Confucius goes Commercial – China’s TV Hit ‘Good Wife’
After the success of China’s “Swordsmen” tv series, the new “Good Wife” television drama has turned out to be China’s next big tv hit, scoring record-breaking ratings. This drama of 35 episode, produced by Hunan Satellite TV, tells the story of mother and housewife Han Dayun (played by actress Liu Tao), who struggles with the challenges of family-life and her role as a mother, wife and daughter-in-law.
After marrying the rich and aristocratic Zhao Boxuan, Han Dayun becomes a stay-at-home mother for her daughter and takes care of the household consisting of a dominant mother-in-law, a shrewd sister-in-law and her somewhat foolish husband. Whilst her mother-in-law continuously plagues Dayun for not conceiving a son (the male heir), her husband is having an affair behind her back. Despite her tribulations, Han Dayun maintains her role as the “good wife”- a virtuous, honest, warm and kind woman who will do whatever it takes to save her marriage and keep the family together.
As the ratings for ‘Good Wife’ went sky-high when the final episode was aired in March 2013, discussions on the show dominated Sina Weibo. Topic of discussion: housewife Dayun. Despite being bullied by her family-in-law and badgered by her husband’s mistress, she remains calm, respectful and patient- thereby “setting the example of a good wife” (Sina Weibo 2013). Why are tv dramas such as these so popular in Mainland China? And how can their seemingly old-fashioned topics be explained in the context of a rapidly modernizing China?
TV Drama in China
Over fifty-five years have passed since China aired its very first television drama titled ‘A Mouthful of Pancake’ (Yikou Caibingzi, 1958), a tv show themed around frugality and class struggle that was mainly used as a tool for political education (Zhu et al 2008, 4-5). Much has changed since those days – not only in China’s television system that now holds a mix of national, provincial and local stations, but also in the topics that are discussed in television dramas. Since the 1990s, TV dramas telling the stories of everyday family life have become increasingly popular. They depict the domestic lives of Chinese families and the concerns they face in issues such as marriage, courtship, and show the existing frictions between traditional values and modern developments (Zhu 2008, 3-11). Despite new genres of television shows emerging over the decades, the television drama has remained the most popular item on Chinese television. According to research, “the ‘Chinese viewer’ watches an average of fifty-two minutes of television drama per day”, turning China into the world’s largest consumer of television dramas (Zhu et al 2008, 1; Zhu 2008, 9).
With a myriad of television channels around, does the Chinese government still take note of the content of television shows? The answer is yes. Although Hunan Satellite TV (that airs ‘Good Wife’) is owned by a mixed group of investors, and could therefore said to be “genuinely commercialized”, it is still directly connected to the Provincial Radio TV Bureau that implements the guidelines of the Party (Yong 2010, 660). Producers of a television show have to both take the wishes of the audience (the commercial profits) and the requirements of the government (the guidelines) in account when making a television drama. China arguably still is among “the most controlled media environments in the world” (Schneider 2012, 4).
Commerce and government go hand in hand: “(..) letting commerce into China does not mean taking the state out; the financial base has changed without substantially reducing the state’s regulatory power or its inclination to exercise ideological and moral oversight of the media” (Zhu 2008, 11).
The propagation within TV dramas of married life as the number one priority and as the “ultimate achievement in contemporary Chinese society” is no coincidence (Scheider 2012, 2); policy makers who aim at reviving Confucian traditions can operate through the content of television programs. Especially in times of rapid modernization where traditional views and values are continually under debate, the restoration and confirmation of these values are of great political concern (Li 2011, 335). Chinese TV dramas such as ‘Good Wife’ clearly represent Confucian values, and portray the family as the primary social institution and the key to happiness (Schneider 2012, 2; Zhu 2008, 3).
Confucian Values in ‘Good Wife’
Maintaining hierarchical relations and preserving harmony are key points to Confucianism that that are underlined in the ‘Good Wife’ tv show.
Zhao Boxuan (Dayun's husband) standing behind a picture of his mother, who can be considered the head of the household since his father passed away.
The whole idea of the ‘good wife’ actually is an integral part of Chinese tradition, where a clear distinction is made between men and women. While the men are occupied with all things that are “outside” (wai) the family (such as business or official matters), the women assign themselves to all the tasks that count as being “inside” (nei) the family home, such as taking care of the household, children and parents (Wang 2012).
