TV Tuesday: A Closer Look at Romance in China Through 'Chinese Style Dating'
Welcome to TV Tuesday, a column devoted to following the newest and most notable Chinese mainland television shows. Each week, this features examines notable television shows that are worth watching.
With a new year comes a new dating show; “中国式相亲” or Chinese Style Dating which aired its first episode on Christmas Eve 2016. The show’s gimmick puts the burden of choosing a partner not on potential suitors, but on their parents. The show has already received no small amount of negative feedback online, accused of being a “step backwards for Chinese society," with some netizens saying it amounts to arranged marriage with new packaging.
However, as China continues its modernization and old often gives way to new, the show’s apparent support for a more conservative, traditional take on dating gives us some insight into parts of Chinese society that the average expat might not encounter. Here’s a couple things you can learn from the show, although these obviously might not reflect on your experiences dating in China. Everybody's experience is different.
It's a Numbers Game
As with many countries, double standards exist with regards to men and women in China, which results in certain contestants receiving unfair treatment. Part of this stems from the still present notion of shèngnǚ, or 剩女. The word refers to women who don’t get married by 27, and are then considered “leftover” or “cast aside,” essentially undesirable. However, this presents a problem for the growing number of Chinese women following their own careers. Any woman pursuing a postgraduate education is unlikely to finish before 25, giving her only a brief window to find a partner if she so desires before she passes the imaginary threshold.
Related is the traditional belief, still around in some parts of the West as well, that a wife can’t or shouldn’t be better educated than her husband. A contestant from the first episode was rejected for holding a master’s degree, deemed too high when compared to her potential boyfriend’s level of education, while in the second episode one woman worries in the side room that a male contestant won’t have a higher degree than her, a fear not echoed by any male contestant. Many people love to marry someone more intelligent, more accomplished than themselves, but exceptions abound in China.
The list of rejections goes on. One female contestant on the first episode was passed over by a set of parents for being 40-years-old and divorced. Their son was quite enthralled by her, but even his pleas couldn’t override his parents’ veto. Then on the third episode, a female contestant fails to even attract the approval of three families at the start when it becomes clear that her reported age of 26 was a bit of an underestimate. She later hints at being 30, before admitting her actual age of 33. In her words, “no one will want you if you come onstage and say you’re 33, so I had to lie.” Whether the families’ rejection was tied to her age, her deception, or her personality in general can’t be said. I personally didn’t care for her overly-cutesy language and unsubtle name-dropping even before her age came to light, so I think it was a combination of all three.
… Whether Age or Income …
If it’s not one number, it’s another. Curiously, basic traditional requirements for male suitors such as, “do you have a house,” “do you have a car,” that I was asked about during my own experience on a Chinese dating show were passed over (or assumed to be satisfied) in favor of other questions. This by no means indicates a lack of materialism though, as one Taiwanese contestant mentioned several times the RMB 1 million (roughly USD 145,000) “reward” her father was offering to anyone who married her. The word “dowry” might have been a bit more up front.
Two of the fathers on the same episode then spent a great deal of time talking with another male contestant not about his suitability for their respective daughters, but rather how they could join his business and who would be the more beneficial partner for him. Combined with parents’ claims of how well female contestants would be taken care of, or of the houses offered to male contestants if they would marry and move to the family’s city, the show at times seemed to be facilitating a business transaction.
Material desires aside, this could have been an effort to suss out whether the potential pairing was mendanghudui, or 门当户对. This idiom describes a pairing in which the husband and wife come from similar financial and social backgrounds, and is generally seen to be the best type of marriage.
Filial piety is a major facet of Chinese society. It’s emphasis on taking care of your parents and respecting their opinions stems from Confucianism. Confucius’ contention that a harmonious society is built on a strong family unit with authority flowing along the male line from old to young seems to hold strong today, as the Chinese government features it prominently in their public campaigns to promote social harmony today. It also appears as one of the main themes of Chinese Style Dating. After all, what better way to show your filial piety than letting your parents pick your spouse?
A melancholy segment, probably designed to be so, from the third episode involving male contestant Zhang Jingli provides a good example. Zhang lost his father at a young age, was raised exclusively by his mother, and was the favorite pick of female contestant Liu Xinling. However, mama Liu raised some concerns over him being from a single-parent household without giving concrete reasons. While Xinling ignored these concerns and said she still wanted to date him, apologizing profusely for her mother, Zhang in turn rejected her, saying that he firstly didn’t want her to go against her mother’s wishes, and secondly that he had no interest marrying into a family that had a problem with his upbringing. Despite his nontraditional family, it seems Zhang still has a lot of traditional love and respect for his mother. Attaboy.
Sometimes You Just Cast Your Fate to the Wind
According to one of the show’s producers, Liu Yuan, its two objectives are to explore intergenerational communication via its contestants and their parents, and to bring together couples already fated for each other (indicating 缘分, yuánfèn). Yuanfen roughly translates into English as the fate that brings two things together (usually people, but not always, and not always romantically). The term covers a whole range of occurrences, from getting a job in the same city you traveled to a long time ago and loved, to bumping into a middle school classmate twenty years on, to finding your true love. Chinese people put a lot of stock in it, and while not all might truly believe, it’s a handy cultural label for certain occurrences.
Conversely, it can be inferred that any relation that doesn’t work out wasn’t fated to be. Chinese Style Dating then can be seen as a conduit or catalyst of yuanfen, putting people who otherwise might not meet in the same room to test whether or not they’re fated to be. If not, no harm done, if so, then another happy union has been created.
While wagering one’s relationship prospects entirely on chance might seem unusual, the show has a fairly high success rate. Parental approval makes a great relationship all the better, and the particular brand of matchmaking offered by Chinese Style Dating shows us that tradition still plays a large role in China. Chinese Style Dating continues to air every Saturday night on Dragon Television (Beijing time), and anyone hoping to date in China would do well to watch the show, at least to learn what to expect from their potential partner’s parents.