Also beyond Romance
Also beyond Romance
Women, Desire, and the Ideology of Happiness in “Family-Marriage Drama”
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the relationship between women and their desire for happiness as represented in the “family-marriage” drama (jiating hunyin ju), especially those scripted or adapted from stories by women writers. It explores the gendered social and ideological implications in the relationship between urban women and consumer-culture-defined “private” domains such as love, marriage, and family. Ot looks into the pursuit of happiness and its related discontent in relation to the difference between women’s writings in the decade of the 1980s and televisual dramas based on women’s writings popularly received in the 1990s and beyond. Three decades since the start of economic reform, the “happiness”-informed female identity has generated new questions, challenges, and problems with regards to gender politics in contemporary China. While the ideology of happiness is powerfully advertised and subliminally alluring, it has also redrawn social domains for women in which they tend to find themselves being identified mainly with sexuality, love, marriage, and family.
Nowhere in the post-Mao reform era has the rise of the idea and pursuit of xingfu, or “happiness,” by women in China been better manifested than in popular culture representations of such themes as love, marriage, and family, including television drama. What does “happiness” mean in gender terms in the post-women’s-liberation age? Why is it assumed to be particularly important to women? How are we to understand the changing socioeconomic conditions and cultural values that direct (especially) women’s attention toward a search for personal “happiness” in such domains as love or heterosexual romance, marriage, and family? What is the relationship between women’s pursuit of “happiness” and discontent?
Western feminist scholarship in literature and film studies has long argued for the importance of understanding the relationship between melodrama and women’s and gender issues because, in melodrama’s “emphasis on the domestic sphere and its resistance to rationalism, feminists have become interested in its subversive tendencies.”1 In addition to valuing melodrama “for its resistance to ‘highbrow’ literary standards,” feminists also value “its foregrounding of women’s issues.” “Especially, in the family melodrama, generational and gender conflicts and issues of sexual difference and identity are presented. This opens up a large space to the domestic sphere and for female protagonists” and a space where “melodrama’s narratives are frequently motivated by female desire.”2 While it is important to guard against the essentialist tendency to equate the “domestic space” with women, feminist attention to (earlier) European and American literary and filmic melodramas helps shed light on representations of a certain social sphere and women characters that “highbrow” criticisms tend to dismiss out of hand or ignore.3 Within the post-women’s-liberation context of contemporary China, much about the relationship between melodrama and (p.124) women’s and gender issues awaits scholarly attention and critical analysis. Xie Jin’s and Zhang Yimou’s films, for example, come to mind (despite their seeming differences).4 What also come to mind are television melodramas authored or scripted by women. It is important to note that while, owing to lack of financial support, women writers and directors have been decreasingly represented in filmic production, many of them have been compelled to cross over to television, where they have made themselves and their works highly visible. The gender divide here continues to indicate the existence of a gender hierarchy in what certain elite circles consider to be “highbrow” and “lowbrow” cultural forms. At the same time, “lowbrow” cultural forms such as television open more space for women writers (and women script writers) to tell their stories to an even wider audience.
This chapter examines the relationship between women and their desire for happiness as represented in the “family-marriage” drama (jiating hunyin ju), especially those scripted or adapted from stories by women writers. As indicated in the Introduction, many television dramas are adaptations from literary works, and writers to varying degree involve themselves in the adaptation process. The same has been true with women writers. I have chosen televisual adaptations from three well-known women writers, in part because those dramas were popularly received and generated interesting discussions both online and in the print media.5 More important, however, the fact that the writing careers of these three women writers straddle both the 1980s and the two decades after that, and the fact that their literary-televisual crossover has allowed “women’s perspectives” to be popularly represented captured my attention. The evolution in their writing career and the issues they address seem to dovetail with the changes in gender politics in what I call the post-women’s-liberation era of the last three decades.
In relation to the televisual adaptations of their works, I am specifically interested in the fact that, in the last three decades of economic reforms in China, pursuit of “happiness” has become a major cultural metaphor for “female identity” and “womanhood” has become a “natural” goal in women’s lives in the postrevolution era. At the same time, I am also interested in televisual representations of discontent and the fact that, when consumer-culture-defined happiness becomes the major, at times, the only, goal in life, especially for women, it is often problematized in the very act of trying to achieve the goal. In relation to this paradox, I examine the gendered social and ideological implications in the relationship between urban women and consumer-culture-defined “private” domains such as love, marriage, and family. Pursuit of happiness and related discontent, needless to say, are also symptomatic of the social changes and ideological tensions, manifested in gendered terms, in the reform and (p.125) post-women’s-liberation era. Given that the dramas I study in this chapter are based on women’s writings, my discussion will also explore the pursuit of happiness and its related discontent in relation to the difference between women’s writings in the decade of the 1980s and televisual dramas based on women’s writings popularly received in the 1990s and beyond. Three decades since the start of the economic reform, the “happiness”-informed female identity has generated new questions, challenges, and problems when it comes to gender politics in contemporary China. While the ideology of happiness is powerfully advertised and subliminally alluring, it has also redrawn social domains for women in which they tend to find themselves being identified mainly with sexuality, love, marriage, and family.
Engendering the Ideology of Happiness in the Post-Women’s-Liberation Age
By the “post-women’s-liberation age,” I refer to the post-Mao era (1976 to the present) with a focus on changes in women’s and gender issues and also with an understanding that those changes have been specific to different phases within this period. In the 1980s, the women’s liberation movement led by the Chinese Communist Party came under intense critical scrutiny. The Mao era’s women-related and “gender-equality” policies were not only criticized for their alleged indifference and neglect of “sexual difference” between men and women, they were also held responsible for the supposedly abnormal yin sheng yang shuai phenomenon, or the phenomenon of the ascendance of the yin (feminine) and the decline of the yang (masculine).6 Criticisms of the party-led women’s liberation movement and the Mao era’s gender policies, along with the gradual retreat of the state from people’s bedrooms, helped change the cultural discourse on gender issues.
At the same time, unexamined assumptions within these criticisms also gave rise to a discourse of sexual essentialism that articulated a desire for men and women to “return” to their “proper” (gender) roles and “real” sexual identities.7 Corresponding expressions were found in the new culture movement of the 1980s in male intellectuals’ preoccupation with (the lack of) “male potency” in relation to a male-centered nation–self-identity and in female intellectuals’ preoccupation with issues of “female identity.”8 One of the unintended consequences has been a redirecting and narrowing of what it means to be a woman (and a man), identifying such issues as love, sexuality, marriage, and family as naturally female-oriented and others like guojia (state), gonggong (public), shehui (society), and jiti (collective) as gender neutral or masculine.9 Indeed, the flip side of the efforts to “restore” male and female identities to men and women, (p.126) and the critique of the supposed lack of “feminine” identity in revolutionary women is the foregrounding of an unexamined notion of “femaleness” and “womanhood.” The sexual essentialist assumptions developed in the postrevolution and post-women’s-liberation era have thus enabled a “logical” union between women’s identity and their life’s destiny centered on an unexamined notion of “happiness.” The bifurcation between the “private” and the “public” and the feminization of the former and masculinization of the latter, in other words, has functioned as an ideological preparation for the consumer culture’s new definition of happiness.
