In China, popular dating shows are being used to promote Xi Jinping’s changing national ideology. Luka Vertessy looks at dating, and politics in Chinese pop culture.
It’s entertainment with the whole package: drama, tension and comedy. Yet China’s top dating shows are beginning to reflect more than just the struggles of modern-day romance. Changes to the format of these shows are instead indicative of a new revolution in national social ideology.
Even though China is no stranger to national reforms, the latest wave of social change reveals a twist in its interpretation of the rightful way of life. In his October 2017 commencement speech to National Congress, President Xi Jinping spoke of his new plan for China’s future which has been named ‘Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era’.
Within the same week, what is colloquially known as ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ was readily adopted as the new dogma of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The core rhetoric of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ is unsurprising given China’s recent political ethos: the solidification of the CCP and the President as the supreme authorities.
This model has reshaped Chinese society through a quasi-Confucian code, with Xi Jinping as the central benevolent father of China. In addition to this political domination, the CCP has also taken further measures to consolidate authority over other sectors – particularly business, media and popular culture.
Recent televised dating shows have begun to emanate the influence of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. The structure of programs, interactions between contestants and the parameters for success resonate with the CCP’s push for a supposed revitalisation of more traditional expectations.
Filial piety, the Confucian tenant of respect for ones elders, in particular has become a central topic in terms of its prominence in modern-day China.
The progression from the meteoric-hit dating show If You Are the One (2010) to the more recent Chinese Dating with the Parents (2016) is a quintessential example of a reinforcement of filial piety as a modern Chinese ideal.
If You Are the One features a single (often male) contestant centred against a 24-person panel. The contestant’s aim is to hopefully woo his panellist of choice. While there is no sure-fire method for success, the show has become infamous for one female panellist’s rationale of “I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle”.
The sentiment of this line can be seen echoed throughout many episodes, where importance is placed upon the suitor’s more individualistic aspects, such as financial worth, occupation, hobbies, as well as personal aesthetics.
In comparison, half a decade later in 2019, suitors on Chinese Dating with the Parents now sit face-to-face with the parents of their desired panellist.
A shift in the questions asked has also ensued, with parents often discussing topics ranging from housework to plans for a family. Furthermore, responses aligned with more traditional (Confucian) values appear to garner more positivity from both those on the show and the audience.
There is an almost sequential timing to the establishment of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ and the overhaul of the nationally, and internationally, successful dating show structure. Given this re-popularisation of filial piety as a core obligation, it is hard to pass off the relationship between the CCP and mainstream popular culture as pure coincidence.
Paired with the CCP’s increasing media curation through both censorship and the promotion of select material, it is clear that pop culture products have become a pipeline for Xi Jinping’s authoritarian social revolution.