Book review: Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television

Wen, Huike. Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television. Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Chinese media scholar Huike Wen’s new book, Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television, was published in July 2020 by Palgrave Macmillan as part of its East Asian Popular Culture series. The book “explores the popular imagination of romantic love created by television in the post-socialist China” through a selection of 4 popular tv dramas (urban melodramas Dwelling Narrowness and Enlightenment of Life, time slip✖️costume drama Every Step is Startling, and sitcom iPartment) which aired between 2009 and 2014, as well as the dating show If You Are the One which quickly became a hit after it came out in 2010 and has been ongoing ever since. 

The author looks at the classic portraits of what’s considered as a desirable romantic relationship and what’s not in Chinese television, and argues that “love and romantic relationships are highly coded within the concerns of the dominant ideology, morality, and consumer culture.” Widespread social phenomena such as extramarital affairs, relationships between older woman and younger man, as well as friendship and romance among house sharing youngsters, entered the mainstream TV in China around the turn of the 21st century. As the author points out, this happened at the convergence of the unified socialist narrative being loosened up, the pouring in of international cultures and lifestyles (notably those from the U.S. and the neighboring societies in East Asia including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea), as well as the gradual predominance of the consumerist and neoliberal life philosophy. While the television industry actively introduced foreign themes and genres in the past few decades, it was also undeniably compromised by the ideological guidelines marked by “Chinese characteristics”.

The author attempts to distinguish the Chinese characteristics from the foreign but seems to care less about the numerous differences within the multiethnic, highly stratified China. She quoted Lynn Pan (2015) to suggest that “there was no comparable concept to Western ‘romantic love’ in China between Western colonial contact”, and that “romantic love was never accorded a higher status than filiality”, which conforms more favorably to the Confucian Han China than the rest. For instance, the multiethnic Tang Dynasty (618–907) was famous for its cosmopolitan culture and open civilization, whose law provided that young adults who had established a marital relationship without their parents’ approval would be recognized as legally married. When analyzing the similarities and differences between sitcom iPartment and its American predecessor Friends, the author accurately points out that such a utopian community of young people is largely divorced from the social reality filled with confusion and conflicts. Unfortunately, Wen stoped there and didn’t make any further effort to explore the reason behind the title’s popularity. In China’s case, this is one significant aspect of the one-child policy’s legacy intertwined with the surge of migrating to major cities for study or work, during which a generation of people receive more support and understanding from their cohabitation with peers than their biological families.

The book is titled Romance in Post-Socialist Chinese Television, but it exclusively focuses on the neoliberal, consumerist China more than anything else, leaving the term ‘post-socialist’ poorly defined. In his essay Huang Jianxin and Postsocialism, Paul Pickowicz first uses the term post-socialism in the cultural realm and proposes to deal with the domain of popular perception. According to him, the term refers to the condition of profound disillusionment and alienation “in the context of public awareness of the failure of the traditional socialist system and the absence of a socialist identity among ordinary people who live in or have lived in traditional socialist societies” Thus, postcolonial China already started in the second half of Cultural Revolution before the decease of Mao when people came to experience the bankruptcy of socialism. (New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2012). On the other hand, Kevin Latham, like many others, follows the timeline beginning from the economic reforms in 1978, and reminds us that contemporary China should be understood through not only “the radical economic changes and social transformations” but also the coexistence of socialist continuities (Postsocialism: Ideals Ideologies and Practices in Eurasia. Routledge, 2001). Since the 1980s, the television and cinema sphere has been constantly transforming, negotiating between the changed and the unchanged. More simply put, the 1980s and 1990s were marked by reflection on the socialist ages, from criticism to nostalgia, in relation to romance and other topics, such as the tv drama Ke Wang (1990); the past ten years witnessed the rising of feminist voices and other contemporary discussions, with titles making further steps towards the criticism of the patriarchal system by depicting capable and responsible female figures who make choices for themselves despite the pressure from family and society, as in the recent Nothing but Thirty (2020). The author not only neglected these variations at different times, but also failed to notice the large population who don’t have any access to the urban lifestyle nor the urban imagination, for example, the rural population. TV series Love Stories in the Countryside has run over 12 seasons from 2006 to 2020, depicting a romantic landscape distinct from the urban ones and the imaginarily imperial ones. With non-urban voices like this absent from the picture, the post-socialist romance mapped in the book turns out to be both partial and misleading.

Z.

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