This is the article I had initially pitched to Yale’s China Hands magazine that didn’t get picked up, and came out last week on the Beijinger. They had me change the format and I cut the part about Jin Xing cus it didn’t fit anymore. Oddly enough, if you read the published version there’s a comment that took the opposite stance on her partaking in the show, real insightful. I’ll say no more and just leave this here.
With a new year comes a new dating show to China, “中国式相亲” or “Chinese Dating” which aired its first episode on Christmas Eve, 2016. The show’s gimmick puts the burden of choosing a partner not on potential suitors, but on their parents. As China continues its modernization and old often gives way to new, the show’s apparent support for a more conservative, traditional take on dating bears examination. Given that the show is focused on creating heterosexual relationships, the article will be referring mainly to that type, and will be gendering everyone mentioned based off their representation onscreen.
Each episode features five sets of parents with their children (either all daughters or all sons depending on the episode) and three contestants of the opposite sex to be evaluated by the families. Each contestant is interviewed by three of the five families while their children watch the proceedings from a separate room with the option to call the stage to make requests or ask questions of the contestants, through their parents of course. After a set amount of time, if all three families are still interested, the contestant is asked to choose their favorite suitor; only then do the two hopeful lovebirds get the opportunity to meet in person. The chosen son or daughter then chooses to accept or reject the contestant and the two either walk off-stage after making a cheesy heart with their arms, or simply shake hands and go their separate ways (cue Journey).
According to one of the show’s producers Liu Yuan, its two objectives are to bring together couples already fated for each other (indicating 缘分, yuanfen) which roughly translates into English as the fate that brings two things together (usually people, but not always, and not always romantically), and to explore intergenerational communication via its contestants and their parents. However, it has already received no small amount of negative feedback online, accused of being a “step backwards for Chinese society”, with some netizens saying it amounts to arranged marriage with new packaging, something that should have been left behind a hundred years ago.
The show highlights traditional aspects of dating in China that result in certain contestants receiving what some would call unfair treatment. Most notable is the still present notion of women who do not get married by 27 being “leftover” or “cast aside”. It’s not a topic I’m particularly equipped to discuss, so I invite the reader to check out this account here.
One female contestant on the first episode was passed over by a set of parents for being 40 years old and divorced. Their son was quite enthralled by her, but even his pleas couldn’t override his parents’ veto. On the third episode, a female contestant fails to even attract the approval of three families at the start when it becomes clear that her reported age of 26 was a bit of an underestimate. She later hints at being 30, before admitting her actual age of 33. In her words, “no one will want you if you come onstage and say you’re 33, so I had to lie.” Whether the families’ rejection was tied to her age, her deception, or her personality in general can’t be said. I personally didn’t care for her overly-cutesy language and unsubtle name-dropping even before her age came to light, so I think it was a combination of all three.
Related is the traditional belief, still existent in the West as well, that a wife can’t or shouldn’t be better educated than her husband. A contestant from the first episode was rejected for holding a master’s degree, deemed too high when compared to her potential boyfriend’s level of education, while in the second episode one daughter worries in the side room that a male contestant *won’t* have a higher degree than her, a fear not echoed by any male contestant.
Curiously, basic traditional requirements for a pairing such as, “do you have a house,” “do you have a car,” that I was asked about during my own experience on a Chinese dating show were passed over (or assumed to be satisfied) in favor of other questions. This by no means indicates a lack of materialism however, as one Taiwanese contestant mentioned several times the one million RMB (roughly $145,000) “reward” her father was offering to anyone who married her. Why they didn’t just use the word “dowry” is beyond me, it would have been a bit more up front. Two of the fathers on the same episode spent a great deal of time talking with another male contestant not about his suitability for their respective daughters, but rather how they could join his business and who would be the more beneficial partner for him. Combined with parents’ claims of how well female contestants would be taken care of, or of the houses offered to male contestants if they would marry and move to the family’s city, the show at times seemed like a simple transaction lacking any real emotion.
Perhaps the most tragic segment, probably designed to be so, involved male contestant Zhang Jingli. Zhang lost his father at a young age, was raised exclusively by his mother, and was the favorite pick of female contestant Liu Xinling. However, mama Liu raised some concerns over him being from a single-parent household without giving concrete reasons. While Xinling ignored these concerns and said she still wanted to date him, apologizing profusely for her mother, Zhang in turn rejected her, saying that he firstly didn’t want her to go against her mother’s wishes, and secondly that he had no interest marrying into a family that had a problem with his upbringing. Despite his nontraditional family, it seems Zhang still has a lot of traditional love and respect for his mother. Attaboy.
