresses, as for young women in other roles in China, appearance and sexual appeal are increasingly important (Zhang 2000, 93–113). Some sociological studies indicate that a mistress functions as a status symbol that men use to show status in post-socialist Chinese society (Xiao 2011; Zhang 2010b). Mistresses symbolize problems of both gender and class in contemporary China, where men are remasculinized (Lu 1993; Zhong 2000) and women provide emotional and domestic labor to make businessmen feel good about themselves.1 In the media, in the public’s imagination, and in academic studies, mistresses are sometimes considered to be a result of the rapidly expanding market economy in China. Therefore, mistresses are related to materialism, which is not a topic that is debated in China. In the public culture, mistresses are simply perceived as women who live with married men and satisfy their sexual needs in exchange for financial security or a luxury lifestyle. Media and popular culture rarely attempt to explore complexities in the role of mistresses. For example, many mistresses do think they love their partners even though their relationships are based on economic dependency (Xiao 2011). Dwelling Narrowness, with its detailed portrayal of how Haizao becomes a mistress, tries to depict the complicated relationship between emotion and materiality in a highly stratified society and thus provides an important contrast to more simplistic representations. In Dwelling Narrowness, Haizao desires a simple, easy life. She does not want to stay in the big city, but her sister pushes her to stay and find a job. 1  Lu Tonglin (1993) and Zhong Xueping (2000) have argued, based on their study of 1980s Chinese literature, that political suppression symbolically castrated Chinese male intellectuals. Starting in the late 1980s and 1990s, Chinese intellectuals, mainly male writers and film makers, remasculinized men in their literature and films. Chinese culture in the twentyfirst century tends to remasculinize Chinese men in different media genres, such as TV dramas in mainstream media.

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As a result, Haizao remains in the metropolis, a place that is too competitive and busy for her. After deciding to stay, Haizao meets a young man who loves her and takes good care of her. The show hints that Haizao is a girl who cannot be easily seduced by money and luxuries. She is happy to live with her boyfriend in a rented apartment, eating simple food and wearing inexpensive clothing. But her sister’s desire to buy an apartment changes Haizao’s simple, happy life and pushes her to approach Song Siming, a successful and powerful man in the city. Because of Haizao’s deep familial love for her sister, she tries to find a way to help her and initially asks her boyfriend to lend her sister his savings. However, Haizao’s boyfriend wants Haizao to live her own life, not sacrifice their plans so as to fulfill her sister’s dream of owning an apartment. In desperation, Haizao approaches Song Siming, who is very happy to lend her the money and tells her not to worry about paying him back soon. This is the beginning of Song’s role as a savior and hero in Haizao’s life, always appearing when Haizao needs him, whether for herself or for her sister. Haizao’s relationship with Song apparently starts because of money, but not because Haizao desires material goods, nor because Song Siming wants to seduce her with his wealth. These details make Haizao’s role as a mistress more complicated than the usual understanding of mistresses in the popular imagination. Additionally, Song is portrayed as good looking and clean-cut. He is wise and knowledgeable and enjoys talking about philosophy and poetry, characteristics that could make him desirable to many women. At the beginning, Haizao says, “I like him”; after they start to live together, she says, “I love him.” Contrary to popular opinion at the time it was broadcast, Dwelling Narrowness complicated the answer to the question of whether a relationship founded on financial exchange could develop into true love. Another thing that challenges the image of the typical mistress in Dwelling Narrowness is that Haizao lacks strong sexual appeal. As Song’s wife says after she confronts Haizao, “I was disappointed when I saw her because she doesn’t have anything that a mistress should have. She does not have a sexy body at all, a very ordinary looking girl.” However, the relationship between Song and Haizao is not based only on sexual desire. Unlike some men in China with multiple mistresses (Shen 2008; Sharpe 2001), Song is portrayed as a devoted lover; he only wants Haizao because his relationship with his wife, he declares, seems more like a responsibility than love. Haizao physically resembles the first woman he had a crush on during college, and he wants to take care of her. When his wife tells him

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that Haizao treats him as a game, his feelings are hurt: Haizao is a romantic dream that Song Siming could not make real when he was younger. Moreover, his last thoughts before he dies are about all the moments spent with Haizao. Song’s feelings toward Haizao make her believe that he is the person who can protect her, especially when she decides to bear their child after she becomes pregnant. “I want to have this child and I believe he can protect us,” Haizao insists after her mother expresses shock on learning about the pregnancy and vehemently urges her to get an abortion. While all these elements seem to liken the relationship between Haizao and Song Siming to a true love relationship, at the end of the series the narrator abruptly voices Haizao’s regret of her choice to stay with Song Siming. Here, the narrator declares that the relationship was based primarily on sexual pleasure, and that in the end Haizao wishes that she had stayed with her ex-boyfriend, Xiao Bei. Although Haizao’s vulnerability and reluctance to hurt others adds complexity to the typical image of the uncaring “mistress” shown in the popular media, the show ultimately reduces Haizao’s decision to become a mistress to a choice made by a weak and indecisive woman. However, in the new millennium, the reasons some women end up becoming mistresses are far more complicated. According to sociologist Wang Chengxia’s (2010) research, many women, including highly educated college graduates, choose this lifestyle because they believe that as strong, liberal individuals in a highly materialistic society, they should live a life that challenges beliefs about marriage and love in traditional patriarchal society. In James Farrer’s investigation, for some people the mistress relationship between a man and a woman is understood as the intertwining of business and life partnership between an international businessman and a successful woman (Farrer 2008). In this sense, Dwelling Narrowness remains limited in its portrayal of the “mistress” character, even as it tries to humanize a role usually described as repugnant in the mainstream culture. In the last episode of Dwelling Narrowness, the older sister, Haiping, lectures Haizao about the fact that she (Haiping) needs to work very hard to pay off the mortgage, as well as pay for her child’s kindergarten, food for the family, and electricity. She says, “I don’t have time to think because I need that much money to be in my pocket every day. I don’t have to walk because when I walk in the street, the busy crowd will push me to move forward and I don’t have time to think where to go. I just have to keep moving.” Haiping’s long lecture sounds like a winner’s speech to educate Haizao, who violated morality and was punished for her behavior.

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However, the lecture also sounds awkward in the context of the show’s narrative, further pointing to the injustice of Haizao’s fate, given that her punishment and tragedy were caused by Haiping’s desire to own a space in the big city. Unlike many other TV dramas about corruption in which the corrupted officials are caught and prosecuted by the government and their women interrogated and punished by legal authorities, Dwelling Narrowness does not inflict an official, governmental form of punishment. Song Siming’s death in a car accident is caused by both a police chase and his eagerness to see his lover, Haizao, who is in the hospital because of a miscarriage. Haizao, meanwhile, is physically punished by Song’s wife and suffers harm (losing her uterus). The tragic end of this immoral love affair is not caused directly by political or legal powers but by the interaction of a complex range of elements, including individual choice. For example, Song Siming did not try to avoid colliding with a big truck and decided to die in the car accident; likewise, although Song’s wife ostensibly could not control her rage when she saw Haizao, she chose to beat her until she collapsed. The drama thereby leaves the door open for audience discussion. The screenwriter, Liu, a Chinese expatriate who has lived in Singapore since the 1990s, skillfully infuses her observations of life in urban China with both sympathy and criticism. The show’s narrative implicitly poses questions: Is Haizao a victim of love or of a brutal social reality? Although the corrupt Song’s punishment does not come as a narrative surprise, we might ask why the show’s narrative does not give Haizao a second chance to have a normal life. Why is Haizao the one character who receives harsh punishment, when her sister, Haiping (a heroine portrayed as a positive and vulnerable figure), was the one who initially created the situation that caused tragedy to unfold? According to director Teng Huatao, “the fate of the corrupted official and the fate of a mistress are expressed very clearly in the end. You might ask whether we should show some sympathy to a young girl. I probably was sympathetic, but I have emphasized many times, when she made her choice, her destiny has been determined” (Wang 2009a). Teng’s comments reveal that he wants to protect conventional Chinese expectations and values about both love and narrative—a relationship that threatens mainstream morality must, in the end, be denied and punished. Haizao declares that she and Song “are different from others (in the same kind of relationship), we are truly in love.” This illegitimate love makes her the greatest victim of the drama, which implies that memories

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can fade but Haizao’s damaged body will always remind her of her past experience. The ending of the series illustrates that a relationship that has been compromised by financial and sexual desires and that violates conventional moral codes not only cannot last but might have permanent repercussions. With its focus on Haizao’s personal regret and physical impairment, Dwelling Narrowness appears to warn women not to enter these types of relationship, as if men are not also responsible or capable of suffering ill-effects. In some ways, the narrative is most cruel in that due to the shock of Song Siming’s death, Haizao is unable to talk for two months. Their love, therefore, is literally unspeakable. In this way, the drama silences the emotions that humanize an otherwise corrupt official and his contemptible mistress, emotions that are ultimately subsumed beneath concerns about the dangers of moral degradation in a materialist culture.

Media Responses to Dwelling Narrowness The important role that television plays in Chinese popular discourse is reflected in the public discussion of Dwelling Narrowness. When the show was on the air, a wide variety of commentary about Dwelling Narrowness was published in a variety of media outlets. Academics, writers, public officials, and ordinary netizens all expressed opinions. Central to the discussions was the show’s seemingly realistic portrayal of society. For example, as media scholar Yu Haiqing claims, “this TV drama takes the audience … to the contemporary and the decidedly unglamorous aspects of the everyday reality of the so-called ‘middle class’ in urban China” (Yu 2011). Although each episode of the show carried the disclaimer “This story is completely fictional” (ben gushi chunshu xugou), many people perceived it as being realistic, as I have noted. Of course, as John Fiske and John Hartley write, “there is nothing natural about realism, but it does correspond to the way we currently perceive the world” (Fiske and Hartley 2003, 128). In a culture that is in increasingly commercialized, the realism attributed to Dwelling Narrowness is testament to the anxiety over living conditions commonly expressed by urban citizens in contemporary China (Hu 2010; Zhang 2010a). As screen writer Liu Liu explained, she carefully researched the cost of apartments in Shanghai when she started writing the story in 2006. Because of inflation in property prices and rents, of course, these figures were already outdated by the time the show aired in

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2009. None the less, people still found the show realistic because it reflected the struggle and pain of living in a big city. As for the romantic story lines, Liu Liu never mentions any research. However, the show’s focus on the effects of contemporary material conditions on the pursuit of happiness, specifically the desire to own an apartment in the city, struck such a nerve that it tended to take attention away from the overtly fictional and dramatic aspects of the story. In addition, the censorship imposed on the show implied that Dwelling Narrowness was indeed a realistic portrayal of the urban generation. Netizens and journalists in popular online forums focused their discussion on the show’s representation of sexual relationships, which was one of the main reasons the show was banned from airing on Beijing TV (Hu 2010; Yuan 2012). Comments on internet forums made bold connections between social class and sexual ownership in contemporary Chinese society. They did not simply argue that money can buy sex, but rather that money frequently determines the conditions under which men will have sex with women within marriage and outside of it. The viewers of Dwelling Narrowness made this argument because of the actions of the show’s three male characters: Song Siming (who had a wife and a mistress), Su Chun (who had a wife who frequently refuses to make love because she is exhausted from working to pay off the mortgage), and Xiaobei (whose girlfriend has a relationship with another man). A netizen named Lu Yingjiu used a highly evocative term, “the proletariat of sex” (Lu 2009), apparently to refer to all men who could identify with Su Chun and Xiao Bei in the context of their sexual relationships in Dwelling Narrowness. According to Lu, when wealthy and powerful men manipulate society, people’s attention focuses on the gap between rich and poor, here symbolized by the men’s possession of women. Therefore, Lu hints, feminist conceptions of the problem do not make sense to most people, and the more power feminists want to gain, the more they lose in this battle. In this view, because feminists’ views on gender issues show that they do not care about what men like Lu see as the main conflict—inequality caused by the ownership of material goods and property (including women as property)—they do not truly understand that the real problem is not one of gender. People who speak for women become outsiders in this argument. Likewise, a journalist named Wang Lei claims that the wealthy and powerful class robs ordinary men of their sexual ownership of women, and Chinese society thereby loses its morality and sense of righteousness (Wang 2009a). Such unbalanced accessibility to sexual ownership is not

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only a moral issue but also disrupts social stability. Wang argues that “the proletariat of sex” is an angry, frustrated, and potentially rebellious class; therefore, he analogizes the competition between classes of men with different access to sexual ownership of women to a battle. Apparently, women (and especially feminists) are excluded in his view of the potential revolution to be won through this battle. Lu’s and Wang’s ignorance of feminists’ voices paradoxically points to the criticism that even Chinese feminists themselves have not paid enough attention to gender equality in current China. Wang Chengxia, one of the leading feminist scholars in China, argues that some Chinese women use feminist arguments to their own advantage; they ask for and depend on the conveniences that come from patriarchal society, while, in the name of women’s rights, they reject the duty they should carry out to family and society. Wang thinks Chinese feminists are often angry and cry for benefits for women but ignore the “sickness” of some Chinese women, who are proud to be sexual commodities and mistresses and ask for proof of economic status when choosing husbands. According to Wang, Chinese feminists are “collectively voiceless,” when facing those whose primary concerns are with “female-benefitism” (Wang 2010). Paradoxically, these discussions and critiques of Dwelling Narrowness in popular discourse confirm the gender roles represented in the drama— women are marginalized and disempowered consistently, even though they are superficially empowered with certain choices: to make the family’s main economic decisions (like Haiping), to have multiple sexual partners (like Haizao), and to divorce with hefty compensation (like Song’s wife) (Yuan 2012). The regressive gender pattern apparent in audience responses to the show is a manifestation of common perceptions of the effects of economics on gender relationships in contemporary Chinese society. First, in the mainstream media, mistresses are mainly discussed as a problem connected to corrupt officials. For example, in Chinese sociologist He Qinglian’s examination of Chinese women’s social status, she points out that there are hundreds of thousands of mistresses in Guangdong province. The statistic is vague because of the nature of the relationship. While she argues it is clear that 98% of the exposed corrupt officials have one or more mistresses, the fact that several corrupt officials have been publicly exposed for having multiple mistresses does not actually provide evidence of how many people currently have multiple sexual-ownership relationships (He 2001).

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Clearly the emotions and sentiments of people who are involved in unconventional sexual relationships are too complicated to be simplified as a form of cold trade. Many factors, including the pressures of a highly advanced material culture, the symbolic meaning of masculinity, the new sexism, and changing contemporary relationships, come together in men’s desire to have mistresses and women’s willingness to be mistresses. A deeper investigation of these complicated emotions and sentiments would prove useful to understanding a culture that is in the midst of transformation. In this sense, although the story of Dwelling Narrowness, whose depiction of sexual relationship hinges on economic relationships and the ownership of space in the city, is somewhat different from other Chinese dramas that also draw on actual social conditions, it does not completely break away from Chinese mainstream drama’s constraints on the representation of legitimate forms of love. Responding to Dwelling Narrowness in her personal blog, Li Yinhe, one of the most influential Chinese gender studies scholars, writes the following about the question of mistresses: The existence of mistresses is an ugly phenomenon in our society. But we cannot use law to stop it because although it is threatening morality, which a society needs to keep a culture healthy, it is also a result of complex set of personal choices and emotions. If we use law to stop it, we are threatening human rights. However, we can use the power of people’s word of mouth and moral criticism to humiliate them and make them feel ashamed. Therefore, others would learn that it is wrong. (Li 2010)

Dwelling Narrowness, while echoing Li Yinhe’s opinions on this phenomenon, also comes across as relatively generous and understanding concerning the possible reasons for people’s choices. The drama rationalizes the unconventional relationship between Haizao and Song Siming, attributing the relationship to Song’s nostalgic love for his dream girl in college and Haizao’s appreciation of both Song’s help and his passion. This rationalization complicates the common perception that the relationship between a man and his mistress is purely based on money. At the same time, the drama ultimately punished the two characters for their moral failings. The rationalization of and penalty for their relationship negotiates a space between morality, responsibility, and human emotions, as well as between urban Chinese social problems and possible legitimate solutions. The drama’s portrayal of unconventional relationships ignores the facts

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that corruption in China is unlikely to end and that many mistresses currently live comfortable lives, with their children growing up as accepted members of Chinese society. The ending of Dwelling Narrowness seems designed to satisfy the moral expectations only of those audience members who support the traditional form of family and the dominant values of the culture, at the expense of a more China representation of love and relationship in present-day China. However, despite its clumsy and somewhat sterile ending, Dwelling Narrowness transforms, or at least tries to transform, the dominant ideology, to create a more individual and humane discourse in which love, sex, and economic reality are entangled.

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Zhang, Tikun. 2010b. The Social Effect and Significance of Dwelling Narrowness (Lun dianshiju woju de shehui xiaoying yu yiyi shengchan—论电视剧蜗居的社 会效应与意义生产). East Forum (Dongfang Luntan) 2: 17–22. Zhao, Lihua. 2009. Wo Ju Jiu Shi Women de Shenghuo (Dwelling Narrowness Tells Our Life 蜗居就是我们的生活). Yangcheng Wan Bao (Yangcheng Evening Paper), Dec. 7, Sec. B03. Zheng, Meimei. 2010. Fangnu, Xiaosan, Tanguan, Tingbo… Remen Ticai Chengjiu Rebo Ju Xiao Woju Zheshe Da Xianshi (House Slave, Mistress, Corrupted Official, Media Censorship…Hot Topics Made Dwelling Narrowness a Hit—Small Snail House Reflected the Big Reality房奴、小三、 貪官、停播……熱門題材成就熱播劇小《蝸居》折射大現實). Chang Tan (Talk Up), no. 1, Chengdu, China. Zheng, Weijing, Xudong Zhou, Chizhou Wei, Luli Liu, and Therese Hesketh. 2011. Detraditionalisation and Attitudes to Sex Outside Marriage in China. Culture, Health & Sexuality 13: 497–511. Zhong, Xueping. 2000. Masculinity Besieged? Issues of Modernity and Male Subjectivity in Chinese Literature of the Late Twentieth Century. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press.

CHAPTER 3

Every Step is Startling: A Time Travel Woman’s Love

Abstract  Extending media scholar Henry Jenkins’s perception of space and the entertainment experience of the new media users, Chap. 3 examines the manner in which the young female protagonists created by one of the most successful media companies, Hunan Broadcasting System, entertain audiences; it also shows how the televisual depiction of time travelers’ romantic engagement in a hyper-patriarchal context creates pleasure and satisfaction while also reinforcing gender roles in contemporary Chinese mainstream culture. Keywords  Time Travel • Space • Hyper-patriarchal context • Knowledge • Entertainment Dwelling Narrowness reveals the scars of reality in post-socialist China and illustrates how vulnerable, if not impossible, love is in the face of wealth, politics, emotions, duties, and other desires in a contemporary metropolitan Chinese city. Yet those realities do not stop people from yearning for a passionate romance, for which they must find a space where true love is possible. Where is this space that is free of the anxiety of attempting to find a nice job, of hoping to afford a decent apartment and romantic dates, gifts, and trips? In 2011, the Chinese media landscape welcomed several new productions grouped under the same genre, time travel TV romance. Two of © The Author(s) 2020 H. Wen, Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television, East Asian Popular Culture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47729-5_3

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them—Palace (Gong) and Every Step is Startling (Bu bu jing xin)—became very popular. The simultaneous criticism of and acclaim for the dramas made them famous in the competitive Chinese TV industry. The main concern expressed by critics of the dramas was the extent to which the shows are historically inaccurate and thus could potentially harm audiences, especially by skewing young audience members’ perception of “real” history. Instead of jumping into the argument about the accuracy of the history depicted in the dramas, I will focus on the “space” created by the time-travelling protagonist. This “space” is the convergence in the female protagonists’ gaze of a fantastic past and current values concerning gender roles and romantic relationships. The creation of this “space” in dramas reflects the negotiation between the dominant values of romantic love and relationships and the producers’ desire and intention to satisfy audience’s fantasies and ease their frustrations regarding obstacles to true love in present-day Chinese society.

