If You Are the One: Dating shows, reality TV, and the politics of the personal in urban China

Wanning Sun, University of Technology, Sydney

Australian television viewers, especially those who watch the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), will have noticed by now a Chinese dating show If You Are the One. In fact, a couple of academic colleagues in Sydney have confessed to me that they are fascinated by it. In the past couple of years, whenever I have given a guest lecture to students of journalism on Chinese media, I have talked extensively about the show, usually to make two points. First, Chinese media can be simultaneously spectacular and mundane, ideologically overbearing and extremely entertaining, and subservient and defiant of the Party-state. Second, ideological warfare does not always take place in news propaganda; instead, it can be fought in the domain of fun-packed entertainment. By the end of the class, Australian students, half expecting an hour of lecture on news censorship, control, and propaganda—all the things usually associated with China and its media—feel suitably entertained, if not enlightened. So, as an academic teaching and researching on Chinese media, I find dating shows to be a good prism through which to talk about how globalisation and privatisation impact on the individual’s everyday life.

For the past few years, Chinese television has been inundated with dating shows, including Love Comes Knocking on the Door (Shandong Satellite Television) and Hunan Satellite Television’s Take Me Out. But it is Jiangsu Satellite Television’s If You Are the One, started in 2010, that has proven to be most popular across the nation. Its popularity has led to numerous copycats, ensuring a ratings war among provincial satellite television stations. These copycats include Zhejiang Satellite Television’s Charge Ahead in the Name of Love and Guizhou Satellite Television’s Dating for Love. There are now around thirty dating shows on Chinese television.

Chinese television has been inundated with dating shows.

If You Are the One is a high-end studio production with a live studio audience, and promises to deliver spectacles of glamour, fashion, and unmitigated entertainment. It is not only popular with domestic viewers across all age and social stratum, it has also, according to the show’s official website, attracted a great number of ‘older singles’, males and females, from abroad. The show regularly features foreign contestants. In recent years, to meet growing demand outside China, intermittent episodes have been produced on location in a variety of cities outside China for simultaneous worldwide screening. As of now, the show’s website is recruiting studio audience for its episodes produced in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Australia’s SBS bought the rights and started broadcasting the show in 2013.

The format is as follows: a line-up of twenty-four female guests is presented with five male bachelors, one at a time. The female guests learn something about each male hopeful through watching three video clips and interacting with him on-site. The first video gives his life background. The second tells us what he wants in a woman. In the third his friends say what think of him. Female guests on the show can question him following the screening of each video clip. As they learn more about each candidate, women who lose interest in him turn off the light that illuminates their individual stations. The man who survives three rounds of interrogation gains the right to vie for the heart of his dream girl. The man can choose to ask one of six questions to the women. He can choose to go on a date with a woman who has kept her light on, or he can he choose to go with his favourite who has turned off her light. If she rejects him, he goes home empty handed. Having said that, he can also decide to give up his right to date, and goes home without a date. However, that may not necessarily be the end of his pursuit. If You Are the One maintains an extremely extensive and well-resourced website (http://fcwr.jstv.com/), complete with contact details about the male contestants. It is possible that further opportunities present themselves after the episode is broadcast.

The format of the show is innovative, the hosts are unfailingly cool and humorous, and the show is often littered with brutally frank conversations between guests and hosts. But the show is also popular because it taps into Chinese young people’s attitudes and anxieties about love, sex and marriage. Featuring young women talking bluntly, and sometimes cruelly, about what they like and do not like about a man, means the show both shocks and resonates with the audience, who know too well that, brutal as they may be, these remarks are true reflections of the prevailing materialistic values in the society, even though ideals such as kindness, honesty and loyalty are still often mentioned by contestants as desirable attributes.

REALITY TV IN CHINA: NEW FORMATS AND NEW SOCIAL REALITY

Dating shows and other lifestyle television programs have become the stock in trade on Chinese television, following the commercialisation of China’s media and the globalisation of television formats. These shows are aimed at entertaining, but equally importantly, they provide information, life advice, and practical everyday instruction not only on questions of what to eat and how to stay healthy but also on how to conduct oneself in intimate relationships. In these programs, individuals are encouraged to take on new attitudes and behaviour which are best described as ‘self-fashioning’ (Ong 2008, p. 182). Various aspects of self-fashioning are evident in the large number of dating shows, reality television and talk shows, which centre around the themes of love, romance, and sexual intimacy, and specialise in emotional and psychological counselling and relationship therapy.

