Jiamei Feng and Tammy Cho look at China’s latest celebrity divorce and investigate what the surrounding gossip tells us about Chinese society.
Last month, China was stunned by actor Wang Baoqiang’s social media post announcing his intention to divorce his wife Ma Rong, due to her affair with his agent. Since the announcement, talk of sex, marital roles and the splitting of millions of dollars have enthralled the nation.
Wang is a popular Chinese movie star with a rags-to-riches story. Born in the rural province of Hebei to a poor family, he became a household name after starring in the film A World Without Thieves (2004). Wang plays roles that portray him as naïve, hardworking and comical. This screen image has shaped public perceptions of his character.
While the public recognises Ma as the wife of Wang, she is relatively unknown. She comes from a family of average wealth and was famous at her university for her beauty.
The couple have been married for seven years, and have a daughter and son.
News of the divorce exploded onto the Internet when Wang posted on Chinese social media platform Weibo, that Ma was engaged in an extramarital affair with his agent Song. Five hours later, Ma replied through her Weibo account saying “I will reveal the truth when the time is right”. Ma has also filed for defamation.
Chinese netizens have been quick to respond – reminding us of the power of social media in China, where statistics show that there are over 659 million social media users. The nation has embraced ‘people power’ through the Internet, using social media to express opinions, and spark moral and political debates.
This celebrity scandal has taken online action to a whole new level. One article reported that the hashtag #WangBaoqiangDivorce had been viewed over 8.6 billion times on Weibo. Even though these are not all unique views, very few issues garner so much interest.
Wang’s first ever post, which describes himself as a sincere and faithful husband has attracted over 5.3 million ‘likes’ and 3 million comments.
In the wake of the scandal, netizens are also in full conspiracy mode and have called for investigations. Some claim that Ma and Song had planned two car accidents in 2013 and 2015 that left Wang injured, that Wang is not the father of Ma’s son, and that Ma has been transferring Wang’s property into her own name for years.
Not only have netizens become fervent sleuths into the sex lives and finances of the couple, but comments on Weibo have sparked wide debate about Chinese perceptions of marriage and divorce.
Chinese society has a traditional belief in the “perfect match” theory – an engaged couple’s family backgrounds, economic conditions and social classes ought to be similar. Further, wealth (for men) and beauty (for women) can improve their positions on the marriage market.
Wang and Ma don’t fit this “perfect match” rule. Wang was born into a much poorer household, but has now surpassed Ma in career achievements, popularity and social networks. Some members of the public have responded without sympathy for the marriage that was doomed to fail.
Where a marriage breaks down due to an affair, China’s double gender standards also become obvious. Where a wife is found cheating, the husband is likely to demand an immediate divorce. If he chooses to forgive the wife, others treat him as a coward and mock him for tolerating a ‘whore’.
However, where the husband cheats, the wife will be surrounded by her parents, friends, colleagues and even neighbours – who ‘kindly’ try to persuade her to forgive the deceiving husband because of her responsibilities to her family. She is often told “it is common for a man to have an affair”.
Further, the traditional family division of “men as breadwinners, and women as homemakers” contributes to long-lasting gender inequality. The public disregard Ma’s contribution to the family and say she should be grateful for her husband’s hard work.
In addition to criticism, netizens have sent Ma death threats, exposed her identity number and home address online, and started to harass her parents. Although China’s law emphasises the importance of privacy protection, it is poorly applied.
Celebrities are especially vulnerable. Their romances, marriages and divorces are public events.
On the other hand, celebrities can use curiosity about their lives as a tool to gain popularity or manipulate reputation. For example, in two recent Chinese celebrity divorces, the wives who were having affairs used social media to publicly criticise their husbands, thereby winning public opinion for the first few months of their divorce before the affairs came to light.
This could explain why Wang first announced his divorce through Weibo – a tactical move garnered to win the public’s sympathy. Sadly, in the age of social media, Chinese affairs of the heart have become a public social affair.