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A Love Letter to Labor: Nice View and New Mainstream Film

Even if you haven’t seen the 2018 Chinese hit Dying to Survive (我不是药神 wo bu shi yaoshen ), the chances are that you have heard of it. This feature debut won plenty of awards at home and abroad and firmly put its director Wen Muye on the radar of Chinese film industry. So when the news first broke that his second solo film, Nice View (奇迹·笨小孩 qiji ben xiaohai ), was hitting Chinese cinemas in early February as a Lunar New Year film (贺岁片 hesui pian ), filmgoers were expectant. Only one thing seemed a bit odd: the discussion section of the title on Douban , Chinese IMDb, was missing. Not that that in itself is a rare occurrence; state-funded historical propaganda films, such as The Battle at Lake Changjin franchise, usually get the same protection from the “uncooperative” mass audience. But a story of a caring brother trying to keep himself and his ill sister financially afloat and a Korean War blockbuster celebrating Chinese victory seemed worlds apart–emphasis on “seemed.” The story Set in the southern city of Shenzhen in 2013, Nice View tells the story of 20-year-old orphan Jing Hao (Jackson Yee), a self-taught tech-savvy repairman who’s struggling to save enough money for the heart surgery for his 6-year-old sister Tong Tong (Chen Halin). Early in the film, Jing Hao takes out a loan and buys a stockpile of returned smartphones to repair and resell—a plan that is immediately thwarted by a large-scale government crackdown. When he and his sister are left in debt and without a home, Jing Hao signs a tantalizing but troubling contract with the phone manufacturer: to spend months disassembling the phones without damage and sell them as spare parts back to them. The catch? There’s no deposit, and, if the parts don’t pass quality inspection, there’s no pay. To meet the deadline, Jing Hao puts together an improbable team of underdog oddballs to help him, just as the protagonists in Dying to Survive do. (The following includes spoilers) After an attempted robbery, a few broken fingers, and other trials and tribulations, the group finally manages to finish the gig on time and reap their reward. The problem Nice View is by no means a bad film. In fact, with its impeccable camerawork and spirited performances, it offers quite an enjoyable, heart-warming, and aspirational 106-minute ride. It is also these exact sweet qualities, however, that give you a major toothache by the time you leave the cinema or perhaps even before then. The trouble with Nice View emerges when one ponders its message regarding labor. This is especially true when compared with Wen’s socially-conscious, gritty debut. Whereas Dying left us with that memorable quote, “There’s only one kind of disease—poverty—and there’s no cure for it,” Nice View finds that cure readily and simplistically in hard work and camaraderie. Early in the film, Jing Hao preaches to his sister, “As long as we work hard, nothing is impossible.” To drive this central point home, the five screenwriters, including Wen himself, fully embrace the “where there’s a will, there’s a way” idealistic ethos. As a result, the story exchanges grittiness for laughs. The emasculated loan shark whose money Jing Hao has borrowed to buy the phones couldn’t have let the latter off the hook more easily. Similarly, the hired hands who come to harass one of Jing Hao’s partners to drop a complaint against her former employer are defeated in a comical physical fight and conveniently made harmless. The film’s inspiring but uninspired plot leaves no room for character development or nuance in the message it seeks to deliver. At the end of the film, we get to see Jing Hao and his partners six years after they successfully keep up their end of the deal. The occasion is a new product launch event of a tech company called Hao Jing Electronics. Announced as the CEO, our protagonist walks into the spotlight on a dark stage, says “I’m Jing Hao,” and basks in the subsequent cheers and applause of the audience. “Work like hell, no matter what.” Such is the lesson to be learned from the sermon that is Nice View . In a moment of most likely unintended irony, we also notice how the font of the logo of Jing Hao’s company and that of Shen Ning Electronics, the company with which he signed the Herculean deal, are identical. The audience The establishing sequence of the movie shows a quick succession of people busy at work–street vendors, seamstresses, construction workers, factory workers, and skyscraper window washers–accompanied by an uplifting score that continues throughout the film and edges into sentimental excess. While seeing the film during this year’s Spring Festival holiday, one cannot shake off the thought that a significant portion of the blue-collar working class depicted on the screen didn’t and couldn’t watch it in cinemas due to the prohibitively priced tickets. Although this year’s Spring Festival box office was the second highest in history with $913 million, the total admission of 114 million was the lowest in the last five years. 1 Average ticket price during the holiday was 39.72 yuan in 2018 and 52.8 in 2022. Released abroad in Australia and New Zealand, Nice View has so far made $211 million at the box office, less than half of the $451 million that Wen’s debut Dying to Survive raked in, and is set to air in Mainland cinemas until the end of June. 2 Those who did watch the film weren’t exactly satisfied as well. A short review with 14’000 likes on Douban reads, “Feels like a homework assignment that you must hand in.” The cause Nice View is a fairy tale of capitalistic triumph. It is also a prime example of the so-called “new mainstream film” (新主流电影 xin zhuliu dianying ) or “new main melody film” (新主旋律电影 xin zhu xuanlv dianying ). While the orientation of main melody film was first put forward as a state-led effort to “ease the ideological transition of audiences from socialism to postsocialism while still acknowledging the primacy of CCP leadership,” new mainstream films transcend the trichotomy of Chinese films–main melody film, commercial film, and art film. 3 Roughly speaking, just as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is a blend of socialism and capitalism, new mainstream film is a wedding of propaganda and entertainment. “Popular culture with Chinese characteristics.” 4 A Chinese dream artfully told, skillfully sold. According to the film’s Douban entry , Nice View is a key project of the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee and is made in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the Party. It lists a total of 37 production company credits, including both private and state entities, and is funded by China Film Administration and the municipal governments of Shanghai and Shenzhen, among others. 5 The future Again, Nice View is not a bad film. Simply put, whether it gets stuck in your craw depends on how much you buy into its story of stern optimism, resilience, and success against all the odds. Wen Muye’s skill in blending mainstream entertainment with “core socialist values” arguably eclipses that of any other Chinese filmmaker. If his first film proved popular with audiences worldwide thanks to its sincere story, Nice View turns towards the more propagandist slant of recent Chinese blockbusters, albeit in a much subtler fashion. Approved for filming in March, Wen’s next projects seem to be shaping up in a similar direction. While Welcome to Dragon Restaurant (欢迎来龙餐馆 huanying lai long canguan ) will depict the heroic deeds of a Chinese chef (Xu Zheng from Dying ) who saves children in a war-torn Middle Eastern country, 6 Shenzhou (神州) will tell a story–and no doubt, the success–of a Chinese spaceflight program. 7 One only hopes that Wen hasn’t already made the best film of his entire career. References / To go further All statistics are from Maoyan Pro box office app. “Nice View,” Box Office Mojo , . Hongmei Yu, “Visual Spectacular, Revolutionary Epic, and Personal Voice: The Narration of History in Chinese Main Melody Films,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 25, no. 1 (Fall 2013): 171. Xuguang Chen, ”New Mainstream Films and Television Dramas in China: The Construction of Industrial Aesthetics and Consumption of Youth Culture,” Journal of Chinese Film Studies 1, no. 2 (2021): 450. “Nice View,” Douban Film , . “Welcome to Dragon Restaurant,” Douban Film , . “Shenzhou,” Douban Film ,

A Way of the Ink 水墨之道?

