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China’s TV Dating Shows: For Love or Money?

6 minute read
Justin Bergman / Shanghai

For a small but increasingly high-profile number of young women in modern-day China, true love is all about the numbers. A potential suitor may have a good sense of humor and reasonable good looks, but what they say really matters is if he owns an apartment and how many square feet it is. A sizable bank account is also a must, and, some say, so is a luxury car.

At least, that’s the way things look if you watch Chinese television these days. Though China was slow to pick up on the reality-programming trend, a host of dating shows and American Idol copycats have emerged in recent years, capturing millions of viewers but angering critics who say the programs promote negative, non-traditional values among urban Chinese youth. The latest reality-TV scandal to transfix the nation involves Ma Nuo, a 22-year-old model from Beijing who appeared on China’s most popular dating show, If You Are the One. She haughtily rejected an offer from a male contestant to take a ride on his bike, epitomizing the materialism that some say has come to define the nouveau riche of the post-1980s generation. “I’d rather cry in a BMW car than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle,” Ma told her suitor with a giggle.

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The televised smackdown swept the Internet and made an instant celebrity of Ma, who left the show without a match but has since entertained numerous television offers and become one of the most talked-about women in the country. The backlash among young Chinese was especially severe, reflecting growing anxieties over the widening gap between rich and poor, shifting societal values and the difficulties of finding a mate in a country where men are expected to outnumber women by 24 million in a decade. (China’s 30-year-old one-child policy has caused a disproportionate number of families to abort female fetuses in hopes of having a son.)

“A lot of people see chastity as important as one’s own life, but Ma Nuo, a shallow, sharp-tongued, single girl, treats her chastity like used toilet paper because she wants to be a super star,” one netizen, Wang Xi Jie, wrote on the popular Internet forum Tianya.cn. “Yes, the world needs money, but your idea that money is the master of everything is not right.” Of If You Are the One and the handful of other dating shows like it, another blogger, Xie Yong, wrote on the Web portal Sohu.com: “The most controversial aspect of these programs is the value contestants place on money worshipping and rich people. These opinions are so contrary to traditional values, like loving one’s country and respecting one’s elders … But we can’t do anything if these people just like ugly things.”

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This is cause for concern for the government. In response to the public outcry over Ma’s infamous quote — as well as comments from other money-obsessed contestants on If You Are the One and shows like it — the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) issued a harsh set of new rules in early June for matchmaking programs. “Incorrect social and love values such as money worship should not be presented in the shows,” the notice read. It also banned “morally provocative hosts and hostesses” and demanded that participants undergo stricter screening procedures and “be cautious before mouthing venturous remarks.” After the new policies were announced, all of China’s dating shows said they would promptly comply.

That the government would target a TV dating series is not unusual; Beijing has long been wary of China’s increasingly freewheeling reality programs and the outspoken stars they produce. In 2005, Li Yuchun, a 21-year-old androgynous singer with David Bowie hair, became an overnight sensation when she performed songs written for men and proudly called herself a tomboy on an American Idol–like talent show called Super Girl. After the authorities intervened to stop her public gender-bending, Li switched to a patriotic folk song for the finale — and still won. Then, three years ago, SARFT pulled the plug on its first Chinese reality show — a talent contest broadcast out of Chongqing called The First Heartthrob — because of what it called “sensationalist” and “vulgar” content. It also issued a directive outlawing any programs in which people underwent sex-change operations or plastic surgery and prohibited another Idol copycat, Happy Boys Voice, from showing crying contestants, “unhealthy songs” and “wild hair.” (Presumably this means an Adam Lambert look-alike wouldn’t have made the cut.)

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Now the state is going after money worshippers and gold diggers — and Ma Nuo (nicknamed “BMW Lady” by bloggers) isn’t the only target. Zhu Zhenfang, another contestant on If You Are the One, caused a stir when she refused to shake hands with a prospective suitor, saying he “must pay 200,000 yuan [about $29,000] for the privilege.” “Why 200,000 yuan?” she continued. “Because my basic criteria for my future boyfriend is that he must earn this amount of money each month.” Liu Yunchao, a male contestant, was also condemned in the blogosphere for his arrogance after he bragged about having 6 million yuan ($880,000) in the bank and three sports cars. Rumors have since surfaced online that he’s actually an aspiring actor who just pretended to be rich to get on the show.

As disgusted as viewers have been by some of the contestants, however, they continue to watch religiously. In fact, Jiangsu’s If You Are the One has been joined on the airwaves by several competing programs in recent months, including Let’s Go On a Date in Hunan province and Run for Love in Zhejiang province. Why are people still tuning in? “Audiences like the programs because they’re honest. They show the current reality of Chinese society,” says Yan Mu, one of the founders of Baihe.com, an online dating service with 21 million registered users. Young people are so focused on making money and building their careers these days, they have little time to devote to dating — and contestants speak to these difficulties on the shows, he says. “Many people feel pressure from their parents and peers,” Yan adds. “It can be a struggle to find a partner.” Money may not buy you love. But on China’s reality shows, it can at least get you a date.

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