Last month, I met with a team of producers who hoped to bring me onboard as a consultant on women’s issues while they shot a variety show to be broadcast online later this year. The directors were keenly aware that the show’s success lay in whether it stimulated debate, adding that gender issues — in particular, the role of women in Chinese society — were a surefire way of increasing views and stirring up controversy. Apparently, this was where I came in: The producers enjoyed several articles I had written in Chinese about women’s issues, including a recent viral piece titled “How Can Marriages Be Equal When Our Society Isn’t?”
Chinese social media users are discussing women’s issues with increasing openness. At the same time, more and more media outlets — from online variety shows to so-called WeMedia accounts — are reaching out to predominantly female readerships.
A highly successful product of this trend is the self-styled relationship guru Yang Bingyang — aka “Ayawawa” — who recently courted controversy for making insensitive comments about Chinese comfort women kept by Japanese soldiers during World War II. Yang taps into the deep-seated fear of singledom held by many straight Chinese women: Many of her fans either feel immense pressure to get married or worry that their husbands might divorce them.
Yang has developed a panoply of pseudoscientific theories that she claims are guaranteed secrets to success in the marriage market. Most of her advice equates happy marriages with material comfort: On her WeChat public account, fans pepper her with questions like “Miss Wawa, will he ever propose to me?”, “How can I get my man to buy me the life I want?”, and “How can I get my name on the deed to the house?”
Yang advises women to dress and act conservatively so that their male partners don’t feel insecure or threatened by perceived public displays of sexuality. She also says that women should not aspire toward conventionally attractive husbands: Handsome men, she claims, are more likely to be unfaithful and are often unwilling to “invest” — she uses this term in its cold, financial sense — in their female partners and children. She encourages women to find themselves a man who will buy them a home and spend money on them. In her world, a man’s wealth and drive outweigh the need for him to be attractive and kind.
Part of the reason why Yang is so popular among online readers is because she invokes the jargon of psychologists and social scientists to give targeted, precise solutions to her readers’ perceived problems. This approach differs markedly from the equivocal conclusions that are a hallmark of professions dealing with the human mind and personal relationships. Are you feeling unable to bag yourself a man? Then you need to “increase your value as a potential partner.” Is he treating you coldly and suspiciously? Then your relationship is suffering from “paternity uncertainty.”
Yang is so influential in China because she has exploited the shallow opportunism of the country’s marriage culture. A common metaphor used to describe the the differences between Western and Chinese families is that the foundation of the former is a “horizontal” relationship between husband and wife, while the latter have “vertical” relationships between parents and children.
Although Western couples share the responsibility of child-rearing, it is ultimately their relationship with each other that maintains the family unit. But in China, the relationship between husband and wife plays a secondary role, a structure that deprioritizes the need to continually strengthen the bond between the married couple and stifles the ideals of romance in favor of subservience and shared responsibility.
Yang’s opportunistic take on marriage also exploits the excessive pragmatism with which many Chinese people approach marriage. Although this practical view has deep-seated cultural roots, it has resurged since the state began enacting sweeping market reforms in the late 1970s. Prior to the reforms, state institutions played a large role in infant and elderly care. But now, individual families generally expend money, time, and effort to support their weakest members.
In most Chinese households, women still disproportionately preside over these matters. In addition, China is a highly patriarchal society, one that accords inferior social status to women and convinces many that landing a rich husband is in their best interest. Under these circumstances, marriage is no longer a binding agreement based on the love of two people; instead, it is a materialistic safety net that justifies the woman’s sacrifice of her romantic ideals.
Yang’s adherents argue for a hyper-practical view of marriage built around transactional relationships between husbands and wives. But they are not representative of Chinese society as a whole. In opposition to this conservative view of marriage, we have also witnessed the emergence of new perspectives on relationships and how female experiences should be represented. During the most recent season of the online girl group show “Produce 101,” a 25-year-old contestant named Wang Ju became the poster girl for this emergent movement, attracting legions of fans who admire her willingness to clearly express her ambitions and desires — which do not revolve around relying on men for personal identity and financial security.
On a recent episode of “Produce 101,” Wang made an impassioned speech in favor of female independence. Meanwhile, several old photos of her appeared on the screen, showing how she used to look. The long hair, white skin, slender frame, and a fresh-faced, wholesome appearance were every inch the romantic ideals of most Chinese men. In her monologue, Wang said that despite the fact that she now looks “unconventional” by Chinese beauty standards, she loves herself more the way she is now.
Wang appears to have struck a chord with China’s growing cohort of young, highly educated urban women, who see traditional beauty standards as restrictive and unattainable. By voting for her, Wang’s fans are placing a certain amount of faith in the emergence of a new brand of female role model. Seeing someone they can relate to rise to success has bolstered their sense of empowerment.
Yang and Wang’s simultaneous rise to fame reveals the complex and contradictory popular images of womanhood in today’s China. Where the former symbolizes a retrenchment of traditional male-female power relations according to a strongly consumerist model, the latter dismisses the skinny nymphets with alabaster skin so lauded by the Chinese patriarchy. Wang’s followers do not want to live in docile servitude, do not fear confrontation with their male partners, and do not care how society believes a “good woman” should behave. To them, female emancipation does not mean getting their name written on the deed to their husband’s apartment. As Wang sang in a recent rap, riffing on another female icon, Beyoncé: “You don’t have to put a ring on me, I can buy my own.”
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Left: Yang Bingyang poses for a photo in Beijing, Dec. 28, 2007. VCG; Right: Wang Ju poses for a photo, June 2018. From Weibo user @一甲摄影工作室)