Dr. Yan Zhou is an experienced curator and scholar of Chinese contemporary art . Particularly important for the contemporary history of Chinese art is, according to this author, a resurgence of Daoist understandings of the “spirit of ink,” an understanding that has for long left the mundane world with all the different waves of “modernities” throughout the 20th century, and came back by the end of the last century. 1 “Modernities” necessarily need to come as plural. Indeed, the modernity of Republican China was evidently different from the modernity of the early People’s Republic of China period or even the early (post)modernity of the Deng Xiaoping Reforms (the late 1970s and 1980s). Still, none of those “modernities” had much interest in Daoist understandings of art whatsoever, with very few exceptions. Let’s explain a little bit deeper what is in question with the Way of the Ink ( Shuimo Zhidao 水墨之道) to which the “spirit of ink” is constitutive. According to Dr. Yan, the Way of the Ink “means primarily a mode, form, and method that incarnates Dao.” 2 According to one of Daoism’s primary books, the Dao De Jing 道德经, the Dao is the underlying force from which life and reality come, in all its dynamism and diversity. People might be more familiarized with the complementary opposites of the Yin and Yang. Nonetheless, consider Dao as the underlying principle that reality is a constant flowing process, to which Yin and Yang are the main contributors. In addition, Dao 道 is often translated to English as Way –both as a noun and, more correctly, as a verb, in tone with “way-ing.” Hence, the Way of the Ink highlights the question of free movement that a water-based medium such as ink allows. It puts emphasis on a non-human-centric understanding of the universe. And, of course, it requires a necessary, correct spirit behind such paintings, where the correct spirit is, according to Dr. Yan, exactly those “Daoist elements that are incarnated through method of ink art with eastern wisdom.” 3 This author also affirms that this understanding of art was particularly solidified with 2013’s exhibition Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China , curated by Maxwell Hearn, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. 4 Here, we can find different media artworks, from different artists with different engagements with art. Nonetheless, the MET’s overview of the exhibition affirms that it “features artworks that may be best understood as part of the continuum of China’s traditional culture. These works may also be appreciated from the perspective of global art, but by examining them through the lens of Chinese historical paradigms, layers of meaning and cultural significance that might otherwise go unnoticed of these artists’ creative processes.” 5 You can find more about this exhibition on the official MET page . Considering the different “modernities” of China’s 20th century, it is hard to see how we could designate a return to Daoist understandings as a continuum. After all, both Republican China, the People’s Republic of China, and even the early Opening-Up period had quite a strong anti-tradition discourse when it came to art. Nevertheless, Dr. Yan warns us that anti-tradition discourses never targeted the use of ink art but instead traditional aesthetic engagements (mostly what is called literati art or wenrenhua 文人画). Qiu Zhijie’s “Copying the Orchid Pavilion 1000 times” is a classic example of the use of ink to criticize the literati art tradition. Aside from the medium (ink) used for the art, literati art had a very particular understanding of art, almost like an orthodoxy. That understanding changed throughout Chinese history, as the orthodoxy changed. Nonetheless, a common characteristic prevailed: the social class with which this art was associated: the literati, scholars-bureaucrats, or scholars-hermits, depending on the epoch and politico-philosophical debates. But I will leave this criticism for another time. On the other hand, a factor that could justify the resurging of Daoist understandings in contemporary times is that the Daoist philosophy is highly adaptive to new contexts and new engagements with reality. Accordingly, while it is difficult to call this Way of the Ink a movement or even expect the artists to identify themselves as such, this concept appears as a solid understanding to engage with some of the contemporary art done in China. Eagerness for fluidity, breath, and free performances is long overdue to the stiff-stressed shoulders of 996 working schedules, and the non-human-centric perspective is quite adjustable with contemporary ecological discourses. The “spirit of ink” was probably meant to return to Chinese art to solidify such fluidity and a non-human-centric perspective. Several Chinese artists made these insights a core of their artwork. Hence, the Way of the Ink is, indeed, here to stay. References / To go further Yan Zhou, A History of Chinese Contemporary Art 1949 to Present (Singapore: Springer Nature, 2020). Zhou, A History , 402. Zhou, A History , 402. “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, . The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Ink Art.”

A contemporary need of 道 (Dao)