As a new cultural construct within the context of globalizing consumer capitalism, the notion of happiness has quickly become something women are encouraged to identify with. Identifying women’s “natural” space with such “private” domains as marriage and family has, in turn, narrowed the meaning of the relationship between women and “happiness.” Within this narrowed meaning of happiness, women have increasingly come to be dependent on external factors, as opposed to their own inner strength and independent spirit, for their sense of happiness. The “feminization” of the notion of happiness is, in both specific and essentialist terms, connecting women with such roles as being a wife and a mother, and with specific (and often unexamined) ideas associated with these roles. The limited social roles that connect women with their sense of “happiness” are symptomatic of the gendered ideological paradigm shift in post-women’s-liberation China.
Perhaps not ironically, then, “happiness” within this context, though discursively constructed as a personal matter, is in effect collectively imagined and collectively pursued. Tensions and struggles represented in television dramas are indicative of the contradictions within this collective desire whose object is socially and economically conditioned and ideologically defined, and yet whose cultural articulations and manifestations orient the masses around the belief that it is up to an individual to achieve her happiness.
All of this constitutes the larger historical context and the social and ideological conditions in which we encounter the meeting between the ideology of happiness and gender politics in contemporary China and the ways in which that meeting is manifested in popular cultural representations of women, love, marriage, and family. Family-marriage dramas penned by women writers are one such cultural manifestation. They examine, often via such melodramatic elements as coincidence, excessive emotion, and sentimental pathos, the ways in which women’s pursuit of “happiness” in love, marriage, and the family is a double-edged sword that leaves many marriages in ruins and love in doubt along the way. Women writers’ attention to themes of love, marriage, and family accentuates the irony and discontent involved in this pursuit.
(p.127) In what follows, I will focus on dramas based on works by three women writers: Lailai wangwang (Comings and goings, 1999) by Chi Li, Zhongguo shi lihun (Divorce Chinese style, 2004) by Wang Hailing, and Kong jingzi (Nothing in the mirror, 2002) and Kong fangzi (Empty house, 2004) by Wan Fang. Though different, these dramas are essentially about the failure of women’s pursuit of “happiness” as defined by consumer culture and about an interesting dialectic that occurs between women’s pursuit and their ultimate “unhappiness” or their realization of the need to move beyond the confines of this (illusive) goal. I focus on representations of the female protagonists in these dramas in conjunction with the following shared issues: (1) tensions within the changed and changing social roles and gender identities in men and women in face of the rising dominance of the consumer-culture-defined ideology of happiness, (2) the ways in which women’s lives come to be associated with (their pursuits of) “happiness” and the corresponding uncertainties in such pursuits, and (3) women’s understanding (or lack thereof) of the gendered “self” in imagining “happiness” and in face of the collapse of their pursuits.
I explore the notion of the “female self” in conjunction with some of the most influential women’s writings of the early 1980s and with the rise of the ideology of happiness in women’s lives since the early 1990s. An understanding of the connection and difference between the two bodies of women’s writings indicates a renewed significance in revisiting women’s writings of the early 1980s, especially with regard to issues of women’s sense of the self. I am interested in this comparison for the purpose of bringing out a neglected component in our understanding of post-Mao literary expressions of female awareness of their “feminine” identity in relation to their sense of independence. Such awareness, although also full of ambivalence and tension, continues to function as an undercurrent that informs today’s representations of women both in literature and in television drama.
Two Unhappy Female Characters and Their “Comings and Goings”
Duan Lina and Lin Zhu are two female characters in Comings and Goings, a drama based on the novella of the same title by Chi Li.10 Comings and Goings is chronologically bracketed between 1975 and the late 1990s, seemingly oriented around the transformation of the life of its male protagonist, Kang Weiye, while also capturing the rapid and profound changes taking place within those two and half decades. Because the story focuses on the changes in Kang’s personal life, especially in relation with two women, his wife, Duan Lina, and his extramarital lover, Lin Zhu, the drama is in effect also about these women characters and their relationships with Kang. At the same time, however, following the (p.128) original story that uses Kang’s life—especially his eventual unhappiness—as the major thread of its narrative structure, the drama assumes a sympathetic perspective toward its male protagonist. This sympathy is manifested, in part, in the fact that the relationships Kang has with women characters are clichéd: the wife is loudmouthed, unreasonable, and unpleasant, while the lover is young, pretty, college-educated, and yet self-centered, representing what are believed to be typical characteristics of white-collar female professionals. But our exploration of an otherwise clichéd drama and its representations of women characters becomes more meaningful if we understand both the sympathy toward Kang and the seemingly clichéd representations of the two female protagonists dialectically, as manifestations of uncertainties and ambivalence within the ideology of happiness and changes in social and gender relations and identities. The drama (inadvertently) shows that, for these women, the domestic sphere does not appear to be where their imagined happiness resides.
Duan Lina appears early in the drama when she is introduced to Kang Weiye as a potential spouse. At the time, in 1975, Kang is back from the countryside, where he had been sent as an “educated youth,” only to find himself assigned to work in a meat-processing factory. Kang’s life back in the city is portrayed as a dead end. He is young and good-looking, but his daily routine in the factory is the antithesis of everything a “happy” life is supposed to be. What finally gets him out of the rut of the meat-processing factory is Duan Lina, then a female military cadre from a high-ranking military official’s family, who takes a liking to Kang after being introduced to him. As a woman from a more powerful social background and enjoying a stronger social role than Kang, Duan’s power is demonstrated in pushing herself onto him despite his misgivings and in finding him a job in a governmental bureau. Thus, from the beginning, the drama sets up an explanation for why this marriage will eventually fail—the relationship is built on an “unnatural” power relation, yin sheng yang shuai (ascendance of the feminine and decline of the masculine). The drama also sets up a difficult transition in a woman’s life, from being a cadre steeped in a position of power and in the mode of revolutionary discourse to being a wife and mother, a transition, as we shall see, unsympathetically represented through the portrayal of Duan Lina.
