Why On-Screen Portrayals of China’s Middle Class Fall Flat
The term “middle class” is not an easy one to define. This is especially true in China, where the idea is very much still under construction.
Ask a Chinese person what they think of when they hear the words “middle class,” and they’ll likely reel off a list of images drawn from movies and TV shows that glorify the pleasures of bourgeois life: professional success, an apartment in a soaring high-rise, glamorous vacations in tropical resorts, luxury brands, and haute cuisine. Cultivating a moderately prosperous middle class capable of stimulating domestic consumption has long been a key national goal in China, and the country’s media industry has worked hard over the years to inculcate the country’s population with the right values. Entire movies seemingly exist for the sole purpose of extolling the virtues of vapid consumerism and materialism.
Recently, however, cracks have begun to emerge — hints that, beneath the happy façade, this life may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
For all the attention domestic media gives the middle class, they are neither a deeply rooted nor firmly entrenched part of Chinese society. Unlike the West, the middle class remains a distinct numerical minority in China. From the Communist victory in 1949 up until the launch of the reform period in 1978, China’s leaders spent decades suppressing and liquidating anyone connected to the bourgeoisie. The country’s middle class, therefore, had to essentially be recreated from scratch beginning in the 1980s.
This meant instilling middle-class values in a population raised on socialism. Naturally, popular media was to play an important role in this project, and according to the cultural critic Dai Jinghua, by the mid-1990s, China’s film and television industry had begun to align itself with what it identified as middle-class taste and values. In doing so, it overturned socialist norms that had prevailed for decades. “[It was a process that] sought to ‘feed’ and construct a Chinese middle class,” Dai writes.
This shift can be seen in popular media from the time, much of which revolved around middle-class life. In the mid-’90s, director Zhao Baogang rose to fame for his depictions of this emerging group, while his frequent collaborator and star Wang Zhiwen became a style icon for recently urbanized young people around the country. As they watched Wang’s wealthy, yet directionless and materialistic characters meander across their screens, it would have been hard for viewers to miss the contrast between them and the socialist heroes and martyrs of years past.
Over the ensuing two decades, this mass-media support has allowed China’s middle class, despite its apparent fragility, to wield disproportionate influence over Chinese society. Flaunting one’s possessions and cultural capital became a way for this group to try and solidify their newfound status by differentiating them from those lower on the economic ladder. In turn, the country’s growing obsession with middle-class life only encouraged film and television producers to push bourgeois values even further.
Yet films that amount to little more than two-hour advertisements for wealth and urbanity are not exactly fulfilling cinematic experiences. Meanwhile, attempts to put a glossy sheen on middle-class life can hollow out plots, leaving narcissistic, unlikeable leads to carry the movies.
The 2010 film “Go Lala Go!” which was based on the novel “Chronicle of Du Lala’s Promotion,” turns the book’s tale of personal trials, tribulations, and eventual triumph into a vapid office romance in which the female lead simpers, flirts, and dates her way to a happy ending. The sleeper hit of 2017, “The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes,” aims for urban romance but ultimately lands somewhere south of raunchy teenage comedy. The film’s selfish, immature protagonists would make a good parody of the urban middle class, if the film didn’t let them get away with their stunts.
While Western media has its own history of glorifying middle-class life, at least shows like “Big Little Lies” and “Desperate Housewives” occasionally poke fun at the mythos around it. Too many Chinese films continue to emphasize fashion, luxury, and glamor while rarely interrogating underlying social issues or the real-life challenges faced by members of China’s middle class.
Ironically, all this is happening at a time when China’s white-collar workforce is being squeezed by corporate cutbacks. In many quarters, optimism has been replaced by ennui, and at least some films are finally beginning to reflect this. Rather than depicting the middle class as paragons of socio-economic success, these movies question the latent hedonism and emptiness of a materialist life.
The popular 2018 film “Lost, Found,” explores this new state of affairs. On the surface, the movie’s protagonist, Li Jie, looks like a strong, capable, and disciplined woman, but when her child goes missing, the film peels away her pretensions of middle-class stability and reveals the truth of her situation. Having recently divorced, she’s barely holding it together while balancing a career and her parenting duties, all while drinking heavily to woo prospective clients. Her struggle is symbolic of the increasing precariousness of the so-called China dream. With no capital and only her professional abilities to fall back on, she is forced to constantly keep hustling in a highly competitive urban environment.
2017’s “Wrath of Silence” is even more pointed in its criticism, contrasting the supposedly respectable lawyer Xu Wenjie — who in reality is in league with the profiteering and murderous coal baron Chang Wannian — with the working class Zhang Baomin. Although Chang kills his son, Zhang manages to save Xu’s daughter. But when given an opportunity to atone for and expose Chang’s villainy, the weak-willed Xu refuses to tell the truth. A rare broadside aimed at the emptiness of middle-class values, “Wrath” doesn’t hide its central thesis that Chinese society is on the wrong track.
Yet few directors are willing to level such direct criticisms, perhaps out of fear of disturbing the social order. While some may take note of the hardships and moral flaws of the country’s middle class, too many take the easy way out. “Dying to Survive,” one of the biggest hits of 2018, had the potential to be a searing indictment of China’s pharmaceutical system and power structures, but it ultimately stops short of presenting a meaningful critique, preferring to tell an uplifting story of personal transformation and middle-class heroics instead.
Blame for this problem at least partly resides with the country’s system for controlling film content, which often forces directors to gloss over or elide deeper societal problems. This leaves films packing a lighter punch, unable to cut to an issue’s core or take a truly critical stance.
Any society that has undergone as many rapid and complete changes as China has over the past 40 years will run into ethical questions and social problems. Meanwhile, middle-class status, once an aspirational ideal, has become a source of anxiety and exhaustion. Our films and television shows should reflect this new reality. Film is a powerfully influential medium, and the industry must be willing and able to showcase the realities of life for China’s middle class and use its immense influence and capacity for both education and entertainment to push for solutions. It’s time to cast off conservative mindsets that call for the mindless glorification of middle-class life and start presenting audiences with more thought-provoking fare.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Still frames from the 2018 film “Lost, Found.” From Douban)