In 2010, a pretty young girl who was a contestant on a popular Chinese matchmaking show, gave a spontaneous remark on how she would choose her husband, ‘I’d rather be crying in a BMW than laughing on a bicycle.’ Her response and other similar declaration went viral on the internet, generating a storm of angry commentary. In spite of the rage and criticism it provoked, this TV show, named FCWR which means “Don’t bother if you are not sincere” in Chinese, has become hugely popular. Its advertisement revenue ranks second highest nationally, just one step below the China Daily News. FCWR has proven to be more than simply entertaining the audience; it outshines its competition by presenting, for better or worse, an epitome of contemporary Chinese society of the early 21st century. People love watching it because it is a platform for the grass-roots to speak freely and showcase themselves, and also because it resembles a mirror on Chinese society at a time of staggering social change. However, voices were calling for the halt of such programmes because they foster attitudes of materialism and utilitarianism that make many Chinese very uncomfortable.
FCWR was originally designed to cater the so-called ‘spinster’ or ‘Sheng Nu’ phenomenon. ‘Sheng Nu’ refers to women who are reaching or exceeding what is conventionally considered the optimal marriageable age, who are highly-educated, advancing fast in their career, but who are unable to find a husband. Matchmaking TV shows such as FCWR open up opportunities for those women to meet their “Mr Right” and also to become known by audiences, nation-wide. In this particular show there are twenty four female guests standing on the stage, usually ranging between 23 to 40 years old, with one male guest standing opposite them on the stage. The host presents the male guest, followed by three pre-recorded video clips designed to introduce the man. Throughout the show the female guests can put questions to the male guest, or express interest or disinterest.
This interaction is the most riveting part as it reveals various issues in modern relationships and sense of values. Although most of the female guests are sweet and genuine, there have been a few young girls who explicitly express as their goal to marry a “rich man”. This utilitarian attitude triggered controversy and debates all over the media. Underneath what seems a harmless game, this raw undercurrent of grasping materialism has raised the society’s concerns about where China is going. Conventional moral discipline has become so overshadowed that a deep feeling of unease started crawling out.
This feeling of unease mainly comes from the degeneration of ethics in personal relationships. People nowadays are used to seeing wealthy mid-age married men taking pretty young girls as ‘second wives’. Since such affairs usually remain relatively undercover, and the legitimate wives tend to cope with this problem behind closed doors, the law is not playing a role in effect. There is a growing perception that a man can do anything if he has plenty of money. For example, many of my parents’ friends who are wealthy successful mid-age businessmen cheating on their wives. What seems even more unacceptable to me is the fact that their male peers do not think it is shameful at all. Quite the opposite, being able to have a “trophy wife” is viewed as a sign of having “arrived”. More disturbingly, the girls themselves are gravitating towards this path of life; after all it is the easiest way for some them to live a life they may never achieve by their own effort. A friend of mine once told me that in her college, a considerable proportion of female students have “sugar daddies”. This “sugar daddies” phenomenon is not unique to her college or even to her city. The contention finally came out into open when someone talks about it outright in FCWR. Many people complained that the TV show should provide guidance in appropriate sense of values instead of advocating materialism. Others argue that FCWR is a platform where everyone can participate and everyone has the right to speak their mind frankly. People from different backgrounds or with contrasting mindset are put on the spot so that their individual choice should be respected. FCWR was allowed to continue after being warned that its subject matter would be reviewed by a media censorship committee.
The causes of this materialism phenomenon, however, are much more complex than media influence. The fundamental problems largely derive from the current phase of economic development and its resulted distortion in virtues. China’s wealth growth is indeed fast – perhaps so fast to the point that it becomes destabilizing – as social development lags behind. The Chinese nation is yearning for improvement in living standards after more than a century of social unrest and economic hardship. When the big boom came so suddenly, material wellbeing and spiritual adaption failed to find a balance. As a result traditional value systems have become distorted; the definition of moral righteousness and integrity has blurred. Also at this stage, the economy is marked with unbalanced development between social-economic groups. The minority rich are enjoying extravagant lives while the rest are still desperately striving for material security. People pursue wealth and power at any cost. I would attribute the term “lost generations” to both the mid-age generation who have undergone the largest self-transformation along with the economic changes, and to the younger generation who throw off the moral constraints in favour of unconstrained desires.
Going beyond the extreme cases mentioned above, in China less frequently marriages are based on love, belief, or anything divine. People are losing certain important qualities that our society once held to be central. This trend could potentially cause further social instability or the breakdown of conventional cultural norms.
But looking at the bright side, such phenomenon has been experienced by other developed countries in the past. Therefore I should believe, or at least hope that this situation will change in the future, when the society has restored the balance and when material affluence is no longer the sole pursuit of life.