As the drama fast forwards to the 1990s, a series of social and structural changes begin to affect the relationship between the two negatively: the drastic reduction in the state’s military spending results in Duan Lina’s father’s retirement and the subsequent lessening of his influence, and results in Duan’s demobilization and subsequent transfer to work in the city’s Fulian (a municipal branch of the All China Women’s Federation, an official organization for women). Meanwhile, feeling stuck in a bureaucratic rut, Kang leaves his government job and, “jumping into the sea of commerce” (xia hai), he eventually (p.129) has a company of his own in the garment industry. The power relation between husband and wife begins to shift when Kang succeeds in his endeavors and becomes a successful businessman, while Duan no longer has her father’s position to rely on, nor does she have a job from which she can derive much power, an apparent “correction” of the so-called yin sheng yang shuai phenomenon.11 This narrative detail is important to note, for it is at this point that the drama becomes increasingly unsympathetic toward Duan as a woman. She is unable to adjust to the changing power relations in her life in general and in her marriage in particular, and becomes everything a “reasonable” and “pleasant” woman is not. Here Chi Li is perpetuating the negative view of “strong” women for their having supposedly enjoyed more power than men (in the Mao era) and for their supposed lack of “femininity” and “feminine” sensibilities. In Duan Lina’s case, the drama makes sure that she is the one responsible for causing her marriage with Kang to fail.
After she leaves the military and does not have a powerful father to depend on, Duan Lina is loudmouthed and “nasty” in just about everything she does. On the one hand, she remains the same despite the rapid changes taking place around her and in her life; she is merely turned from an “articulate” military cadre mouthing revolutionary slogans to an equally ridiculous-sounding “Fulian” cadre. On the other hand, however, stripped of the power from the social roles she used to enjoy, she is forced to realize that her “happiness” now depends on whether or not she is able to defend her marriage and family. Her role as Kang’s (alienated) wife thus comes to the fore when the drama shows her trying to be more “feminine” in her looks and, failing that, in her various schemes to prevent her husband from divorcing her and to sabotage his extramarital affairs. In a not so subtle way, these narrative details suggest that Duan is pursuing a lost cause despite her efforts at defending her marriage, for she simply does not possess the “necessary feminine quality” to begin with.
The seemingly clichéd and melodramatically predictable representation of Duan Lina thus takes on several layers of negative symbolic implications. First, it shows her as a woman deriving her sense of power from a (once) powerful father. Such a characterization is symptomatic of the negative view of women’s liberation because it is a top-down liberation in which women derive their power from their “father”/the state.12 Second, now that she can no longer depend on the “father”/state for power, Duan is predictably forced to turn to her husband, her marriage, and her family for a sense of self. The problem, thirdly, is that she is not “womanly” enough to guarantee a successful “transition” into a “domestic” space. In short, the drama implies that, in the changed social milieu, “happiness” remains illusive to Duan mainly because she does not possess the “proper” feminine qualities supposedly necessary for maintaining (p.130) what she wants. But it is the reference to female power in conjunction with the Mao era and its “unsuitability” in the post-Mao era that is most pronounced.
Representations of the Duan Lina character, therefore, not only continue to echo the widely held view in the 1980s that women had become too powerful and that this was a phenomenon in need of correction, but also and more importantly make a direct connection between (“unfeminine”) women like Duan Lina and their inability to find “happiness” in their marriage and family life. The lack of “femininity” in Duan’s case, to summarize, is the “missing link” between a happy marriage and her self, and the underlying assumptions make Duan a lost cause. I will return to the implications of this kind of negative portrayal of women later in the discussion.
Lin Zhu, Kang Weiye’s lover, in contrast, is everything that Duan is not. Portrayed as a Westernized Chinese white-collar professional, Lin Zhu is a petty-bourgeois (xiao zi) woman who is pretty, Westernized, and capable of being practical and accepting “reality.” Her attractiveness to Kang accentuates “youth and beauty” as the key component of “femininity,” precisely what Duan does not possess. The portrayal of Lin Zhu also manages to capture the changes in different generations of women’s sense of their own identity and of what they imagine is needed—a successful man to depend on—in order to secure “happiness” in life. Both textually and subtextually, tensions between Duan and Lin in the drama mirror the structural logic of a traditional patriarchal society in which different generations of women are pitted against one another in competing for men as guarantors of their happiness. “Femininity,” once again, is essential within such logic.
Ironically, the drama also demonstrates that “femininity” does not really lead to the “winner’s” happiness. When Lin Zhu succeeds in winning over Kang, the drama does not offer her a “happily-ever-after” ending. Once Lin leaves her job and moves into the house that Kang buys for her, she becomes “a bird in a cage.” Everyday, she waits for Kang to come back from work on time, constantly craving his company, constantly failing to have it. Eventually, she becomes fed up and decides to leave Kang.
Between the time when Lin Zhu becomes Kang’s mistress and when she disappears from his life, the drama offers three moments when she is directly confronted by Duan. The apparent melodramatic nature of these confrontations points to the tension, contradictions, and silliness manifested in these women’s desire to find “happiness” through a man. In fact, in the third “meeting,” when Duan Lina bursts into the house Kang has secretly bought for Lin, the latter is already going through a period of loneliness owing to Kang’s constant preoccupation with his business and his inability to decide what to do with his marriage. This last confrontation between the two, therefore, though predictably (p.131) clichéd, is a melodramatic moment making visible the fact that, when the two women fight over this man, neither of them seems to do so based on a conviction that she will find “happiness” in a marriage with him.
The Duan-Lin conflict and its ambivalence and tension indicate that “happiness” is an object in life that women pursue with much confusion. Even though Chi Li’s story inevitably reveals her own biases (against the Fulian, for example), her representations manifest her ambivalence toward the mindless pursuits of “happiness” by women. Such pursuits do not allow them to both look out (into the society to understand the social construction of their desires) and look in (to themselves to explore what such pursuits would entail on a psychological level). While older women who grew up during the Mao era are ridiculed for not knowing how to be “feminine” and for being ill-prepared for the changing gender politics in the era of market reforms, younger women of the “new era” are also critically represented for failing to understand the limitation of depending on their “femininity,” “youth,” and “beauty” as means for finding “happiness.” Chi Li’s portrayals of these characters are informed by her ambivalence, which is itself a mixture of stereotypes and an unwillingness to fully accept “femininity” as the only path for women to find “love,” which in turn leads to their “happiness.”
Lin Xiaofeng in Divorce Chinese Style
If Chi Li’s representations of women are somewhat stereotypical, Wang Hailing’s penetrate the surface of stereotypes into the messier psychological domain of women’s desire for “happiness,” their inability to face and deal with the rapid changes happening around them, and, especially in Divorce Chinese Style, the negative consequences of that inability.13 More than Chi Li’s, dramas based on Wang’s stories ask women to look into themselves when they are seeking or believe that they are defending their own “happiness.”
