Last month, the Chinese relationship guru Yang Bingyang — popularly known by her social media handle, “Ayawawa” — was suspended by microblogging site Weibo after telling attendees at one of her all-female workshops that comfort women — those forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II — led better lives than their male contemporaries. While men were killed in battle, Yang said, “the women survived, at least.” Official media outlets roundly condemned Yang’s comments, and rightly so.
Yang’s views of relationships are similarly abhorrent, pigeonholing people into narrow gender stereotypes and evaluating them according to superficial criteria that package them as simple commodities. Her classes envisage finding a partner as a zero-sum game in which certain “tricks” and “strategies” increase the chances of success. In one interview posted to Chinese video-hosting site Bilibili, Yang says she has told her female followers: “On the first date, wear red; on the second date, wear activewear; and on the third date, wear black lace.”
At the root of Yang’s theories is the idea that everything in a romantic relationship can be quantified, assigned external value, and used transactionally. Everyone is a potential “mate,” she says, but some people have higher “mate value” — or “MV” — than others. Similarly, people are given a numerical “PU,” or “paternity uncertainty,” score to determine the likelihood that they will cheat on their partner. These scores, in turn, affect how well people fare on the marriage market.
Yang likes women to conform to traditional male expectations, framing romantic pursuit in the language of baiting prey and encouraging women to strategically deploy supposedly feminine traits like coquettishness and sex appeal in order to nab themselves a top-class man. In Yang’s world, women who best live up to male expectations have the highest scores and can therefore charge the highest “prices” in the marriage market.
Yang’s cold logic makes her tone-deaf statements about comfort women unsurprising. By her theories, women are little more than objects of male desire: They appear as little more than subservient slaves in their relationships, and they derive happiness by extracting wealth, favors, and social status from their partners. To her, the systematic enslavement, trafficking, and rape of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers can be rationalized in terms of the social currency they gained by survival, regardless of the cruelty they suffered.
Yang objectifies and commodifies men, too. She advocates ranking everyone on a scale from one to 10, telling women they should know their own score and aim to bag a man who ranks within two points of them. In addition, she classifies men into three types: “Rocks” single-mindedly cling to one woman and are suitable for marriage; “papers” are charming playboys whose faithfulness cannot be relied upon; and “scissors” are short-term lovers who are unwilling to commit to marriage. (The analogy is that scissors can “cut” papers and therefore make more desirable partners, but they cannot cut through rocks, who are strong, steady, and reliable.)
A century ago, it was common practice in China for parents to arrange marriages for their children. Part of this process involved weighing the respective social standing of both families and exchanging betrothal gifts and bridal money accordingly. Although arranged marriages were outlawed in 1950, the underlying concepts remain seductive: Even though Chinese people now “freely choose” their partners, in reality many Chinese still frame romantic relationships around calculations of their partners’ material worth, such as whether their other half owns a home, a car, or a business. This has given rise to an entire industry of self-styled dating coaches and relationship gurus with little professional expertise.
If all potential partners and relationship issues, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a few numerical values and categorized, then it is rational to assume that relationship counseling, like any other industrial process, can operate around a set of quantifiable standards. In fact, that’s exactly what relationship consultants like Yang has attempted to do: Huazhen, a relationship consultancy that she co-founded, even considered developing an app for rating relationships, where couples would lose points for arguing and win points for giving each other gifts. If their rating dropped low enough, the system would warn both partners that their relationship was failing and suggest they take a trip together to deepen their affection.
Other countries don’t treat human relationships this way. In the West, relationship counseling is a specific branch of psychology, one that is approached holistically. Unfortunately, China’s counseling industry is poorly regulated, lacks industrial norms, and is fertile ground for tricksters. Although the country’s psychological counselors can obtain professional qualifications, until last year the exam was open to applicants from a wide range of fields — often, you just needed to be in the final year of any major undergraduate degree.
But in the age of social media, psychological counseling has become a lucrative industry — and every self-proclaimed guru has a platform to make a living from it. These people often carry several dubious qualifications and earn money by writing sappy, motivational articles online, replete with lofty turns of phrase and often head-scratchingly complicated neologisms. Many social media personalities haven’t received any formal training, parrot highfalutin terminology without truly understanding its significance, and reportedly charge thousands of yuan for an in-person consultation. Alongside these self-professed experts are a litany of unaccredited training programs that hand out phony qualifications to prospective counselors.
Most online platforms are extremely lax when it comes to regulating content. Not long ago, counselors earned the bulk of their income by meeting patients face-to-face. Now, the industry is overrun with unscrupulous gurus packaging their supposed expertise into online courses, bestselling books, and online consultations — and most of these unsavory characters sprinkle their social media feeds with all manner of “officially endorsed” products.
The Chinese internet is home to an army of Ayawawas. They peddle unsubstantiated relationship advice on WeChat and Weibo — platforms that reach over a billion people — convincing citizens with little knowledge of psychology that their misinformed theories are legitimate.
Yang’s followers — mostly millennials — aren’t gullible or brainwashed. But most of them have grown up in a culture that fails to educate young people about emotional and sexual relationships. Yang’s pop psychology fills this knowledge vacuum, offering plausible-sounding panaceas to dysfunctional relationships.
At a time when more and more Chinese are joining the ranks of the consumption-driven middle class, relationship consultants like Yang teach them that buying a luxury item is a form of investing in or bettering themselves. Other gurus strike a similar note, telling women that it’s somehow a sin not to own a designer coat, or titillating them with promises that a quick and easy makeup trick will help them catch the eye of the guy they like.
A sizeable number of silver-tongued charlatans are hawking half-baked — and often entirely fictitious — psychological concepts as salves for an insecure, uninformed generation’s emotional needs. To Yang, we are naught but a set of numbers, constantly striving to score higher, trick people into loving us, and extract what we need from them, be it a new car, a necklace, or a luxury vacation. But her pitiful world is cold, vain, and cynical — so cynical, apparently, that even comfort women had it pretty good.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Yang Bingyang gives a speech in Wuhan, Hubei province, Dec. 26, 2015. IC)