We have lost a harmonious Dao in our current times. Whether the East or the West, it is peoples' duty to redirect life and go back to a more natural Dao, align with the essential things of life, rather than the ephemeral concerns of our modernity. The 道 ( Dao ) of the past Have you ever thought about a typical Chinese answer: 我知道 ( wo zhidao )? This is the usual answer when someone asks you if you do know about something. However, the last character is far more profound than our daily use of it. The 道( dao ) is a highly complex concept that can be traced back to the Pre-Qin era that saw the flourishing of the Hundred Schools of Thought—schools of philosophies from 6 BC to 221 BC, usually designated as the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period. Confucianism and Daoism are the most famous schools among them. All of them were trying to philosophically advocate what could be the only and true 道. Commonly translated in English as the Way, the 道 meant to direct human affairs for achieving a harmonious society. Nonetheless, this 道 also has a second layer. Life itself, or 天 ( tian ) Heaven, has a Dao in it: in other words, an everlasting rhythm that nature and the generation of life had and would have forever and ever. The closer humans could adapt themselves to this natural rhythm, the better society could be built. The second scale of the 道is where the most exciting debates started in Chinese philosophy. Among the Daoists, Zhuangzi (in his book Zhuangzi ) 1 in particular has got my full attention and respect due to his philosophy and unique and spicy writing style. In his writings, we can find many metaphors, stories, satires, fiction, and so forth. The latter profiles him as the perfect philosopher to write about in a literature column. However, I know our audience is interested in contemporary China, so let me elaborate on that. The 道 ( Dao ) of the present To be significant for contemporary times, I assume that concepts and ideas must bring something from the past, be inspired on the present, and have a perspective on the future. I firmly believe that the 道is one of those, coming from ancient reflections, inspired by our current context, and providing an invitation for the future. Consequently, I argue that the 道appears in contemporary writers, who, even though not familiar with the concept, surprisingly, have definitions that resemble it and revitalize it with an updated flesh. My primary example is Roberto Bolaño (罗贝托·波拉尼奥) , 2 particularly in his masterpiece 2666, wherein a section of the book introduces a Director of Orchestra talking to a couple of friends: "The fourth dimension, he said, contains the three dimensions and assigns them, in passing, their real value, that is to say, it annuls the dictatorship of the three dimensions, and therefore annuls the three-dimensional world that we know and in which we live. The fourth dimension, he said, is the absolute richness of the senses and of the Spirit (with a capital letter); it is the eye (with a capital letter), that is to say, the Eye, which opens and annuls the eyes, which compared to the Eye are just poor muddy orifices, fixed in contemplation or in the equation birth-learning-work-death, while the Eye goes up the river of philosophy, the river of existence, the (fast) river of destiny. The fourth dimension, he said, was only expressible through Music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven." 3 That orchestra director, without exaggerations, could have been in one chapter of Zhuangzi . 4 In fact, in Chapter 2, Zhuangzi portrays a scene with a Master entering a trance. The Master said that he started ascending from the Music of Man to the Music of Earth, and lastly, he could achieve the Music of Heaven. 5 Once he finally reached the last step, the Master told one of his disciples that he had lost himself. That loss of the self by the Master could be perfectly analogous with losing our material eyes to finally open the Eye of Bolaño. With that opening and access to that stage, the menial equation of birth-learning-work-death becomes unimportant. Now, the genuinely essential things are the river of existence, in other words, the Music of Heaven. Bolaño has been significantly influential in the Chinese literature panorama, as we can see in the words of Zhou Jianing, 6 a well-known Chinese contemporary writer. "After Bolaño's first novel was translated into Chinese, it greatly influenced Chinese literary and artistic youths. Ten years ago, there was a bookstore and bar called 2666 in Shanghai. At the Shanghai International Literature Festival every summer, writers from various countries would come here. And young writers have imitated his writing methods for a while; of course, he is difficult to imitate. But in any case, his worldview and literary outlook were widely discussed by Chinese readers and became a symbol in a sense." The 道 (Dao) of tomorrow The reappearance of the 道 in contemporary writers from cultures totally alien to the Chinese one and its appreciation by Chinese readers is most likely due to a shared gloomy characteristic: the frenetic rhythms of modern life and the competitiveness of our days in both the West and the East. We are fomented since we are very young to focus our energies on the primary equation life-learning-work-death that Bolaño pointed out. Basically, an ancient reminder is warning us once again; we are focusing just on Man's Music with its rules and fantasies. We are obsessively concentrated just on ourselves as individuals. I believe that is why Bolaño started to be significant in the literature panorama of China. It resembles an old idea from the past, inspired by the unfortunate characteristic of daily life, but with a proposal for the future. Rethink the current 道, which values people by the weight of their wallet, the number of their diplomas, and the title of their job. Redirect this 道 into the pursuit of time to listen to more Music, philosophize regularly, and lose the obsession of only our own selves. In short, let's bring Bolaño and Zhuangzi together to give one piece of advice to the whole world without distinction: leave the dictatorship of the pre-fabricated three dimensions, and start thinking in the fourth one—a canvas to be written by us—because 我们知道! References / To go further Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu 莊子 “Master Zhuang,” late 4th century BC) is the pivotal figure in Classical Philosophical Daoism.
“Roberto Bolaño,” Britannica, last modified July 11, 2021, . Roberto Bolaño, in full Roberto Bolaño Ávalos, (born April 28, 1953, Santiago , Chile—died July 15, 2003, Barcelona , Spain), Chilean author who was one of the leading South American literary figures at the turn of the 21st century.
Translation provided by the author.
“Zhuangzi,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 17, 2014, . The Zhuangzi is a compilation of his and others’ writings at the pinnacle of the philosophically subtle Classical period in China (5th–3rd century BC). The period was marked by humanist and naturalist reflections on normativity shaped by the metaphor of a dào —a social or a natural path. Traditional orthodoxy understood Zhuangzi as an anti-rational, credulous follower of a mystical Laozi. That traditional view dominated mainstream readings of the text.
“Zi-Qi [The Master] said, 'I had just now lost myself; but how should you understand it? You may have heard the not es of Man, but have not heard those of Earth; you may have heard the notes of Earth, but have not heard those of Heaven.”
ZHOU Jianing 周嘉宁 (fiction writer, translator; China), January 13, 2020, . Born in Shanghai in 1982, she is the author of the full-length novels Barren City and In the Dense Groves , and the short story collections How I Ruined My Life , One Step At A Time and Essential Beauty . Zhou has translated works by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

A woman’s place is at the Majiang table

Why do left-behind women make up the majority of players in rural areas? A curious phenomenon has been observed in the past twenty years or so: women slowly started taking over men, and they now make up the majority of majiang players in rural areas. Although many associate 麻将 majiang with gambling, since players mostly bet small amounts of money it is completely legal in China and even protected as part of the cultural heritage. 1 As opposed to gambling, majiang is mostly played as a pastime and is regarded as a way to make money. But why are so many women now playing in the Chinese countryside? Who are the left-behind women? “Left-behind women” (留守妇女 liushou funv ), similarly to “left-behind children,” describes those women who have stayed in the countryside to take care of other members of the family and gave up the chance of migrating to the city for work (出去打工 chuqu dagong ). 2 These women, together with the elderly and children, often make up a significant percentage of villages’ population and are frequently engaged in informal labor that can be done without leaving home (farming, weaving, etc.). This division of labor within the rural family is labeled男工女耕 nangong nvgeng (the husband works and the wife ploughs) and is regarded by many as oppressive towards women. Although some point out that left-behind women enjoy a “laxer and freer” lifestyle compared to female migrant workers, the value of their domestic labor is scarcely recognized by society and their “freedom” is confined to the village. The expression 半工半家 bangong banjia describes left-behind women’s life: work and family care both take place in the domestic environment. 3 Why do they love playing majiang? It is in this context that the trend of femininization of majiang took place. Majiang is either played in commercial dedicated locations (麻将棋牌室 majiang qipaishi ) or at home, the former being mostly chosen by men and more crowded during the evening, the latter being women’s favorite. Majiang not only can be enjoyed at home while taking care of children, but it also is one of the few leisure activities available for women in the countryside, where traditional cultural activities have been erased by decades of urbanization. Unlike watching TV or short videos on 抖音 Douyin or 快手 Kuaishou, majiang is a way of recreation that helps strengthening social bonds. The players are often neighbors or family members, and the majority of women plays several hours every week or even on a daily basis. 4 On the one hand, majiang , similar to other games, can easily lead to addiction and doesn’t help women emancipate themselves from the domestic environment, potentially leading to their further marginalization. However, in rural areas it often represents the only chance for women to enjoy recreation and each other’s company and, to some extent, can ease the burden of a rather monotonous life. Hopefully China will go in the direction of a rural development that takes into account left-behind women, the elderly and children and their needs in terms of social security, healthcare and education but also culture and recreation. References / To go further Anise Wu, Joseph Lau, “Gambling in China: socio‐historical evolution and current challenges”. Addiction 110, no.2 (2015), 210-216. 卢青青.半工半家:农村妇女非正规就业的解释[J].农林经济管理学报,2021,20(03):402-410. 卢青青, “半工半家,” 406 卓惠萍,鲁彦平.农村麻将主体女性化:事实、假象及是非的讨论[J].妇女研究论丛,2010(02):35-40.