Divorce Chinese Style was a 2004 hit television serial with twenty-three episodes. Its popularity put the author Wang Hailing back in the spotlight six years after the first drama based on her story Qian shou (Holding hands, 1998) became popular. However, unlike Holding Hands, which tells a story similar to Comings and Goings with the exception that the wife is a much kinder and gentler woman than Duan Lina and in the end becomes determined to leave her marriage, Divorce Chinese Style tells the story of a woman, Lin Xiaofeng, whose obsession with wanting her husband to earn more, whose ill-founded suspicion of her husband’s supposed extramarital affairs, and whose inability to act “rationally” drive her from the “happy” marriage and family that she wants to keep. Indeed, in this drama, it is Lin’s “irrational” behavior that constitutes the (p.132) major source of the drama. However, instead of using Lin’s “irrational behavior” as a form of resistance (as has been suggested by Western feminist studies of melodrama and women), the drama, as we will see, employs it ambivalently.
Lin Xiaofeng and her husband Song Jianping, like many well-educated couples of their generation, met in college and got married afterwards, each working in the job assigned to them. Lin Xiaofeng is a high school teacher and Song a surgeon. They have a son and live in an apartment assigned to Song. Together with their little boy, they have lived a relatively peaceful life, until, of course, the wife wants more. Lin becomes conscious of her desire after she witnesses what happens in the hospital’s cafeteria to the former chief of the state-owned hospital where her husband works. The old chief, who is upset that he has to pay the same price for what he tries to buy regardless of size, is mocked by a young migrant worker for being obsessed with prices and, worse, for taking more napkins than others every time he buys his food. The humiliation is too much for the old man’s heart, and he dies of a heart attack right in front of Lin and others in the cafeteria. This melodramatic moment functions as a rude awakening for Lin, who concludes that “there is no use being known as an honest person (mingsheng hao you shenme yong). These days if you don’t have money, nothing matters.” Thus, the drama proceeds to unfold how Lin is driven, first, by her desire for a more financially secure and comfortable life provided by her husband and, then, by her sense of insecurity and jealousy (of imagined lovers of her husband’s) after he becomes a successful surgeon in a private hospital.
The opening episode dramatizes a sociocultural logic widely accepted in today’s China: money is increasingly becoming the only tangible value with which an individual’s worth is measured (if you are smart and good, why aren’t you rich?). The former head of the hospital is thus assumed to be a “nobody” when he is found buying his meals in the cafeteria and even quarreling over the size of a dish. Narratively, this melodramatic detail is intentional in that it points to a central and cynically accepted “new” value system at work: money is the embodiment of one’s social worth and, by extension in Lin’s case, what she will connect her personal “happiness” with. The “dollar sign” and its assumed social values, as the rest of Lin’s story demonstrates, will function as a major driving force underlying her pursuit of what she believes to be her personal and familial happiness. Thus, from the very beginning, the drama sets Lin on a collision course with her self-interest and sense of well-being: Lin pins her hopes for happiness on the development of her husband’s career and decides to resign from her teaching job when her husband’s career takes off. She then spends her life trying to make sure that her husband does not “stray.” More than one-third of the twenty-three episodes that ensue will be devoted to the battles between Lin and Song as the former becomes increasingly paranoid to (p.133) the point of, as the many melodramatically rendered events in the drama show, being “hysterical.”
There is a major difference between this drama and Comings and Goings. Lin Xiaofeng’s story is not a typical one in which a male protagonist’s affair causes the female counterpart to react “irrationally.” Instead, Lin’s behavior stems from her inability to understand the changing world at large and her desire that is generated by the changes; as a result, in her own everyday life, she becomes increasingly paranoid and “hysterical.” The story focuses on how, while pushing her husband away, she at the same time takes his distance to be evidence of affairs and in turn becomes obsessed with trying to uncover them. The drama, in other words, tells the story of a woman in a vicious cycle of irrational behavior that gradually spins out of control.
It meticulously shows Lin as someone who does not allow interpretations other than her own, and she sees nothing but negative possibilities. To secure future happiness, according to Lin, a woman must fight in the present. And “fight” she does. The list of what she does is long, from assuming a punishing attitude toward her husband whenever he fails (and later refuses) to answer her obsessive phone calls, to following him around secretly and eventually taking pictures of what she believes to be an affair, to physically and psychologically hurting her son to the extent that the child resorts to cutting himself in the hope that it will prevent his parents from fighting, to putting sleeping pills into the wine she prepares for her husband and for the woman she imagines to be his lover, and, last but not least, going to her husband’s hospital to denounce him in front of his co-workers and then breaking a window and threatening suicide. The dramatic escalation to this final moment, when she stands on the sill of the broken window with Song kneeling behind her while his subordinates look on, is both striking and ridiculous. It shows how this woman eventually comes unraveled and how that unraveling is both much ado about nothing and self-destructive.
When critics and viewers questioned this negative or “blame-the-woman” portrayal, Wang Hailing reportedly replied that she wanted women to learn to transcend their limitations and to learn to be responsible for the consequences of their own actions.14 This expectation is directly written into the drama (although not the novel itself), when, at the end, the female protagonist, Lin Xiaofeng, is given an opportunity to make a speech in which she is shown to have somehow gone through a 180-degree change and is able to offer a self-criticism detailing why her marriage has failed. Lin shows up at the farewell party Song’s hospital holds for him before his trip to Tibet (where he will serve for a year as a volunteer doctor) and requests a chance to speak in front of everyone at the party. After relating a fable that advises women to treat their (p.134) marriages with wisdom, she says, “The more you want to hold on to your love, the more easily you will lose your own self. … Everyone wants to have love and a happy marriage, but love requires an ability to let the one you love also love you back. … When I saw Song Jianping walking around the streets not wanting to go home, I realized that our marriage had failed. Unfortunately, it was too late for me to realize that.” Whether or not an irrational individual like Lin, as she is so drastically portrayed, can change into such a rational being overnight, the point of the speech can be understood as an (add-on) message from the producers stipulating the moral lesson of the drama. But what does this moral lesson mean, exactly? I will return to this question.
Engendered Enlightenment? “Nothing” in the “Mirror” or in the “House”
There are three television dramas based on Wan Fang’s stories, all of which have the word kong in their titles, Kong jingzi (Nothing in the mirror, 2002), Kong fangzi (Empty house, 2004), and Kong xiangzi (Empty alleyway, 2005). Even though Kong xiangzi was made last, it is a story about two young women living through the 1970s and 1980s. Based on a novella by Wan Fang with a different title, its televisual version received the name Kong xiangzi mainly because the producers hoped to ride on the success of the other two kong dramas. As a result, a loosely combined trilogy based on Wan Fang’s stories came into existence. Of these three dramas, the first two are more closely related to my discussion here.