One social cohort acutely feeling the anxiety is the so-called ‘leftover woman’.

One way of accounting for the popularity of such reality television is the rapid and profound social transition experienced by both television industry and the population alike. As Yan Yunxiang, an anthropologist of Chinese individuals’ private lives observes, an individual’s life under socialism followed a standard biographical script, and people lived their everyday life according to the ‘politically and ideologically charged rules about what to wear, whom to date, when to get married, how to raise children, and so forth’ (Yan 2010, p. 502). But economic reforms and the shift of responsibility from the state to the individual in both material and ethical domains have brought this ‘standard biography’ to an end. Consequently, the Chinese people find that they now have to make choices and decisions about how to conduct themselves and how to relate to each other in the society.

While this shift of responsibility from the state to the individual has created a sense of personal autonomy in planning one’s life in the face of new possibilities, it at the same time creates extra feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability, and anxiety (Zhang & Ong 2008; Ren 2013). A wide range of media genres and formats have emerged to tap into these collective concerns. They defuse discontent or even anger which comes from various types of social inequality, be it along the line of gender, class, and place (Sun 2014). These programs are useful to viewers on two levels. They purport to provide practical information and everyday advice to individuals who need to learn new skills and knowledge to survive in the new socio-economic climate, especially those who cannot afford a middle-class consumer lifestyle and mainly watch free-to-air television for recreation. And they give moral and ethical guidance to individuals caught in various kinds of personal dilemmas.

One social cohort acutely feeling the anxiety is the so-called ‘leftover woman’ (sheng nü)—meaning ‘woman left on the shelf’ and too old to be viable in the marriage market. Intended to convince young, single and educated women to get married when they can instead of being ambitious about career and other pursuits, this discourse puts enormous pressure on young women to get married by mid-20s, and reflects a palpable anxiety about marriage and romance on the part of young urban educated women (Fincher 2012). This discourse reflects a ‘visceral anxiety about marriage and romance which pulses through nearly every aspect of contemporary Chinese culture’ (Larson 2012). So, in the context of new personal freedom on one hand, and the pressure not to be ‘left on the shelf’ on the other, what should one do in their pursuit of successful or fulfilling relationships? How should one enhance one’s attractiveness to one’s prospective lover and optimise one’s potential in the marriage market? What qualities are essential and desirable in looking for the significant other, and how does one ascertain if these qualities are present in the candidate? Dating shows such as If You Are the One may not come with ready-made answers, but they sure are an entertaining way of passing time when waiting for Mr or Mrs Right.

News is notoriously prone to censorship and control.

The middle-class people are an anxious lot indeed. And it is not just those ‘on the marriage market’ that are anxious for guidance and advice. Married individuals also live with their own fear and uncertainty. With divorce rates on the rise and the spectre of spousal infidelity hovering, one is left wondering what emotional techniques and strategies are effective in ensuring ‘quality control’ in marriage, and how should one adjust one’s thinking, talking, and feeling in order to maximise one’s opportunity for a successful and fulfilling relationship. While partners want to check that their marriages are secure, parents are equally keen to make sure that they are doing the right thing as parents. Hunan Satellite Television’s show Where Are We Going, Dad?, voted to be ‘best life-themed television program’ in 2013, is a reality show about parenting.

POLITICAL CONTROVERSY OVER IF YOU ARE THE ONE

The logic of producing entertainment shows is easy to see. The television industry in China, still owned and run by the state, has to face the mandate of delivering politically safe yet highly entertaining and lucrative content. In this context, reality shows on relationships are the perfect genre to experiment with format, style and points of view, since compared to genres such as television dramas, reality shows are often relatively cheap to make. Meanwhile, news is notoriously prone to censorship and control due to its perceived likeliness to trigger social instability, and to provoke widespread discontent and unrest, therefore posing a threat to the political legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party. Entertainment, by contrast, is often seen by China scholars in the field of political sciences to be politically innocuous and uncontroversial.

