Foreign Policy

The Sneaky Conservatism of China’s Feminist Dramas

Me Too protest in China

Supporters of Zhou Xiaoxuan, a feminist who rose to prominence during China’s #MeToo movement, display posters in Beijing on Dec. 2, 2020, during Zhou’s sexual harassment case against a television host. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

One of the most important scenes in the Chinese TV drama The Rational Life depicts the protagonist, a 33-year-old single woman called Shen Ruo Xin (played by popular actress Qin Lan), calmly rejecting a persistent suitor. She is gracious but firm, thanking him for his generosity while adroitly turning down his attempts to win her heart with expensive gifts.

“It’s only a necklace,” he cajoles her. “You’re overthinking it.” She replies that she doesn’t “have a lifestyle worthy of a necklace like this” and continues: “I know you stand on higher ground than me and have a better view [of the world] than I do. But I really hope that it’s through my own hard work that I stand where I deserve to be, and am rewarded with the sights that are meant for me. I don’t want to be tugged along by someone else to look at the vistas they enjoy.”

In the show, the views that confront Shen are familiar for many Chinese women. She’s a legal affairs manager at an automobile company navigating gender discrimination in the workplace, familial pressure to find a partner, and the anxieties of being a successful woman who has been sold the dream of needing to “have it all.” Near the end of the show’s run, on May 11, The Rational Life had been streamed more than 2.34 billion times on Mango TV, an online video platform in China. It was also rated the most-watched drama across 63 cities, and Netflix recently acquired the global streaming rights to the show.

On Douban, a Chinese social networking service where over 200 million users regularly review books, films, and entertainment, The Rational Life has generated plenty of discussion. “This portrayal of life [for a woman] is too real,” one commenter wrote. “At least by waiting on your superior at work, you get a salary and the prospect of promotion, whereas there’s no use doing the same for a man” in one’s romantic life. In another lengthy thread, contributors discussed Shen’s closing lines in the last episode of the show, a rousing defense of singlehood and being comfortable with oneself. “The ending is good,” one commenter said in approval. “Marriage is just another trap.”

In the same vein, last year’s 43-episode hit drama Nothing but Thirty racked up a whopping 20 billion views on its page on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. As with The Rational Life, the show was lauded for featuring women from different social backgrounds making unconventional life choices. In an interview with Beijing News, Nothing but Thirty’s producer Chen Fei explained how the characters were created: “We incorporated different aspects of what life is like for women in their 30s into individual stories, and hoped it would resonate emotionally with viewers. There’s a housewife who hates being married; a young woman who feels lost despite having done everything ‘right’ by societal standards.”

The Rational Life and Nothing but Thirty are riding a tide of Chinese television programming that has captivated audiences with its realistic portrayal of the challenges faced by “leftover women” (sheng nu)—a pejorative term used to describe women who remain unmarried beyond their late 20s. The genre, called ta shidai, tends to revolve around younger, urban women, and some shows have been more brazen than others. The Romance of Tiger and Rose, a drama that was aired last year on Tencent Video, attracted over 897 million streaming views. Marketed as a lighthearted romantic comedy, the show is set in an ancient matriarchal society where women dominate key positions in the military and civil service and possess the right to pass on their surnames to their children. Men, on the other hand, are routinely barred from employment and socially conditioned to be submissive.

Much as in the West, shows like these are grappling with increasingly vocal discussions of women’s rights in society at large. But in China, there’s an added wrinkle. Theoretically committed to gender equality, since 1949 the Chinese Communist Party has gone to great lengths to encourage women to enter the workforce. As part of its nation-building project, party rhetoric was centered on the emancipation of peasant women from prostitution in cities, while the wives of the upper classes were freed from centuries of foot binding and herded into factories and collective farms. China in the early 1980s had a higher percentage of women working than other more developed countries in the world (84 percent to the OECD’s 61 percent), as well as a smaller gender pay gap in contrast to the United States.

Last year, the National Bureau of Statistics of China reported that the gender gap in compulsory education (for a minimum of nine years) had been virtually eradicated. And 52.5 percent of students in colleges and universities were female, placing China about on par with the United States. Meanwhile, women now make up 43.7 percent of the labor force, placing the country slightly ahead of the global average of 38.8 percent.

Yet from the early years of the government’s push to include them in the workforce, women—like men—often labored in abject, physically grueling conditions. At the same time, traditional Confucian values, including the highly restrictive ideal of the xian qi liang mu (“good wife, loving mother”), have held strong. So while some of the country has seen progress, plenty of inequalities have gone unaddressed.

While touting high levels of equality in education and the workforce, the government has shifted gears toward a family-centric approach to population growth. This recent elevation of traditional gender roles has clashed directly with China’s burgeoning women’s rights movement. Despite the easing of the one-child policy a few years ago, birth rates have drastically declined. The announcement last month that families would be allowed to have three children is not expected to be a panacea to China’s aging population.

And owing to the centuries-old cultural preference for boys, which led to female infanticide in the tens of millions during the Cultural Revolution and beyond, the number of unmarried men is also high. Meanwhile, the proportion of educated single women in their late 20s and 30s has increased dramatically, with many opting to delay marriage and childbearing in pursuit of their careers. The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that the gender pay gap decreased in 2019 for the first time in three years: As of that year Chinese women were earning approximately 81.6 percent of what men earned. But this month, Reuters warned about the prospect of that gap widening once again, corresponding with cutbacks to state-supported child care.