The word kong carries with it a Buddhist connotation that refers to an enlightened state of mind capable of recognizing the meaningfulness of “nothingness.” Kong, therefore, can mean something as specific as a state of “nothingness” after something (or somebody) is gone, but it can also refer to the state of spiritual epiphany (when, for example, one is able to let go of worldly worries, recognizing the dialectic between permanence and impermanence). As such, kong embodies a paradox that refers to something simultaneously absent and present. Its Buddhist implications notwithstanding, as a piece of wisdom passed on through lived experiences, kong, when positively understood, symbolizes moments of realization when individuals come to accept paradoxes in life and then learn to start anew from there.
When it comes to the dramas in question, the significance of the word kong lies in the historical and narrative contexts in which the dramas are produced and received. When kong is combined with “mirror,” “house,” and “alleyway,” all of which suggest domesticity, the word carries with it a connotation that questions, in part at least, the social reality and cultural imaginary in which women desire and pursue “happiness.” The word kong indicates a woman writer’s interest, (p.135) on the one hand, in examining different women’s choices in their pursuit of happiness, the various assumptions contained in those choices, and the consequences that result, and, on the other hand, in demonstrating a critical intervention that helps destabilize the seeming seriousness of these pursuits. But more important, I see Wan Fang’s dramas as efforts at imagining alternatives for women to find “happiness” in their lives. In this sense, the word kong echoes a desire to transcend the confines of “happiness,” defined, in this case, by consumer culture. Whether such a desire will lead to alternative ways of being and whether those alternatives are viable socially and politically remains a question, but at least in the case of Wan Fang’s dramas, the notion of kong centers more on questioning reality than on merely finding a way to escape it.
In Nothing in the Mirror, the story follows two sisters, their (different) pursuits of “happiness,” and the consequences of their choices. In the room that the two of them share, a mirror is prominently placed, suggesting a symbolic relationship between their sense of self (as women) and what they imagine their happy life to be. At the same time, they each serve as the other’s “mirror.” Sun Li, the older sister, is the pretty one, but she is also vain. In relation to her, the mirror symbolizes her illusions that, as the story unfolds, lead her to be the one who comes up empty-handed. The younger sister Sun Yan is not as pretty but is much more kind-hearted and down to earth. In relation to the mirror, however, she is someone with less confidence in herself, and she has to go through several rather painful relationships before she returns to a man she did not choose but who is equally kind and down to earth and therefore is the right one for her. Even though the representations of the two sisters appear to follow stereotypes—the pretty one is always self-centered and vain while the plain-looking one is always kind although somewhat lacking of self-confidence—the implication of the nothingness in the mirror complicates the issue.
Symbolically, the “mirror” embodies social and gender meanings based on which these young women (and, by extension, young women in general) relate to one another and to the world. If they are not careful, women can become captives of the “meaning” of the reflection unless they learn to see beyond it. The author does not have the illusion that most women will be able to do that, but at least, with the notion of kong jingzi, she is suggesting that a realization may be the first step toward that possibility. Although the two sisters and their differences manifest a familiar bias, the metaphor of the mirror allows a degree of self-reflection on the part of the sisters regarding their search for “happiness.” In Sun Yan, especially, one senses a degree of self-awareness because she is more level-headed when it comes to her own desires and to what it means to be happy. In the last episode, Sun Yan has a brief exchange with her second husband, who, like her, is an ordinary worker in a hospital. “Is there still happiness when (p.136) people grow older?” she asks. “What do you think?” the man asks. “I think so,” Sun Yan replies, “for example, right now, when two people are able to share their thoughts and understand each other.” As the entire drama ends, a family, all the adults having faced the consequences of their own choices, reunites to celebrate the Chinese New Year. There, we see Sun Yan, who is divorced and remarried to a man with a daughter; her mother, whose husband has just died; Sun Li, who is divorced and whose American boyfriend has just left her; Pan Shulin, who is Sun Yan’s second husband and whose first wife also died a few years ago; and Sun Li’s son and Pan Shulin’s daughter, the two children whom Sun Yan will take care of after her sister leaves. Over the visual image of the happy family and the music comes Sun Yan’s voice for the last time:
Seeing everybody around me, I am feeling very happy. Sun Yan, oh Sun Yan; isn’t life quite, quite good? The blue sky is so clean, serene, and bright that it looks just like a mirror. Even though we are unable to see ourselves in this mirror, I know for sure that this mirror captures each one of us and all that happens to us. I really want to tell everyone: let us live well, help each other, and care for one another. Don’t you think this would be nice?
In contrast to the desires dramatized in the dramas discussed earlier, through Sun Yan, Nothing in the Mirror celebrates a woman who chooses not to follow blindly what the outside world urges her to pursue. At the same time, Sun Yan’s choice and voice also reflect a somewhat conservative turn in contemporary China in celebrating a woman who is “pure at heart,” willing to sacrifice, and not driven only by self-interest. In this sense, albeit in a less dramatic way, Sun Yan reminds us of Liu Huifang, the female protagonist in Yearnings whose character generated much critical response that questioned a woman who remains good and pure despite unkind and unfair treatment.15
In Empty House, the author follows the structure of Nothing in the Mirror by representing two close friends who, though following different paths and at times turning against one another, learn to realize that in the end it is their friendship, as opposed to their homes and the men in their lives, that ultimately helps sustain them. The quest in life for these women is no longer simply to search for a materially desirable man, especially when life has taught them that such a pursuit will end up making them feel kong—empty and unfulfilled. In this sense, Wan Fang’s stories differ from the previously discussed dramas in that hers give substantial narrative attention to relationships and friendships between women (including between the two sisters in Nothing in the Mirror). Even though the melodramatic story lines sometimes overwhelm the significance of this attention, it is nevertheless written into the plot and narrative (p.137)
structure in such a way that, in the end, especially in Empty House, the female protagonists can no longer be pigeonholed according to stereotypes.
Reportedly, after this drama completed its first run, many viewers were disappointed by its supposed lack of drama compared to Nothing in the Mirror.16 It is true that, unlike the latter, this drama does not focus on moments of conflict. When Ding Yalan’s husband dies in an accident, for example, the drama does not exploit the tragedy. When Yang Hongying’s marriage deteriorates, the decline is represented somberly. Many viewers did not like the touch of sadness both suggested in the title Kong fangzi and conveyed in the drama’s somber mood. Indeed, even though the absence of a husband is not something to celebrate, the sadness in this story is not a cause for pity. The sadness stems from the women’s own realization, as opposed to self-pity, that they must move on and do so on their own and with the help from each other. This harks back to the point made earlier, that kong is not necessarily emptiness but the beginning of a different state of mind in which the individual is not burdened with as many illusions as before. For women, especially, such a state of mind has the potential of being more liberating than being bogged down in constant battles in an unhappy marriage and trying to defend what may be an empty promise to begin with, the promise of “happiness.”