Artificial “fortune-telling” intelligence and how to never underestimate religious pragmatism

Our Editorial team went to Zhujiajiao 朱家角—the largest and most famous water town in Shanghai. Of course, we could not skip the 240-year-old City God Temple 城隍庙( Chenghuang Miao ), one of the most touristic sites. Imagine how surprised we were when we found an amazing big circle with a hand-molded fake stone, full of Chinese characters and Yi Jing 易经 trigrams (a pre-imperial text used both as a divination text, and as a primarily source of philosophical theorization)! It was an AI fortune-telling machine. After a short reading of the hand, it provides a small paper ticket. The paper ticket differentiates the fortunes between career, money, relationships, and health. Mine is a good-looking future. I paid 16 yuan (by scanning a QR code on the machine itself, as expected, considering that cash has almost gone extinct) to access the ticket that confirmed it. The entire process required a further interpretation by a professional fortune-teller, which, unfortunately, was not available at that moment. City God Temple Before we came to the AI, we asked several people how the temple worked. We confirmed it was a Chinese folk religion temple (or popular religion , both the designations are standard in the literature) of the City God. Folk religion, nevertheless, does not clarify much. In the Chinese context, the inner diversity of doctrines, scriptures, and praxis are tremendous. 1 But it seems to be consensual that folk religion differentiates highly syncretic religious beliefs and practices from other more institutionalized and standardized religious praxis. 2 These last ones include Buddhism and Christianism—even though Buddhist deities, for example, can be found in folk contexts. These characteristics make folk religion amazingly pragmatic. For example, the City God in Zhujiajiao was a local governor that was deified. But now, the City God is a District God, considering that it is the deity to the entire Qingpu District 青浦区. It seems that not even the deities previously associated with cities can escape the never-ending expansion of Shanghai. Keeping up with the trend Even though folk religion is inherently associated with local history, it sure keeps up with the trend of the rest of China. One of the people that talked with us was a migrant ayi from Hubei province. She was there privately selling red fortune ribbons, so commonly seen hanging on relics. Zhujiajiao City God Temple had as a relic ginkgo trees, and so the ribbons were suspended there. These ribbons are chosen according to one’s wishes, having personalized ribbons for health, career, and relationships. The seller suggested me the ribbon that would push me to have children. No need for that, I said between a skeptical and timid laugh. But my skeptical face vanished as she firmly ensured that one needs to believe in the whole process for the fortune to knock on one’s doors. Not really an issue, to be fair, considering that the number of believers is quite significant. A 2005 state-led questionnaire (with a focus on the urban context) demonstrated that belief in “fortune” (运 yun —amounting to 40% of the respondents) overshadows by far belief in formalized religious figures such as Buddha (8%) and Jesus Christ (6%). 3 Tech-religious profit networks in the building of the sacred Aware of the risk of importing primarily European sociological terminology to the Chinese folk context, I would say that the sacred depends as much on the profane as the profane relies on the existence of the sacred. The fact that the “fortune-telling” machine was there for less than a year was a clear example of technological adaptation to the broader and profane capitalist Chinese tech reality, even if late by some years. The use of QR codes follows the same reasoning. Similar to the seller of the red ribbons, the whole fortune-telling system in the temple was a foreign-lead enterprise. And so were the entire management and the right to interpretation. The wheel was not under the rule of the temple itself. It was, instead, produced by the 中国易经风水博物馆 ( Zhongguo Yijing Fensghui Bowuguan )—the ‘Chinese Yi Jing and Fengshui Museum.’ Based on our own research, it is an organization that, so far, is not recognized by any official Yi Jing-related organizations in mainland China. This concludes that the totality of the temple is not a homogenous network. Obviously, it was a sacred place, but with several networks working with the sacredness that the space provided. The sacredness was co-constitutive of those different profit-led networks. But could one experience the sacredness without the selling of ribbons, candles, incense sticks, and fortune-telling tickets? Religious pragmatism is a force to reckon with, indeed. References / To go further Wai Yip Wong, “Defining Chinese Folk Religion: A Methodological Interpretation,” Asian Philosophy 21, no.2 (2011). Wai Yip Wong, “Defining Chinese Folk Religion”. Benoît Vermander, “Religious Revival and Exit from Religion in Contemporary China,” China Perspectives 4 (2009).

Ayi Editorial – The multifaceted auntie

If you are familiar with Mandarin, chances are you are no stranger to the term 阿姨 ayi i.e., auntie, or more precisely, sister of one’s mother. Why then make such a simple concept as ayi November’s topic of the month? Apart from their primary usage, it is common in China to use kinship terms (uncle, elder sister, elder brother, younger brother, younger sister, among others) to address people, even if you are not related to them and, sometimes, even if they are complete strangers. Using them aims at establishing a proximity similar to family solidarity and acknowledging the generational hierarchy between the speakers. Ayi might be the most common of these “extension of kinship” terms, and its usage is unsurprisingly determined by the generation the addressed woman belongs to. If you are eager to seek the help of a 40-year-old-looking woman in the street for instance, you would address her as ayi , especially since such kinship terms are often used when asking for a service. More specifically, ayi can be used to address: Your mother’s sister A woman of your mother’s generation i.e., a middle age woman Your housekeeper Young women, usually in their 20s (in this case, more commonly used by little kids) Behind these four categories, the term ayi used as an extension of kinship refers to generational groups as well as socio-economic realities that make up what China is today. They participate in the country’s economy, culture, and overall zeitgeist in various and rich ways that are worth our attention. For instance, the middle-aged women that one would easily call ayi were often born in the 1970s-1980s, and the decades that followed shaped their lifestyles and tastes. The dancing ayis gathering in parks, squares, and compounds’ ground floors, bloomed in the mid-1990s and represent the most famous instance of this generation’s culture. Far from being leftover by technological development, however, the ayi s’ presence on Chinese social media influences trends and online practices greatly. Housekeepers on the other hand, widely called ayi even on the platforms dedicated to hiring them, belong to a different reality. They take care of people’s apartments and, sometimes, their children. In big cities, they often are migrant workers coming from other regions, and thus have a very different experience of the city’s life. This month, we aim at showcasing who are the ayi that you would so often interact with in China, what are the realities they experience, and the culture they bring to life. Let’s thus discover together the many faces of the multifaceted ayi !

