‘Agony Uncles’ Mediate China’s Family Disputes
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2016-04-07 08:01:09

Viewers are going crazy over Shanghai’s hottest dispute resolution reality show, “The New Agony Uncles.” Every evening at 6:00 p.m., the show treats audiences to the domestic problems of a family, with problems ranging from the crumbling of a marriage over a pair of pants, to a husband being forced by his overbearing wife to wear a tracking device.

The show aims to build a more harmonious society by mediating family disputes. Each injured party is given an opportunity to lay all of their grievances out in glorious detail. The host and a rolling cast of “agony uncles,” or lao niangjiu in Chinese — the name given to the show’s conflict mediators — coax out both sides of the argument, analyze them, and then help the families resolve their qualms. Audience members are also invited to participate by offering their own opinions on the matters. As both sides’ interpretations of events are almost always entirely at odds with one another — a phenomenon known as the Rashomon effect — the show often descends into a ferocious mud-slinging match, sometimes enough to even reduce the host to tears.

The term lao niangjiu derives from the Shanghai dialect and refers to an older man with a good reputation and a well-honed sense of justice. Literally translated, it means “maternal uncle.” There is a historical tradition behind the name: In ancient times, when the social position of women was lower than today, a wife who married into her husband’s family would have her rights and interests guaranteed by a nominated male spokesperson from her own household. For this reason, the brothers of married women — maternal uncles, or lao niangjiu — often held relatively high and influential positions within the family since they acted as dispute mediators between the two families. People today continue to use the term lao niangjiu to refer to older people who enjoy a high position in society, who treat others justly and fairly, and are good at distinguishing right from wrong.

Although comical on its surface, “The New Agony Uncles” is actually an important tool for those in China seeking to attain justice. The mediation that takes place in the show is a type of alternative dispute resolution. The show has already set up four hotline numbers and receives calls from over 300 viewers a day seeking to resolve their own family issues. Some of the conflicts presented on the show — as well as the performances of its participants — are so preposterous that they make viewers doubt their authenticity. However, according to interviews with industry insiders by news aggregator guancha.cn, everything in the show is genuine.

Let’s take a look at two of the disputes from “The New Agony Uncles” to experience first-hand how incredible these stories are.

One woman forced her husband to carry a real-time listening device in his pocket for the past four years, which she uses to monitor him from her smartphone.

First up is a middle-aged man who claims that his mother is favoring his younger sister in dividing up the family estate. He’s hurt, agitated, and claiming 50,000 yuan ($7,700) in compensation.

As both sides unload their 20-year-long grievances, the man frequently loses control of his emotions, spitting venomous insults and cursing his own mother and sister. Though everyone can see that his accusations are groundless — with some audience members openly condemning his pernicious, pestering attitude — he still refuses to let up. Eventually, unable to control his explosive outbursts, the show staff escort him away to a soundproof booth.

For the next dispute the show introduces us to a desperate wife who accuses her husband of cheating on her with multiple women. To keep an eye on him, she has forced him to carry a real-time listening device in his pocket for the past four years, which she has used for monitoring from her smartphone. The wife claims that his disloyalty dates back to the beginning of their marriage when she found a letter her husband had written to his ex-girlfriend. She cried for three days after having read it and, according to her, this caused the arthritis of the jaw from which she now suffers. The most damning evidence comes when the wife suddenly produces her husband’s secretion-stained underwear, which she believes is conclusive evidence testifying to his time with other women. But the husband counters with a doctor’s note attesting these stains to be symptoms of prostatitis.

A screenshot from ‘The New Agony Uncles’ showing a wife who accused her husband of being unfaithful. Courtesy of Li Zhongke

A screenshot from ‘The New Agony Uncles’ showing a wife who accused her husband of being unfaithful. Courtesy of Li Zhongke

The husband maintains his innocence, asserting that his wife suffers from extreme paranoia. He tells the audience that once she flipped out when she mistook the recorded sounds of him turning pages while reading a book as sounds of him rolling around in bed with a lover. When he received a 5,000 yuan bonus from a female business partner, he was accused of prostituting  himself to make some extra money. In perhaps the craziest incident, the wife once suspected her husband’s female colleague of being his mistress. In a fit of rage, she slapped her husband, invaded his boss’ house, and demanded that they replace the female colleague with a male. It was soon revealed that the female colleague was actually the mistress of the boss, and this confrontation ultimately ended in divorce proceedings for the boss and his wife.

A husband on ‘The New Agony Uncles’ shows a scar given to him by his wife. Courtesy of Li Zhongke

A husband on ‘The New Agony Uncles’ shows a scar given to him by his wife. Courtesy of Li Zhongke

Pretty spectacular, isn’t it?

There is a historical tradition in China of leaving courts out of the mix when resolving family disputes. One famous Chinese proverb states that “Even the most upright of magistrates cannot settle a quarrel within a family.” According to Fei Xiaotong, a renowned Chinese sociologist, China was traditionally “a society without litigation.” In his book, “From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society,” Fei states that Chinese society is ruled by rituals: “A system of control based on rituals means adherence to traditional rules ... The ideal means for maintaining an order based on ritual is through education not through threatening to send people to prison.”

Thus, whenever disputes arose within a family and couldn’t be mediated internally, people would turn to local elders to resolve the situation. Fei himself has taken part in such mediations when he has visited the Chinese countryside, where he is held in high regard by people who see him as a highly educated teacher and accord him a certain amount of authority.

The influence of such authority figures in family disputes declined after the Communist Party came to power in 1949 since they were now superseded by a work unit’s local party committee. Since the advent of the reform era, the state’s governance over family matters has weakened drastically, but even today it is not uncommon for public sector employees in China to take disputes to the leader of their work unit for mediation. For example, when a professor at a well-known Shanghai university was about to initiate divorce proceedings in 2015, his wife wrote a letter to the heads of the faculty at which her husband worked, venting her frustrations about her husband and appealing for them to judge which side was in the right. The story trended on the Internet across the country.

In addition to seeking the advice of an expert, it seems likely that one important reason for choosing alternative dispute resolution is for confidentiality purposes. So why do so many people choose to reveal their family issues on television, even going so far as to publicly slander one another in front of the camera?

Perhaps one reason is the decline of traditional authority figures in the process of dispute mediation. The absolute authority that local elders and the government once held over families no longer exists, meaning that today’s mediators often lack authority. The majority of conflicts in “The New Agony Uncles” have been festering for a long time, so both parties in the dispute are looking for authoritative judgment and hope to gain external validation of their own position on the matter. Television stations and the “uncles” themselves — usually well-known public figures — undoubtedly hold a comparatively high level of authority, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why the families are ready to reveal potentially embarrassing disputes to the uncles when the camera is rolling.

Although they approach each family with the best of intentions, the efficacy of the agony uncles’ mediations remains open to debate. Inevitably, there are many occasions when none of the problems are resolved and both parties go home on bad terms. Sometimes the situations even take a turn for the worse — one pair of siblings, who came on the show to thrash out a dispute over money, were unable to solve their problems on air. A few months later, the brother savagely killed both his older sister and her husband.

Goethe once wrote, “He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home.” A well-oiled family acts as a support mechanism, helping us to get through the challenges we face in our daily life. It is something that should be nurtured and fixed when broken. Most of us can resolve our disputes internally, but if not, you may just need to enlist the help of an agony uncle. 

(Header image: A woman sits alone in a dark bedroom, Chongqing, July 12, 2014.  VCG)