Bad Romance: Understanding China’s New-Look Traditionalists
The camera lingers on the lovebirds as they stand, naked and tied to a tree, before it slowly pans to show a crowd of onlookers craning their necks for a better view.
It’s a pitiful scene, but when the video of the couple’s plight went viral on Chinese social media this February, the reaction wasn’t sympathy, but approbation: Comment sections quickly filled with users castigating the man — who police later confirmed had been caught in flagrante with his mistress — and applauding his wife and in-laws for supposedly having orchestrated the pair’s public shaming.
These zealous enforcers of propriety are part of what is known as the sanguan dang, or “Three Outlooks Party.” Together, they form one of the most distinctive and surprising groups in China’s internet ecosystem: strict moralizers in an increasingly amoral world.
Despite what the name may suggest, the party is not a close-knit organization with a clearly defined platform. Rather, it’s an umbrella term for a wide array of netizens — mainly young women — who share a similar outlook on life, the world, and morality, the “three outlooks” of the party’s name. At its core, however, their mission is simple: Re-sanctify traditional marital and familial values by any means necessary, which includes attacking anyone deemed to have violated either institution.
On popular social networks like Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, viral stories of errant husbands and cheated-upon wives are like magnets, drawing the attention and reprobation of netizens angry at what they see as the country’s declining moral climate. Those sympathetic to the party’s outlook are easily identified by their terminology: No-good husbands are zha nan, or “dregs men”; mistresses are xiao san, or “little thirds.”
Whenever a celebrity couple breaks up, they flock to criticize the man; videos of spurned wives violently beating their husbands’ mistresses are sure to garner applause. Once, curious why party members were so quick to pass judgment on other people’s relationships, I tried asking them how they knew the mistress was to blame. Soon, my comments were flooded with replies like “Only a xiao san would talk like that!” and “Go to hell, xiao san!”
Even fictional portrayals of broken marriages can arouse their ire. The recent TV series “My Father & Daddy,” which starred three well-liked actors, was ravaged by users of the popular review site Douban for its portrayal of a son trying to balance his relationship with his birth father and stepfather. Even the idea of a show acknowledging the existence of deadbeat dads or nontraditional families was apparently a step too far, and members pilloried the program for its “bad outlooks.”
The classics aren’t exempt from the party’s vitriolic sermonizing, either. “The ‘three outlooks’ of this movie are so sick!” reads one Douban review of Jane Campion’s 1993 film “The Piano.” Try to watch “The English Patient” on video-streaming site Bilibili, and you’ll quickly realize that the site’s popular “bullet screen” function, which lets users post scrolling comments over the videos themselves, has been inundated with comments like, “Why is this romance portrayed as something great? It’s just adultery!”
Some of the party’s moralizers go beyond complaining by modifying works to be more in line with their views. On online literature platforms, party-aligned users take it upon themselves to rewrite well-known stories they believe harbor “bad outlooks.” For example, the site is home to a number of fan fiction-like versions of “Titanic” in which Rose’s fiancé Cal is the sympathetic hero, while the handsome young Jack is portrayed as a callous homewrecker.
The works of Chiung Yao, the pen name of the best-selling Taiwan-based writer Chen Che, are another of the Three Outlooks Party’s bêtes noires. At first, Chen’s sweeping, romantic odes to the importance of love in a young woman’s life might seem like odd targets for a group as female-dominated and socially conservative as the Three Outlooks Party, but the party isn’t interested in love — only propriety.
Take one highly rated rewrite of Chen’s novel “Princess New-Moon,” for example. The original tells the story of a young princess who falls in love with a middle-aged officer. She consents to become his concubine but must fend off the machinations of his conniving wife, Yanji.
In the Three Outlooks Party-approved rewrite, the princess isn’t the hero: Yanji is. And rather than being portrayed as jealous or crazy, she’s a paragon of wifely virtue who manages to win back her husband, despite knowing she’ll never love him as she once did. In the party’s morality, maintaining a loveless marriage trumps romance or passion.
That so many young Chinese women see marriage — or more accurately, a stable, monogamous, and legally recognized partner — and not love as the key to a decent life may strike some as surprising. But behind their defense of matrimony and dismissal of romance I see hints of a reactionary backlash against the modern ideals of romantic love and marriage.
It’s important to remember that romantic love was once portrayed as a liberating force. In the early 20th century, driven by and toward love, young women revolted against the patriarchy and the tyranny of arranged marriages. Animated by these ideals, the women’s liberation movement played a key role in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which sought to push the country onto a more modern path, in part by freeing women from the shackles of feudal society.
More recently, however, it can feel as though love has lost its liberating mojo. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Idealized love was never the cure-all it was presented to be: It could not by itself guarantee women’s independence, freedom, or personal fulfillment. In truth, such realizations are a mark of progress. An indicator of how far you’ve come is when you realize your original goals weren’t that progressive or ambitious after all.
But that’s not how the Three Outlooks Party sees it. Rather than building on societal gains and looking for newer, better solutions, women are taking refuge in nostalgic misconceptions about the good old days and blaming the reformers for breaking a millennia-old institution that promised women security and stability — albeit at the expense of freedom.
Although historically, Chinese women were kept subservient to men, wives still occupied a higher position than concubines or mistresses and were not easily cast aside. The loss of this baseline privilege has led some to empathize with women like Yanji and to praise women who attack their husbands’ paramours — who now pose a real threat to their positions.
Yet they are overlooking a key point: Such rights were always products of the patriarchy, a system that has oppressed women for thousands of years. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the party tends to be far harsher toward xiao san than zha nan. “That’s just how men are,” goes one common refrain.
What makes this trend all the harder to bear is how young these women are. As I near 40, I always knew the day would come when I would disapprove of the youth, but I never imagined it would be because they were too conservative.
Nevertheless, I remain positive that phenomena like the Three Outlooks Party will prove transitory. While the current outlook for the women’s liberation movement in China may be bleak, it’s not hopeless. It might seem comforting to retreat to the past, but we must keep our eyes trained on tomorrow, secure in the knowledge that it will be brighter than today.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)