Between stigma and taboos: the sorrows of being a menstruator in China

The idea for this article came to me after having a bizarre experience purchasing pads online. I bought them from a convenience store on the multi-purpose app 美团 Meituan, together with another period essential: chocolate. However, when I received my delivery, the pads were packaged in a separate plastic bag, which was black, in contrast to the semi-transparent bag used for the chocolate. Besides the wasteful aspect of delivering two plastic bags for a purchase of two items only, the “special packaging” made me think about the length a society would go to to prevent anyone (especially males, as delivery workers in China are mostly men) from acknowledging the existence of a totally normal bodily function—periods. Stay away from cold drinks? Stay away from Auntie’s period advice instead! Most Chinese traditional belief systems have taken into account the realm of gender and sexuality, and with that, periods. Blood is a very powerful element in Chinese tradition, but when flowing out of the body, it is associated with danger and considered not only impure but also dangerous and polluting. 1 Song dynasty doctors analyzed periods through the lens of yin/yang and hot/cold, 2 and this is why part of the advice given to menstruators revolves around “avoiding cold food and beverages.” Finally, the traditional association between menstrual blood and the sexual act of reproduction further ostracizes periods to the realm of the shameful and undisclosable. More research around period-related knowledge in Chinese Traditional Medicine is needed, but, against Western scientific medicine, some of it appears to be useless or even potentially harmful. 3 For instance, the belief that one should not bathe or brush their teeth often during periods is clearly anti-hygienic, whereas the belief that menstruator’s clothes should be washed separately from other family members during periods, or they should avoid going to temples or participating in other social activities can lead to self-shaming and emotional distress. Tainted femininity: periods, language, and communication When studying period culture in contemporary China, researcher Meng Jiang identified communication as one of the major struggles for menstruators. Due to a systematic lack of sexual education in both the private (family) and the public (schools) realm, various studies recount traumatic experiences of participants during their first period. from teachers scolding middle school students for bringing up the problem in class instead of discussing it with their parents to feelings of anxiety and terror due to the utter lack of knowledge about menstrual blood. 4 Even after years of menstruating, talking about periods is far from being easy in China. The proper term for menstruation, 月经 yuejing, is rarely used, as many consider it “inappropriate and embarrassing.” 5 Instead, expressions such as 大姨妈 da yima (literally meaning “aunt”) or even explicitly pejorative ones like 不方便 bu fangbian “inconvenience” and 倒霉 daomei “bad luck” are commonly used by males and females alike. Language matters, and the fact resorting to euphemism is the norm shows the stigma around periods is strong. Tampons, pads, and virginity Following Olympic Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s declaration of a poor performance due to period symptoms in 2016, the world started paying attention to period culture in China. 6 Besides the questionable ban on period product advertisements during mealtime and primetime, a remarkable difference between Western and Chinese period product market is Chinese consumers’ overwhelming preference for pads over tampons. 7 The reason behind it is simple: the fear tampons will break your hymen, and your virginity would be lost. Although sexual intercourse before marriage is now a widespread reality in most of urban China, there is still a strong preference for virgin women when it comes to marriage. 8 There has been an uptick in tampon sales over the past few years, especially in developed areas, but they are still hard to come by and generally stocked only in higher-end shops or foreign megamarkets. 9 The stigma associated with periods and the struggles in talking about them, as well as lack of knowledge around period products and care have a common root, but also a common cure: better and universally accessible sex education, paired with a healthier and open dialogue around sex and reproduction. References / To go further Cordia Ming-Yeuk Chu, "Menstrual beliefs and practices of Chinese women," Journal of the Folklore Institute 17, no, 1 (1980): 38-55. Meng Jiang, “Bodies of Civility: Exploring Menstrual Experiences of Women in Beijing, China” (Master diss., Columbia University, 2019). Chu, "Menstrual,” 38-55. Joanna H. Raven et al., "Traditional beliefs and practices in the postpartum period in Fujian Province, China: a qualitative study," BMC pregnancy and childbirth 7, no. 1 (2007): 1-11. Yu-Ting Chang, and Lin Mei-Ling, "Menarche and menstruation through the eyes of pubescent students in eastern Taiwan: implications in sociocultural influence and gender differences issues," Journal of Nursing Research 21, no. 1 (2013): 10-18., Jiang, “Bodies of Civilty.” Jiang, “Bodies of Civilty.” Yuan Ren, “Why Chinese women don’t use tampons,” The Guardian , August 27, 2016, . Yingzhi Yang, "China Made 85 Billion Sanitary Pads Last Year, and Not One Tampon. Here's Why," Los Angeles Times , March 18, 2016, . 李银河, 中国女性的性与爱 (香港牛津大学出版社, 1996). Yuan, “Why Chinese Women.”

Blind box economy: what soft-betting tells us about Chinese Millennials' over-consumption

Collecting objects without real utility has been associated with wealth and existed as a peculiar form of consumption. 1 But why are Chinese youngsters spending a fortune collecting Popmart designer toys? Since the beginning of civilization, collecting useless objects has been associated with wealth and, nonetheless, existed as a peculiar form of consumption. 2 In ancient Greece, artists’ signatures were the equivalent of modern brands, and rich merchants obsessed over a certain sculptor’s pieces the same way we now lose our minds (and salaries) over the latest Supreme release. Once we acknowledge the link between collecting, consuming, and wealth, the popularization of this practice within Chinese society in the past twenty years or so should not come as a surprise. Craving unique pieces is far from being specific to an era or a culture. However, what makes the so-called “blind boxes” 盲盒 manghe so peculiar is that they are situated right at the intersection of two equally enticing realms: collecting and gambling. From Japan to the Chinese e-commerce: genesis of the Blind Box Economy Blind boxes are not native to China, but their success is inseparable from that of one specific company: Popmart 泡泡玛特. According to the founder Wang Ning, blind boxes are inspired by the gashapon : toys dispensed by vending machines toys, extremely popular in Japan. 3 Blind boxes are organized according to series, each featuring a different character. Every series has 12 pieces, one of which is extremely rare (the chances of finding it are only 1/144) and is often referred to as “Mystery Style” 藏款 cangkuan. Another trait shared by gashapon and blind boxes is the use of automatic vending machines. Popmart started from traditional brick-and-mortar stores, and then in 2014 began experimenting with vending machines, which ended up being very successful and mushroomed in shopping malls across the country. However, what made experts coin the term “Blind Box Economy” (盲盒经济 manghe jingji ) is the volume of their online sales. Besides the TMALL and Taobao Popmart flagship stores, the online flea market 闲鱼Xianyu (belonging to Alibaba) played a significant role in their spread. As many Popmart aficionados point out, collecting and exchanging toys fostered a new kind of social interaction (both online and offline), allowing them to enjoy a more comprehensive shopping experience. 4 What are the implications of the Blind Box craze? Besides the questionable nature of such consumption-oriented socialization, other threats might hide behind the Black Box craze. The gambling component of such a trend is evident, and cases of Chinese citizens spending tens of thousands of yuan just to get their hands on the “Mystery Style” are not unheard of. Although this kind of designer toys (潮流玩具 chaoliu wanju ) normally cater to young adults, blind boxes are now available for virtually every category of goods (clothing, books, snacks…). In particular, stationery blind boxes (文具盲盒 wenju manghe ) are targeting elementary school kids, 5 a social group who is not only unaware of the value of money but also extremely prone to addiction. In a country where gambling is illegal and overconsumption is frowned upon, it seems paradoxical that a company like Popmart can boast a 73 million dollars profit per year. 6 After a closer look, a socioeconomic phenomenon like the rise of Black Box economy can be telling of a substantial disconnection between legislators and new generations of Chinese consumers and their needs. Although Millennials’ consumption patterns are thoroughly researched for market purposes, little research has been done on possible ways to tackle the potential threats soft-betting (变相赌博 bianxiang dubo ) consumption can pose to young consumers’ mental health and responsible financial behaviors. Reference / To go Further Russell Belk, Collecting in a Consumer Society . (London: Routledge, 2013). Belk, Collecting. Yue Wang, “ Master Of Mystery: The New Billionaire Who Made A Fortune Selling Toys In Blind Boxes,” Forbes, July 2, 2020, . 丁毓.小盒子风靡,盲盒经济崛起[J].上海信息化,2019(10):72-74 徐梦迪.从抓娃娃到抽盲盒,人们在玩具里消费的是什么?[J].销售与市场(管理版),2019(05):76-78. Wang, “Master of Mystery.”