Convergence Culture and Entertainment Traditional media that are defined as entertainment often only passively involve audiences. However, thanks to the internet, personal computers, and video games, contemporary consumers of entertainment are able to be extremely active participants. YouTube users, for example, help to produce and disseminate media products. Actively participating in entertainment activities is one of the main drivers as well as elements of convergence culture, because “convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content” (Jenkins 2006, 3). The protagonists in Chinese time travel romances are representative of the generation growing up in convergence culture—they have learned history through TV dramas and popular historical novels, and they survive in the palaces they visit thanks to the knowledge they have picked up from their daily interaction with media in their present-day lives. At the same time, the time travel romances stem from writers’ desire to narrate an imagined experience and participate in a visualized imaginary. They wish to participate in history, which is only recorded by others who have the authority or the power to speak in the media. Time travel TV dramas create a subjectivity that participates in history and engages in history as an agent. However, the agent speaks only as a love subject; a character who is willing to love, can love, and knows how to love passionately.

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Because love is the only language that speaks for the protagonist and gives her reason to care about her existence in the “new” world, love is portrayed as the center, and the only fabula, of the narrative. But because nobody can change history in the time travel narrative, the overpowering love ends up powerless. Therefore, love, which is supposed to overcome the authority of the narrator of history and provide an alternative version of history, is proved to be not strong enough, it merely “restored history” (Wittenberg 2013) in time travel TV romance. Time travel narrative cannot change history; it can only affect history to the extent that present-day facts remain unchanged. Thus, romantic love is eventually proved impotent, despite the time travel romance’s purpose of celebrating the power of love and providing an alternative viewpoint of history through an agent driven by passionate love, the element that is always absent in official Chinese history. Passionate love, in the end, is only an entertainment experience for the protagonist because she comes back to the present and is physically unchanged (not even aged after having spent more than twenty years in the past), emotionally healed, and psychologically calmed, the three surface elements of an experience as good entertainment.

Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization with Romantic Love Time travel romance is produced in a very competitive media landscape in East Asia, where deterritorialized media content, meaning an “odorless” (Iwabuchi 2002, 94) cultural content, is essential to the regional exchange of media products. Chinese media has experienced a very unbalanced export–import rate in the area because of political overtones that are not popular in some parts of East Asia. Time travel TV dramas, notably Every Step is Startling, are produced cooperatively by media producers from China and from Taiwan. The casts include actors from mainland China, Chinese-American actors from a Hong Kong media company, and from Taiwan. Media companies from other territories in the region must cooperate if they want to get a foot into mainland China, which has the biggest audience in the region, and such cooperation is the only way for mainland China to improve its media balance of trade. To adapt to the different needs of the region, including evading local censorship and regional sentimental issues, the producers create shows in which history and love are

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the main themes. History means the safely distant past, a time that is far enough away not to evoke controversial opinions, but still a “space” that includes cultural codes understandable to audiences in the region: love means humanity and can overcome any cultural barrier and be understandable to a modern audience. Time travel romance, comprising history, romantic love, and a modern subject who participates in the creation of history, is a perfect genre or strategy to enable mainland China’s media to omit any elements that could hinder a likable, entertaining, and understandable communication and pleasure-sharing moment for audiences, especially audience members who have grown up in the region’s convergence culture. The large audiences for time travel dramas prove the success of this device. Time travel romance attempts to represent common desires of audience members by deterritorializing any desires that possibly could be influenced or constructed by different cultural contexts, for example, materialistic concerns in contemporary urban Shanghai and international consciousness in hyper-metropolitan Tokyo or Taipei. Deterritorialization never works on its own because “deterritorialization, the axiomatic, and reterritorialization are the three surface elements of the representation of desire in modern socius” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 262). When a romance eliminates factors that obscure or blight love based on romantic sentiments, it reterritorializes the definition of true love based on an imagined understanding of the past and the axiomatic beliefs in humanity and familial values that characterize the region. According to Henry Jenkins, one meaning of convergence is “the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (2). Chinese time travel TV dramas extend Jenkins’ perception of space. The stories take place in the audiences’ and producers’ imagination of a glorious and wealthy feudalist palace. My goal is to examine how the young female protagonists created by Hunan Broadcasting System, one of the most successful producers of entertainment programs, flourish in the audiences’ entertainment and how the televisual depiction of the time travelers’ romantic engagement in a hyper-patriarchal context creates pleasure and satisfaction while also reinforcing gender roles in contemporary Chinese mainstream culture. If time travel romance is only a fantasy, it reflects the desire of the storytellers. What kind of fantasy do they want to create that they cannot find in real life or imagine in other subgenres of TV dramas? To answer these

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questions, I examine the narratives in time travel TV dramas that modern urban romance does not and cannot portray. It is clear that time travel romance provides a space that is free from the anxieties and stressors that typically are used to test love in a modern, urban setting. The princes all enjoy their social status as a birthright; accept the education that makes them knowledgeable, genteel, and masculine; and do not have to worry about finding and keeping a job and financially supporting their families. Modern women’s complex and stressful experiences with mothers-in-law do not affect the romantic relationships’ progress, either, because of the control of the princes and the emperor and the submissive status of women in the palace. The protagonists need not even carry the weight of morality, such as modern society’s disapproval of polygamy. The princes, each of whom has several wives and has the freedom to choose almost any girl who is attractive to him, fall in love only with the time traveler. In time travel romance, contemporary circumstances and the obstacles they might present to the progress of a relationship do not exist. Although at the outset the female protagonist sometimes struggles to come to terms with the fact that some of the princes already have wives, she always ends up forgetting or choosing to ignore the fact, and indeed falls more deeply in love after realizing that the man loves her more than any other woman in his life. The deterritorialized history in time travel TV dramas reflects Baudrillard’s (1994) view of history portrayed in the mass media: Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history, in the euphoric or catastrophic expectation of a revolution—today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references. (43)

The history in time travel romance is reduced to a hyper-patriarchal context where, as in Baudrillard’s (1994) view on how history is simplified in postmodern media, “at least life and death were at stake” (44). The axiomatic nature of despotic rule by the emperor in a feudalist system makes it rational and plausible for the audience that life and death moments occur so frequently in time travel TV dramas. These moments, when used to test whether there is true love and progress in a romantic relationship, are more powerful and more visually and emotionally intense and thrilling for the audiences than the commonplace obstacles often used in modern urban romances. In cinematic or televisual representations, when it comes to testing love what is more powerful and truthful than death? Would the

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story in Titanic be as touching if the lovers did not have to face death and if the male protagonist did not choose to die for his lover? The deterritorialized history was reterritorialized as a space where there are few obstacles to love as a purely sentimental and transcendent experience and many life and death opportunities to test love. Love is the only thing that matters to the protagonist, and therefore, time travel romance is surreal and transcends mundane daily issues. The audiences experience the “life and death” without being afraid of the “death” of the protagonist because it is apparent that she somehow managed to exist in the present time, after hundreds of years and before her journey into the past. The history in the time travel dramas is reterritorialized and encoded with the signifiers that “fundamentally they no longer resemble anything, except the empty figure of resemblance, the empty form of representation” (Baudrillard 1994, 45). Therefore, expressing the desire of present-day subjects, all the “empty” space in the narrative of time travel TV dramas can be used for romantic and passionate love, something that is rarely seen in, if not completely absent from, the authoritative historical record. Because history is used in the story only as a “space” free from modern society’s obstacles and control of passionate love, the creators of time travel TV dramas are not concerned about adhering to the truth or reality of history. As a result, time travel TV dramas benefit from an exceptional narrative space in which to place a modern subject, a unique and entertaining character destined to encounter the oddness, such as talking inappropriately in front of the emperors and princes, presenting to the audience and to our imagination a dangerous but thrilling palace, and handsome but lonely princes. As an extraordinary modern subject, the protagonist participates in this journey of searching for love and falling in love, which is exciting and entertaining. This is an imaginary adventure with a fearless subject and much room to promote the protagonist’s self-discovery and her influence on others in the so-called history. Her uniqueness and exoticism are obviously the main features that attract the princes. In the following section, I examine how the female protagonists’ absurd language and behaviors generate humor as they become the princes’ love interests. I argue that the portrayal of the female protagonists in time travel TV dramas exposes the subject’s desire to effortlessly become a love interest and an admired woman through a male gaze shaped by multiple admirers.

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Being Themselves: A Palace is an Entertaining Place to Live The time travelers in Every Step is Startling and Palace have personality quirks. Ruoxi (Every Step is Startling) is strong-minded and cannot tolerate her boyfriend’s cheating behavior. She scolds him and slaps him in the face, causing a car accident that injures her. She falls into a coma and travels through time. Qingchuan (Palace) ignores her future mother-in-law’s questions and reluctantly keeps company with her on the day of her engagement, immediately before she follows a painting of a Qing dynasty lady and travels back in time. As Janice Radway (1984) argues in her examination of romance novels, “the fact of her (the protagonist’s) initial rejection of feminine ways is so essential to the plot that it is worth examining the manner of her deviation in greater detail” (124). The time travelers in these Chinese TV dramas reject not only feminine ways but also the manners and behavior that society expects of young women—elegance, tolerance, and respect for elders, especially mothers-in-law. The protagonists’ disrespectful and crude behavior at the beginning of their stories signals their discontent with modern life. At the same time, the stories as a whole emphasize the protagonists’ innocence and inexperience, which are the basis of their ignorance of power and hierarchy in society. The entertainment purpose of the stories—depicting the adventures of a childish young lady without goals and ambition—is thereby reinforced. The purity of the protagonists, sustained despite the repeated conflicts between the protagonist and the princes and the emperor, becomes one of the main characteristics that attract the men in the story. Lack of ambition, which is detrimental to women’s success in modern society, becomes the key to true love and success in the palace. Both Ruoxi and Qingchuan gain the emperor’s exceptional trust and favor because of their innocence and lack of ambition. They also win the affection of the princes because of their innocence. Qingchuan accidently runs into the fourth prince when he is drunk; she listens to him talking about his anxiety and unhappiness. Being a good listener, she wants to meet and talk to the prince because he always gives her good suggestions on how to survive in the palace when she faces difficulties there. Ruoxi traveled back with her modern mind but is trapped in the body of a young girl whose father is a general and whose sister is the second wife of the eighth prince. The eighth prince is attracted to her because of her cheerful voice and childish personality. She brings energy and happiness to the

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bored and unhappy royal family. Ruoxi has a fight with the eighth prince’s first wife and her younger sister. During a celebration of the tenth prince’s birthday, she fights with the younger sister and they both fall into the pond, attracting the attention of everyone in the palace, including the princes. The childish fight brings Ruoxi fame, because all the men think it cute and funny; it also brings her love because some of the princes believe she is interesting and unique because she lacks the manners and etiquette of the women from the palace. The time travelers’ “unique” behavior and straightforward manner of talking are very different to the behavior of the princes, who have been taught to follow rules and display good manners. However, the time travelers’ behavior is common among youth in modern society. In fact, behavior that is “revolutionary” in the eyes of the princes is effortless for the modern subjects, who do not believe in repressing their feelings or always following rules, especially rules that seem ridiculous to them, products of a twenty-first-century society. The protagonists mock the ruling class and challenge its rules, but they attract their attention and affection, have their peers’ trust and friendship, win respect from everyone, and help people in a variety of ways, including by listening to them talk about their problems. They achieve all these things, which present-day young people can only dream about and always struggle with, without any special effort, merely by being themselves and being free and natural. They do not really desire anything in the palace; it is simply a place they just happen to visit. This is enjoyable, not only for the travelers but also for audiences, especially the target viewers of the TV drama—youth and young adults. The time travelers can be themselves while other characters must act with servile obedience in the palace. They care about people’s feelings, sympathize with their pain, and share their happiness; more importantly, they do not want anything from other people. Even romantic love does not initially interest them. They have no plan to get what they eventually attain in the palace, and sometimes they are even reluctant to accept these things, including the burning love,]. But events happen naturally and unexpectedly because the protagonists are being themselves. The protagonists’ lack of ambition and goals also help them earn the trust and friendship of their peers and the princes, and create a safe environment for themselves in the palace. This is easy and fun for the audience, who can identify with the time travelers.

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Greater Knowledge: Effortless Talent and Love The time travelers’ “talent” also sets them apart from the beautiful women in the palace. Qingchuan literally drops from the sky onto the stage of a beauty pageant in a brothel, which gives her an opportunity to be sent to the crown prince’s palace. She wins the pageant at the last moment because of her modern red dress and MP4. The dress surprises the audience and the sound from the MP4 makes the audience believe the music has come from heaven. After Qingchuan is sent to the crown prince’s room, she accidently tells the prince what may happen to him at night and predicts that he will be saved if he mentions his plan to avert a famine, about which the emperor will be told very soon. Her prediction and ideas spare the prince the emperor’s anger and earn him the emperor’s praise. From that moment, the crown prince worships Qingchuan as his fairy; he wants to marry her and keep her with him forever. Later, the crown prince falls in love with Qingchuan because of all the help she gives him. Audience members, meanwhile, know that the prediction is from history books or TV dramas, and the dress and the MP4 are easy to obtain in the present day. Ruoxi displays her talent on the idea of equality about social classes and memorizing Mao Zedong’s poem on emperors, which the majority of the young Chinese audience knows very well. As the stories play out, the audience continually sees that some basic knowledge or common sense, such as who will become powerful in the future (everyone in the audience knows who will become the next emperor) or how to bake modern pastry, can garner respect, trust, and affection for the time traveler from the other characters, including the emperors, the empress, the princes, and the palace servants. The time travelers’ knowledge of politics and society, and their sympathetic and considerate outlook, are inspirational and interesting to the princes, who must constantly deal with political battles with their brothers, fathers, and officials and family dramas. While other women either are ignorant of the men’s problems or use their own family ties to help the princes, the time travelers can listen to the heroes talk about their anxiety and pain and truly understand their goals and ambitions. The time travelers’ talent is beyond the abilities of the wives and other women in the palace. Their views on politics and life convey competence to the men. Nonetheless, the activities that demonstrate their talent still relate to modern-day feminine and domestic activities. For example, the emperor praises Ruoxi for designing and having the craftsmen make

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ceramic cups for each prince and for the emperor. Everybody loves the cups because of their designs: a flower on each cup reflects the personality of that prince. The design is not particularly special or artistic to modern eyes. If the cups were actually made by Ruoxi, the time traveler, the audience might be surprised by her skill with ceramics, but the production is the job of the palace craftsmen. This echoes Pang Laikwan’s (2012) argument that creativity has been mythologized in modern society, and creative labor is celebrated above all other types of labor. While it is very reasonable that Ruoxi, as a servant of the emperor, does not have access to tools or need to make the cups, nevertheless she gains the princes’ praise, respect, and admiration as a result of her ideas. In the narrative, Ruoxi’s ideas about the cups are accepted as her special talent, which make her different from all other women in the palace, but the ideas do not seem very innovative to viewers. Her “talent” is closer to a consumer’s ability to organize a family party or buy appliances for the home and kitchen, or to a modern woman’s skill in baking pastry and brewing tea based on recipes on the internet, than to something that modern society defines as talent. It is no exaggeration to say that any person “trained” in consumer culture has the talents that enable Ruoxi gain the princes’ respect. Toward the end of the drama, Ruoxi is sent to the palace’s laundry because she has refused to accept the marriage the emperor arranged for her. But she redeems herself because she is able to make a type of pastry that tastes unique to the emperor. Similar incidents occur in Qingchuan’s adventure. Qingchuan impresses the emperor by designing a wheelchair, which a palace craftsman then constructs for the emperor. The audience probably realizes that anybody can draw a picture of a wheelchair because it is simply a chair with wheels. This incident resembles Ruoxi’s experience designing the cups: the hard work—making the chair—is done by craftsman. The time travelers have “unique” and “terrific” ideas for the princes, but the audience knows the ideas are nothing special in the present day. But it is very entertaining for the audience to imagine that an ordinary modern person can gain unsurpassed honor because of these ideas. By portraying the female time travelers as knowledgeable, the dramas create the opportunity for ordinary modern girls to be respected, cherished, and, most important, loved in the imperial palace. In the drama, the family commitment and professional development of the female protagonists merge because their job, as the favorite servant of the emperor in the palace, is mainly limited to domestic tasks. The characterization of these

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jobs for the time travelers echoes Jane Ussher’s (2004) argument in her examination of the content in teenagers’ magazines in the United States: “Work is merely a passport to romance, friends are potential matchmakers or boyfriend-stealers” (15). Because their job is to serve tea for the emperor and his guests, the time travelers are present when the emperor talks to his sons and officials. Therefore, they are different from other women who are not allowed to know about politics, and they can spend time with the princes and discuss political issues with them. Of course, because they are women and cannot directly participate in politics, they can only give suggestions and comfort the princes. As a result, although the time travelers are, in the eyes of the princes, smart and talented women knowledgeable about politics and other unfeminine things, which makes them different from other women in the palace, they simultaneously perform the role of a nurturing mother or wife. The time travelers do not have to balance job and family life by managing their careers and developing romantic relationships, which always compete for young women’s time in the present. For the princes, the time traveler is simultaneously nearby (they can see her often) and unavailable (she is the emperor’s favorite servant and cannot be easily approached). The time traveler has many opportunities to observe the men, spend time with them, and select the one she likes most, but she need not make a decision quickly. She enjoys being attractive but unavailable at the same time. Identifying with the time travelers, audiences can experience the fun of manipulating the princes and the pleasure of being courted without the pressure to make a quick decision.

