China’s biggest TV event of the year, the Spring Festival Gala, drew a massive audience of 1.14 billion viewers on Thursday, according to preliminary estimates. But the over four-hour-long show divided opinion once again, with a mix of performances that offered few surprises.
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV has been airing the Gala, also known as the chunwan, each Lunar New Year’s Eve since 1983. This year’s edition featured the familiar combination of singing, dancing, opera, martial arts, and comedy skits in front of a live studio audience. In a nod to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however, each spectator was wearing a face mask decorated with an ox design in red or blue.
The flagship variety show is known for acting as a showcase for the Chinese government’s latest policies, campaigns, and achievements, and the 2021 version was no exception. The broadcast touched on China’s battle against the coronavirus, the poverty-eradication drive, the country’s fast-developing space program, and the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, among other topics.
Like last year, the segment that received the most praise from viewers was the one dealing with the pandemic. The skit, titled “Balcony,” was set in the central city of Wuhan during the height of China’s epidemic, culminating in the lifting of the city’s 76-day lockdown last April.
A scene from the sketch “Balcony,” set in the central city of Wuhan during the height of the COVID-19 crisis. From @春晚 on Weibo
Netizens flocked to the Twitter-like Weibo to share how the song performed at the end of the sketch, “Tomorrow Will Be Better,” had moved them to tears. Many said “Balcony” had reminded them of the sacrifices made by frontline medical staff during the pandemic, as well as the solidarity of local communities who helped each other get through the crisis.
The show also provoked pushback, however, for an opening act featuring Chinese dancers dressed as a range of different ethnicities. Another sketch called “Urged to Get Married Every Festival,” meanwhile, drew criticism from viewers for its tired jokes at the expense of young singles.
In the skit, a 28-year-old woman taking part in the poverty-alleviation campaign faces relentless pressure from her parents to get married. But when the woman finally brings a boyfriend home for the holiday, her parents refuse to believe the man is really her partner, instead accusing her of hiring a date for the festival.
Gags about so-called “leftover women” and parental pressure to marry and have children have been a long-running feature of the Spring Festival Gala, mirroring Chinese authorities’ pro-marriage stance amid a falling national birth rate. Many viewers, however, are keen for the chunwan to embrace a more pluralistic attitude.
“At first, I thought the Gala would finally have a performance advocating that marriage isn’t a criterion for judging whether a person is successful or not,” said Wang Yuanfei, a 30-year-old who watched the show with her parents in Shanghai on Thursday night.
A scene from the skit “Urged to Get Married Every Festival.” From @新浪娱乐 on Weibo
Shen Yifei, an associate professor in sociology at Shanghai’s Fudan University, also told Sixth Tone she was disappointed by the skit.
“I was speechless when I saw this sketch end with a marriage proposal,” said Shen. “Such skits should try to bridge the gap between the two generations on marriage, to heal the audience in front of the TV. This enforced harmony is not persuasive to young people or parents.”
In a hostel in Shanghai, however, young people who spoke with Sixth Tone mainly expressed apathy toward the Spring Festival Gala. There were around 30 guests staying in the hostel, most of them young people who had decided against traveling to their hometowns for the holiday, but only five people chose to watch the chunwan in the common room Thursday evening.
“There isn’t much point watching it, especially when you’re … not with your family,” said a 28-year-old guest, surnamed Zhang. “The shows are not that interesting.”
Additional reporting: Rellie Liu; editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A scene from the skit “Urged to Get Married Every Festival.” From @新浪娱乐 on Weibo)