Chicken soup for the soul: the weird universe of Tiktok wisdom

The self-help craze: chicken soup for the postmodern soul You might be familiar with the expression “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” as it is not a phenomenon particular to China. In fact, its roots can be traced back to a self-help best-seller by American motivational speakers Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen. First published in the 1990s, the first edition was followed by many others addressing specific demographics (such as Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul ). It is now an established media company boasting over 250 self-help publications. The name originated from the Christian habit of reducing food consumption before Easter as a means of spiritual cleansing. The starving body would be served chicken soup to alleviate the suffering of fasting. Similarly, “Chicken Soup for the Soul” came to symbolize the increasingly-popular genre of self-help books and media, consumed as a comforting way to ease the pain provoked by the uncertainty of postmodern life. 1 Literally translated in Chinese as 心灵鸡汤 xinling jitang , the term is widely popular online (the thread 心灵鸡汤吧 on the online forum Baidu Tieba has more than six hundred thousand posts alone 2 ). Public opinion seems divided, as many netizens point out the shallowness and cheesiness of such inspirational content. However, its consumption is enormous and it seems to be transcending generations and social classes. Self-help and Guoxue: scholars turned Tiktokers What is peculiar to the Chinese context is how 心灵鸡汤 intersects with the current国学热 guoxue re or “National Studies Craze.” This term describes the revival of traditional studies and culture (especially Confucianism) that started after the economic reforms in China. 3 Since then, many books have been written about Chinese classics in an attempt to explain otherwise obscure content to a broader audience and show its applications in contemporary society. However, in the streaming era, short video apps have become the go-to venue not only for entertainment but also for inspirational and educational content. It is on apps such as Douyin and Ximalaya (the number one podcast app in China) that we can find the most interesting and bizarre examples. Two instances of this trend are曾仕强 Zeng Shiqiang and 吴军 Wu Jun. Zeng Shiqiang was a famous professor of National Studies and founder of the discipline of “Chinese-Style Management” (中国式管理 zhongguo shi guanli ). Even after his death in 2018, his speeches are still watched by millions of Douyin users. On the official Douyin account “传世国学” fans can listen to his Chinese wisdom-imbued advice while a soothing flute tune plays in the background and images of the sky and the sea play on a loop. It is indeed a bizarre experience for younger Chinese, but it might feel like an enlightening event for less aesthetic-oriented users. In a similar fashion (but arguably with a better postproduction team), Wu Jun offers advice about virtually every domain of life: from children’s education to furniture arrangement and Chinese medicine; he seems to have an answer for any trouble you might encounter. Also coming from a management background (he boasts an EMBA from Peking University in his bio), Wu Jun embodies the pinnacle of success and knowledge for his followers. He wears simple black outfits remindful of Steve Jobs and Confucian scholars at once, drinks tea and uses a wide array of Chinese philosophy concepts to comfort the followers, and help them navigate the complexity of life. Selling Chicken Soup: soulful profit in the Douyin era Lacking extensive training in Chinese classics, it is beyond me to evaluate the accuracy of their interpretation. However, what strikes me as an observer is the versatility of National Studies and its potential profitability. In fact, Douyin has far transcended its nature of streaming platform and quickly rose as one of the most profitable e-commerce apps as the last Double Eleven sales have shown. 4 When watching Wu Jun and Zeng Shiqiang videos, a button will pop up on your screen, quickly redirecting you to the built-in online store. Collections of books and DVDs containing the master’s speeches are available and, according to the comments, widely purchased and appreciated by the audience. The reason behind the success of self-help media is simple: contemporary China lacks an institutional religious system, and the rapid socioeconomic transformations of the last decades have left many citizens feeling overwhelmed and lost. According to the latest social media trends, the answer to modern problems might reside in ancient Chinese wisdom, repackaged and sold in a new, concise, easy-to-consume format. References / To go further 邵杨.生活补品,还是精神迷药——“心灵鸡汤”在当代文化中的流变与扭曲[J].艺术广角,2015(05):45-49. “心灵鸡汤吧,” Baidu Tieba, accessed November 15, 2021, Chen Jiaming, “ The National Studies Craze: The Phenomena, the Controversies, and Some Reflections, ” China Perspectives , no. 1 (2011): 22-30. . Wu Peiyue and Jiang Yaling, “Alibaba Tries an Unfamiliar New Singles’ Day Strategy: Restraint,” SixthTone, November 12, 2021, .

Christian beliefs for modern Chinese minds: how come is this imported religion thriving?

