Editorial: Why Is China So Obsessed With a Celebrity Divorce?

The recent divorce of Chinese film star Wang Baoqiang (王宝强) has already become China’s biggest scandal of 2016. With over 10 billion views, it is one of the most-read topics Weibo has ever seen. Why is China so obsessed with a celebrity divorce?

The hype surrounding the divorce of Chinese celebrity couple Wang Baoqiang and Ma Rong is taking biblical proportions. Ever since the Chinese movie star announced his divorce on Weibo (@王宝强) on August 14th, the controversy has been swirling, with more and more intrigue being added to the story every day.

In Wang’s public divorce announcement, the celebrity stated that he had been a loyal husband since he got married to his wife Ma Rong (马荣) in 2009. Unfortunately, he wrote, the illicit affair between his wife and his manager Song Zhe (宋喆) had damaged his marriage beyond repair.

 

“Some netizens turned into private detectives on the matter, researching old pictures for clues of the secret affair.”

 

The exposure of the alleged relationship between Wang’s wife Ma Rong and manager Song Zhe hit Weibo like an earthquake, with millions of netizens jumping on the discussion, scolding Ma Rong on her Weibo account and berating Song Zhe (on a Weibo account that actually turned out not be his).

Some netizens turned into private detectives on the matter, researching old pictures for clues of the secret affair that was taking place behind Wang’s back.

Img464171776One of the pictures posted by netizens as an alleged evidence of Ma’s affair, showing Ma Rong talking to Song Zhe while Wang leads the children.

Private numbers and addresses were leaked online, while more alleged evidence of the relationship appeared. The story now continues as manager Song Zhe and his own wife Yang Hui (杨慧) are also getting divorced, while Ma Rong and Wang Baoqian are caught up in legal battles over alleged stolen assets and disagreement over who should get custody over the children.

The topic ‘Wang Baoqiang Divorce’ (#王宝强离婚#) has now been viewed more than 10 billion times on Sina Weibo. This makes it one of the biggest topics the social media platform has ever seen. It does not even include the views on all other related hashtags, such as “Wang Baoqiang’s Wife Cheated” (#王宝强老婆出轨#), “The Song Zhe & Yang Hui Divorce” (#宋喆杨慧离婚#), “Wang Baoqiang Wants Ma Rong to Give Him the Kids” (#王宝强要马蓉交出儿女#) or “Yang Hui Takes Song Zhe To Court” (#杨慧起诉宋喆离婚#).

With every piece of news coming out on the Wang divorce drama, netizens jump right on it to vent their opinion or to scold Ma Rong. When an earlier What’s on Weibo editorial mentioned the questionable role of Wang within the scandal – as it was him who brought the crisis between himself and the mother of his children out in the open for all of China to see – we received hateful messages from angry Chinese netizens who did not tolerate any criticism of Wang Baoqiang, as Ma Rong ‘deserved’ the wave of verbal violence that was coming her way.

Some reactions were so emotional that it seemed people were talking about their own marriage. Indeed, Wang’s divorce is a matter close to the heart for many Chinese netizens for multiple reasons that relate to netizens’ power, the extent to which they identify with Wang, and the social norms and gender expectations they have.

 

“There is much freedom of speech in China’s celebrity sphere.”

 

In Celebrity in China (2010), Elaine Jeffreys and Louise Edwards stress the difference between celebrity status in the earlier 20th century and in the current digital era, as the emergence of new technologies and mass media has led to what they call a “‘democratization’ of celebrity status”; celebrities and ordinary people become their own producers and publishers by selecting and making their own content to share with the world without a third-party intervening (2010, 8).

This has also brought forth a new generation of ‘DIY celebrities’, ordinary netizens who make themselves famous through social media. Chinese celebrity vlogger Papi Jiang is a good example of how hugely famous netizens can become overnight.

The so-called ‘democratization’ of celebrity status is happening all over the world, but is arguably more significant in a Chinese context. Recent celebrity-related trending topics, such as the Wang Baoqiang divorce, have shown that when a celebrity scandal breaks out in China, it can become especially big and very emotional.

According to Chinese celebrity culture critics, celebrity entertainment news is “banal” as it leads the general audience away from the more serious, political issues. The Dean of Tsinghua University’s Journalism department, Li Xiguang, says: “(..) celebrities are setting the agenda for the general public, which does not have to pay attention to what is happening around them, or care about it, or think about it” (2010, 11).

But one major reason why Wang’s divorce and other celebrity scandals become so big in China is because many political issues leave little room for public online debate, while there is much freedom of speech in China’s celebrity sphere. Netizens can say what they want, and be involved in a news topic to an extent they would normally not be allowed to – becoming active contributors to the discussion as sharers, commentators, or ‘detectives’.

