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    ‘A Little Reunion’ Dives Headlong Into China’s Thorniest Themes

    The popular drama series has been well-received by viewers, who appreciate that it hasn’t shied away from weighty social issues.

    A Chinese drama that has sparked a storm of discussion on contemporary social issues since its premiere just over a month ago aired its final episode Tuesday.

    “A Little Reunion” tells the story of three Beijing high schoolers as they and their families prepare for the gaokao, China’s notoriously difficult and hugely important college entrance examinations. The gaokao is often a family affair in China, with parents going to great and sometimes absurd lengths to ensure that their children are well-prepared to excel on the tests and secure coveted spots at top universities.

    The series has been widely praised for its acting, pacing, and dialogue, earning an 8.3 average rating on the often unforgiving review website Douban. But the aspect of the show that has attracted the most attention is the Pandora’s box of topics it touches on. Over the course of 49 episodes, it covers parenting, education, depression and mental health, stay-at-home dads, aging, health product scams that prey upon the elderly, and even sexual harassment in the workplace. How the show deals with each of these themes has triggered a deluge of conversations, articles, and trending hashtags on the Chinese internet.

    Of these topics, parenting has been arguably the most talked-about, with many netizens sharing how they could see their own mothers in characters such as Tong Wenjie — a strict yet likable manager at a PR firm — and Song Qian, a divorced, highly controlling “tiger mom.” In the series, Song micromanages nearly every aspect of her daughter Yingzi’s life, from her diet and recreational pursuits to her major life decisions. Though Song professes to meddle in her daughter’s life out of love — and indeed exhausts herself in the process — her suffocating ministrations push Yingzi toward insomnia, depression, and, ultimately, the desire to end her life.

    “You’ve always controlled my life according to your beliefs,” Yingzi screams at her mother while clinging to a pole on the edge of a pier, pounding surf beneath her. “I just wanted to escape from you!”

    Since this episode aired, a hashtag about Yingzi’s near brush with death has garnered over 440 million views on microblogging platform Weibo. “These types of children are psychologically damaged from a young age — their parents should really reflect on this,” one Weibo user wrote under a related post, her comment receiving nearly 19,000 likes.

    On social platform WeChat, meanwhile, one blogger commented about how Yingzi’s story reminded him of Wang Meng, a scholar who in 2016 penned a lengthy and widely publicized open letter about how his strictly regimented childhood had left a host of lingering mental issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Feng Yuxiao, an investment manager in Shanghai, is one of the many viewers to be sucked in by “A Little Reunion,” even cheering on its young protagonists as they neared graduation. For Feng, it is Yingzi’s storyline that has left the deepest impression.

    “A lot of people have come out and said that they, too, were controlled by mothers like Song Qian,” Feng told Sixth Tone. “Such parents feel that their child is a part of them, and hope their child will follow their plan. I suppose everyone has experienced this to some extent.” Generational differences are partly responsible for exacerbating tensions between parents and their children, Feng says, with the former struggling to understand the latter’s unfamiliar and seemingly inane pastimes, such as watching livestreamed esports.

    “A Little Reunion” also takes an uncomfortable but honest look at sexual harassment in the workplace — a subject past Chinese dramas have rarely addressed. Tong, whose husband is unemployed, must fend off her boss’s increasingly bold advances: When she can endure them no longer, she quits her job. In response to the episode, many Weibo users lamented that the reality of modern workplaces is in fact even darker than as depicted in the series.

    Beyond tackling the full gamut of hot-button social issues, the show’s soaring popularity has spawned an assortment of jokes and memes. Netizens have wondered, for example, why the supposedly “middle-class” families they’re meant to relate to in such programs always seem to be so wealthy — as evidenced by Song’s character, who owns four apartments in desirable school districts that she’s able to rent out at a premium.

    “If these bloody families are ‘middle-class,’ then I must still be living in the Stone Age,” one incredulous Weibo user commented under a post about the show.

    Contributions: Yin Yijun; editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: A still frame from “A Little Reunion.” @电视剧小欢喜 on Weibo)