Ambiguous Beauty: Male Gaze in the Inter-textual Representation As in most romances, the time travelers, the heroines of the TV dramas, are the most beautiful women in the narrative. Their loveliness, however, is not that of classic Hollywood actors such as Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn, who personified the elegance, grace, and beauty embraced by global film audiences. The time travelers resemble women whom audience members might randomly run into on the street. They do have the characteristics that conform to popular Chinese culture’s transcript (to borrow Ussher’s term) on feminine beauty, such as being slender and a little taller than average and having small faces, but fans have their own view on their

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faces. Some of the fans who prefer the story of Ruoxi to that of Qingchuan think the actress who plays Qingchuan is too ordinary looking, and the rival fans think the actress who portrays Ruoxi is ugly and has a very bad complexion that is easily visible on a TV or computer screen. However, the disagreements concerning their appearances do not disturb the TV narrative in which the time travelers are without question beautiful to the princes. The time travel TV dramas attract modern audiences by visual pleasure; they do not demand that viewers question the young women’s suppressed status. The dramas can achieve this outcome because of the common perception that the only roles for young women, particularly servants, in a dynastical palace are to be obedient and to be watched, which makes logical the female time travelers’ presence as a sight (to be surveyed) for the princes in the narrative. This is a departure from the more familiar plot structure which would make the time travelers observers of the princes and their stories. However, the time traveler as an object of gaze is very logical in the narrative of the story because she is always present in the palace when the princes are, and she, as a tea servant, cannot communicate with others. The princes can answer the emperor’s questions and give suggestions as required, but the time traveler is not allowed to speak or talk in the political meetings. She can only be a listener, she cannot even look at people when she wants to. This situation is like John Berger’s (1972) examination of the female figures in medieval paintings: “in them all there remains the implication that the subject (a woman) is aware of being seen by a spectator” (49). The only difference is that the time traveler is aware of being seen by a group of spectators—the emperor, the other servants, and more important, the young and handsome princes. Besides being attracted to her innocence and “knowledge,” these princes, as her admirers, have individual reasons for loving the time traveler. Not all of them openly express appreciation for her beauty. For example, in Every Step is Startling, the fourteenth prince, who eventually realizes his deep affection for Ruoxi, never talks about her beauty; instead he emphasizes the companionship she provides and his emotional dependence on her. However, it is clear that all the princes consider the time traveler to be beautiful. This is emphasized when a more powerful man concurs with the young princes’ assessment of Ruoxi’s appearance. During a family gathering, the crown prince, the most powerful among the princes, says, “I see, you are Ruoxi. I heard that you are very beautiful. Today, I see how indeed refined and outstanding you are!” Ruoxi responds, “Thank you for your praise, your

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majesty.” The conversation and the princes’ praise invite the audience to participate in the narrative and contemplate the dialogue about the time travelers’ being beautiful. The audiences, although likely to understand that the aesthetic preferences of a prince living in a palace 300 years ago might be very different from those of a man now, can join the time travelers and imagine that despite having an ordinary appearance by modern standards, they might be seen as unique and outstanding beauties in the dynastic palace. This is a narrative pleasure and a pleasure of romantic fantasy. Although beauty can provide access to wealth and power in a traditional romance such as Cinderella, in the recent East Asian urban romances, and in reality, beauty is less significant in terms of its effect on the material status of the heroines. The time travelers are temporary visitors: they do not stay in the past, where their unique beauty is appreciated, nor do they care about living with the prestige of being the prince’s favorite during their stay in the palace. Nonetheless, being beautiful is akin to winning a prize, as Berger (1972) argues when he examines the representation of beauty in traditional European oil painting. “Those who are not judged beautiful are not beautiful. Those who are, are given the prize” (52). The prize for the time travelers is the princes’ love. Meanwhile, men’s flattery is central to the representation of a heroine and her experience of romantic love. This might imply that the time traveler is passive and uninteresting. Instead, the pleasure of experiencing, from the perspective of the time traveler, the ability to attract and have an effect on a group of handsome, wealthy, and powerful young princes is more than any modern urban romance can provide. It is a pleasure of celebrating the female time travelers’ emotional engagement with history and in a hyper-patriarchal world. In terms of the tedious and detailed portrayal of the interaction between the time traveler and every prince who is somehow romantically involved with her, Geraghty’s (1995) argument on women’s involvement with soap operas is relevant in highlighting the gendered values in Chinese time travel TV dramas: It is the process which is important, the way in which soaps recognize and value the emotional work which women undertake in the personal sphere. Soaps rehearse to their female audience the process of handling personal relationships—the balancing of each individual’s needs, the attention paid to every word and gesture so as to understand its emotional meaning, the recognition of competing demands for attention. (72)

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Chinese time travel dramas portray urban young women as humanists because nothing else in the dynastic palace is worth caring about, and the dramas therefore create a space in which the heroines can and must engage in life and the world by and through caring about people’s emotions. The heroines start, maintain, and develop all their relationships by listening and responding to other people and nurturing them emotionally. Among all emotions, romantic love is treated as the center and the climax of the heroines’ purely emotional engagement with history. Performing the roles of a mother (because some of the princes grew up without a mother’s love), a wife, a friend, and a servant, but with a strong sense of independence, freedom, and equality carried from the modern society, the time travelers gain the princes’ trust and affection and at the same time have the power to choose their own prince. The princes’ availability and their affection toward the time travelers, one of the most important plot elements sustaining the narrative of the stories, reflect the “databased” fictionality in the dramas. Databased fictionality was defined by Azuma Hiroki (2001), a Japanese philosopher and cultural critic, in her quest to explain the popularity of boy musical groups in Japanese popular culture. The boy groups attract many fans because they provide different consumptive images of specific idols and create dialogues among the fans. The fans consume the idols and their personal lives as data. In the same way, the princes, as brothers from the same family, having similar social status but differing in their personalities and ages, become the databased fictionality for the time traveler in a TV drama and the audiences watching it. When the time traveler has to make the hard choice of deciding which one she wants to love, viewers also discuss which prince is their choice. Looking at the display of a group of young and handsome princes who are available and are only interested in the time travelers is like choosing from items in a rich database or market: something exciting and fun to imagine and to consume. The time travel TV dramas create the fantasy of having an abundant pool of strong candidates from which to choose. This sounds like a means of empowering the time travelers. However, given that it is a fantasy for the protagonists, because they always want to come back to the present, and for the audiences, because the genre apparently is a pure fantasy, the choices are only the pleasure of imagining the princes’ attractiveness and the experience of true love. Time travel TV dramas bring to a climax the heterosexual female fantasy of romance.

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Visual Elements and Time Travel Romance Besides actually being part of the romantic relationships with the princes and showing sympathy to others, the time travelers serve the role of perceiving novel dynastic time and space, given that the politics, values, and beliefs that they encounter are not familiar to them. The depiction of the world is relevant not just to the televisual narration of the story but also to the process by which the time traveler leads the audience to “grow up” in the palace. Ruoxi wakes up from a coma and is confused when she sees people dressed in Qing dynasty clothes coming and going in her room. Qingchuan drops from the sky and sees a group of people, dressed in Qing dynasty clothes, who are too surprised by her arrival to speak. As outsiders and observers of the new world, the time travelers are overwhelmed by the appearance of objects, architecture, clothing, and people. “Time travel, even in the form of unillustrated text, is already fundamentally a visual medium, a literal depiction of the textual and paratextual conditions under which viewpoint is constructed” (Wittenberg 2013, 147). The first act of the time travelers, not unlike a tourist in a new place, is to change their clothes, start adapting to the culture, and become part of the fantasy world for the TV viewers. The drama makes sense to the audience based on certain spatial and time elements that signify the Qing dynasty palace in eighteenth-century Beijing. This “list” includes a few essential items: the Forbidden City; the appearance of the characters, including the costumes, the hairstyles, and the jewelry; the palace décor, including the daily necessities such as the teapot, curtains, and paintings; the activities of the royal family such as horseback riding and the family banquet; and the complicated relationship among the concubines and the princes, who always compete for the emperor’s affection and favors. “The list is not a list of facts or historical realities (although its items are not invented and are in some sense ‘authentic’), but rather a list of stereotypes, of ideas of facts and historical realities” (Jameson 1991, 279). In fact, the visual elements in Chinese time travel romance are like simulacra—a copy without an original. While the Forbidden City is in Beijing and exists in reality, the TV drama is shot in a movie and television studio, Hengdian Film and TV Studio in Zhejiang province, far from Beijing. The fact that the time travel drama is shot in a studio is highlighted by the producer in promotions for the show, intended to attract more people to visit the studio. The TV drama is based on other TV

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dramas, and the time travelers often try to understand the space they find themselves in by reference to previous TV dramas’ portrayal of the same history. The TV drama displays a vivid and overwhelmingly detailed portrayal of an upper-class lifestyle. While the characters often act in a modern style and speak in a language that is standard Mandarin, to emphasize it is a romance in an eighteenth-century palace, the camera often focuses on the teapot, the jewelry, and the decoration in the palace. “[W]hat we shall observe, as we further explore the laboratory of the time travel story in visual formats, is the construction, deconstruction, and reconstitution of viewpoint that even the most mainstream time travel narratives ineluctably theorize as they offer themselves straightforwardly for a viewer’s perusal and pleasure” (Wittenberg 2013, 147). Viewers’ also gain pleasure from the remoteness of the upper-class monarch’s lifestyle and the availability of the items presented in the story. The pleasure is fulfilled through connecting the past with the present, as Jameson (1991) argues in his examination of the representation of history in literature and media. Historicity is, in fact, neither a representation of the past nor a representation of the future (although its various forms use such representations): it can first and foremost be defined as a perception of the present as history; that is, as a relationship to the present which somehow defamiliarizes it and allows us that distance from immediacy which is at length characterized as a historical perspective. (284)

The abundant images of luxury items, lifestyle, and youth, beauty, and attractiveness reflect urban Chinese young adults’ fantasy of becoming the main character of an upper-class romance. The things that are used to create the space and time are far away yet still somehow exist and are attainable at present. In other words, they are related to the audience’s present life and are understandable to them, yet are unfamiliar enough for a fantasy.

Conclusion Time travel TV drama, as a combination of various subgenres of TV drama, is new but includes familiar elements from soap operas, historical drama, martial arts TV dramas, and others. It was doomed to be short-­ lived in Chinese media. After many similar TV dramas were produced,

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State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) decided to ban the genre in 2012, with the goal of protecting youth who might be easily misled by media. The dramas, lacking a complicated plot and a challenging attitude toward TV narration and therefore not actually innovative in terms of visual and literary art, are, as SARFT argues, too unrealistic (because they violate history), absurd, and unreasonable. To some extent, the shows reflect writers’ fantasy of a romance that is free from materialistic concerns and familial complications. The romances, from a positive perspective, have the goal of creating a dreamland where an ordinary girl can touch people’s hearts with her talent and unique beauty and her friendship, respect, and love of others in a highly patriarchal and social-­ class-­restricted space; they reflect the writers’ willingness to find a more humanist way to engage in the world. However, the fact that the female protagonists go back to dynastic China to find romance that never existed in reality, attract people with “faked” talent, and are indifferent to anything but a heterosexual romance in terms of realizing self-value reflects the goal of creating a pure narrative and maximum viewing pleasure for both the writers and the audiences. Crucially, the young and courageous female protagonists end up back in the present day, appreciating reality and therefore protecting the values of current society.

Bibliography Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books. Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. 1983. Anti-edipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R.  Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Geraghty, Christine. 1995. A Woman’s Space. In Turning It On: A Reader in Women & Media, ed. Helen Baehr and Ann Gray, 70–80. Arnold: London and New York. Hiroki, Azuma. 2001. Dobutsu-ka suru Posutomodan: Otaku kara Mita Nihon Shakai. Tokyo: Kodansha. Iwabuchi, Koichi. 2002. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press. Pang, Laikwan. 2012. Creativity and Its Discontents: China’s Creative Industries and Intellectual Property Rights Offenses. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press. Radway, Janice. 1984. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Ussher, Jane. 2004. Fantasies of Femininity: Reframing the Boundaries of Sex. New Brunswick, NJ, and New York: Rutgers University Press. Wittenberg, David. 2013. Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative. New York: Fordham University Press.

CHAPTER 4

If You Are the One: Love in Public

Abstract  This chapter examines If You Are the One, a well-known “reality TV” show that focuses on dating and relationships. It analyzes the interaction between the show’s format and its depiction of masculinity and femininity, arguing that this program and others of the same type overemphasize the conjugal family as the path to happiness. Further, it reinforces stereotypical gender roles while portraying male and female contestants as revolutionary and liberal. Consequently, neoliberal views on the free market, individual choice, and self-realization are reaffirmed. Keywords  Singlehood • Reality TV • Happiness • Liberal • Conjugal family While “marriage–love” dramas continue their tradition of presenting romantic love as a complicated mix of pain, self-redemption, and both the opponent and the protector of traditional conjugal family values, and time travel dramas playfully escape from and return to a contemporary reality that does not support a pure passionate love, the burgeoning Chinese reality TV genre broadcasts a positive and instrumental tone as it encourages audience members to actively engage in finding their own romance, and therefore happiness. In 2010, If You Are the One, a dating show created by Jiangsu Satellite TV, became one of the most influential TV programs in China. Despite © The Author(s) 2020 H. Wen, Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television, East Asian Popular Culture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47729-5_4

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the controversy it initially stirred up, the show has since strictly expressed the values of mainstream culture. In 2020, If You Are the One marked its tenth anniversary, and the viewership for the show still ranks among the highest for all kinds of TV programs in China. Meanwhile, other reality TV shows with the theme of love and marriage have been aired by many different satellite TV stations. Let’s Date and The Battle to Protect Love represent, respectively, young people’s dating interests and the last stage between dating and marriage. These reality TV shows display the complexity of many paradoxical dyads, for instance, love and relationships as individual interests and public concerns, ordinary participants and dramatic representation, and passion-feeling and rational expectation. These dyads create significance through the dating shows’ emphasis on dominant values. By 2020, China’s largest online dating service, Jiayuan.com (Beautiful Destiny in the Century) had 190 million “quality” members. According to its website, at the time of this research (February 2020) the service has helped 14  million people find their “happiness”—establishing a heterosexual conjugal family. The founder of Jiayuan.com, a young woman who had struggled to find both a husband and her place in Shanghai, has not only solved her own problem and become wealthy but also created a large company that now has hundreds of employees. Meanwhile, Jiayuan has sponsored many television programs in China, especially dating reality shows, of which If You Are the One is among the best-known. New media, such as the internet, and older media, such as television, have promoted and benefited from the theme of individuals finding the right romantic partner and leading a happy and contented life in rapidly urbanizing China. The burgeoning array of television shows that concentrate on romantic love and relationships often bring in debatable topics and display possibilities that deviate from conventional views on a “perfect” match (in terms of a romantic partner’s age, nationality, job, income, education, physical appearance, geographical origin and distance, and other social-background factors). Despite the fact that little, if any, attention is paid to homosexual or bisexual relationships in mainstream media, these programs, along with the “serious dating” services, create a seemingly encouraging and open atmosphere for audience members to embrace a variety of options for creating a satisfying conjugal family. Using If You Are the One as the example, this chapter focuses on the gender dynamics of the interaction of paradoxical dyads in the plot of Chinese reality TV shows, and examines how the show strategically “acts

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out” the dominant values that have been significantly influenced by neoliberal and consumerist ideology. I am especially interested in how the show’s format creates a sense of reality with “ordinary” contestants while actually hiding the reality of gender roles and relationships in contemporary China; how the show, with the theme of serving individuals’ needs to find a mate, establishes an “entertaining classroom” and reinforces mainstream culture’s interpretations of happiness, success, and love; and most importantly, how these interpretations, beneath a surface of promoting individual self-cultivation and self-realization, turn the transformation of singlehood into a national and international discourse to define “Chinese-ness.”

Gender Issues in China and the “Realness” in Reality TV: Deficiency and Abundance Reality TV borrows different elements from various well-established TV genres, such as soap opera, documentary, drama, and news, and has become “the most exorbitantly ‘noticed’ form of programming in television’s history” (Turner 2010, 33). Many insightful analyses and discussions have disclosed and challenged the “reality” in the name of the genre and how it has created a sense of “realness,” despite the contestants being carefully cast and the environment highly controlled and under producers’ close surveillance. To a great extent, the realness of the genre relies on the “offensive and shameless performance of the demotic as popular entertainment” (Turner 2010, 52). Because the common perception is that performances on mass media should be carefully plotted and rendered by celebrities who are trained to act with dignity and skill, the rough acting and less polished lines and dialogues of reality TV distract viewers from the genre’s careful construction. In fact, because scholars have engaged in so many detailed studies on the topic, it is no longer an issue for people to question the “realness” in reality TV; however, the realization of the falsity of the genre does not eliminate the political and cultural codes applied to the construction of “realness” in every reality TV show in widely differing cultural backgrounds. Scholars have examined the participation, form, industry, and cultural functions of the genre, and their research shows that a careful investigation of each of these aspects can help brush away the illusion of

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“realness” in every reality TV show. Many of them share commonalities embedded in the genre. Chinese reality TV, like all other genres in Chinese media, has to correctly perform its cultural functions. Examining reality TV shows whose theme is dating and romantic love can help one understand gender politics and its close relationship with Chinese society and culture. The format of If You Are the One was imported from the United Kingdom but the show is much more serious than it is in Western media. In each episode, 24 single women, all in flawless makeup and wearing carefully designed hairstyles and flashy dresses, walk, in an orchestrated order, down a long stairway behind the stage. Each woman is given a number and stands behind the podium marked with that number. When every woman is in position, ready, the host, Meng Fei, appears from an elevator facing them. When he announces the show’s start, all the lights in. Every episode has five men, each of whom has approximately 15 minutes to impress the women. Like reality TV in many other developing countries, “the programme is colourful, frenetic and driven along by an excitable host. The production design foregrounds the gleaming high-­ tech modernity typical of twenty-first-century Asia” (Turner 2010, 58). Symbolizing a modern and high-speed developing China, the LED lights, the fashion, the VCR, the music, the stage, and the long line of female contestants in front of the camera all display what consumerism has promised and made true in China: an abundance and variety of diverse “goods” in the prosperous market. The show’s presentation of 24 single women, each of whom is different in height, hairstyle, dresses, and personality, creates the illusion of many brides-to-be waiting to be selected in a colorful, exciting, and affluent market. The format of the show serves as both an entertainment in the British and American manner, and a celebration of consumerism—every man and woman who leave the stage as a couple receive a luxury dating experience paid for by the sponsor. At the same time, from the perspective or the habit of patriarchal culture that has taught us about courting, the show is somehow real because it is often the men who take action to choose a woman. Crucially, however, the show has another function specific to Chinese culture: it creates a “realness” opposed to the reality of Chinese society. It is well known that China faces a serious problem caused by a skewed sex ratio. Despite the government’s long-standing efforts to strictly control the use of abortion to meet the near-universal preference for boy children, the skewed ratio between men and women persists. “By 2020, there

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will be at least 24 million more Chinese men aged 20 to 45 than women of the same age, leaving particularly the underprivileged countryside with aging bachelors, said expert estimates” (Chinadaily.com). As a matter of fact, many Chinese men cannot possibly choose any woman, much less a woman of their “type” and who conforms to their ideals of beauty and personality in a partner. The skewed sex ratio is so worrisome that even universities have begun attempting to help young people succeed in courting. Taijin University “has defied traditional Chinese conservatism by offering its students a dating course.” The 32-hour, two-credit course “specializes in friend-making and dating” (Chinadaily.com). Apparently the shortage of women has become one of the primary issues interfering with the formation of the conjugal families that are the foundation of a happy and contented life, as defined by the dominant values. In contrast to China’s reality, the show’s format creates the illusion that many single women are available, and it is the men’s effort, courage, and skills that determine whether they can walk away with a woman. If a man fails, he learns a lesson from the female contestants via their harsh comments on his looks, language, personality, and values, or their suggestions for improving himself as a love agent. Advice is also provided by the host and invited counselors. Several celebrities have taken the counseling position since the psychiatrist Le Jia left the show in 2012—recently, advice has been dispensed by Huang Han, a teacher of psychology from a communist college, a man with a rich knowledge of dating and relationships. Therefore, both the men who succeed and the men who fail can be used to teach the audiences what women want in men in contemporary China, because the women, assisted by the counselors, represent a diversity of voices. Every male contestant, regardless of whether or not he leaves the stage with a woman, expresses deep appreciation for being able to appear on the show, because it has been a liminal event that taught him to be brave, wise, and possibly more successful in dating in real life. The male contestants’ email addresses are broadcast at the end of each episode, thus enabling them to potentially communicate with thousands of audience members who are interested in them, and to be much more visible in their own communities after the exposure. The men all seem brave and presentable and, most importantly, have the “the ability to make decisions for themselves,” a value, according to David Harvey (2007, 5), that empowered many student movements around the world from the 1960s to the 1980s and since then has been central to the neoliberal discourse. The value has been taken out of its political history and dissolved into

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self-realization in Chinese mainstream culture, where “romantic love became a means of managing, if not solving, social inequality” (Sun 2020). When the show plays heroic music to see off the male contestants, it truly reflects the ideals of neoliberalism—“human dignity and individual freedom” (Harvey 2007, 5), a belief that people have habitually taken for granted since the market economy attained its dominant role in directing individual life. While the sense of abundance, free choice, and equality created in the reality TV show contradicts the social reality of the sex ratio and men’s anxiety about finding wives, it speaks the reality that dating, courting, and getting married are not only individual interests but also social concerns. To a certain extent, society as a whole and families are more worried about the issue than are marriageable youth, and this creates large audiences from different age groups and backgrounds. Encouraging young men to walk forward and be good at courting and dating is so overwhelmingly important for the audience that the show’s illusions are no longer relevant. What the audience enjoys is the reality that men must learn to stand out and impress women if they want to win in the competition of finding a woman with whom to fall in love and build a family.

