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    Why China’s Hottest New Drama Is Dividing Female Viewers

    Many in China are hailing “The Tale of Rose” as a step forward for female representation on screen. Others are dismissing it as out of touch.

    The new TV drama “The Tale of Rose” has smashed streaming records in China since its release on Sunday, but viewers are divided over whether the show is really as progressive as it claims to be.

    Released on state broadcaster CCTV and streaming platform Tencent Video, the show has quickly become a massive hit, racing to the top of China’s drama streaming charts within 48 hours of release, according to industry platform Maoyan.

    Adapted from the 1981 novel of the same title written by Hong Kong writer Isabel Nee Yeh-su, better known by her pen name Yi Shu, “The Tale of Rose” tells the tale of a beautiful young woman from Beijing who embarks on a string of romances while building a career in the arts.

    The show’s creators have stressed that its main theme is female empowerment, and the series has made great efforts to update the novel for the 2020s. The setting is not only brought forward to the 21st century; a number of changes have also been made to the plot and characters.

    For many, the show is all the better for it, with “The Tale of Rose” receiving widespread praise for its nuanced portrayal of its female characters. Unlike many dramas, the show is about much more than the protagonist’s search for true love.

    On the contrary, the protagonist — Huang Yimei — frequently chooses her career over relationships. She breaks up with her first partner after refusing to move to France to be with him, then divorces her second partner after their career paths diverge.

    On the microblogging platform Weibo, where a hashtag related to the show has racked up over 1 billion views, many commenters compared the show favorably with stereotypical “idol dramas” — soap opera-style dramas about beautiful young people falling in and out of love, which are hugely popular in China.

    “If ‘The Tale of Rose’ was an idol drama, the woman’s bosses would all be handsome men. After experiencing a rocky love affair, she would end up with one of the bosses,” one user wrote.

    The show has also won praise for showcasing a range of complex female characters. The first few episodes have already introduced a number of minor characters, from a woman struggling to move on from a tough breakup to a fiercely independent female PhD student.

    “The strength of this drama lies in the fact that it not only retains the spiritual core of the original work’s ‘growth of a woman’s view of love’ plotline, but also puts effort into aspects like regional settings, character development, and narrative details. It adapts the original novel, first published in 1981, to be more grounded and closer to real life,” the state-run People’s Daily commented.

    But the show has also faced pushback. Many viewers have criticized its “Mary Sue” protagonist, who is implausibly popular, gifted, and beautiful. In the first episode, her boss even breaks up with his fiancée of seven years just for a chance to be with her.

    On social media, users were quick to point out that the stakes seem low for a character with so many advantages. The fact that she is being played by star actress Liu Yifei — famous in China for her charm and good looks — only adds to this sense.

    “Huang Yimei’s life will not be harmed by a failed marriage … If I was that beautiful, I would not be afraid of divorce,” read one comment on lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu.

    Then there is the issue of privilege. In the series, Huang Yimei is the daughter of two professors at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, with many viewers saying they find her background alienating.

    One moment in particular has stirred backlash: Huang, while attending a job interview, blithely says she could have continued studying, but she felt like taking a job would get her out of her comfort zone. For younger viewers — many of whom are struggling to find work or get a place on a postgraduate program — the scene felt divorced from reality.

    Others have criticized the drama’s lack of attention to detail when it comes to the settings and props. “The story starts in the early 2000s, but all the costumes, makeup, and props are the same as now, with no sense of the time period, which is a bit strange,” one user wrote.

    Additional reporting: Li Dongxu.

    (Header image: A still from “The Tale of Rose” shows the heroine at a restaurant. From Douban)