Note of the author: the present article is not aimed at expressing any opinion on Christianity, Christian believers, or the validity of the aforementioned faith. Its only purpose is to analyze the recent rise of Christianity on the Chinese soil from both historical, sociological and anthropological perspectives. If asked about which religious beliefs inhabit Chinese minds, most of us would answer Confucianism, Daoism, or Buddhism. We would obviously be right, yet would overlook one thing; the fastest growing religion in China is Christianity. Even though Christian believers only account for 3.93% of the Chinese population, 1 the country is expected to become the most prominent Christian nation in terms of number of believers by 2030. 2 The rise of Christianity in China, data aggregated by the author. 3 Christianity’s presence in China is not recent. It can be traced back to the 7th century Nestorian missions, although more famous and fruitful was the work of Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri in the 16th century. However, the history of Christianity in China is not without turmoil. Isolationist periods, numerous instances of rising anti-Christianity movements, or the campaigns against superstitions have indeed made the spread of this dogma quite hectic. How then can we explain the rise of Christianity since the 1980s? Imported yet not so foreign anymore: a triple Sinicization The main drawback of Christianity in the case of China is obvious: it is a foreign religion. This feature hinders its relatability and thus its appeal. But is today’s Chinese Christianity that foreign? Not so much as it has undergone a triple Sinicization: By missionaries themselves.
Since Matteo Ricci’s efforts to find common ground between Chinese culture and his religion, many missionaries have dedicated themselves to adapting their discourse and finding innovative ways to make Christian and thus foreign concepts understandable. 5
By the Chinese Christians during the Maoist era and the anti-superstition campaigns.
Chinese believers grew a more personal connection with their faith as they had to practice it in secret. In turn, because they were cut from missionaries’ influence, they integrated more traditional and folk elements into their belief. 6 As such, a second wave of Sinicization, this time grassroots, took place.
By the Chinese government when it took control over both Catholic and Protestant activities after relaxing the repressive policies against religions in the late 1970s.
Beijing indeed clearly signaled its intention to foster a Christianity compatible with the country’s path of socialism, adapted and integrated with the Chinese culture. 7 Consequently, government-handled Three-Self Patriotic Movement administrates Protestantism (reintroduced in 1979, it relies on self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation), 8 while the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association administrates Catholicism (e.g., the appointment of bishops). In short, the first wave of Sinicization came from the west and laid the basis for the Christian gospel to be understood; the second came from the Chinese people who took over the administration of their faith; the third from the Chinese government, which reduced Chinese Christianity’s ties with the west. A Christian “salvation” for those lost in the Chinese market Christianity’s Sinicization cannot, on its own, account for it seducing so many believers. Indeed, why Christianity instead of a religion more rooted in Chinese culture? The answer is two-fold: spiritual vacuum and fellowship. In a research conducted in December 2020 on the WeChat official account of 上海大华教会 (Shanghai Dahua Church), I came across now-deleted weekly testimonies which are a valuable account of why members of the community find appeal in Christianity. In all of the testimonies, people state the sense of purpose they have gained by joining the Church, how their belief has filled a spiritual vacuum they sometimes didn’t even know existed. “Before, I always felt that I had no special needs. Everything was harmonious. Why did I come to the Church and start believing in the Lord? Isn’t it just another layer of constraint? […] Even if we had a good education, a stable job, and a harmonious family, in an environment like ours, none of this can save our soul or fill the emptiness inside.” In parallel, 45% of them stated clear life improvement since they have joined the Church (a husband has quit drinking, a wife has reconnected with her spouse, a disease has been cured, a monetary issue has been solved). “I, like a sheep, had strayed from my path. Fortunately, I came to Dahua Church to listen, discuss, and think, thus becoming enlightened,” said an interviewee. 9 Such statements can partly be explained by the socio-historical context they were formulated in. At the beginning of the reform era, a general interest in spirituality arose among the Chinese population. The latter was caught between the collapsed traditional beliefs (which felt backward after the attacks they had undergone), 10 the partly discredited Communist ideology, and the rise of capitalism. The introduction of the market economy, which marked the end of the danwei , and the dawn of heated competition, left people in dire demand for security, meaning, and order. The Christian doctrine, by recognizing individual struggles and ambitions, promising earthly benefits, and giving each and everyone’s life meaning according to a Godly plan was perfectly fit to fill this spiritual vacuum. 11 The article “Lost in the market, saved at McDonald’s: Conversion to Christianity in urban China” shows that, contrary to popular belief, the educated urban youth is also sensitive to the Christian discourse for the reasons cited above. Moreover, these young urbans associate Christianity with a sense of globalized modernity perfectly fitted to the job market and society they evolve in. 12 My research also showed that 38% of the testimonies emphasize the sense of community they have gained. Indeed, apart from the previously-mentioned socio-historical elements, the rise of individualism and the ever-growing work migrations have often left people cut from their normal social interactions and families. 13 No wonder that the opportunity provided by the Church to socialize with a tight, like-minded community seduced many, in addition to providing the opportunity for families to connect over a common practice and ethos. The rise of Christianity in China, aside from its Sinicization, is the product of the reform era and of the liberalization of the economy. To those whose financial and job stability eroded, it promises that good deeds will save them in this life and the other. To those who feel alone, it provides community. To those who lack meaning, it provides a godly design. If the growing Chinese Christian community tells us one thing about contemporary China, it has to do with the consequences of the reforms initiated in the 1980s. More precisely, how individuals coped with change, losing their work life, social and ideological landmarks. References / To go further Tao Yu, "A Solo, a Duet or an Ensemble? Analysing the Recent Development of Religious Communities in Contemporary Rural China," ECRAN: Europe–China Research and Advice Network (2012). Eleanor Albert, “Christianity in China,” Council on Foreign Relations (2015): 7. Albert, “Christianity in China,” 7.
Sun Yanfei, "The rise of Protestantism in post-Mao China: State and religion in historical Perspective," American Journal of Sociology 122, no.6 (2017): 1664-1725. Jean-Baptiste Aubry, Les chinois chez eux , Imprimerie de Saint-Augustin, Descleé, de Brouwer, (1892). Chen Zhang, “Serving more than two masters: contextualization of Christianity in contemporary China and the multiple identities of translators” (master’s thesis, HKU, 2019).
Julia Ching, Hans Küng, Joseph Feisthauer et al., Christianisme et religion chinoise (Seuil, 1991).
Li Hui, "Jesuit Missionaries and the Transmission of Christianity and European Knowledge in China," Emory Endeavors in World History , no. 4 (2012): 48-63. Zhang, “Serving”. Albert, “Christianity in China”, 7. Jones Kitagawa, “Documents of the Three-Self Movement: Source Materials for the Study of the Protestant Church in Communist China,” Church History, no. 33 (1963): 503. Shanghai Dahua Church 上海大华教会, “生命见证,神的拣选让平凡变不得平凡 上海大华教会,” WeChat , October 10, 2020, Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, “Christiantiy in contemporary China: an update,” J. Church & St. , no. 49 (2007): 277. Fenggang Yang, “Lost in the market, saved at McDonalds: Conversion to Christianity in urban China,” Journal for the scientific study of religion 44, no. 4 (2005): 423-41. Yang, “Lost in the market,” 423-41. Yang, “Lost in the market,” 423-41.