The Foundational Belief of Reality TV: Single Life as a Curable Disease Singlehood has been represented with stereotypical images in many cultures, especially ones in which the population of single women has increased. Feminist sociologists have contributed a rich body of work to help understand single women’s and single mothers’ social status and how they are perceived in patriarchal culture. The long-term single life can cause a problematic and empty self (Cushman 1990), and therefore experts are needed to diagnose and provide appropriate treatment (Taylor 2012). In Lahad and Shoshana’s (2015) insightful analysis of the Israeli television series In Treatment, they disclosed how the therapeutic discourse in the show prompted a 40-year-old single woman to discard singlehood and encouraged her to shape a “more familial and maternally oriented subjectivity.” As they pointed out, the alliance between therapeutic and postfeminist discourse can direct the media’s representation and people’s perception of singlehood and women’s primary life purpose. In China, where patriarchal beliefs concerning the conjugal family and the lineage of

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the man’s family, and gendered opinions on individuals’ success and happiness, are still dominant, the singlehood of both men and women is considered problematic. Single women are viewed more harshly because of age-related biological limits on pregnancy and patriarchal views on women’s values. But because having a happy family, including a child, is one of the most important symbols of being a successful man, especially when the skewed sex ratio makes finding a wife very challenging and competitive among men, both single women and single men become the subjects who need help. It can be seen in the new, 21st-century terms of “Sheng Nu” and “Sheng Nan.” The former means “leftover women,” those who are still single after they reach 27 years old. The latter means “leftover men,” whose age cannot be clearly defined; the definition is related to particular men’s careers and lifestyles. Finding suitable wives and husbands has always been of familial, communal, and social concern. The carefully designed format of If You Are the One reinforces the idea that singlehood is an illness but that a caring community that understands and sympathizes can help cure it, and the show provides individuals a chance to prove themselves. By celebrating the effort of seeking a love interest, the show portrays the young contestants as courageous individuals. The show’s theme song, “Walk a step forward, there is happiness; step back, there is loneliness,” repeats the two lines, encourages people to pursue their happiness, and hints that singlehood is a lonely condition caused by individuals’ passive attitude toward life. The fact that the show draws on the services of a college professor of psychology (Huang Han) and an accomplished psychiatrist (Le Jia), later a male counselor who is successful in both his career and his relationships, speaks to the mainstream culture’s view on singlehood in China. Singlehood in the reality TV show, as in the mainstream culture of other places in the world, “(is) judged as deficient” (DePaulo 2006, 4). Therefore, single people need therapy and advice. On one hand, the show adopts the values of individual passion, self-­ expression, and courage and presses the argument that everybody can become an active and attractive love agent; on the other hand, it makes clear that the individual people’s transformation from being single to being part of a couple needs rational and logical thought and appropriate guidelines, otherwise it can be misleading and confusing and even threaten the spirit of the culture of contemporary China. When the psychiatrists interrupt the contestants’ comments on their views about marriage and love, and often guide them to make a decision, they convey that passion and individual opinions are often flawed and incorrect. Instead, their

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professional opinions and observations can help the contestants discover their problems and help them grow and become attractive. In the show, some contestants, both men and women, confront the host’s and the psychiatrists’ opinions but are invariably criticized with a louder voice because of the host’s and counselors’ authoritative position. It is no surprise that the occasional debates between the contestants, the host, and the psychiatrists are always won by the latter two. For example: Nan Hang (a male contestant): “When all at once I turn my head, I find her there where lantern light is dimly shed in the bund. …the girl I like should be gentle and refined but also sanguine, and she might be a little poetic; if we want to compare her with art, she should be like the Chinese water and mountain painting—it’s hard to say what exactly she is but I would like to study and understand in my whole life.… I am thinking that someday when I look back, the girl is waiting for me in the bund.” Le Jia (the psychiatrist): “Do you know why you never have a girlfriend when you are already 25?… Because you want an idealized girl, not a girl from reality … you are talking like reciting a poem again. You can’t talk if you don’t talk like reciting a poem.” Meng Fei (The host): “The style of your language is really too standard in writing. I am sorry that all the girls turned off their lights.” Nan Hang: “I will still look for the girl that I want. I failed probably because I talked in too standard language in writing…. I think I will impress a girl with my loyalty and sincerity in the future.” If You Are the One (January 31, 2010)

Apparently, how the male contestant talks and wants to impress a woman is his own choice and depends on his own characteristics; it does not have a “correct” answer. But the psychiatrist and the host have professional vocabularies and are much more persuasive as a team than the contestant, who does not have experience talking in front of the TV camera and a big audience. As soon as a contestant, such as Nan Hang in this example, loses his debate (and he is lucky even to have a chance to debate), he is portrayed as the “negative” alternative to show why such a person is not attractive. The host, the psychiatrists, and one of the female contestants all comment that he is not “down to earth” and talks too much like a poet; as a result, it is impossible for him to win the heart of a woman. When 24 female contestants all turn off their lights to reject him, the show reinforces the mainstream views put forward by the host, the psychiatrists, and the female contestants, who jointly are surrogates for the general public.

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In the name of helping people find happiness and teaching people to be more attractive to the other sex, the show bluntly criticizes alternative opinions on personality, relationships, and marriage and therefore protects the commonly accepted beliefs of mainstream culture. While encouraging people to believe that “there is always the right person waiting for him or her somewhere,” the show tells the audience, therapeutically and encouragingly, that singlehood is temporary for everyone, an illness that needs help and can be cured if the single person will just learn what the majority of men and women want in a relationship.

Who Can Reality TV Help: Equality and the Middle- and Upper-Middle-Class Taste of Love Compared with the more traditional TV genres, such as dramas and commercials, reality TV seems to challenge media’s role as “the center to the social world” (Couldry 2003, 46) because the boundary between celebrities and ordinary people is blurred (Turner 2010, 23). But the myth of the media center has always existed and “has been useful to the media industries because it legitimates formations of identity that are primarily invented in order to generate commercial returns” (ibid.). Reality TV, by presenting ordinariness and claiming its inclusiveness of ordinary people, aims to be relevant to and attract large audiences and hence generate the most profitable commercial contracts. Reality TV shows that focus on romantic love are especially likely to be profitable because romantic love has been deeply commercialized with middle- and upper-middle-class versions of romantic scripts (Illouz 1997, 286). Since the 1990s, television in China has instructed audiences in middle-­ class lifestyles and tastes by both directly teaching and embedding ideology in programs (Xu 2009). If You Are the One, as one of the most successful reality TV shows, emphasizes the middle- and upper-middle-­ class tastes and values that dominate in programs whose goals are to entertain and to stimulate consumption. In addition to the extraordinarily splendid stage covered with the shining LED lights, as mentioned earlier, the perfect makeup and glamorous dresses of the contestants and hosts, and the emotional music, the show heightens the atmosphere of affluence, leisure, and excitement. Meanwhile, the family, educational, and career backgrounds of the contestants and the topics brought up in the show all

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reflect middle-class interests. Most of the contestants are from major metropolitan cities. Romanticized in the clips edited by TV professionals, none of the contestants’ reflections of their individual pain and struggle in life reveal an underprivileged subjectivity in Chinese society. Most contestants graduated from university, come from good families, and have multiple hobbies that display their economic viability, such as traveling, painting, photography, playing piano, or just sitting in a park being melancholy. None of the contestants has difficulty making a living; although they are no longer allowed to mention their income after the show was censored by SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television) in 2010, audiences can easily guess the contestants’ financial situations based on their brief self-introductory clips. In these clips, all the contestants convey that the only thing missing from their lives is a partner. While social class, as Janice Xu (2009, 152) (quoting Max Weber (1953, 69)) clearly summarized, “is defined both by relations of production and by the ability to consume goods and services,” If You Are the One must focus on only the latter due to its template of finding true love—the contestants are prepared financially and emotionally to be married but need to find mates; the true love will be found in a splendid environment and continue to be tested in the fun dating activities, either awarded by the sponsors of the show or explored by the young couples. Finding a love interest and developing a relationship are based on a sturdy financial foundation, an exciting and entertaining experience, and a promising future that can both build on the foundation and extend the scope of the fun activities. The contestants repeatedly express that they need a partner with whom to share their hobbies, travel, and explore new ways to spend their disposable time—in other words, to creatively embrace the consumer culture. The content of the show, although portraying men and women with a variety of appearances, jobs, and hobbies, reduces finding love to only one thing—having as its base fun activities, which means consumption. For the occasional contestant not from the middle or upper middle class, his chance of impressing a woman is very slim because he is too realistic and does not have a romantic plan for the relationship. One of the best examples is Liao Xianhui (July 20, 2014), a young man who had not finished his college education and had become a mechanic. Although he came across as very sincere and authentic because of his appearance (dark skin because of his job, a very ordinary T-shirt and jeans and tennis shoes) and the way he communicated with people, he did not impress any of the women because his views and values about relationships were not

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romantic enough. He gave every female contestant a wallet with a lottery ticket in it, told them that he wants a woman who is very good at housework and domestic duties, and said that he wanted to take the woman to meet his grandmother. Because the host was impressed by his authenticity and his willingness to join the show despite being from the working class, the show still played his third clip even though all the female contestants had turned off their lights before the second clip was done. Liao Xianhui later sang a song called “A single man is very miserable” (Guanggun hao ku光棍好苦) and left the stage, in the host’s words, “like a singer who has finished his concert.” While Liao’s failure is just one of hundreds, his is significant because none of the female contestants asked any questions that showed interest in or understanding of his life. As Liao commented in the show, “the result was his expectation.” But he wanted to join the show because he believed that the larger group of available women among the TV audience might include some who would be interested in him. The reason nobody was interested in him on stage was very obvious—he was too realistic and not romantic enough; nothing in his life matched the romantic scripts created by the middle and upper middle class; that is, he could not provide any disposable money and time to consume and propose a romantic future. The consumption promoted by If You Are the One starts early, when the contestants prepare for the show, as can easily be seen when the contestants comment on their clothes and hairstyles. Often a female contestant will frankly point out that she is not interested in a man at first sight because of his clothing or hairstyle. A man who wears “unusual” clothes and accessories, such as red pants, a floral scarf, or slippers, basically has no hope of walking away from the stage with one of the women. But such a contestant always states that he will not change his unique personality and that he believes that some women among the millions of TV viewers might be special enough to be interested in him. The insistence of this type of contestant on being himself is apparently reduced to his clothes and hobbies—the things he consumes. His insistence on a “true” selfhood is symbolized by his loyalty to consumable products and activities in the urban space. Meanwhile, the men who dress in formal suits, stylish business wear, fashionable business-casual clothing, or an athletic-looking outfit often attract many female contestants, receive encouraging comments, and can walk away from the stage with a woman. The male contestants’ different appearances, although they often result in different outcomes in terms of the female contestants’ reactions, reinforce the same view on the key

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requirement for transformation of singlehood—a middle- or upper-­ middle-­class taste for consumption, be it either fashionable or professional. At the same time, because the male contestants must impress a woman to find true love, their views on consumption and lifestyle are not just parts of self-identity but also serve as an invitation to a future girlfriend or wife. Sentences like these often appear in the male contestants’ video clips: “I don’t have a house now because I do not have time to take care of it. If you come, I will buy one immediately.” “Do you want to join me to travel the world?” “I am tired of travelling by myself and want to find a person to travel with. Will you be the one?” This type of narration reveals the male contestants’ ability and willingness to maintain a middle- and upper-­ middle-­class lifestyle; they view this lifestyle as an important and unique component of their identity, relationship, and marriage, although it is a universal perception of middle- and upper-middle-class consumption. Meanwhile, men who lack the resources to live a life of affluence and leisure, and so cannot invite others to share a middle-class lifestyle, are either unable to impress a woman or unlikely to have the opportunity to be on the show—they do not have time and courage, and do not possess the romantic language and thoughts, to do so. At the same time, although the show, with the help of information technology, can help people overcome the obstacles of time and space, very few people can change employment, relocate, and move from one city or country to another to make a relationship work. They must be competitive enough to find a different, well-paid job and have enough savings to relocate and fulfill their romantic promise. Indeed, participating in the show itself is one of the things that conforms to the script of a middle- and upper-middle-class lifestyle in current China—spending time on entertainment, leisure, and creating one’s own romantic story. Romantic love is possible in everybody’s life; however, it only happens to the people who can consume in the manner of the middle- or upper-middle-class people who appear on If You Are the One.

The Contestants and Their Gender Performance: Agent of Love with Power and Victim of Love Needing Therapy Marketing for If You Are the One claims that the show’s format is designed to provide female contestants with the power to choose from the male contestants a date who will lead to a boyfriend–girlfriend relationship. At

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first glance, this seems true: the women stand behind their podiums, watch every male contestant’s recorded clips and live performances, ask questions, and decide if they are interested in them. Their questions might be silly, rude, and offensive, but the male contestants must politely respond if they want to appear respectful and sincere. By asking the questions, the women share a sisterhood and help each other to learn more about every man. Only when there are more than two women keeping their lights on does a man have the opportunity to ask a question and then decide which woman to pick, but, according to the rules, if more than three women leave on their lights for the man, he must turn off some girls’ lights and only keep three for further communication. Nonetheless, the female contestants’ questions mostly react to the men’s performances, narrations, opinions, and views about life. The show’s format prevents the women from initiating topics. Meanwhile, because there are 24 women, only two or three very active and eloquent women get to speak. Even when the two or three most talkative ones can speak more often, they rarely mention their jobs and careers. While the men’s jobs and careers are summarized in their clips, mention of each woman’s job is limited to a short phrase that appears under the woman’s name on the screen when she talks, such as “a computer graphic designer” or “a kindergarten teacher.” Only when a woman finds that a male contestant has a job that is similar to hers will she comment on it and try to garner attention from the man. This set-up suggests that women’s professions are not as important as men’s in the formation of relationships. Most of the female contestants just stand and observe or are guided by the host to talk when the host thinks they should respond. While the male contestants are often asked to dance, perform, or show some other talent to impress others, the women rarely have a chance to leave their assigned position. “Men act and women appear” (Berger 1972, 47). The gender roles are embedded in the format of the show. Moreover, while all the contestants are “laborers” under the cover of being empowered, as Mark Andrejevic (2004, 15) points out regarding the “ordinary people” in reality TV, the show’s exploration of labor is not even between women and men. All the female contestants, including the few tomboyish-looking women, wear cocktail dresses or other fashionable clothes and high heels, and stand for at least 90 minutes, but every male contestant is on stage for only 15 to 20 minutes, in comfortable clothing. The female contestants apparently work harder and longer hours for the show. The gender script on women’s and men’s roles and appearance

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apparently causes the uneven distribution of labor between the sexes, especially given that some women appear on the show for several months, more than 20 episodes. In addition, while both women and men have to share some of their background to explain why they are on the show, the individual stories are clearly gendered. The women always speak in terms of being the victims of previous relationships—they were loyal and devoted but their partner never treated them as they deserved, either betraying them or not caring about their feelings. As a result, they want to find someone who can cherish them. The men’s stories are much more diverse, but most of them assert that lack of experiences caused their previous relationships to not work out and that they hope to do it right this time and find the right woman to take care of. Both the victimized subjectivity of women and the reflective subjectivity of men create a therapeutic discourse for the contestants and audiences. The conversations always surround this therapeutic purpose—everybody wants to draw a line between past and present and is excited about the change that joining the show could bring into their lives. This change is not just about relationships and marriage but about future life in general. Some male contestants even use their appearance on the show as an opportunity to fulfill their heroic masculinity. For example, in one episode a tall, handsome, successful, and good-mannered man joined the show and chose Panpan, a woman whose build was fuller than average and who had been rejected by other male contestants many times but who had a very lovely, outgoing, and sunny personality. Before telling the audience which woman he planned to pick, he gave a long and poetic speech about how Panpan is special and how he had many secret plans for the future that he wanted to share with her. Panpan burst into tears and walked away with him and expressed her appreciation. But according to audience research (eNewsTree.com), soon after the show the two decided to only be friends. The show fulfilled the man’s dream of saving a woman from the ordeal of waiting for Mr. Right and impressed every audience member at that moment. Panpan’s and many other women’s tears display the women’s willingness to be saved, protected, and selected when they pursue a relationship and romantic love. Many female contestants’ tears of appreciation for being chosen signal the contradiction between the show’s claim to empower people and the gendered treatment of the contestants. In the end, women and men potentially change their own lives not by stepping forward and making themselves visible in the public, but by conforming to the gender scripts created by patriarchal values through

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glorifying the role of heterosexual romantic relationships in an individual’s future.

Conclusion Production of If You Are the One recently has slowed, from shooting one new episode every week to one every other week. The show still casts contestants from different parts of the world, but it serves more of a nationalist than a romantic discourse because of its emphasis on the contestants’ possession of skills and knowledge in Chinese language, culture, and customs. Foreigners are often tested on the spot and interrogated as to whether they have the ability to fall in love not only with a Chinese woman but also with China. One of the male contestants from Australia expressed his frustration when he was constantly asked about how Australians think about and do things: “Why can’t you treat me as me, an individual instead of a country? I am not the country. I am an individual.” His words highlight the essential question of the show: Is it about individuals’ romantic love, or is it a reinforcement of a nation’s patriarchal views on gender roles, family, and marriage? The answer is obvious. As Zizek points out about media and politics, “The threat today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge ‘to be active’ to ‘participate’ to mask the Nothingness of what goes on” (2009, 183). Media have been manipulated by the logics of consumerist and neoliberal ideology and displayed a restless, non-stop, and overwhelming richness in content, but behind the busy images and representations, change is often superficial and insufficient and is taken advantage of by the mainstream culture. If You Are the One clearly shows how the “individuals” and “choices” that appeal to the audiences’ ethos in fact only create a media spectacle, “those phenomena of media culture that embody contemporary society’s basic values, serve to initiate individuals into its way of life, and dramatize its controversies and struggles, as well as its modes of conflict resolution” (Kellner 2003, 2). As a matter of fact, it is not a show about ordinary people but for guiding ordinary people’s perceptions about relationship and happiness. It asserts that successful courting and dating are decided by individuals’ effort, choice, and wisdom, and that everyone has the freedom and dignity to choose and to be respected, but it does not consider the real problems, such as the sex ratio in China, underprivileged rural men, and income gaps. It serves, as do many mainstream media products,

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to ease anxieties and create hope for a better and happier life with individual freedom and choice.