The irony lies in the author’s comments about why she chose to use the idea of an “empty house” to tell the story of these two women. She has been quoted as saying: “The most important things for a woman are love, marriage, and family. … A house represents home. … Women cannot live without love.”17 Therefore, even though the drama represents women who have lost their husbands (p.138) through divorce or death but who have learned to become strong in the process of dealing with the aftermath, the author herself nevertheless suggests that this does not make a woman happy and is therefore sad. For the author, then, the house stays “empty” even though the woman still lives in it. So, while the two dramas based on Wan Fang’s stories demonstrate a degree of disillusionment with women’s mindless pursuit of “happiness,” it does not follow that this sense of “emptiness” transcends into an “enlightened” way of thinking. Still, Wan Fang opens the “investigation” of women’s pursuit of “happiness” by entertaining the possibility of resistance to the ideology of happiness. An “empty” house may not be desirable for a woman, but Wan Fang’s story also suggests that it does not necessarily entail an emptiness of the heart. The drama’s focus on the friendship between the two women characters is what makes the representations of the two women appear less clichéd than the characters discussed above.
In these dramas and in the family-marriage subgenre as a whole, in sum, we hear different voices in dialogue with one another in the representations of the relationship between women’s desire and the ideology of happiness. While these dramas all share a focus on women’s efforts to find and secure “happiness” in love, marriage, and family, some are more critical than others and each perspective reveals a degree of ambivalence that conditions the ways in which their stories are told.
The Ideology of Happiness and Post-Women’s-Liberation Gender Politics Revisited
This ambivalence is key to exploring further the relationship between the ideology of happiness and the gender politics represented in these dramas and, by extension, within the context of rapid social and economic changes in reform-era China. To do so, I would like to refer back to Wang Hailing’s response to viewers and to discuss some of the larger implications that exist both within her response and within the dramatic representations discussed above. I will then compare representations of the female protagonists in television drama with those in literature by women writers of the early 1980s. I explore what they share, how they differ, and why revisiting the earlier female voices in light of the more recent ones can help us (1) understand better the shared legacy of the women’s liberation movement and (2) recognize how that legacy informs an ambivalence in questioning the mindless pursuit of happiness and in establishing a critical sense of “self.”
Wang insists that her critical portrayal of Lin Xiaofeng is meant to help women not to become victims of the blind pursuit taking place in the society at large. I find her point worth exploring. Women like Lin Xiaofeng have (p.139) socially benefited from the women’s liberation movement under the Communist Party—they are “modern” women who receive equal education to men and work at their own jobs—and their “difficulties” do not stem from the historical conditions that existed before women’s liberation. And yet today many of them desire to return to a materially “modernized” cocoon in which they expect themselves to be well provided for and well protected by their husbands. Within that context, women’s happiness becomes increasingly linked to whom they marry and what their husbands can provide for them. While some Western feminists might support such a possibility in the name of women’s choice, in the United States this “choice”-based argument tends to operate on a dichotomy that privileges the “individual” and deemphasizes the social and structural limitations within which women make their choices. The same is true when such a discourse of choice is translated into China without the necessary critical understanding. The privileging of “individual choice” not only turns women’s sense of their happiness into a narrowly focused husband-securing mission, but also downplays the importance of developing a structural understanding and critical awareness of the “choice discourse.” Such a tendency weakens women’s social sense of who they are. In this sense, one cannot but wonder whether “female awareness” (nüxing yishi) necessarily equals female “gender consciousness” (nüxing xingbie yishi).
Wang Hailing further states that she wants to show that women need to increase their ability to “reason” (you lixing). Otherwise, she argues, they will find themselves in a situation similar to that of Lin Xiaofeng in which they sink into a kind of madness that no one except themselves can save them from. “Don’t keep saying that you have sacrificed your youth,” she says. “It is going to be ‘wasted’ anyway regardless of whom you marry.”18 While Wang accepts that increasingly there are women who choose to be stay-at-home moms, and her focus in fact orients around a small privileged group of urban women who can afford to make such a “choice,” her critical representation of Lin Xiaofeng does not just target this particular social group. Unlike Comings and Goings, Wang’s drama does not merely stereotype and caricature women. Instead, it relentlessly stays on track to indicate the danger that arises when women fail in their ability to understand others’ and their own humanity and instead blindly follow the doctrine of “happiness.” Instead of blaming men for women’s “unhappiness,” therefore, Wang Hailing’s drama challenges the public, especially women, with her critical portrayal of Lin Xiaofeng. In a limited way, it managed to generate much-needed (and yet not nearly enough) public debate about what women in the post-women’s-liberation era need to do to move beyond the confines of the unreasoned pursuit of happiness and to learn to be reflective as individuals capable of standing on their own.
(p.140) The drama offers a hopeful note in the last episode by having Lin Xiaofeng deliver a speech that does not quite fit her character up to that point. Although Wang’s original story does not end on such a hopeful note, still, one can argue that the narrative as a whole makes a connection between the critical representation of women like Lin and the need for another round of “consciousness raising” in face of a much changed social, cultural, and economic reality. The fact that Wang Hailing herself does not end her story on such a positive note indicates that the author does not believe in a didactic approach and that she remainss uncertain and ambivalent about the ways in which women like Lin Xiaofeng choose their life’s path. Wang’s critical representation of and her ambivalence toward women like Lin, in this sense, is not that dissimilar from the Chinese Enlightenment discourse in which part of the debate has always been how to turn the “Chinese people” into “rational” individuals capable of handling both freedom and the responsibilities that come with it. But are women writers like Wang Hailing guilty of sharing the project’s epistemology in blaming women for being irrational?
Given the rapid social and economic changes taking place in China, where a popular slogan is that for women “it is better to marry well than to do [one’s job] well” (gan de hao buru jia de hao), criticizing Wang’s critical representation of Lin misses an important point. That is, Wang Hailing shares with many other Chinese women writers an effort to represent the struggles women wage in life, while at the same time she explores the structural and ideological implications of what appear to be women’s own limitations. It is to women’s benefit to learn to understand the social and cultural changes in today’s China and to recognize what is at stake for them under such conditions. In this sense, we can say that not only is what unfolds narratively in Divorce Chinese Style more about a Chinese style of marriage than about divorce, but also, and more important, we should note that what is “Chinese” about this portrayal of marriage and divorce is more temporal (historically related) than cultural (intrinsically Chinese). In this context we can also say that the most uncondescending way of representing the lives of contemporary (urban) Chinese women is to place them in the midst of major social contradictions and represent their desires, their struggles, and their limitations.
