Women Rule, Men Drool in China’s Hottest New Show
It’s a well-worn trope of film and fiction: The hero rescues the damsel in distress, and they fall madly in love. But what happens next?
“You look so good,” the beauty, Chen Qianqian, says as she sizes up the hero with a long, lascivious look, eyeing him from head to toe. She turns to her attendants and says in a commanding tone: “Bathe him and send him to my chambers tonight.”
This scene from the wildly popular period drama “The Romance of Tiger and Rose” is set in the fictional city of Huayuan, where women rule. The show has blown up on Chinese social media thanks to its convention-defying world in which men’s and women’s roles are reversed — at least partially. Its 14 episodes released so far have a combined 580 million views, and a related hashtag on microblogging platform Weibo has been viewed more than 3 billion times.
“The Romance of Tiger and Rose” imagines an ancient China with a woman’s punch: a matriarchal society that smashes the mold and represents something of a feminist awakening. Male characters aren’t allowed to pursue their studies or careers; instead, they’re reared to be obedient and virtuous, and dream of meeting a woman who will sweep them off their feet and into a life of domestic bliss. The female characters, meanwhile, command armies and hold public office; they also pass their family names on to their children.
“Listen: If you eat an onion a day, you’ll definitely have a daughter — and you won’t be bullied by your evil mother-in-law,” a vegetable peddler advises a male customer in one scene. In another, a gaggle of men are preoccupied with the appearance of one of their peers. “Look! Look! That guy’s so scantily clad — in broad daylight!” they say to each other, gesturing toward a man in shorts. “If he’s harassed, he had it coming.”
Many online fans appreciate the show’s biting satire. “This wave of ironic scenes deserves a full score,” wrote one commentator with over 7 million Weibo followers, implying that many of the lines spoken by male characters could easily come from real-life sentiments Chinese women might encounter today. A recent commentary published by The Beijing News suggested the show could launch a new trend of programs embracing female-dominated stories.
However, not everyone is impressed with the way “The Romance of Tiger and Rose” has unfolded, with critics objecting to how the show handles the relationship between its two leads. Some argue that although the story is set against the backdrop of a matriarchal society, Chen Qianqian doesn’t actually break free from the stereotypically submissive role, as she’s constantly creating problems for herself and relying on a Prince Charming type to sort out the mess.
“When the two protagonists drink alcohol together, it’s still the woman serving the man. The label of ‘matriarchal’ applies in name only,” one user wrote on review site Douban. “I thought there would be plot points for discussing equality between men and women, but actually, regardless of whether you have a patriarchy or matriarchy, it still underscores male over female.”
Years before “The Romance of Tiger and Rose” emerged, China’s online writers had been exploring female-dominated fiction on online literature platforms. Perhaps the first work tagged as “matriarchal fiction” was a 2005 novel published on Jinjiang Literature City, China’s most popular platform for fan fiction and other online literature. That early label evolved to become “gender preference,” one of the site’s many genres, along with gay and lesbian literature.
“For readers of matriarchal fiction, it’s so great to see men in a subordinate position to women,” a veteran online author who uses the nickname Vava told Sixth Tone. “There used to be more exciting scenarios — like men getting pregnant, giving birth, and then nourishing their children through ‘penile breastfeeding.’”
According to Vava, matriarchal fiction is still a relatively niche genre of online literature, and it’s hard to imagine it achieving mainstream popularity.
The author also said she understands why “The Romance of Tiger and Rose” fell prey to the Prince Charming stereotype. “In the end, the heroine will still find a much stronger man to rely on,” she said. “Otherwise, their love story won’t have wide appeal.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A still frame from the popular Chinese period drama “The Romance of Tiger and Rose.” From @传闻中的陈芊芊官微 on Weibo)