The show’s display of such a traditional Chinese dating environment throws an interesting light on its hostess Jin Xing. Formerly a colonel of the People’s Liberation Army Dance Corps, Jin Xing is one of China’s most accomplished dancers, a widely visible TV personality, and probably the country’s most well-known trans woman, having been its first to undergo sex-reassignment surgery in 1994.
Jin is sometimes referred to as “poison tongue” for her tendency to chew out anyone she disagrees with on national TV. While hosting China’s ‘So You Think You Can Dance’, she tore into a fellow judge over tormenting a contestant, saying, ““Chinese TV always digs at people’s scars, consumes their pain. This is the biggest weakness of Chinese TV and I hate it! I hope that on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ we won’t use people’s pain, we won’t use people’s sympathy, we won’t use people’s suffering.” This outburst seems to have gotten her her own talk show, “The Jin Xing Show”, which Jin hopes to use to affect positive social change as she strives to become, in her words, the “Oprah Winfrey” of China.
Given her venomous reputation and the struggle she went through to live as the woman she knew she is, one might expect Jin to be completely opposed to traditional culture, not to be found hosting a show that encourages a modernized arranged marriage. However, Jin is a self-proclaimed staunch supporter of traditional Chinese society in matters of the heart, beginning each episode with a warm “Hello everyone! I’m your red maid, (a term for matchmaker lifted from one of China’s most famous novels, “The Story of the Western Wing”) Jin Xing!” She says that modern dating apps aren’t reliable, that even with all this information at their fingertips young people don’t always make good decisions when it comes to love. Jin rather believes that only blind dating, preferably with parents’ input, will produce the best results and a long-lasting marriage, better yet if the pairing is门当户对(men dang hu dui, mun dahng hoo dwei), meaning that the husband and wife come from similar financial and social backgrounds.
Jin’s hosting the show demonstrates, much like the perceived conflict between Caitlyn Jenner’s identity and her politics, that one’s identity does not necessarily dictate one’s values. While she does show visible discomfort at the unfair treatment of some of the female contestants mentioned earlier, reminding the audience that “age is just a number, the person behind it is what’s important”, she ignores many others, and in the process condones the traditional values responsible in her role as host. Whether it be remaining silent when women are passed over for being too educated or ignoring a joke where one father quips, “Two guys singing together might give people the wrong idea,” she has aligned herself with the advocates of traditional society that would have prevented her own transition if given the opportunity, and still prove obstacles to fair treatment of both women and the LGBTQ community in China. Perhaps this is yet another gambit to build her fan-base and bide her time until her cult of personality is so strong as to be unsilenceable. After all, the fact that Jin is trans does not mean she has an obligation to advocate for feminism or the entire LGBTQ community at every opportunity, however much some (myself included) might like to see her do so. There is the possibility that her support for traditional dating is wholehearted. Perhaps she, like some trans people, believes that just as cis women have to work twice as hard as their male coworkers to get recognition in the workplace, she has to work twice as hard at being a woman (read: feminine) to be accepted as a one. Given that Chinese society’s view of women is often still quite traditional, getting that acceptance in her case means abiding by tradition. Now that she is accepted as a woman by mainstream Chinese society, perhaps she still feels the need to emphasize that she is a part of it, and that to do anything counter-culture would threaten everything she has achieved thus far.
While I’m personally disappointed by her choice to host the show and the absence of activism on her part, in the end Jin Xing’s life is hers to lead. She still remains a great role model for many all over the world between her accomplishments on and off the stage, and in the future I hope to see her becoming more outspoken. I highly recommend her talk show, and Chinese Dating will continue to air every Saturday night on Dragon Television (Beijing time). Meanwhile the young people of China will continue to date and hopefully procreate responsibly as the country figures out how to deal with the problem of a rapidly aging population. Parental approval makes a great relationship all the better and some people may feel they need the particular brand of matchmaking offered by “Chinese Dating”, but parental disapproval shouldn’t keep two consenting, loving adults apart regardless of gender.