But this is clearly a simplistic view. In October 2011, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television issued a set of directives which set out to ‘clean up the screen’. Interestingly, in spite of, or perhaps because of, its growing popularity, If You Are the One was the prime target of this crackdown. Having captured the imagination of the national audience with the many blunt social commentaries made by its contestants on the stage, it also incurred the ire of the Chinese government. Among these remarks, the most famous have been made by Ma Nuo, now dubbed as the ‘BMW girl’ who is now a household name in China for her declaration on television: ‘I’d rather sit in a rich man’s BMW crying than sit on the back of someone’s bike smiling’. Also well-known is Zhu Zhengfang, dubbed as the ‘big house girl’, who famously said in one of the episodes: ‘Only my boyfriend can touch my hand; anyone else who wants to touch it has to pay 200,000 yuan’.

Initially criticising it for blatantly promoting materialistic and selfish values, the government required the show either to lift its moral standard or to risk being suspended. Succumbing to pressure, the show went through a few cosmetic changes in 2011. As a token gesture of submission, a few episodes immediately following the crackdown added rural migrant workers, Communist party-school academics and economically disadvantaged or marginalised social identities to the lists of participants, in order to defuse the accusation of wealth fetish and commodifying human relationship.

The irony embodied by If You Are the One is plain to see.

But the source of the government’s panic is, however, not so much an innate, aggrieved moral sensibility. It is a response to the fact—which dawns on the government with increasing clarity—that instead of an ideologically safer zone which can avoid or gloss over the conflict between the rich and the poor, such programs can actually accentuate class tensions. It is precisely the fear of giving visibility to social conflicts that dating shows such as If You Are the One at one time became the most controversial show on provincial television. The Chinese Party-state, though content to govern at arm’s length most of the time, does not hesitate to impose its definition of vulgarity on matters to do with marriage and love. In the eye of the government, If You Are the One has failed to fulfil its number one mission: to ‘provide moral education in the form of entertainment’ (yu jiao yu le).

In contrast to If You Are the One, other relationship shows on Chinese provincial television have taken this task more seriously. Although these shows have never achieved the same level of popularity as If You Are the One, and although they are unlikely to resonate with viewers outside China, they rate reasonably inside China. After all, many Chinese viewers either do not mind or are used to a bit of prescriptive advice from time to time. Further, in comparison with If You Are the One, they are politically safe, and aim to reduce rather than increase social pressure on individuals. Lacking the competitive and sometime combative elements in If You Are the One, these shows typically feature authoritative and often didactic figures such as relationship counsellors and experts, who are brought in to mediate disputes and conflicts between individuals.

The irony embodied by If You Are the One is plain to see. Despite the Chinese government’s soft power efforts (with a budget of six billion dollars) to assist its media content to ‘go global’, the rest of the world mostly finds the content of Chinese media boring and smacking of propaganda (Sun 2010). If You Are the One is one of the few Chinese shows that have bucked the trend and have ‘made it’ in the global and transnational Chinese media scene, but it also happens to be the one which the Chinese government wishes did not exist.

REFERENCES

Fincher, L.H. 2012, ‘China’s “leftover” women’, New York Times, 11 October [Online], Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/12/opinion/global/chinas-leftover-women.html?_r=0 [2014, Oct 31].

Larson, C. 2012, ‘The startling plight of China’s leftover ladies’, Foreign Policy, 23 April [Online], Available: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/23/the_startling_plight_of_china_s_leftover_ladies [2014, Oct 31].

Ong, A. 2008, ‘Self-fashioning Shanghainess: Dancing across spheres of value’, in Privatizing China: Socialism from Afar, eds L. Zhang & A. Ong, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, pp. 182–196.

Ren, H. 2013, The Middle Class in Neoliberal China: Governing Risk, Life-building, and Themed Spaces, Routledge, London.

Sun, W. 2010, ‘Mission impossible? Soft power, communication capacity, and the globalization of Chinese media’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 4, pp. 54–72.

Sun, W. 2014, Subaltern China: Rural Migrants, Media and Cultural Practices, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MA.

Yan, Y. 2010, ‘The Chinese path to individualization’, The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 61, no. 3, pp. 489–512.

Zhang, L. & Ong, A. (eds.) 2008, Privatizing China: Socialism from Afar, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Wanning Sun is Professor of Media and Communication at University of Technology Sydney. She researches in a number of areas, including soft power and Chinese media, television and popular culture, and diasporic Chinese media, and rural-to-urban migration in China.