Supporters of China’s celebrity culture therefore praise it as a representation of “rising individualism and resistance to an all-controlling state” (Jeffreys & Edwards 2010, 13). It was not state media that made Wang’s divorce a trending topic. It was Wang himself and the people who followed him, which made the public’s attention for the topic all the bigger.

 

“With his rural-to-urban, migrant-to-actor, pioneering spirit, Wang has come to represent the Chinese dream.”

 

Another major reason why the story became so big has much to do with Wang Baoqiang himself. Wang is a former migrant construction worker who rose to fame when he was cast in his first movie.

Born into a poor rural family in Hebei Province in 1984, Wang was fascinated by Jet Li and said in previous interviews: “I wanted to be a kung fu star when I saw the film (..) And I felt that if my parents could see me on television they would feel very proud of me, especially in front of our neighbors.”

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Wang’s humble background story is touching to many, as he worked hard to where he is today. At the age of 8, the actor left his family to study kung fu and later went to Beijing to play small roles as an actor in film and TV while doing construction jobs on the side. The dream of supporting his future family was of great importance to him, as he told the media on multiple occasions.

He made his big break when major director Feng Xiaogang chose him to play a role as, ironically, a migrant worker with a kind heart, in A World Without Thieves (2003). Wang later became a critically acclaimed actor, known for his roles in films like Blind Shaft (2003) and A Touch of Sin (2013).

With his rural-to-urban, migrant-to-actor, pioneering spirit, Wang has come to represent the Chinese dream. This image was strengthened after Wang got married and had the perfect nuclear family with one boy and one girl.

That such a man would end up in a marriage scandal such as this meant a break of the Chinese dream to many. The article “Wang Baoqiang’s Marriage Upheaval Smashed the Chinese Dream” (王宝强婚变打破的中国梦), that was shared a lot on Weibo, struck a chord with many. As author @万能的大熊 says:

“In the world of entertainment, divorce news is nothing new. The fact that this incident with Wang Baoqiang got so big is not just about marriage – it has broken the Chinese dream for a lot of people. This is a collusion of the public and the private about the importance of family, and it challenges the general order and moral.”

 

“There is a double standard in the existing public opinion, where the women often get blamed for extramarital affairs – no matter if they are the wife or the mistress.”

 

One thing that stands out in the case of Wang’s divorce is the collective hatred for estranged wife Ma Rong, who currently has become the “most-hated” person on Weibo. It relates to existing perceptions on gender roles within marriage and society, and has added more fuel to the fire.

The great majority of Weibo netizens side with Wang Baoqiang, calling Ma Rong a ‘slut’, a ‘cheat’ or a ‘gold digger’. One popular Weibo comment by a young male netizen even says: “Let me tell you – even if Wang Baoqiang would keep a mistress, visit prostitutes or have another wife, we would still be on his side! No matter how wronged you feel, we won’t sympathize! You’re a piece of trash!

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This comment and the many of its sort show that there is a double standard in the existing public opinion, where the women often get blamed for extramarital affairs – no matter if they are the wife or the mistress. The men, on the other side, are often perceived as guiltless.

The recent stream of videos that show wives beating up their husband’s mistresses in broad daylight reveal how, even if it is the husband cheating, the females are held responsible. Netizens are generally quick to blame the wife who has been cheated, saying that she apparently “did not take good care of her husband” or otherwise he would not have had an affair. In the case of Wang Baoqiang and Ma Rong, however, there are virtually no netizens claiming that Ma had her alleged affair because Wang was “not taking good care of his wife”.

Divorce is often seen as a social degradation for women, more so than for men. The fact that Ma Rong was an unknown student when she met the already famous Wang in 2007 does not help. As WeekinChina writes:

“(..) the union between Ma and Wang had always sparked more skepticism than confidence, (..) they came from very different backgrounds. Ma was a rich city girl studying broadcasting at Northwest University in Xi’an while Wang, though a successful actor, was poorly educated. Their physical attributes, too, couldn’t be further apart. Essentially, it was a marriage between “a Phoenix and a Peacock” (..) “Phoenix men are those who are born impoverished but they achieve worldly success through their own efforts… Ma, meanwhile, is a textbook Peacock: a beautiful woman that grows up highly educated in a well-off family. While it makes sense that Wang would pursue a Peacock – she is tall, beautiful and sophisticated – their relationship is also very risky. These marriages often encounter even more problems than an average couple because the two have such different value systems.””

With the combination of the general social stigmatization of divorced women, Ma’s background, Wang’s popularity, and the story of adultery, Ma Rong has become the ultimate object of scorn and will have to wear her online ‘scarlet letter’ for some time to come.

As fickle as social media might be, you can be rest assured that for the time to come, for many different reasons, Wang Baoqing and his divorce will continue to be buzzing on Weibo.

– By Manya Koetse

References

Jeffreys, Elaine and Louise Edwards. 2010. Celebrity in China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

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