On this note, I would like to turn to some of the women’s writings of the early 1980s that also focus on love, marriage, and family but in a different way. This comparison demonstrates the extent to which the ideology of happiness has morphed its way into conditioning women’s sense of self and sheds light on the corresponding ambivalence on the part of women writers. But more important, it helps frame a discussion exploring the question of female agency and, perhaps, the development of a critical sense of the ideology of happiness.
(p.141) While critics have focused on the extent to which women’s writings of the early 1980s strongly expressed a desire for “female identity,” they have not recognized that women writers of the time did not readily assume that love, marriage, and family life were to be the only places where “female identity” belonged. In writing about women and their inner conflicts, that is, many women writers at the time continued to value women’s independence. The social and economic condition of the time produced ambivalence on the part of the writers about how to understand women’s desire for “female identity,” to be sure, but such ambivalence was not geared toward putting women writers in a position to cede women’s social position, identity, and their sense of who they are to the domains of love, marriage, and family.
Zhang Jie’s “Love Must Not Be Forgotten” (Ai, shi buneng wangji de) (1979) was the first story after the Cultural Revolution to discuss the subject of love and marriage. It was also the first story by a woman writer that reconnected the identity of women back to love and marriage. But reading it again more than three decades later and against the changes in gender politics within the same period and against the difficult transitions portrayed in the dramas discussed above, I find the female voice in this story refreshing because she refuses to give up her identity for love and marriage just because the rest of the society would have her do so. Indeed, Shanshan, the first-person narrator who tells of her mother’s tragic experience in love and marriage, rejects Qiao Lin, the young man who fits every social norm of the time, and claims that she would rather remain single if she does not find someone she really loves. Additionally, she also declares that she will not love the way her mother loved by worshiping a man whom she in fact hardly knew. Despite the romantic ideal of a “manly man” that underlies Shanshan’s unwillingness to accept Qiao Lin, at least two things remain important for her, namely, her willingness to remain single and to not be pressured into marriage by social norms and her unwillingness to emulate her mother in “worshiping” a man. As a young woman, in other words, Shanshan holds her ground and does not want to connect her entire identity to love, marriage, and family, and she expresses pride in not doing so.
In the early 1980s, Shanshan’s voice was not unique. Characters in Zhang Jie’s other stories as well as in Zhang Xinxin’s, Chen Rong’s (Shen Rong’s), and Zong Pu’s fiction struggle with their identity in relation to love, marriage, and family, but none of them ties herself to this realm. In Zhang Xinxin’s “How Did I Miss You?” (Wo zai na’r cuoguo le ni?) and “On the Same Horizon” (Zai tongyi dipingxian shang), for example, the female protagonists ponder the issue of “female identity” when, in each story, a strong woman comes into contact with a strong man whom she likes but who does not know how to respond to a woman who stands on the same ground and who does not behave in a “feminine” manner. (p.142) Such women characters are also found in Zhang Jie’s “The Ark” (Fang zhou), in which three middle-aged professionally successful women face a challenge from men and younger women who use “femininity” as a weapon against them.
Contrary to the hope expressed at the end of Zhang Jie’s story that younger generations of men (and women) will “know better,” the history of the last three decades has shown in fact that the challenge and difficulties facing Zhang Jie’s female characters were just the beginning of the culture’s subsequent “success” in turning “femininity” into a social, economic, and ideological weapon against women. Shortly after the Cultural Revolution, femininity was used as a weapon against strong-minded women, who have long been negatively equated with images of “androgynized” or “masculinized” women of the Mao era, an image that is said to have made women unhappy. It then defined new social roles and a new cultural image for women, channeling women’s sense of their “self” into the consumer-culture-defined notion of “happiness.”
The literature by the women writers of the early 1980s did not limit female identity and social roles to the designated domains of love, marriage, and family. Those stories often end by questioning men’s position and with their affirmation of women’s own choice. While these women writers believed that a woman’s happiness would be furthered by finding “a good man,” they did not operate on the assumption that it depended solely on finding him. With the hindsight of three decades, I suggest that much of this resistance on the part of women writers at the time had to do with their affirmation of the more socially oriented positions that women occupied in the immediate decade after the Cultural Revolution. But this resistance began to erode when the 1980s preoccupation with a return to women’s “real” gender identity went from challenging the limitations of the women’s liberation promoted by the Communist Party to advocating essentialized gender roles and identities as China quickened its speed in “joining the international track” of globalizing capitalism.
Some of the consequences of this development appear in contemporary television dramas’ representations of women’s pursuit of happiness and their discontent in relation to love, marriage, and family life. Like their counterparts in women’s literature of the 1980s, the contemporary dramas are concerned with the ways in which women stake out their positions in society, but unlike earlier voices, in portraying women’s dilemma in their search for “happiness,” women writers in the 1990s and beyond face a larger uncertainty regarding how a woman can learn to be strong and independent. Many are reluctant to consciously revisit the issue of women’s social roles beyond the dichotomy of “womanly” roles such as lover, sister, daughter, wife, and mother versus not-so-womanly ones, including various kinds of professionals, implicitly reinforcing the appeal of the popular slogan that “it is better for a woman to marry well than (p.143) to do her job well.” Like many other cultural texts, these dramas can leave one feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, some of these writers resort to traditional virtues still operative in contemporary gender politics, keeping “strong women” either out of picture or portraying them as not particularly desirable individuals. On the other hand, they help put the ideology of happiness in question, especially with regard to its impact on women and the ways in which women’s sense of self needs to move beyond their increasingly narrowly defined gender roles. In different ways, dramas based on Wang Hailing’s and Wan Fang’s stories, as discussed above, exemplify efforts in recognizing women’s attempts and ability to move beyond the confines of the ideology of happiness.
To conclude, while these women writers do not always share with one another the same view of women in relation to rapid social changes, the televisual representations of their stories indicate that, in contemporary China, where the logic of consumer capitalism has come to dominate, xingfu, or happiness, has permeated mundane everyday life while manifesting itself in a deeply gendered way. It is deeply gendered because, as part of consumer culture’s ideology, it is produced as a “natural” sociocultural domain where women are expected to find themselves—their sense of “self” and of self-worth—and where, as the dramas demonstrate, they are in effect confined by two things, social status and material possessions, both of which are dependent on marriage. The linkage between a woman’s happiness and love, marriage, and family is thus realized and also comes to carry with it the logic of consumer capitalism.
Precisely because of such embedded tension, these dramas provide grounds for further discussion and debate. They continue, in the tradition of twentieth-century Chinese literature and culture, to represent the changes that have taken place in women’s lives in relation to their historical context and to address a wide range of issues, revealing along the way their own biases, prejudices, and preoccupations. From their writings and the dramas adapted from their stories, we find that, from modern struggles for women’s liberation to post-women’s-liberation gender politics, the meaning of Chinese women’s social positions and their personal identities continues to be contested. The dramas offer insight into the lure of the modern that Chinese women face on an unprecedented global scale in the name of “happiness.” It remains to be seen what lies ahead as the lure of the modern continues to be a strong force.