Dance like no one’s watching? The quarrels with dancing ladies in China

Futon Cheng square nighttime public Dancing Shenzhen China, taken by Chris . Provided by Flickr (18/11/2021). A few months ago, Chinese social media met a well-known incident. In a video, a man from Yingtan (鹰潭) city proudly shows a remote control. The device is used to turn off the music speaker of the old ladies performing their daily choreography on the square just below his window- and who are now desperately left to wonder how the music was shut down. Netizens' reaction, overall, was of rejoice. Many seemed willing to buy one to eliminate what they consider a common problem: loud music and public disturbance. 1 How so? Tracing the first steps The protagonists of public dances are the so-called damas (大妈). Damas are women who lived through the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent Reform and Opening Up policies. 2 Later turned housewives, retirees, or simply unemployed, they began organizing themselves in public spaces in Chinese cities to dance. This tendency brought a sense of community—keeping social interaction outside of the domestic sphere—and a nostalgic feeling from the collectivist era of their youth. 3 Their preferred styles vary, from synchronized performances to the sound of the latest pop music to traditional folk and ethnic dances, and even paired ballroom waltz. Groups are organized mainly by a leader, who serves as both a representative and a leading choreographer. Her movements are freely followed by the other ladies. Some damas say they join square dancing for fun and exercise. Still, others are even willing to undergo hardworking training routines to compete in local or officially sponsored events. 4 Stepping on other people’s toes 大妈广场舞,强身健体, taken by 多多与火箭 . Provided by (20/11/2021). Due to almost zero cost and the simple routine, popularity of square dancing has grown exponentially in the past 30 years. But with popularity also came problems. The most common ones are neighbors angry with the loud music late at night, complaints about improper use of public space, 5 and even annoyed students trying to concentrate during the college entrance examination (高考 gaokao ) period. 6 The response of the damas is mostly dismissing, claiming to be on their own right to make use of the public space outside of other people’s privacy. 7 What seems to be at stake is the tension between two different conceptions of sociability and public . On the one hand, the damas were raised in a period of mass social mobilization, prioritizing the group over the individual. On the other hand, the complaints follow an emerging logic that goes hand in hand with China’s rapid urbanization and more individualized codes of privacy and “urban civic culture.” 8 According to Junxi Qian and Yanheng Lu, “The logics of commons and collective contradict the opinions voiced by private residents and disinterested commentators, who advocate that public space must have an ethical dimension and foster mutual respect and compromise between different constituents of the society.” 9 Is the party over? Since 2015 Chinese authorities have stepped forward to mitigate the issues of square dancing. Regulations were passed to permit gatherings at specific places and times, 10 and fines of up to 500 yuans were established for noncompliant dancers. 11 But despite the attempts to solve the situation, tensions between local residents and the square dancers still build up. With their unstoppable will, the damas are the living part of Chinese history which refuses to follow the new rules of space and social relations brought by the country’s recent embrace of capitalism. References / To go further Manya Koetse, “‘Anti-Square Dancing Device’ Goes Viral on Chinese Social Media”, What’s on Weibo, October 2, 2021, Chiayi Seetoo and Haoping Zou, “China’s Guangchang Wu: The Emergence, Choreography, and Management of Dancing in Public Squares,” TDR: The Drama Review 60, no. 4 (T232) Winter 2016. He Huifeng, “Why are Chinese grandmas so into square dancing?,” Goldthread, June 21, 2019, Seetoo and Zou, “China’s Guangchang Wu.” Tania Branigan, “China’s noisy dancing retirees have local residents up in arms”, The Guardian, January 19, 2014, Manya Koetse, “China’s ‘Dancing Grannies’ Anger Stressed-Out Students Ahead of Gaokao Exams”, What’s on Weibo, June 8, 2017, He Huifeng, “The dancing damas: China's 'square dancers' take society by storm”, South China Morning Post, December 17, 2014, Junxi Qian and Yanheng Lu, “On the trail of comparative urbanism: Square dance and public space in China”, Trans Inst Br Geogr. 44 , no. 4 (2019): 2, Qian and Lu, “On the trail of comparative urbanism,” 10. “China orders square dancers to heel and toe the line”, The Guardian, March 24, 2015, Phoebe Zhang, “China considers legal changes to curb noise pollution from the country’s notorious dancing grannies,” South China Morning Post, August 18, 2021,

Delicious Romance 爱很美味:Did we finally get a feminist Chinese drama? And LGBTQ+ representation?!

爱很美味 Ai Hen Meiwei Delicious Romance by Taiwanese director Chen Zhengdao and Xu Zhaoren was released in China in November 2021 and got raging reviews on Douban, the Chinese IMDB. Douban's user-base is known for being highly critical, especially of Mainland productions, but Delicious Romance , despite its questionable title, lived up to its promise of depicting young Chinese women in a realistic way. In a sea of cheesy and unimaginative “sweet-romance dramas” (甜宠剧 tianchong ju ), the series represents a breath of fresh air and, hopefully, will lead the way for better representation of romance in Mainland productions (国产 guochan ). A healthier narrative of beauty The genre of “female-centric urban drama” (都市女性剧 dushi nvxing ju) is increasingly popular with Chinese audiences, but it often fails to portray what it means to be a young Chinese woman living in the city. Released in 2020, 三十而已 Sanshi Eryi Nothing But Thirty marketed itself as a cutting-edge series focusing on women’s stories, but largely disappointed Chinese audiences, who deemed it as “unrealistic” and “enforcing stereotypes around what it means to be a successful woman.”. On the contrary, drama fans immediately engaged with Delicious Romance and praised its diversity when it comes to representing young women. The three leads are indeed beautiful, but in very different ways, and the way beauty is talked about feels refreshing and realistic. The show touches upon a range of not-so-cliché topics, such as food disorders (one of the leads, Xia Meng has been struggling with body image since her teenage years), workplace harassment, and pretty privilege (another character, Fang Xin is more of a “traditional beauty” and enjoys both the benefits and drawbacks of her appearance). In a country where unrealistic female beauty standards are the norm, an open conversation around the obsession with physical appearance and its consequences is very much needed, and Delicious Romance is leading the way in the quest for a healthier approach to beauty and its relevance in interpersonal relationships. LGBTQ+ characters slowly make their way on the Chinese screen Besides the thoughtful narration of female experience, another pleasant surprise was the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and even drag performances (!) in the show. Yes, you read correctly. In the current climate of crackdown on LGBTQ+ activism in the country and a tendency of mainstream media to be extremely heteronormative, 1 the representation of a homosexual character left many astonished. Huang Yu is introduced as a charming middle-aged man, who meets Fang Xin while they are both finalizing their divorces. At first, she believes he is hitting on her, but it is only when they have dinner together that we come to know that he is gay and that his marriage with a woman was fake (the character never comes out explicitly, but his carefully-crafted lines and the scene being set in what appears to be a LGBTQ+ bar are enough to make us guess). This phenomenon, known as “marriage of convenience” 形式婚姻 xingshi hunyin, is all but uncommon in China 2 and speaks of a society where marriage and childbirth are still considered a universal need by older generations, who often push their offsprings to marry (催婚 cuihun ) regardless of their opinions. This painful reality is famously depicted by American-Taiwanese director Ang Lee in his 1993 masterpiece “The Wedding Banquet,” telling the story of a Taiwanese man living in New York who struggles to come out as homosexual to his parents and fakes a marriage with a Chinese woman to hide his long-standing relationship with an American man. Almost twenty years have passed since this film hit movie theaters, but if characters such as Huang Yu are still representative of the pressures many LGBTQ+ Chinese face, it probably means the situation hasn’t improved enough—at least in mainland China. In conclusion, Delicious Romance is not perfect and, at times, watching it still provokes physical discomfort (the amount of patriotic content about fighting COVID-19 gets a bit too overwhelming towards the end…), but it certainly stands out in the current panorama of largely unwatchable Mainland romance drama and deserves praise for being grounded and comedic at once. References / To go further Yang Yi, “Not Quite a Rainbow: How Chinese Media Tells LGBT Stories”, Sixthtone , May 17, 2021, . Juan Miguel Ortega Quesada. 中国同性恋者的形式婚姻[D]. 厦门大学, 2018.

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