Bibliography Andrejevic, Mark. 2004. Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books. Couldry, Nick. 2003. Media Rituals: A Critical Approach. London: Routledge. Cushman, Philip. 1990. Why the Self Is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology. American Psychologist 45 (5): 599–611. Harvey, David. 2007. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford and New  York: Oxford University Press. Illouz, Eva. 1997. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press. Kellner, Douglas. 2003. Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge. Lahad, Kinneret, and Avi Shoshana. 2015. Singlehood in Treatment: Interrogating the Discursive Alliance Between Post Feminism and the Therapeutic Culture. European Journal of Women’s Studies 22 (3): 334–349. Sun, Wanning. 2020. Consumption Plus Love: Inequality, Domestic Utopia, and China’s New Politics of the Future. Modern China 46 (1): 49–79. Taylor, Anthea. 2012. Single Women in Popular Culture: The Limits of Postfeminism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Turner, Graeme. 2010. Ordinary People and the Media: The Demotic Turn. London: Sage. Weber, Max. 1953. Class, Status, and Party. In Class, Status, and Power, ed. Reinhard Bendix and Seymour Martin Lipset, 63–74. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. Xu, Janice Hua. 2009. Building a Chinese ‘Middle Class’: Consumer Education and Identity Construction in Television Land. In TV China, ed. Ying Zhu and Chris Berry, 150–167. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Zizek, Slavoj. 2009. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books.

CHAPTER 5

Enlightenment on Life: Love Between an Older Woman and a Younger Man

Abstract  This chapter compares Chinese television dramas with television dramas from Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, analyzing the differences and similarities of gender roles and relationships in these programs. The difference in age between romantic partners is still a primary concern in East Asian culture. While Japanese television is more tolerant of relationships between older women and younger men, television dramas from China, Taiwan, and South Korea still follow the patriarchal portrayal of gender roles in terms of the woman’s greater age. These dramas depict older women with strong personalities and special talents; however, instead of furthering their own self-realization, they are required to help their men become prototypically masculine. This type of representation reveals that gender relationships are still limited by cultural stereotypes: powerful men and caring women. The female characters’ seniority is represented as a flaw, even though they are portrayed as strong and capable. Keywords  Age • Older women • Power • Younger men There is another reality in China—more women are choosing to focus on education and career and have delayed commitment to relationships and marriages. When these women are ready to be romantically involved, they confront dilemmas. The view that a husband should be a few years older

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than his wife is commonly accepted, although it is not rigid in reality and there are stories that tell otherwise in different cultures. The belief is supported by biological, sociological, economic, and psychological studies and by individuals’ reflections on experiences. Despite the general opinion, in China, the rate of marriage between older women and younger men reached 40.13% in 2010, much higher than in the 1990s (Liu and Liang 2014, 47), and recently romance between an older woman and a younger man has been a popular topic in the Chinese media landscape. This type of relationship is basically represented as something new, modern, and radical, engaged in by many celebrities and creating media celebrities out of some ordinary people. The media portrayals seem to add another alternative in the discourse of heterosexual relationships, especially conventional heterosexual marriage. In this chapter, focusing on recent popular Chinese television dramas, I examine how media portrayals signal and celebrate a new form of relationship and marriage, yet still strongly reinforce the male-dominant status in romantic relationships. Representation of the older woman–younger man relationship is still often presented as a novelty in marriage and life in present-day China. However, because current studies cannot provide a true understanding of age in relationships, the media heavily emphasize patriarchal values, and as a genre, romance plots often conform to conventional views on gender roles. A relationship between an older woman and a younger man has always been a myth in cultural discourse. Despite the many Chinese TV programs focusing on the older woman–younger man relationship, its popular image challenges neither traditional gender roles nor the forms of marriage and relationships in mainstream Chinese culture.

Scholarly Discussions on the Age Difference Between Spouses Research concerning partners’ ages in heterosexual relationships among people who are not legally registered is sparse because of the difficulty of collecting data and statistics about individuals who are dating. As a result, most available research focuses on married couples registered in official records. Although these studies have limits because they only deal with couples who conform to the authoritarian, institutional, and dominant form of coupling, and because the studies’ subjects are from very different cultural backgrounds, they help in understanding which aspects of

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relationships have been mentioned in the dominant scholarly discourse and which have not. Based on critical interpretations of data and sociological studies on individual cases, scholars have examined the age differences between spouses and provided possible explanations for the patterns. Unsurprisingly, the research has found that in most cultural contexts, a high number of marriages are between women and men of the same age and between an older man and a younger woman (Buss 1989). The reasons include the particular culture’s customs, women’s fertility, and the social and economic status of men and women in patriarchal societies (Glick and Landau 1950; Duncan et al. 1934; Casterline et al. 1986). Most of the research on age differences between spouses, especially studies of developing countries, examines whether women’s social status has changed in the culture. In their study of age as a factor in marriages in contemporary Indian culture, Desai and Andrist focus on three factors: economic context, women’s empowerment, and the gender scripts (2010). Desai and Andrist find that the gender scripts of dominant Western culture still have far to go before they can be woven into the views of families in traditional Indian society about the age at which it is appropriate for daughters to wed. Desai and Andrist’s research helps clarify why many women still get married at a young age when increasing numbers of young women pursue their careers over a marriage, and shows that women with high wages tend to work longer before they get married because they either support their families or are independent enough to wait longer to get into marriage. Therefore, economic factors are very important in affecting families’ arrangements of their daughters’ marriages and women’s choices to get married at a certain age. However, the research does not touch on the issue of what kind of candidates will be available to the “older women” to be Mr. Right when the women are ready to seriously engage in a romantic relationship leading to marriage. As a result, the question of how the older women can find men who are suitable to marry is not asked. Jeofrey Abalos’s (2014) research found that in current Philippine society, pursuing higher education is the main reason that both men and women delay getting married. Similar studies have been done on the marriage age of women in developing countries. The conclusions are quite similar: urbanization and modernization provide young women with opportunities to pursue higher education and financial security and thus to get married later than was the previous norm; however, there are still

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girls in certain countries and regions who get married when very young because of economic concerns and traditional cultural beliefs. All the research suggests that women who get married later are more empowered than those who marry young. As for the situation of single women who are in their late 20s and 30s and want a conventional marriage in developing countries such as China, the research is incomplete. As more women wait longer to get married, relationships between older women and younger men are becoming more common. Some scholars suggest that this is because women are more independent and stronger and they can decide who they want to be with (Wang 2014). Meanwhile, some scholars warn that this type of relationship needs more nurturing and a long period of reflection, renewal, and repair to keep it alive and fresh, and to keep the younger husband interested and the older wife attractive as both spouses age and the men gain maturity (Mu 2004; Ma 2010). The warnings, professional suggestions, and self-help manuals suggest that this type of relationship happens because of economic, political, and familial reasons, not because of the passion that occurs naturally in other relationships (those between people who are the same age or in which men are older than women), and that there are bigger risks to it. The fact that people in contemporary society are more open to relationships that are different from the norm regarding social class, age, nationality, race, or sexuality than used to be the case is contradicted by the representation of the older woman–younger man relationship in media and its perception by general audiences. What has caused this separation of opinion in our dominant culture? Scholars, especially feminists, once passionately studied the issue.

What Does This Relationship Challenge in the Dominant Concept of a Heterosexual Relationship? In 1981, when relationships between older women and younger men were a fresher topic in the United States, Arlene Derenski and Sally B. Landsburg examined how this type of relationship challenged dominant beliefs. At the beginning of their book (3–5), they pointed out that family members and friends often accept the relationship as a temporary fling and believe it helps the older woman restore her confidence and honor, and extends the younger man’s education. However, when the relationship lasts and

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becomes serious, it is perceived as an unrealistic choice by the woman, who craves a sexual fantasy; and an indecent surrender by the young man, who does not want to work hard for his future. In other words, once such a relationship becomes serious, people tend to focus on the potential dangers and begin to question, if they ever believed, “Is there true love in the relationship?” The question becomes why, given that in modern culture’s popular imagination of love, love is always represented as resulting from unexplainable passion, often irrational and dangerous, people tend not to believe an older woman and a younger man can have passionate, devoted, and long-lasting love. Derenski and Landsburg argue that it is because this relationship challenges the norm of an ideal marriage: the woman is young and pretty; the man has more experience, makes more money, and is dominant; the woman should be following the man’s lead, and so on (10). In brief, “an entire belief system about the ways in which men and women are supposed to behave in marriages is threatened by the older woman/ younger man couple” (10). The “ideal” type of relationship exists in most patriarchal societies and is followed to different degrees based on gender relationships in the particular society. Unlike in 1981, today’s American middle-class view is much more open to variations in the gender relationship in terms of women’s power and social status. However, the belief that women should be attractive is probably reinforced by consumer culture and the effect of media’s hierarchical power on women’s appearances; being young is on top of the beauty menu. The physical image of an older woman and a younger man often deviates from the look of an ideal beautiful couple and visually challenges the dominant belief. In addition to the visual image and the power relationship, an older woman–younger man relationship also might make people wonder about the woman’s sexual desires. In most patriarchal cultures, “older women, no matter how beautiful and in shape, are not supposed to be seen as sexy. It’s taboo. Disturbing. In some people’s minds, disgusting. It is also a mind-set that serves the needs of insecure older men” (Brings and Winter 2000, 79). The belief that young men are much more driven by sexual desire than older men makes people assume that the woman in a relationship with a younger man craves sex, which is apparently “too threatening to the commonly accepted view that older women and sexuality don’t mix” (79). Consequently, the older woman–younger man relationship also challenges men’s absolutely dominant role in sexuality, because older women now might have a choice to enjoy sex with a younger partner. This

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is extremely disturbing in a country such as China where both traditional culture and communist regimes have suppressed women’s sexual desire, and the recent openness to sexual desires mainly aims at creating a harmonious patriarchal society rather than liberating women’s sexuality.

A Brief History of the Relationship in Chinese Culture Although contemporary Chinese media present the older woman–younger man relationship as a radical, brave, new choice, it has always existed in Chinese history. Dynastic records indicate that many emperors married older women. Examples include the talented emperor Tang Taizong (Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty), whose second empress was older than him; the only female emperor, Wu Zetian (empress Wu), who was four years older than her husband; and the most famous one, Ming Xianzong (Emperor Xian Zong of Ming Dynasty), who married Wan Zhen’er, who had been his nanny and who was 19 years older than he was. Surprisingly, not all the women in these marriages were beautiful. For example, Wan Zhen’er was actually a tall and strong woman who did not have the feminine appearance that people assumed an emperor’s favorite concubine should possess. According to the historical record, she was so jealous, manipulative, and brutal that she forced many women who were carrying the emperor’s children to get abortions. Historical evidence of the older woman–younger man relationship is not limited to royal family records. There was a custom in many areas in China for a family to raise a tong yang xi (young daughter-in-law). In the 1930s, the accomplished Chinese writer Shen Congwen wrote a novel, Xiao, that tells the story of a 12-year-old girl who marries a two-year-old boy. Xiao Xiao takes care of her husband as would an older sister or a wife and waits for him to grow up so that they can be a real couple. The wait is long; when Xiao Xiao is 16, she is already sexually mature, but her husband is only six years old. Xiao Xiao has an affair with Hua Gou Da, a young man employed as a farm laborer by her husband’s family and becomes pregnant. Fortunately, Xiao Xiao’s in-laws are generous and let her stay and have the baby. The baby, of course, eventually will become the family’s laborer. The story ends with Xiao Xiao preparing for a wedding for her two-year-old son, too. This story sounds very tragic, but it is probably the most generous and least painful story about tong yang xi, a

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custom that exposed the exploitative relationship between the poor and the wealthy and the way that the patriarchal and feudalist system exploited women from lower-class families. There is a common saying that, “It is better when the man is ten years older than the wife than the wife is even one year older than the husband.” As the records of ruling class men’s “unusual” choice of older partners suggest, the relationship between an older woman and a young man has always had a negative connotation in Chinese history unless the age gap is considered appropriate and good for the man’s individual values and the wealth of the man’s family. There is another common saying in China: “If the wife is three years older than the husband, the marriage will hold gold bricks; if you want to be rich, a man whose zodiac is snake should find a wife whose zodiac is rabbit, which means the wife is three years older than the husband” (“女大三抱金砖, 要想富 蛇盘兔”). It is obvious that this saying has nothing to do with women’s primacy or the relationship between the man and the woman; instead, only the wealth and future of the man’s family are significant. Despite presenting the older woman– younger man relationship in a somewhat positive light, the saying does not dispel the common perception and imagination that there is less romantic affection and attachment between an older woman and a younger man than in relationships between an older man and a younger woman or a man and woman of the same age. Meanwhile, some popular modern magazines, borrowing ideas from psychological and sociological opinions, suggest that the older woman– younger man relationship has a healing effect on the “diseases” caused by modernization and high-speed commercialization, by reducing men’s stress and anxiety caused by competition and the demands for comfort and financial support made by young women in many relationships. In other words, the healing power comes from older women’s success in their careers and their lower, if not nonexistent, requests for economic success and support, and from older women’s maturity, understanding, and compassion that make them more like older sisters than demanding and moody wives. Apparently, the healing power of the relationship is not actually mutual but mainly fosters men’s happiness and quality of life. Whether in the ancient historical record, common sayings, or traditional and contemporary popular discussions, the older woman–younger man relationship always is presented in terms of its influence on the value systems of the patriarchal culture; women are emotionally available to and take care of their husband and his family as well as continue the family line

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and contribute to improving the economic and social status of the husband’s family.

Review of the Older Woman–Younger Man Relationship in Hollywood and East Asian Regional Media The older woman–younger man relationship experienced a historical change in Hollywood, initiated to a certain extent by the movies The Graduate (1963) and Harold and Maude (1971) (Keogh 2013, 15). While the plots of the two movies added an alternative type of romance to fictional representations, neither of the two stories helped make the older woman–younger man relationship acceptable in reality. In The Graduate, the 50-something Mrs. Robinson seduces the college student, but the young man eventually falls in love with her daughter. In Harold and Maude, the relationship between the teenager and the woman in her late seventies is cute and inspiring, but it is hardly a romance between a man and a woman, especially because both characters are portrayed as unorthodox people: a teenager who was ignored by his mother and is obsessed with death and an elderly woman who is ready for her last days on earth and so fearless that she acts like a teenager, only more confident and humorous. Despite the intention to explore the meaning of life in Harold and Maude, the connotation of the relationship is in general negative in Hollywood. The stories’ plots rarely depict women as independent love agents, but always complicate women’s pursuit of love with their roles as mothers, or schoolteachers, or their relationship with other women of their age after they became romantically involved with some woman’s son or a teenage student. The older woman–younger man relationship was not portrayed as an individual’s choice until the movie The Rebound, depicting a 40-year-old woman with two children and a 25-year-old coffee shop waiter, whose romance starts and progresses without any interference from moral judgment, only from the characters’ self-doubt and hesitation. The older woman–younger man relationship was not depicted in Asian media until the 1990s, when the Japanese TV drama Long Vacation portrayed a retired 30-year-old woman model falling in love with a 25-year-­ old piano student. With the characters (a tall and slim female protagonist and a cute young man) and soundtrack (melancholy piano music), the drama greatly influenced the popular imagination of a romantic

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relationship between an older woman and a younger man. Kimura Takuya’s young and innocent look started a trend of feminine young men in the media landscape in East Asia. The harmless masculinity this type of celebrity represents significantly affected the perception of manhood in the region and therefore influenced the idea of who is more desirable and suitable in romantic stories. Long Vacation, like many 1990s Japanese TV dramas, portrays young urbanites’ lives as independent from family, and the romantic relationship develops as the two protagonists grow and interact with each other, rather than being interrupted by social values and dominant norms. But the “pure” romantic story means that the representation of the relationship does not challenge the social norms on gender, which romance is still struggling to do in many cultural contexts: the female protagonist gives up her job and life in Japan and moves to support her young boyfriend’s career as a symphony musician and ends up happily married to him in Boston. This type of ending is not unusual in such stories. This kind of romance is, “after all, the story of a man. While the top girl agency is manifested only through her choice of love, the ultimate transformation lies in the male protagonist” (Yang 2013, 1082). The other trend in the representation of the older woman–younger man relationship in East Asian media exists in film, a media genre more radical than TV dramas. A well-known film that challenges age and romantic relationship is the 2005 South Korean movie Green Chair. The movie tells the story of a relationship between a 32-year-old divorced woman and an 18-year-old boy. The movie, besides depicting the maturity of the young man and the innocence of the older woman, goes into their sexual life in great detail. The older woman acts like a mentor for the young man to perform better in their bedroom. Although the two protagonists’ love for each other is strong, the future of the relationship is uncertain by the end of the film. The story suggests that the future depends more on how the male protagonist grows and transforms than on what the woman would want, because she basically gives up everything for love. Although the plots of Long Vacation and Green Chair are different in terms of the focus of the stories—the former is closer to the mainstream tradition of romance and emphasizes the progress of the relationship, and the latter is more erotic and radical—they share a characteristic: in each, the woman is betrayed by a man before meeting the younger love interest. The women are often strong and independent in life generally yet extremely fragile and powerless when it comes to emotion and sentiments. This code is consistent in Asian media, although depicted with different

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twists, such as the woman not knowing how to make others feel comfortable despite her efforts to get along with people or the woman growing up with a single mother, having a good heart but is afraid of opening herself to others. Chinese TV dramas share the same plot but add their own cultural concerns and ideological suggestions.

The Representation of the Older Woman–Younger Man Relationship in Recent Chinese Media There are many TV programs focusing on the older woman–younger man relationship in recent Chinese-language media, such as reality TV, talk shows, and TV dramas. Two couples in particular frequently appeared on many different talk shows. At the time of their appearances, one couple was a 30-year-old man and a 59-year-old woman and the other was a 24-year-old man and a 43-year-old woman. Their stories were different because of the context—one couple was from the countryside and the other from a city—and the two couples had completely different experiences in terms of their individual lives and careers and how they met and fell in love, but both narratives focused on the hardship before and after they met and both men acted like saviors of the unfortunate women. These talk-show appearances seemed to re-emphasize the dominant gender values while presenting unusual and non-dominant heterosexual relationships. While the purpose of the appearances was to make viewers aware of the possibilities of alternative forms of coupling, these couples’ real-life experiences were portrayed very dramatically to satisfy curiosity and, of course, completely supported patriarchal values and conventional gender roles. If talk shows use real stories to promote the dominant views on gender relationships in marriages, how about the TV dramas, which are supposed to be more dramatic and go beyond mundane daily life? Can the dramas open a door to the real alternatives? Analyzing the plots and the narrative while comparing it with other TV genres, I will focus on Enlightenment on Life (Shenghuo Qishilu), one of the most successful TV dramas based on the relationship between an older woman and a younger man.