To address the challenges of an aging population, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s government has ramped up efforts to bring traditional “family virtues” back in vogue and introduce messaging that valorizes women’s role in caring for children and the elderly. Xi’s International Women’s Day speech this year placed pointed emphasis on motherhood: “Without women, there would be no continuity of the human race or human society,” he said. His national address on the same occasion in 2019 was even more explicit in its message: It was titled “Guiding women to love their families, as well as their country.” The last two points of his speech were wholly dedicated to “helping women handle the relationship between family and work” and the exaltation of family virtues, which he deemed to be “benevolent” and in line with “socialist core values.”

Add to this a new mandatory 30-day “cooling-off period” before Chinese couples are able to file for divorce; the Communist Party said that the rule is meant to “strengthen family stability,” the Diplomat reported. Meanwhile in the civil service, 11 percent of job postings specify a preference or requirement for men, while reports have surfaced of women having to sign contracts stipulating that they must not get pregnant during the a period of their employment. For married couples whose biggest asset is their home, these properties are often registered solely in the husband’s name, even if the purchase was enabled by the wife’s family.

Frustration at this state of affairs is partially expressed through the struggles experienced by the characters in ta shidai dramas. Regardless of tone or style, these shows typically circle back to the question of what it means to be a woman in contemporary China, when lifestyle choices are constantly under threat.

Ta shidai dramas, helmed by their attractive, predominantly female cast and buttressed by high production budgets, are tolerated by Beijing as a palatable form of feminist resistance. Over Zoom in May, a prominent Chinese feminist activist who writes under the pseudonym Mimiyana explained why these shows cause little offense to the state. “It’s the sort of selective feminism that glorifies only women who look good in a conventional way,” she said. “They’re unthreatening [to men] and don’t challenge the norm. What I would like to see is feminism that celebrates women who don’t necessarily have the spending power to look beautiful.” Mimiyana’s WeChat account has been blocked four times, and she has been investigated by the Ministry of State Security due to suspicion of her work and education abroad.

Other activism has been on the receiving end of a recent crackdown, too. On April 12, Douban shut down more than 10 feminist groups, a few of which were linked to 6B4T, a radical online feminist movement that advocates having no male sex partners and boycotting products and brands that are unfriendly to women. The platform deemed these beliefs “extreme” and was likely bowing to government pressure.

The backlash was swift: Feminists across China banded together with a Weibo hashtag that translates as “Let’s Unite, Women,” which was viewed over 60 million times. On another trending hashtag, “Douban Feminism,” a Weibo user commented defiantly: “You’ll never silence us. … How dare you assume we won’t fight back? I am a woman, [but] first I am a human being, not a sheep waiting to be slaughtered.”

Over voice messages sent on Signal in May, the women’s rights activist Xiao Meili described her ordeal of being silenced by the state. Often associated with the Feminist Five, an outspoken group of women’s rights activists who have been continually criminalized and put under government surveillance, Xiao went on a 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) march in 2013 and 2014 to raise awareness for victim-blaming in sexual assault cases. She also hosts the A Little Pastoral podcast, which covers topics relating to women’s rights. In one of the podcast’s best-received episodes so far, Xiao interviewed “marriage refuseniks”—women who gravitate toward the repudiation of marriage on political grounds.

On March 29, Xiao was at a restaurant in Chengdu with friends when she got into an argument with a man who was smoking indoors (public smoking bans have been in place for years, although they are rarely enforced). The man threw hot liquid at Xiao but was not charged. Xiao wrote about the incident on Weibo. She garnered a significant amount of public sympathy, until nationalist trolls unearthed photographs of her demonstrating support for Hong Kong independence in 2014.

From there it all went downhill: A deluge of attacks found their way to her Weibo and WeChat accounts, some threatening her with death. Her online store on the Alibaba-owned website Taobao, one of the biggest e-commerce sites in China, was targeted by right-wing netizens. Just a few days later, the Chinese government took the side of the trolls, shutting down her Weibo and WeChat accounts. She was also forced to stop selling any fashion items bearing feminist slogans, a clear attempt by the state to conflate the rise of feminism with anti-establishment sentiment.

“I’ve been feeling extremely low,” Xiao said. “More and more people are discussing [feminism], but that also means that some of the most outspoken voices like mine and Yang Li [a stand-up comedian accused by a national media watchdog of “preaching hatred”] have had to deal with a lot of violence. But I think that whenever these incidents happen, it generates debate and awareness.” And that, she concluded, is “a good thing.”

Xiao Meli

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

As for the ta shidai dramas, Xiao is skeptical. “At the end of the day,” she said, many of the characters “are Mary Sue types who are destined to be loved by men. … There’s nothing really revolutionary.” But perhaps that is why they have been able to persist.

Yaqiu Wang, who is in her 30s, researches internet censorship and the protection of civil society in China for Human Rights Watch. In a Zoom call in May, she explained that the crucial thing to understand about censorship in China is that the state is less bothered with the essence of a specific discourse than it is about stamping out nonconformity.

“It’s never about the content—it’s about people trying to think independently,” she said. “That’s why you have student Marxists who get censored, even though they’re Marxist. It’s because they’re trying to break away [from control].” The same goes, she said, for the feminists: “You have Mao’s ‘women hold up half the sky,’ so it doesn’t make sense for the government to censor feminists, until you understand that these women’s rights activists are trying to think and advocate for themselves.”

Ultimately, while ta shidai dramas provide a welcome space for Chinese feminists to imagine a world in which women have more choices, they remain held back by state-sanctioned, cultural regression in the opposite direction. For now, those hoping to see real steps toward gender equality are still holding their breath. In a poetic blog entry from 2019, Mimiyana wrote: “For those [like us] who are not recognized by the system and refuse to be a part of it, you are scum, fools, paupers, losers, wandering ghosts, wretched dogs. But my wasted heart will always love you.”

Related Articles