In the scene pictured above, Boxuan (Dayun's husband) sees his wife in the streets while he is on his way to a meeting. He is displeased when he hears she is helping her sister Cui Ping with some business. He says: "Why do you keep yourself busy with Cui Ping- aren't you busy enough with matters inside the house?"
For a married woman it is the family of her husband that counts as her own. The relationship with her mother-in-law is especially vital for her role in the family – some even say that being a ‘good wife’ actually means being a “good daughter-in-law” (2012, 65). This holds true for the narrative of ‘Good Wife’. The protagonist Han Dayun is bullied by her own mother-in-law (whom she refers to as ‘mother’) for not giving her the grandson she desired. Instead, Han Dayun and her husband have a daughter, who also happens to be weak due to a heart condition. Although gender should not matter in present-day Chinese society, Han Dayun understands her mother’s preference for a son.
In the scene above, Dayun is at the hospital with her sister-in-law to convince the nurse to tell their mother that her youngest daughter is pregnant with a son (although this is not the case). The nurse says: "What era are we living in?! Why do you still value the gender difference between boys and girls?" Dayun answers: "I know it is difficult, but for older people it takes time to grasp this whole concept [of gender equality]; it does not change overnight."
Dayun talks to her mother-in-law, saying: "From the moment I married into your family (the Zhao family), I have considered you as my own mother."
While Dayun’s husband makes long hours at work, she takes care of the household. Despite the daily nagging of her ‘mother’ she remains calm, virtuous and obedient. Nothing seems to infuriate the ‘good wife’; even when her family-in-law and her husband’s secret girlfriend make her life into a misery, Dayun maintains balanced and does everything in her power to defend her marriage and preserve the harmony within the family.
By making the ‘good one’ suffer and let her be persecuted by evil, the show highlights traditional Confucian values about good versus evil and right versus wrong (Yan 1999, 269; Li 2011, 337). In the end the ‘evil ones’, who employ dishonesty and corruption to gain profit, end up empty-handed. The evil mistress goes to prison, and her little son is raised by Dayun and the family. The ‘good wife’ conquers all; she wins back her husband, succeeds in getting a son and achieves the ultimate goal: harmonious family life.
Confucius goes Commercial
Despite the great success of ‘Good Wife’, the series did have its fair share of criticism and satire. Many netizens thought the script to be flat, too melodramatic and overdone- the Zhao family did not seem like a ‘real family’ to them (Xuan 2013). Nevertheless, most viewers did appreciate the positive message the drama gave to society- “that family itself is a community, and that family members should help each other out when facing a crisis” (Zhuocai 2013).
TV shows such as ‘Good Wife’ are an embodiment of China’s commercialization, cultural values and the state’s conception of a “harmonious society”; they are a way for Chinese viewers to make sense of the changing cultural environment and new types of societal relations (Li 2011, 327-339). The ‘Good Wife’ TV drama fulfilled all the goals it was produced for: it moved an audience of millions, satisfied government’s requirements and generated commercial revenues – a true happy end.
One Guangzhou commenter says on Sina Weibo: “This mother-in-law in #GoodWife#- what a rigid-minded woman. How can people value the male gender and belittle female so much? I’m happy my mother is not like that. Where does one still find a daughter-in-law like that? (..) People like that are hard to find nowadays. Now that I have seen how their divorce went about [between Han Dayu and Zhao Boxuan], I am afraid to get married. After watching ‘Good Wife’ I am definitely not becoming a housewife.. Television dramas nowadays…”
Weibo user Zou Chun Yan says: “When we finished watching this video, my godfather had tears in his eyes.” Another user, Xiao Juan Juan, comments: “I am somewhat disappointed after watching #GoodWife#. Liu Tao [Han Dayun, the protagonist] doesn’t really go through a transformation throughout the serie. I expected her to show a bit more personality. So being a ‘good wife’ means being maltreated? People like the sister-in-law [of Han Dayun] really do exist, but does forgiveness make them any better? Hong Xiao Ling [who plays the secret girlfriend] is also shameful- why didn’t the production team show a bit more taste? They ruined it all. (..)”
Want to Watch?
Are you curious about China’s popular television programmes and want to take a peek? You can find scenes of practically all top-TV shows online. Check out my overview of the China’s 2013 top 15 TV drama’s here: Overview of China’s 2013 Popular TV Drama’s.
– by Manya Koetse
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