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The Drama: Enlightenment on Life (生活启示录) In 2014, the TV drama Enlightenment on Life (hereinafter EL) won four main awards in the Chinese National Drama Grand Ceremony. In the ocean of TV dramas, EL has to compete with many dramas that are widely and easily accepted by the industry and the audience, so EL’s success was not an easy one. The story is about a married-then-divorced middle-aged woman who falls in love with a single man in his 20s, gets married, and rebuilds a life in which she redeems her dignity and confidence, gains her independence through a successful career, and, more important, wins the love of a young and amusing urban man and becomes the mother of two children. The drama breathed new life into the urban romance on Chinese TV with its comic representation of the relationship and more significantly, the visual challenge to the perfect match that TV romance usually creates. The female protagonist, Yu Xiaoqiang (the name literally means “little strong” and usually is used for boys), is a kind and devoted wife and daughter-in-law. Her life is almost perfect; she has a big house, a rich husband, and a mother-in-law who really likes her. She tries very hard to become pregnant until she finds out her husband is cheating on her. Worst of all, although she wants to tolerate her husband’s affair, the mistress decides to take her place. Xiaoqiang meets Bao Jiaming, a computer engineer, when his company sends him to her house to repair her laptop. While Jiaming is doing so, he and Xiaoqiang recover pictures that her husband deleted, in which the mistress and the husband are hugging and smiling. Jiaming sees Xiaoqiang melt down and feels sorry for this middle-­ aged housewife. They meet again when Xiaoqiang is investigating her husband’s affair and incidentally finds out Jiaming lives next door to the mistress’s apartment; they enter into a contract, letting Xiaoqiang rent a room in Jiaming’s apartment so she can get more evidence of the affair. The mistress later twists the story; she convinces Xiaoqiang’s husband that Xiaoqiang and Jiaming are having an affair and urges him to get a divorce. Xiaoqiang then discovers she is pregnant with her husband’s child, but the mistress leads the husband and his mother to believe the child is Jiaming’s, not the husband’s. From the beginning of the disclosure of the husband’s affair, Xiaoqing’s life tangles with Jiaming’s. Beginning with two accidental encounters that are central to the changes in her life and Jiaming’s sympathy for her, their relationship develops into romantic love. In the end, all the conflicts

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caused by their previous relationships are resolved, all obstacles are overcome, and the struggle proves the true love between Xiaoqiang and Jiaming. The story ends with Xiaoqiang’s son from the previous marriage happily growing up with love from two fathers, and with Jiaming and Xiaoqiang, pregnant with Jiaming’s baby, watching their son play on the soccer field and chatting about their future. The depiction of the relationship in EL is like a summary of the plots for this type of story in recent Chinese television. The representation echoes the three major questions brought up in scholarly works on the older woman–younger man relationship. How to Ensure That the Older Woman Is Not Dominant and the Younger Man Is Not Powerful? As scholars have argued, the older woman–younger man relationship challenges the dominance of a man in a relationship, especially in marriage, and contaminates the purity of the only power that a woman can have over a man—mother power. Even with the examples of Balzac and Henri II in this type of relationship, “we are so profoundly insulted by the Oedipal imagery that we are likelier to find a great genius tarnished than mentor relationships between older women and younger men exonerated” (Sunila 1980, 34), not to mention when an older woman and a younger man are so serious about their romance that they want a long and lasting marriage to legitimize the relationship. While using the age taboo to create obstacles for the characters to overcome, TV programs, to ease the anxiety about the taboo, practice the “right” voice to narrate the story—to disempower the woman before she is capable of falling in love with a younger man. The disempowerment is also important for the progress of the romance, which should be completely based on love or emotional attachment between the two people. In EL, the disempowerment process starts with the husband’s infidelity, which provides the most persuasive reason for Xiaoqiang, the female protagonist, to start a new life without challenging the power of her husband, who represents middle-aged married men who are successful in their careers. At the same time, she is kicked out of the house and forced to divorce because the mistress uses a variety of tricks to create misunderstanding and hatred between Xiaoqiang and her husband and mother-in-law. Xiaoqiang’s adventure, a romantic relationship with a younger man, starts with the pain and tears of being betrayed, misunderstood, and

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abandoned by her ex-husband and his family. The younger man, Jiaming, enters when she is at her most vulnerable and helpless. The story line ensures that the older man remains powerful and the older woman cannot be dominant in the relationship when she starts becoming romantically involved with the younger man. During this process, Jiaming always stands by Xiaoqiang and helps her overcome self-doubt, disappointment, frustration, and desperation. In addition, Jiaming asks Xiaoqiang to marry him when her baby with the ex-husband is almost due because the baby needs a father and a family. Later, Jiaming is the best father that any woman could dream of. He not only treats the new baby as his own but also plays games wholeheartedly with him and takes care of him as a stay-at-home father, a role that deviates from dominant Chinese beliefs on masculinity and men’s individual fulfillment in society but that preserves the absolutely dominant status of the man in mainstream heterosexual relationships. Jiaming’s lack of control of his temper and unequivocal love and hatred characterize him as a boyish man in his late 20s. The show, like other TV dramas, portrays the younger man as immature and simple, often making mistakes because of his lack of experience and because of placing trust in unworthy people. To make sure the woman is not dominant and the man will not threaten the dominant status of men in romantic relationships, the TV drama must diminish both of them, making the woman extremely vulnerable and the man immature and unambitious. However, the woman and the man will not stay that way—the requirements of romantic comedy call for character development. How to Make Sure the Story, in the End, Protects Patriarchal Masculinity? Xiaoqiang, with the help of Jiaming’s love, encouragement, inspiration, and understanding, redeems herself in society. She becomes the department manager in a private maternity hospital. Not only does her career take off but also her fate as a love interest starts changing: one of the best doctors in the hospital, slightly older than her, falls deeply in love with her because of her kindness, independence, and talent. But of course, Xiaoqiang only wants to be friends with him; she is completely loyal to her young husband and gains a devoted friendship from the doctor. At the same time that Xiaoqiang’s future is becoming brighter and her value in society and as a love interest are increasing, Jiaming, the young husband, is struggling to find himself and his future. As a stay-at-home

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father, his life is happy and simple, but, despite his unquestionable talent and knowledge of computer engineering his career seems stuck because of his upright and inflexible personality. However, the writers cannot let the story stay that way—an older wife becoming more successful every day and a younger husband being a stay-at-home father forever—because it does not fit expectations concerning the roles of men and women and the image of a happy romance in the dominant culture. Jiaming’s masculinity is quickly restored when his role as a helper and supporter of the wife comes to an end: it turns out that his family’s firm is one of the most successful and richest tea merchants in eastern China. His father is an understanding and extremely successful businessman, and Jiaming, the only son of the wealthy family, is destined to inherit the property and the tea business. Moreover, his father is nearing the end of his life because he has cancer, so Jiaming must grow up and become the man of the family and the “king” of the “kingdom” as soon as possible. Xiaoqiang’s success is no longer comparable to what Jiaming has been given and challenged with when the story suddenly transforms Jiaming from a young urban IT professional to a filial, responsible, and talented head of a large business. Jiaming’s family, never mentioned in the early episodes, helps re-establish his masculinity as soon as all the romantic imaginations are fulfilled through the male protagonist’s temporary deviation from dominant masculinity. Although the older woman–younger man relationship temporarily challenges the power relationship in the marriage, as soon as the woman is saved and renewed, the man must redeem his masculinity by attaining one of the most crucial elements in the patriarchal scripts—a successful career. Meanwhile, Xiaoqiang, although at that moment a successful woman, suddenly must spend most of her energy and time impressing Jiaming’s mother, who does not understand their relationship and thinks it was unacceptable for her son to marry an older divorcee. As a result, both the older woman and the younger man, despite their relationship initially challenging the dominant imagination, in the end preserve the dominant belief in femininity and masculinity. How to Ensure the Relationship Protects the Dominant Moral Codes as Do Other Romantic Stories? Criticizing the narrative of strong women in Taiwanese TV romance, Yang says, “Even in the women’s genre, the narrative is ultimately about the active desire of ‘what does a man want?’ masked under the guise of ‘what

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does a woman want?’” (Yang 2013, 1082). Yang’s critique echoes feminist critiques on romance as a conventional genre while highlighting the narratives that at least on the surface do not follow the typical plots. The narrative of EL does change some conventions in the TV romances, among which the most obvious example is that the female protagonist is not a young and beautiful woman, in contrast to the criteria established by idol and trendy dramas on Japanese TV in the 1990s. However, beneath the surface and following the development of the story, EL eventually not only confirms but lays even more stress on patriarchal values than do many other plots in popular romance. The story progresses when Xiaoqiang’s ex-husband and his mistress-­ turned-­new-wife are punished for their immoral involvement —the new wife cannot get pregnant because she has an incurable problem. Xiaoqiang’s ex-mother-in-law thus is punished for ignoring the cruelty of the new daughter-in-law and Xiaoqiang’s kindness and loyalty to the family because the only thing the mother-in-law cares about is having a grandson. All the “evil” or “foolish” characters are punished because Xiaoqiang has a son by the ex-husband and the new wife cannot have a child. Xiaoqiang, Jiaming, and Xiaoqiang’s ex-husband and ex-mother-in-law begin a battle for custody of the son. The ex-husband and the ex-mother-in-law beg Xiaoqiang for access, offer to pay large amounts of money, and constantly give in to Xiaoqing’s requests so that they can see the boy, their family’s only legacy. Xiaoqiang finally wins back the dignity she lost in the previous marriage— she defeats, punishes, and then shows mercy to her ex-husband and ex-­ mother-­in-law. The most triumphant moment occurs when Xiaoqiang’s ex-husband holds her hand and apologizes for his infidelity and mistakes and says he wants her back: Xiaoqiang pushes away his hand and walks away because justice has been done. When Xiaoqing allows her ex-­ husband, his mother and his wife to spend time with the son, and they appreciate her kindness and forgiveness in allowing them to do so, it is clear that Xiaoqiang has prevailed. The drama thereby restores the morality of marriage and rewards the heroine who represents the virtues that patriarchal ideology requires women to have—willingness to sacrifice, endurance, forgiveness, chasteness, and of course being a good mother. To a great extent, in spite of all Xiaoqiang has achieved after she was abandoned and forced into the public sphere, the qualities that help her regain the respect and love she deserved in the previous family are not her independence and self-realization but her power as a mother and a chaste wife. Similarly, the love, trust, and respect she finally wins in her second

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marriage are a result of her incessant willingness to prove her chasteness, loyalty, and unquestionable effort and patience to impress the new mother-­ in-­law. Her insistence and effort prove she is mature and dependable, demonstrating that she is a much better daughter-in-law for the wealthy merchant family than a younger woman would have been. In comparison with other strong women characters in romances, Xiaoqiang’s sacrifice is mainly caused by the complications of being an older woman. Her age, instead of bringing her the experience and the power that is feared in the patriarchal culture, causes her to become the inferior partner in the relationship and requires her to cheerfully sacrifice her individuality if not give up her individual desires and life goals.

Conclusion Despite how the older woman–younger man relationship is represented as a revolutionary change to traditional marriage, paradoxically, the portrayals of such relationships in Chinese TV are much more conventional in terms of gender roles than many other romantic plots, especially in terms of women’s roles in heterosexual relationships, marriage, and family. Compared to the beautiful young heroines in many romantic dramas, the older woman in the older woman–younger man relationship, as the love interest, is often represented as more willing to sacrifice dignity for the sake of a harmonious family relationship, more enduring in terms of misunderstanding from others and the hardships of life, and more willing to give up freedom in exchange for being accepted and liked by everyone else in the story. The heroine’s sacrifices and surrender to patriarchal values are often so stressful and overwhelming that they function as the most important hooks as the story develops, twists, holds the audience’s attention, and in the end helps the narrative reach a climax. Although the shows with older woman–younger man relationships often depict a woman’s “second chance” to fix her life, they tend to celebrate the younger man’s determination and loyalty to love rather than representing a woman mistreated by her family and society gradually becoming independent and strong. The shows’ intent apparently is to emphasize how an older woman is better than a younger because of her willingness and ability to protect dominant family values and gender roles, and because of her innate kindness. The moment that the older woman truly wins her true love and proves her value is the moment that she reinforces the vision of womanhood well established in the mainstream culture

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and protects the values of, and men’s dominance in, heterosexual relationships, marriage, and family.

Bibliography Abalos, Jeofrey B. 2014. Trends and Determinants of Age at Union of Men and Women in the Philippines. Journal of Family Issues 35 (12): 1624–1641. Brings, Felicia, and Susan Winter. 2000. Older Women, Younger Men: New Options for Love and Romance. Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press. Buss, David M. 1989. Sex Differences in Human Mate Preference: Evolutionary Hypothesis Tested in 37 Cultures. Behavior and Brain Science 12 (1): 1–49. Casterline, John B., Lindly Williams, and Peter McDonald. 1986. The Age Difference Between Spouses: Variations Among Developing Countries. Population Studies 40 (3): 353–374. Desai, Sonalde, and Lester Andrist. 2010. Gender Scripts and Age at Marriage in India. Demography 47 (3): 667–687. Duncan, Otis D., John H. McClure, James Salisbury Jr., and Richard H. Simmons. 1934. The Factor of Age in Marriage. American Journal of Sociology 39 (4): 469–482. Glick, Paul C., and Emanuel Landau. 1950. Age as a Factor in Marriage. American Sociological Association 15 (4): 517–529. Keogh, Jeanie. 2013. Why Cougars Deserve Respect: How Older Women Paired with Younger Men are Trapped by Sexist Beliefs. Herizons, Winter, pp. 14–17. Liu, Shuang, and Yan Liang. 2014. Analysis on the Change Pattern of Chinese Married Couples Since 1990s. South China Population, No. 3, 29(123). Ma, Zhiguo. 2010. Can Jie Di Lian (Older Woman and Younger Man Relationships) Last? Life and Health, March 1. Mu, Dan. 2004. Rules for Jie Di Lian (Older Woman and Younger Man Relationships). Modern Healthy People, January 15. Sunila, Joyce. 1980. The New Lovers: Younger Men/Older Women. New  York: Fawcett Gold Medal. Wang, Junyue. 2014. Examining Marriage and Life in The Enlightenment of Life. Contemporary TV 10 (318): 97–98. Yang, Fang-Chih Irene. 2013. Remediating Japanese Dramas: Exploring the Politics of Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in the Loser-Dog Queen in Taiwan. Journal of Popular Culture 46 (5): 1070–1091.

CHAPTER 6

Apartment Building of Romantic Love/ipartment: Young Urbanites’ Love

Abstract  This chapter serves as a summary of the previous chapters. It examines how the sitcom Apartment Building of Romantic Love, to a certain degree, sets up a “new” definition of romantic love and deconstructs the romantic love that features so heavily in mainstream media, challenging traditional opinions on lifestyle, success, and gender roles in relationships. At the same time, it achieves its “new” definitions by reinforcing heterosexual romantic love as the most important value in young people’s lives and glorifying romantic love as the most attainable way to solve conflicts and create harmony among the young urbanites from different backgrounds who face difficult challenges in metropolitan cities. Keywords  Sitcom • Deconstruct • New definitions • Young urbanities • Challenges Despite the criticism, imagination, suggestions, and new views on romantic relationships that Chinese television has provided to audience members, younger media producers want something different that completely belongs to younger audiences, whose real interests, concerns, and lives are often ignored in mainstream Chinese media. They find their way via sitcoms that ridicule the serious issues that are always associated with romantic love and relationships in China, thereby creating humor.

© The Author(s) 2020 H. Wen, Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television, East Asian Popular Culture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47729-5_6

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Apartment Building of Romantic Love/ipartment (Aiqing Gongyu) was created in 2009 and had finished four seasons by 2015. The title and the main content of the sitcom are inspired by a Taiwanese dating website, ipartment. The sitcom launched on Jiangxi Satellite TV in 2009 and quickly became popular among young audiences after it was circulated on the Internet. As the only sitcom that depicts young (people in their 20s) urbanites’ life in mainland China, Apartment Building of Romantic Love/ipartment (hereinafter ipartment) expressed “healing, warmth, inspiration, the elements about young people.” “The emotions and experiences (happiness, anger, sadness and laughter) reflect the life of the people born in post 1980s China” (tmtpost.com). As a commercially successful, low-budget show, ipartment is an example for domestic media to draw on learn about the target audience, media market, and distribution. According to Wang Yuan (2014), the sitcom’s producer, “we wanted to make a show that young people would love to watch. It deals with the topics that the young people care about and in the languages that they speak. There are only young people, no mothers or mothers-in-law and no third person (the person who takes away the other’s romantic partner)” (tmtpost.com). Indeed, ipartment does without many of the standard elements that appear in most Chinese television dramas and creates a fun, responsibility-­ free, and entertaining living space for audiences to imagine and laugh with. This chapter examines how ipartment, to a certain degree, sets up a “new” definition of romantic love and deconstructs the romantic love typically shown in mainstream media and by doing so challenges traditional opinions on lifestyle, success, and gender roles in relationships. At the same time, the sitcom’s “new” definition reinforces heterosexual romantic love as the most important value in young people’s lives and glorifies romantic love as the most attainable way to solve conflicts and create harmony among young people who come from different backgrounds and face difficult challenges in metropolitan cities.