(3.) For additional discussions on melodrama and women, see Christine Gledhill, ed., Home Is Where the Heart Is; Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets; Ken K. Ito, An Age of Melodrama; Susan Zlotnick, Women, Writing, and the Industrial Revolution; E. Ann Kaplan, Motherhood and Representations; Jackie Byars, All That Hollywood Allows; Nancy Abelmann, The Melodrama of Mobility; Gabrielle Hyslop, “Deviant and Dangerous Behavior”; Kathleen Anne McHugh, American Domesticity; and Cavell, Contesting Tears.
(4.) Xie Jin (1923–2008) studied drama and directing during the 1940s. He started directing films in the late 1940s and became a film director stationed in Shanghai after 1949. After the success of Nülan wuhao (Woman basketball player number five) in 1957, he went on to make three more films in the 1960s. He resumed filmmaking in 1974 and made three films during the Cultural Revolution and thirteen more films after the Cultural Revolution. Despite the popularity of his films, Xie Jin’s melodramatic style drew criticism from critics. Examples include Zhu Dake, “The drawback of Xie Jin’s Model,” and Li Jie, “Xie Jin’s Era Should End.”
(5.) These three women writers began to write in the 1980s but became household names in the 1990s when their subject matter—women’s personal experiences in conjunction with the rapid changes in their everyday and materially oriented lives—attracted popular interest.
(6.) There are many discussions on the yin sheng yang shuai issue both in English and in Chinese. To name just a few, see Yuejin Wang, “Red Sorghum: Mixing Memory and Desire”; Ling Zhu, “A Brave New World? On the Construction of ‘Masculinity’ and ‘Femininity’ in The Red Sorghum Family”; and Xueping Zhong, Masculinity Besieged?
(7.) Studies and discussions on women’s and men’s identities in conjunction with the Communist Party–led women’s liberation movement and the Mao era’s gender policies began to appear after the late 1970s, both in the West and in China. See Judith Stacey, Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China; Margery Wolf, Revolution Postponed: Women in Contemporary China; Christina K. Gilmartin, Gail Hershatter, Lisa Rofel, and Tyrene White, eds., Engendering China: Women, Culture, and The State; Tani Barlow, ed., Gender Politics in Modern China; Angela Zito and Tani Barlow, eds., Body, Subject and Power in China; and Tani Barlow, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism.
(p.187) (8.) In critiquing the Communist Party’s gender-blind gender-equality policies, many critics went so far as to negate the revolutionary—and, by extension, the social—component in the formation of women’s self-identity in socialist China. The call for restoring women’s “femininity” by many critics was accompanied by an unquestioned acceptance of the separation of “the social” from “female identity.”
(9.) I have argued elsewhere that the narrowing of the meaning of “womanhood” can be traced through women’s literature in the three decades since the late 1970s, when Chinese women writers, in their critique of the shortcomings of the Communist Party–led women’s liberation, turned to what is essentially a bourgeois imaginary of womanhood for “women’s essence.” See Xueping Zhong, “Who Is a Feminist? Understanding the Ambivalence towards Shanghai Baby, ‘Body Writing,’ and Feminism in Post–Women’s Liberation China.”
(10.) Chi Li is a Wuhan-based writer who began to publish in the 1980s but did not become known until the 1990s. The story that secured her name in the contemporary Chinese literary scene is “Fannao rensheng” (Vexed everyday life, 1987) in which the male protagonist Yin Jiahou is portrayed as being trapped by his everyday activities at home and at the factory, which, the story appears to imply, keep a man from being able to do more important things (that a man should be doing). It is interesting to note that, when Comings and Goings begins, the figure of Yin Jiahou can be found in Kang Weiye, the male protagonist in this drama, and Kang’s story is almost like a sequel in that it is about how, after Kang becomes a successful businessman, he faces new possibilities and new vexations that Yin Jiahou would not have dreamed of.
(11.) The reference to the Fulian here reveals several gender-politics-related issues. First, it betrays the author Chi Li’s bias against the organization, a bias shared by many intellectuals, men and women. It is a bias based on two by-now-familiar views: the Fulian is an official organization and as such it mainly answers to the state’s gender policies, and the Fulian is responsible for repressing expressions of “femininity.” As a result, when representing Fulian-related issues, including portraying those who work for it, women writers like Chi Li tend to resort to a set of stereotypes. Duan Lina and her colleagues embody such stereotypes. For information on the Fulian, see Ellen Judd, The Chinese Women’s Movement between the State and Market, and Hongmei Shen, “All-China Women’s Federation: A Party Representative or Feminist Organization?”
(12.) Here, the original author Chi Li and the drama both echo the view that the party-led women’s liberation movement was a top-down movement in which women’s sexual differences were neglected and rendered subservient to male-centered revolutionary causes and nation-building endeavors. For reexaminations of this view, see Lin Chun, The Transformations of Chinese Socialism; Xueping Zhong, “Women Can Hold Up Half the Sky: A ‘Fourth-Told’ Tale.”
(13.) Wang Hailing is best known for writing about marriage and its problems in contemporary China. Her representative works include Qian shou (Holding hands, 1999), Zhongguo shi lihun (Divorce Chinese style, 2004), Xin jiehun shidai (Marriage in the new era, 2006), and Daxiao de nüer (Senior colonel’s daughter, 2007), all of which have been adapted into television dramas.
(14.) See, for example, “Wang Hailing: wo dui hunyin hen jiji” (Wang Hailing: I am positive about marriage) (http://yule.sohu.com/20040913/n222005209.shtml). This (p.188) interview took place when Divorce Chinese Style first appeared and some critics questioned Wang for blaming women for the failure of their marriages. Wang responds to that criticism in this interview. Also see “Wang Hailing bu fu zhuanjia tiaoci, wei ‘li hun’ bianjie” (Wang Hailing does not agree with critics and defends Divorce Chinese Style) (http://ent.sina.com.cn/2004-10-7/0704524349.html).
(15.) When Yearnings first appeared, it generated much critical response from Chinese women intellectuals, especially with regard to the portrayal of Liu Huifang, the female protagonist of the drama.
(16.) “Guanyu kong fangzi de zhengyi” (Controversy about Empty House) (http://www.yntv.cn/yntv_web/category/30201/2005/11/30/2005-11-30_296523_30201.shtml).
(18.) “Wang Hailing: zuo quanzhi taitai bushi fengxian” (Wang Hailing: being a housewife is not a selfless sacrifice), Meizhou shibao (Boston Chinese report), October 8–14, 2004, A6.