A Brief History of Sitcom in China While sitcom as a popular TV genre has existed in the United States since the 1940s, China’s first domestically produced sitcom was not made until 1993. After the director Ying Da finished his studies in the United States he went back to China to organize a team and produce Wo Ai Wo Jia (I Love My Family). The show debuted on Chinese Central TV in 1994 and

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became popular with a wide audience. It also introduced this new TV genre to Chinese audiences. Since then, many sitcoms have been produced by Ying Da and directors who have worked with him. As a result, most of the sitcoms produced in the past 20 years share very similar styles of plot and humor that conform to the values in traditional Chinese television dramas, such as family ethics, nationalism, and patriotism (tmtpost. com). It was not until 2010, when the sitcom Unauthorized Biography of the World of Martial Arts/ My Own Swordsman (Wulin Waizhuan) aired, that a new style of Chinese sitcoms began to appear on Chinese TV. This new style can be briefly summarized as “Mo Lei Tau (nonsense),” a term that is used to describe the humor of Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chou. Unauthorized Biography of the World of Martial Arts is set in small inns in a dynastic China but the dialogue is often in modern Chinese and internet languages, and the stories reflect values of communal friendship and righteousness, unlike the rules of authorities and laws, or conjugal familial values, that are always dominant in Chinese television dramas. No matter the quantitative or ideological perspective, sitcom is a marginalized genre in Chinese television. Even with the success of Unauthorized Biography of the World of Martial Arts and ipartment and many earlier sitcoms well known to Chinese audiences, sitcoms cannot compete with the ocean of television dramas produced in China every year. The success of ipartment is mainly due to the internet and netizens’ support; most of the audience belongs to the post-1980s generation. Its simple goal, to reflect young people’s life without heavy (if any) emphasis on social and familial ethics, definitely marginalizes it in the mainstream media in China. Paradoxically, however, the show’s rejection of the prevailing ethical code, along with its commercial values, have gained mainstream media’s attention and support, and it has become one of the most successful examples of a low-budget sitcom in recent Chinese television. While sitcoms are criticized because they pursue “a repetitive set of aesthetics and ideologies” (Mills 2009, 2), ipartment deviates from the repetitive style of the earlier Chinese sitcoms because the producers targeted a specific audience group and used different media as the channel to reach this audience. As a result, ipartment was able to challenge the codes of romantic love in other TV genres in China. In season one, the sitcom portrays seven urbanites, three women and four men, who are living in Shanghai in an apartment building called “Apartment Building of Romantic Love/ipartment.” The characters are Hu Yifei, a college teacher; Lu Zhanbo, Hu Yifei’s stepbrother, a

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computer geek who earned a Ph.D. in the United States; Zeng Xiaoxian, a host for a late-night radio program about romantic love; Lü Ziqiao, an unemployed man who nevertheless always has income and girlfriends because of his looks; Chen Meijia, an unemployed woman, who is very naïve and cannot do basic math but is attractive; Guangu Shenqi, a Japanese cartoon artist looking for career opportunities in Shanghai; and Lin Wanyu, a new college graduate and the daughter of a wealthy bank owner. Hu Yifei, Lu Zhanbo, Lin Wanyu, and Zeng Xiaoxian share one apartment, Lü Ziqiao and Chen Meijia share the one next door; Guangu Shenqi joins them later. Lü Ziqiao and Chen Meijia were in a romantic relationship years ago and have since broken up but they decide to fake their relationship to get a discount from the landlord on rent and utilities. To save more money, Lü Ziqiao and Chen Meijia persuade Guangu Shenqi, whose financial situation is much better than theirs, to move in and pay a larger portion of the rent and utilities. The seven young urbanites come from vastly different backgrounds but face similar challenges in Shanghai—a competitive job market and the high cost of living. Unsurprisingly, the sitcom is often compared with the American sitcom Friends because of the plots’ similarities and because most of the situations take place in the characters’ apartments. Some fans found out that the dialogues in ipartment often copy from Friends and How I Met Your Mother. Whether ipartment violates copyright is beyond the scope of this chapter, but the comparison shows it is impossible to understand ipartment without learning about sitcoms in the United States, especially Friends and similar shows. Before a detailed investigation of the romantic love in ipartment, I examine research on two key questions: (1) What is the relationship between romance and comedy? and (2) How does the romance in sitcom differ from that in other genres?

Literature Review: Comedy, Sitcom, and Romantic Love As a type of comedy, sitcom’s first concern definitely is making audiences laugh. It is “a genre often perceived to be of less worth, of less invention and of less social value than more ‘serious’ forms of programming. Its entertainment value is thought of as worthwhile escapism after a hard day at work, but which renders the genre nothing more than a diverting

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amusement” (Mills 2009, 2). Despite this common perception of sitcom, it is a genre that is full of vitality because “finding things funny often relies on a number of aspects which are not contained within the actual comic moment itself, and so humour can be seen as a communicative act whose context is vital to its success” (ibid., 16). Indeed, being funny is not an easy task at all. The comic moments and situations must be understandable and reflect the target audience’s background, knowledge, and values. In sitcoms, the situations do not explore ideas or conflict, and the story moves “toward the alleviation of the complication and reduction of confusion” (Newcomb 1974, 38), to reassure the audiences that problems have simple solutions. Audiences are “not challenged by choice or ambiguity,” nor are they “forced to reexamine [their] values” (Feuer 1992, 148). Therefore, to achieve comic effects, writers of sitcoms must find situations that are not too complicated to resolve and topics that will not cause controversy among the audience. In China, earlier sitcoms preferred themes of family stability, individual or familial life adapting to the national and larger social context, and mundane yet friendly relationships among neighbors in a community, because their targeted audiences were families dominated by middle-aged or older audiences. As for the younger generations, what can be as relevant, simple, understandable, and humorous as the young single urbanites who continually pursue romance but never have other clear goals? In addition, “love presents a good solution, although not necessarily a permanent one, to the problem of need satisfaction” (Dowd and Pallotta 2000, 553). Romance and comedy are always a good pairing. In their perceptive examination of the romantic comedies produced in Hollywood, Dowd and Pallotta (2000) claim that because of the demystification of love in the postmodern age and the lack of impediments to relationships, the type of romance that overcomes obstacles, a well-established formula of traditional drama, literature, and common imagination, has ended. Therefore, contemporary Hollywood romance is often told in comedies instead of dramas. “The few romantic dramas that are made today that rely on older romantic conventions are almost always set in the past. Today, the only viable form that the conventional, contemporary romantic film can take is the comedy” (563), because “romantic comedies do not place significant obstacles but only easily circumvented road bumps in the way of romantic couples” (562). At the same time, romantic comedies always promise a happy ending—the reunion of the couple—which eases the audiences’ mind and satisfies their fantasies. “The comedies continue to invent

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ingenious and funny circumstances that keep the lovers apart without violating social taboos” (563). Romantic comedy, according to Dowd and Pallotta, is apparently the genre that can help Hollywood respond to the fact that postmodern culture lacks impediments that can be used to stimulate audience’s sentiments, as the romantic drama used to do. Dowd and Pallotta’s argument on the cause of the recent popularity of romantic comedy in Hollywood cannot easily be applied to cultures in which many impediments remain, but their insight helps to explain the generic power and resilience of romantic comedy in media production. “Ingenious and funny circumstances” seem to be endless in the romances produced by the media industry. Compared to other comedies, romantic sitcom is probably the subgenre that relies most on “ingenious and funny circumstances.” Romantic sitcoms usually focus on the lifestyles of characters rather than giving social commentary, as other genres do. It is often the “ongoing romantic tension,” a term used by Jane Feuer to depict Sam and Diane’s relationship in Cheers, that gives this type of show a sense of development and history (1992, 155). Romantic tension is often caused by or easily can be limited to individuals’ personalities and lifestyles. It is this characteristic of romantic sitcoms that inspired the producers of ipartment when they wanted to make a sitcom that could avoid familial and social conflicts, attract young, single urbanites, and generate commercial benefit. While the success of ipartment proves that the producers have achieved their goal, a critical analysis of the situations, lifestyles, and relationships among the characters can expose the values and ethics behind the humorous stories.

The Other Type of Romance: Relationships in ipartment Romances do not always follow the love-at-first-sight tradition but in most genres romances do begin when the male and female protagonists meet for the first time. The chemistry between the two protagonists might need some time to develop into a relationship, but usually it is very easy for the audiences to see the tension and attraction between the two. In romantic sitcoms, whose narrative usually relies on both friendship–family and romantic love, however, it is hard for the audience to discern the exact romantic involvement of a couple unless the characters clearly declare that

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they are in a relationship, or their sexual intimacy is announced by one of them, or disclosed by their roommates. Even if two people are obviously romantically involved, the relationship is depicted as rocky and casual, thereby allowing the sitcom to lighten the sincerity and emotions that love must contain and display in traditional romances. ipartment epitomizes the ambiguous and unstable romantic relationships that are often seen in romantic sitcoms. The men and women either share an apartment or are neighbors, making it impossible for them to have any privacy and providing many opportunities for them to communicate, interact, and engage in activities with each other. The way these young people act and talk is very similar to the six characters in Friends. Michael Skovmand’s (2008) observant analysis of Friends helps explain how this type of sitcom creates comic effect, and it deserves a lengthy quote here. Friends is a story about friendship among singles as a haven in an adult world full of demands, sexual, career-wise and otherwise—a haven in which the six singles are encapsulated in a bubble of security, from which would-be boyfriends and girlfriends are constantly assessed by the collective and found wanting. This Peter Pan world of Friends is strong on understated dialogue and ironic repartee, but veers back and forth between ironic detachment and sentimentality—a reflection of the dilemma of the series as a whole which is: how seriously to take the lifestyle problems of these post-­adolescent characters. (90–91)

The characters in the first two seasons of ipartment create a world very similar to the “haven” in Friends. The seven young protagonists are all unrealistically naïve about their lives and jobs. None has a stable or promising career, and none of their parents interrupt their lives. They live together and enjoy a happiness that relies on their shared ignorance of the pressures of residing in the city. It seems like nothing can upset or embarrass them. This “haven” lacks the confusion and conflict that young people can easily encounter in a Chinese city: the unequal economic backgrounds, competitive working environments, challenging living environments (old rental apartments, broken facilities, horrible and inconvenient traffic between home and work, etc.), the struggle between individual freedom and familial duties, and loneliness, among others. The protagonists live in a well-equipped modern apartment with stylish modern furniture and décor that is colorful and artistic. They wear the trendiest clothes,

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and always have fun and exciting activities inside and outside the apartment, regardless of whether they are employed. Their lives seem very comfortable. No matter what kind of trouble, such as illness or minor accidents, they encounter, the roommates are always there to help and to create happy and warm moments. In season one, Zeng Xiaoxian is the only one of the characters who has something of a formal job. He is the host of a late-night radio talk-show. His show has the lowest rating among all the programs at the station and he faces the possibility of getting fired, but he loves his job and works hard every night. No matter how much his friends laugh about his show and sarcastically point out that it does not really have an audience, he always believes he has the talent to be a successful media host. His famous tag line is “Good man is me; I am Zeng Xiaoxian.” His passion for his work is contradicted by his boss’s harsh critiques, but he always smiles and begs the boss to give him more opportunities to prove his ability. Although he regularly makes silly mistakes, he never gives up. When he wants to stop his ex-girlfriend from bothering him, he kisses his neighbor, Hu Yifei, who just happens to come into the room at the moment. Their relationship then becomes awkward; they keep their distance from each other, while having feelings for each other. Zeng Xiaoxian’s friend and neighbor, Lü Ziqiao, never has a real job and always chases girls at bars but for some reason he manages to have money and live a decent lifestyle. He and his roommate Chen Meijia had been in a relationship years before and broken up. But to get the rent and utility discounts, they pretend to be a couple. They fight and make fun of each other much of the time. One night they accidently get stuck on the balcony and end up hugging each other to keep warm for the night. The experience brings them closer and gives them a chance to show that they actually care about each other. However, once they return to the apartment and the incident ends, they revert to their typical behavior, mocking each other and denying their feelings for each other. The relationships between Zeng Xiaoxian and Hu Yifei, Lü Ziqiao and Cheng Meijia, and Lu Zhanbo and Lin Wanyu are always at arms’ length. The members of each pair care about the other but do not want the commitment of a relationship. Because of their ambiguous romantic relationships, the six people mingle as a group all the time and maintain a stable community while everyone has someone to desire and everyone can be sure that he or she is wanted by someone. The homosocial, heterosocial, and heterosexual bonds are all balanced in the community. This type of

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portrayal makes the apartment seem like a college dormitory; everyone spends time and pays and receives attention within the community. Meanwhile, both the friendship and the potential romantic relationships are very well balanced among all the members, giving every individual at least one type of close relationship with another member. There is none of the complexity or jealousy caused by love triangles, and everyone in the community hopes their friends will announce their romantic relationship when they are ready to do so. Meanwhile, everyone is free to pursue potential romantic partners they occasionally encounter outside their community. Unexpected romance is more like a seasoning leavening their minds, and it comes and goes naturally without much effort, especially because everyone in the apartment always has a backup available. The “open and take-it-easy relationship” among the protagonists creates a different definition of heterosexual romance in Chinese media, where typically romantic love is judged and evaluated based on the role of economic factors in the relationship, and on the relationship’s conformity to moral values; is often challenged by familial views, competition from multiple love interests, and career choices; and is usually represented as intense, emotional, unchangeable, devoted, and decisive.

The Love Agents: Gender Roles in ipartment Sitcoms can be roughly categorized into three types: primarily male-­ oriented, primarily female-oriented, and balanced between the interests of men and women. “Friends is precisely balanced in terms of male/ female interest.” (Skovmand 2008, 98). So is ipartment because it has similar types of characters and similar interactions between them. To reduce the complexity of the relationships, ipartment does not give the characters a chance to get married, even in the last two seasons. Season three and season four are less like a sitcom but more like the romantic or idol dramas: three of the couples’ relationships are getting more and more stable and the sentimental moments between the couples are increasing. The couples must keep guessing about the sincerity and degree of love from the other person, and this helps maintain a sense of continuity and development in the story line. While it seems as though the relationships between the couples are still unpredictable because in each, neither the man nor the woman has formalized the relationship by emotionally and sincerely declaring love and devotion to the other, there is a gender issue in the depiction of the

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relationships. It is always the men who are distracted by “outside” romances and hesitate to commit to the person with whom they live and whom they see every day. To some degree, each man’s love interest in his community is like his wife, although they neither legally register nor ritualistically announce their relationship (except Guangu Shenqi and Tang Youyou, between whom a relationship emerges starting in season two, to which I will return later in this section). Zeng Xiaoxian is a good man, as he labels himself. No matter whether in the community of the apartment or at his workplace, he is always willing to negotiate, help, and compromise. Although his friends laugh at him because of how willing he is to try to please his boss, a straightforward, talented, but also mean, woman, and to persuade her to forgive his mistakes, it helps make him more likable: a person who does not have much ego but always wants to prove himself and help others. His kindness, and perhaps weakness in some people’s eyes, wins the affection of Hu Yifei, his neighbor, a strong and outspoken woman who becomes a college teacher in season two. Zeng Xiaoxian apparently has a special interest and affection toward Hu Yifei because she has the characteristics that he lacks. She is determined, tough, and physically strong—she is good at martial arts and dance and has protected her young stepbrother since childhood. However, Hu Yifei is not the only woman who sees the merits of Zeng Xiaoxian. Zeng’s coworker, Ruolan, a co-host of his talk show, is impressed by his kindness and helpfulness and falls madly in love with him. In contrast to Hui Yifei’s shyness and passivity, Ruolan always is assertive and expresses her love to Zeng Xiaoxian. Zeng apparently cannot reject Ruolan’s beauty, talent, and affection and even becomes her boyfriend for a short time. Hu Yifei is jealous and angry, and even has an outburst when she has to deal with a difficult student at school. Despite her strong personality and her role as a big sister who holds everybody in the community together and is always level-headed, her attitude to love is very passive and she often sacrifices her own happiness to keep her distance from Zeng Xiaoxian’s confusion of love and relationship. Meanwhile, she never has any relationships nor even shows any interest in other men, even when Zeng dates and engages in a relationship with Ruolan. Hu Yifei is not the only woman who is waiting for, and loyal to, her love interest while the man is oblivious. Chen Meijia is a silly, simple-minded girl who cannot do even basic math. She seems perpetually careless, irrational, and scatterbrained, but under her cute and simple surface, she deeply loves Lü Ziqiao, the playboy in the community. She watches how

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Lü Ziqiao constantly chases new girls believing that is the masculine way to live, and she makes sarcastic comments about his lifestyle and his attitude toward women, but she never loses her feelings for him. A little care and attention from Lü Ziqiao flatters Chen Meijia. She is like a harbor for him, no matter how many women have come and gone in his life and even though he never ceases pursuing new adventures. After a one-night stand resulting from a very sentimental moment, Chen finds out she is pregnant, but she does not want to tell anyone who the father is. The pregnancy garners sympathy and support from everybody in the community, and Chen is willing to give birth and raise the child by herself without revealing the identity of the “secret” father. She gets teary every time Lü Ziqiao shows some kindness to her but never tells him the truth. Even so, Lü Ziqiao figures out the truth based on Chen’s attitude and his own suspicions and guesswork. In the end, the pregnancy turns out to be a false alarm and Chen does not have to face the hardship of being a single parent, and Lü Ziqiao does not have to face the truth of being a father, thus preserving the fun and comic effect of having an immature and simple-­ minded girl and a playboy in the sitcom. Everything is back to normal in the community. Nonetheless, the interlude of the pregnancy scare rehearses the gender roles in a romantic relationship—the woman’s sacrifice and patience eventually impress the man, even an incorrigible playboy, and she wins his heart. Apparently, women never change and are always loyal to their hearts, unlike the women in Friends, in which all the main characters, men and women alike, express their sexual desires and get into and out of relationships frequently, perhaps to find their true love or perhaps just to have a good time. ipartment, while making it appear as if everyone is economically, emotionally, and sexually equal, suggests that men and women are not supposed to be the same in terms of how they should engage in relationships and regulate their sexual behaviors—men can play and keep hunting and testing before they formally commit to one relationship, but women must be loyal, willing to compromise, make sacrifices, and be patient until a man makes up his mind. While every character is portrayed as silly, extremely emotional, and outspoken, apparently there is a bottom line for women in terms of their freedom in choice of partner and relationships. Meanwhile, an international relationship such as that of Guangu Shenqi and Tang Youyou must be resolved much sooner than others: because Guangu Shenqi is Japanese and Tang Youyou is Chinese, their relationship might be challenged because of nationalist sentiments

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resulting from Japan’s invasion of China in World War II. Their relationship must be based on a transparent, devoted, and mutual true love; otherwise, both people will be questioned about their sincerity and morality.

Conclusion The comic effect of ipartment is based on the assumption that gender, economic, body image, and all other types of equality have already been achieved; therefore, romantic love has no social obstacles but is affected only by an individual’s personality, attitude, and choice of lifestyle. All the male and female characters, including the supporting players who come and go in the show, possess physical qualities celebrated by the media and mainstream consumer culture’s views on beauty: the women are all slim, pretty, and stylish, and the men are all tall, fit, and handsome. This idealized romantic haven a creation of the characters’ free spirits. Among all the characters, the clearest examples are Lü Ziqiao’s fear of commitment and his continuous interest in pursuing one-night stands and impressing new women, and Zeng Xiaoxian’s hesitation in deciding which woman is his true love. Each couple’s romantic love is influenced only by their own choices, not by the factors that often affect Chinese young urbanites, such as career, family, social and economic status, and body image, because in order to create the context for a fun and stress-free experience, the show suggests that these obstacles and inequalities do not exist for the characters. Although ipartment is considered to be a sitcom, and so pure entertainment free of the need to carry the weight borne by traditional Chinese TV dramas, as the producer Wang Yuan has claimed, no program can get away without acknowledging the ideological and cultural codes. The reason audiences like to watch sitcoms and find them funny is that “sitcoms generate emotions because they are so integrally related to who we are as both individual subjects and members of a cultural community.” At the same time, in its long history, “the sitcom has become a genre dedicated to offering the popular audience a place to empathize with particular situations, rehearse a variety of responses, and find similar kinds of resolution.” (Paul Wells 1998, 181). The difference between ipartment and similar sitcoms in the United States is that ipartment not only rehearses situations that might happen in real life but also situations that might happen in the shows themselves. That Chen Meijia ends up not being pregnant proves that ipartment really does not want to create any stressful

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situation that would “ruin” the fun, even in the drama. Before it is revealed to be a false alarm, the pregnancy challenges the characters and asks the audience what should be done next. Should they change their outlook and lifestyles, quit pursuing romantic excitement, and start being adults? Of course, the sitcom cannot provide an answer, but it does challenge the audience to think about relationships and choices. ipartment opened a window on the mainstream media after it was aired on satellite TV. It showed a different view about life and romantic love, conforming to the ideals of young urbanites in a metropolitan city. It might be a fantasy, but the romantic relationships to a certain degree break away from mainstream media’s emphasis on educating audiences about morality and familial values in representations of romantic love. ipartment has its own boundaries, especially confining the attitudes and behaviors of women and men to reflect the influence of patriarchal values on gender roles in romantic love. Nonetheless, ipartment is a sitcom for young urbanites and reflects their interests in life and romance. It has at least tried, and succeeded to a degree, to present a different kind of romantic love—free from the obstacles that are always depicted and discussed in mainstream television dramas in China.

Bibliography Dowd, James J., and Nicole R.  Pallotta. 2000. The End of Romance: The Demystification of Love in the Postmodern Age. Sociological Perspectives 43 (4): 549–580. Feuer, Jane. 1992. Genre Study and Television. In Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, ed. Robert C.  Allen, 138–159. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press. Mills, Brett. 2009. TV Genres: Sitcom. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Newcomb, Horace. 1974. TV: The Most Popular Art. New York: Anchor Books. Skovmand, Michael. 2008. The Culture of Post-Narcissism: Post-Teenage, Pre-­ Midlife Singles Culture in Seinfeld, Ally McBeal and Friends. In Television and Criticism, ed. Solange Davin and Rhona Jackson. Bristol and Chicago: Intellect Ltd. Tai Meiti (Tai Media). “Behind the ‘Magical Show’ ipartment: how a brand has the ability to continually make profits.” http://www.tmtpost.com/104087. html. Retrieved on June.9, 2020. Wells, Paul. 1998. Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Open Convictions in Closed Contexts in the American Situation Comedy. In Because I Tell a Joke or Two: Comedy Politics, and Social Difference, ed. Stephen Wagg, 180–181. New York: Routledge.

CHAPTER 7

Conclusion

Abstract  Based on the examination of samples from contemporary Chinese television, the conclusion summarizes gender roles and gender relationships in romantic dramas, arguing that love and romantic relationships are highly coded within the concerns of the dominant ideology, morality, and consumer culture. Love and romantic relationships are used as convenient topics to reinforce dominant social values and collective identity in contemporary China’s image of a good and happy life. Yet these dramas reflect the evolution of gender norms and the struggle and negotiation of gender norms in post-socialist China. Keywords  Dominant values • Collective identity • Consumer culture • Happy and good life • Negotiation The television programs analyzed in Chapters 2–6 have shown that romantic love stories, as in many cultures, occupy a very important position in Chinese popular culture. To conclude, it is no doubt necessary to review what popular culture means in the intellectual reception of this complicated concept. Four decades ago, Stuart Hall expressed his concern about the terms “popular” and “culture.” It is hard to define “popular” and “culture” because both concepts depend on by whom, where, and when certain products are consumed in real life. It is real-life experience with cultural products that determines what popular culture means; not only © The Author(s) 2020 H. Wen, Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television, East Asian Popular Culture, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47729-5_7

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reception, commonly leading to popularity, but also rejection—when certain things are popular, other things are rejected. Both the accepted and the rejected are part of popular culture. The definition of popular culture is even more complicated now than it was when Hall made his observation in 1981. With the development of social media, individualized technologies, and a very competitive and convergent media environment, the line between popular culture and other types of culture is so blurred that the different cultures cannot be distinguished. Gary Hoppenstand (2018) and Marcel Danesi (2015) have argued that this blurring of boundaries is one of the few elements that we can use to identify popular culture as a particular type, given the extremely complicated cultural maps in today’s world, particularly media culture. YouTube is an example of a platform on which it is very hard to distinguish with any certainty the roles of producer and consumer. Danesi (2015) is most helpful when he explicitly points out that the “emotional appeal” to a broad spectrum of people is probably what makes popular culture a concept that can unify a wide range of cultural practices crossing all sorts of boundaries—class (“high” or “low” culture), nationality, gender, sexuality, means and places of production, ways of consumption, relationship with marketization, and so on (30) Because popular culture must, by both definition and function, be emotionally appealing to many individuals, it is essential for it to introduce imaginations and practices of romantic love that are emotionally relevant to many and various categories of people. Yet Chinese media are highly supervised by the government, unlike the media in an environment mainly dominated by the market. A striking example of the way that governmental supervision of media in China is a constraint on depictions of romantic love is the near-invisibility of non-normative relationships and the absolute dominance of normative heterosexual relationships and conjugal families. Ralph Litzinger (2001) delineates the ways in which the government’s or state’s interaction with and effect on the entertainment industry in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have become more complicated and less predictable. As a result, “the popular culture, then, can be seen as a contested space where practices of governing populations cut across cultural, social, and political spaces, where government happens from above and below” (266). Litzinger’s review of cultural critiques reminds us that the powers of the post-socialist Chinese state and mainstream ideologies have never faded completely; though they have diminished and cannot now exert control to the extent they used to. Chinese entertainment television

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is one of the main spaces where we can examine how “popular culture” is shaped and what “popular culture” celebrates. The romantic love story itself comes from popular culture but is never independent from the values and ethics of the mainstream culture created explicitly and directly under the supervision and/or sponsorship of the Chinese government, regardless of whether the story expresses the dominant ideology or provides a revolutionary alternative. Even unconventional stories, such as those about same-sex relationships, tend to follow the binary representation of love between a feminine individual and a masculine individual, but substituting two men or two women. When Chinese female netizens imagine the romantic relationship in a matriarchal society, the binary representation still exists, merely switching men’s and women’s roles—women possessing all the rights that men have in a patriarchal society (Feng 2013, 106). The imagined alternative relationship between genders expresses revenge but not equality, which apparently cannot truly challenge the gender binary and inequality problem in Chinese cultural discourse. To be popular, cultural products must be understandable and accessible to audiences, and mainstream culture’s values and concerns always restrict content and consumption, and influence products’ popularity. Mainstream culture’s influence on popular culture is obvious in China, where governmental reserve censorship-power is so strong that it causes mass media’s effective self-censorship. Television, as one of the most dominant mass media in contemporary China, is the best example to use when examining how a medium must struggle to be exciting and new in the competitive market while negotiating with the mainstream culture’s dull, controlling, and unchallenged views on life and society. Popular culture is neither “wholly corrupt” nor “wholly authentic” but rather “deeply contradictory,” characterized by “the double movement of containment and resistance, which is always inevitably inside it.” (Hall 1981, 228) Although scholars in the West (such as when addressing American contexts) have challenged and developed Stuart Hall’s argument on popular culture since the 1980s, that argument is still relevant to the romantic stories represented in 21st-century Chinese television shows. Because Chinese television is both one of the most important carriers of popular culture and “the throat and tongue” of the government, its roles as entertainer, educator, and watchdog are dynamically conflicting, but topics such as romantic love create the space where the three roles harmoniously coexist and legitimize certain elements of

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romantic love over others. Then, what role does romantic love assume in Chinese television?

TV Romance and Collective Identity Romantic love, as one of the most promoted desires in a “desiring China” (to borrow Lisa Rofel’s definition of post-socialist China), creates a space in which fragmented and contradictory views on self-realization, morality, and collective identity are presented through depiction of the couple, mainly the heroine’s journey to a happy and contented life. In Chinese TV, romantic love is portrayed as an essential part of young urbanites’ identity: it signals the beginning of life as well as promises a future. Whether for the mistress in Dwelling Narrowness, the time traveler in Every Step is Startling, the contestants in If You Are the One, the wronged divorced woman in The Enlightenment of Life, or the roommates in Apartment Building of Love, life is purposeless until the character becomes romantically involved in a heterosexual relationship with the right person. Romantic love is presented as an experience to instruct young people and help them find the next step in their lives, be it moving to a different place, re-examining their views about family and friends, or finding a new position and redeeming their value in the society. As a result, although the representation of romantic love appears in a variety of genres, they all signal the same cultural connotation—finding the right person, especially “Mr. Right,” equals finding motivation and direction in life. While romantic love is often portrayed in romance stories as a way to find oneself, it has a particular significance in contemporary Chinese culture. By stressing the importance of romantic love, a representation provides solutions to the question of how to have a productive and meaningful life; empowers or re-empowers young people, especially female protagonists; and pushes to the background other dilemmas and difficulties caused by larger social problems. In Dwelling Narrowness, the mistress is punished because of the immoral relationship, but her mistake reinforces her older sister’s image as a respected woman who loves and is loyal to her husband and marriage, is diligent and strong-minded, and never gives up on pursing a demanding yet self-sustained life. This theme is consistent throughout the other TV programs examined in this book, whether a show’s purpose is to entertain or to educate the audience. What is more, the definition of true romantic love in Chinese TV is skillfully used to create a national identity. This

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national identity is obvious when the time traveler goes back in history and falls in love with the men representing an extremely patriarchal version of Chinese masculinity. The national identity is more subtle yet more convincing when the American lawyer from whom the older sister in Dwelling Narrowness seeks help directly praises her for being a respectful wife who is loyal to her husband and marriage and who therefore truly understands what love is. The lawyer even makes it clear that the sister is superior to American women, who often give up on their partners when they encounter challenges in their lives. Chinese-ness also is embedded in the casual comments and jokes in the reality TV show, If You Are the One, and the comedic stories in Apartment Building of Love. For example, in If You Are the One, when a girl from the countryside who does not have the qualities displayed by metropolitan women successfully pairs up with an American man, the host says, in a casual tone, as the couple walks away holding hands, “the woman who is older, divorced or has other qualities such as not being pretty enough, which causes her [to be] less desirable to Chinese men should consider foreigners.” His comment, as straightforward as it is, suggests that women are more likely to find true romantic love in a Chinese context if they are young, beautiful according to Chinese standards, and have never married. The divorced, less attractive, and therefore less desirable women must open their eyes to the others, the foreigners, who are believed to be less picky than Chinese men in terms of Chinese beauty standards and the family backgrounds of Chinese women. In The Enlightenment of Life, the female protagonist, Xiaoqiang, wins love and protects her marriage by being unconditionally loyal, understanding, persistent, forgiving, and always willing to compromise and sacrifice. The Chinese-ness of Xiaoqiang’s romantic love is stressed when her husband’s ex-girlfriend abandons her Chinese boyfriend, marries an American, has deep regrets, and returns to China wanting to get back together with Xiaoqiang’s husband but is rejected by him. In Apartment Building of Love, the young tenants of the apartment building often lightheartedly reflect on their romantic love, but the female protagonists’ behavior exemplifies young Chinese women’s manner of loving—keeping the love secret, always supporting and caring for their love interests, and anxiously waiting for the man to make the move. While Chinese television programs in different genres represent romantic love as a private matter and an individual choice, together they enhance the collective identity: Love in China starts with higher standards (moral,

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sincere, with marriage as the goal); is more loyal, consistent, and reliable; and therefore is superior to love in other cultures, especially Western culture.

Love with Passion: Respected and Regulated Borrowing the romance novel’s “eight essential elements”—“the meeting, the barrier, the attraction, the declaration, and point of ritual death, the recognition, and the betrothal” (Regis 2003, 205)—Chinese TV’s representation of romantic love has provided a rich text for analyzing how individuals’ passion should be simultaneously respected and regulated. The first encounter is always as romantic as possible: playing golf, riding horseback, interacting on the stage, meeting in a beautiful house, or living in the same well-designed apartment building. The meetings set up a context in which romance should follow passion and happen naturally. Passion is portrayed as a universal quality embedded in every individual, and once the opportunity arises, the passion awakens and then, depending on the individual’s rationality, morality, and self-control, will head in a direction. For example, in Dwelling Narrowness, Haizao, the mistress, and her lover, Song Siming, are carried away by their passion and become the victims of their illicit love; however, Xiaoqiang, the wronged wife who is forced into divorce, and her savior, Bao Jiaming, control their passion and wait to develop their relationship until their love proves true, which leads to a happy family. Passion, the essential element in romances, is represented as unavoidable, natural, and controllable at the same time. The contradictory portrayal of passion echoes Lisa Rofel’s (2007, 198) argument on desire in postsocialist China: “‘desire’ in China has been assigned the right of throwing off historical constraints and of creating a new cosmopolitan human nature,” and “‘desire’ could not be confined in advance.” Thus, passion as a cause and effect of desire is encouraged in If You Are the One and celebrated as the signature of being a young urban Chinese in the 21st century, but passion needs to be guided, as in the way the hosts help the contestants find the right person in the reality TV show. In Western media, passion is usually encouraged and is the most important, if not the only, element that leads to true romantic love. In contrast, passion in Chinese TV romances is always represented in contradictory terms: a nature and an identity of the new generation of Chinese youth who are metropolitan and worldly citizens, and a misleading power if not correctly guided. As a result, by encouraging people to embrace passion

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while controlling and regulating it, and promising that control and regulation always lead to true love and a happy future, romantic love stories in Chinese television help enrich the Chinese-ness with which Chinese audiences can identify.

Romantic Love and Consumer Culture Chinese TV romances reflect the deep anxiety caused by the rapid development of consumer culture in China. The skyrocketing price of apartments in big cities makes owning a space impossible for most young urbanites, and therefore Dwelling Narrowness, a romance that is based on the desire to buy a home, stirs up discussions on fidelity, ownership of sex (as discussed in Chap. 1), and women’s self-esteem and self-realization. Similar anxiety caused by economic and power inequality in contemporary China is frequently used to create barriers to the development of romantic relationships in Chinese TV romances. Wealthy middle-aged men and their wives often must confront threats to their marriages posed by beautiful young women, and young couples frequently test the truthfulness of their love by fighting off affection from a wealthy young woman or man. Discussion of what happiness is and what a true love should be always surrounds the answer to the question “Is money important in a relationship?” The crew of If You Are the One was once ordered to monitor the contestants’ comments about economic factors being the most important thing in their choice of partner, and since then the show has avoided mentioning the contestants’ income; Apartment Building of Love would not exist if young tenants did not have difficulty in finding a good, steady job and paying rent. Chinese TV romances reflect the anxieties caused by the transformation of Chinese society and provide a unified solution—find the right person and work hard together for a better future and a happy life. Chinese TV romances speak to metropolitan youth and echo their desire to construct “an opposition in which they believe that their mothers married in order to have sons, carrying on the cultural practice of patrilineal succession, and that the husband was secondary in her affections” (Rofel 2007, 127). While constructing and celebrating the priority of licit romantic love in an individual’s life, these TV romances also construct “desirable, globalized subjects” (Rofel 2007, 126) that are different from the past and represent the new Chinese-ness—passionate, loyal, moral, hardworking, ever forward-­looking, and therefore superior.

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Bibliography Danesi, Marcel. 2015. Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Feng, Jin. 2013. Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance. Leiden and Boston: Brill. Hall, Stuart. 1981. Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular’. In People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Robert Samuel, 228. London and New  York: Routledge. Hoppenstand, Gary. 2018. Popular Culture: The Basics. New York and London: Routledge. Litzinger, Ralph A. 2001. Government from Below: The State, the Popular, and the Illusion of Autonomy. Positions: East Asian Cultures Critiques 9 (1, Spring 220): 253–266. Regis, Pamela. 2003. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Rofel, Lisa. 2007. Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

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Index1

A Age, 22, 23, 32, 58, 64, 67–69, 80–82, 85–88, 101 C Capitalism, 4, 20 China, 1–23, 28, 30, 32–34, 36, 37, 39, 41, 45, 47, 48, 61, 63–69, 71, 74, 77, 79, 80, 82, 84, 85, 92, 97–101, 108, 112–117 Chinese, 1, 3–16, 18–23, 27–33, 33n1, 36–41, 45–48, 51, 53, 55, 57–60, 63, 64, 66–68, 70, 72, 77, 80, 84–86, 88, 90, 91, 94, 97–99, 103, 105, 107, 108, 111–117 Conjugal, 5, 10, 22, 28, 63, 64, 67, 112 Consumer, 7, 8, 23, 46, 54, 72, 83, 108, 112, 117

D Dilemma, 4, 20, 79, 103, 114 Discourse, 2, 6, 7, 10, 13, 14, 21, 28, 29, 37, 39, 41, 65, 67, 68, 76, 77, 80, 81, 113 Drama, 8, 27, 29–30, 46, 63, 80, 89–94, 98 E Equality, 4, 39, 53, 58, 68, 71–74, 108, 113 F Fantasy, 13, 17–19, 21, 46, 48, 57–61, 83, 101, 109 Femininity, 22, 92

 Note: Page numbers followed by ‘n’ refer to notes.

1

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INDEX

H Happiness, 3, 7, 9, 11, 13, 22, 38, 51, 52, 63–65, 69, 71, 77, 85, 98, 103, 106, 117 Housing, 29, 32 I Individual, 2–8, 10–14, 16, 22, 29, 30, 35, 36, 41, 56, 57, 64, 65, 68, 69, 72, 76–78, 80, 81, 85, 86, 88, 91, 94, 101–103, 105, 108, 112, 113, 116, 117 L Liberal, 22, 35 Love, 1–23, 27–41, 45–61, 63–95, 97–109, 111–117 M Mainstream, 3, 4, 8, 9, 16, 22, 23, 29–31, 33n1, 35, 36, 39, 40, 48, 60, 64, 65, 68–71, 77, 80, 87, 91, 97–99, 108, 109, 113 Marriage, 3, 9, 11, 15–17, 31–33, 35, 38, 54, 64, 69, 71, 74, 76, 77, 79–85, 90, 92–95, 114, 115, 117 Masculinity, 22, 40, 76, 87, 91–92, 115 Mistress, 22, 27–41, 89, 90, 114, 116 Morality, 16, 23, 28, 30–32, 35, 36, 38, 40, 49, 93, 108, 114, 116 N National, 7, 31, 65, 101, 114, 115 Negotiation, 2, 15, 23, 32, 46 P Postsocialist, 3, 30, 33, 45, 112, 114, 116

Power, 6, 9, 10, 15, 19, 28, 30, 36, 38, 40, 46, 47, 51, 57, 58, 74–77, 83, 85, 90, 92, 94, 102, 112, 116, 117 R Reality, 4, 8–10, 18, 21, 30–32, 36, 37, 41, 45, 59, 61, 63–68, 79, 80, 86 Reality TV, 21, 22, 27, 63–75, 115, 116 Representation, 3, 4, 8, 9, 14, 16, 18, 19, 23, 29–31, 33, 38, 40, 41, 48–50, 55–58, 60, 64, 68, 77, 80, 82, 86, 87, 89, 90, 109, 113, 114 Romance, 1–23, 45–51, 55, 57–61, 63, 80, 86, 87, 89, 90, 92, 93, 100–106, 109, 114–117 S Self-realization, 3, 4, 12, 20, 22, 23, 65, 68, 93, 114, 117 Sitcom, 21–23, 97–103, 105, 107–109 Socialist, 5–7, 9, 14 T Time travel, 21, 22, 45–61, 63 U Urban, 7, 8, 28–32, 36–38, 40, 48, 49, 57, 58, 60, 73, 89, 92, 116 V Value, 4, 5, 7–11, 13–21, 23, 28–33, 36, 41, 46, 48, 57, 59, 63–65, 67, 69, 71, 72, 76, 77, 80, 85, 87, 91, 93–95, 98–102, 105, 109, 113, 114 Visual pleasure, 56