Today, dating shows are an important ingredient in China’s cultural diet, with popular shows like If You Are the One and One Out of a Hundred attracting millions of viewers.
For single people, they’re a platform for seeking potential spouses; for fans, they’re the subject of gossip and dissection; for the cultural elites, they’re a topic for derision; and for the government, they’re a target for surveillance.
Compared with western cultures, China has traditionally had a vastly different value system toward marriages and family. But over the past 30 years, these customs have been upended.
I’ve studied how traditional Chinese marriage rituals have evolved in response to globalization. In many ways, dating shows became a powerful way to facilitate these changes. By looking at the development of Chinese television dating shows, we can see how love and marriage changed from a ritualized system mired in the past to the liberated, western-style version we see today.
Serving the man
Marriage matchmaking has always been an important cultural practice in China. For generations, marriage was arranged by parents who followed the principle of “matching doors and windows,” which meant that people needed to marry those of similar social and economic standing. Marriage was viewed as a contract between two households, and it was for the purpose of procreation, not love.
Thought to contribute to peace and stability, it was the dominant custom into the latter half of the 20th century.
But China’s 1978 Open Door Policy, which transitioned the country from a rigid, centrally-planned economy to a global, market-based economy, exposed the Chinese people to an array of outside cultural influences. Meanwhile, the country’s 1980 marriage law codified, for the first time, freedom to marry and gender equality.
However, even in the wake of political change and globalization, many families still held the traditional Chinese belief that women, unlike men, belonged in the home, and that their parents had the final say over whom they could marry.
So when a TV show like Television Red Bride (Dianshi hongnixang) came along in 1988, it was a big deal.
Certain traditions still ruled. The show’s purpose was to help rural, poor men find a partner, while its slogan, “Serve the people” (wei renmin fuwu), came from a 1944 speech by Mao Zedong.
Its emphasis on finding partners for men was a testament to China’s unbalanced sex ratio, caused by a combination of China’s one-child policy and advances in ultrasound technology in the 1980s that allowed pregnant women to abort millions of baby girls.
The style of the show followed a linear pattern. Male candidates introduced themselves and their family background, listed their criteria for a spouse, and answered a few questions from the host. It was essentially a singles ad broadcast before audience members, who, if interested, could contact the candidate for a date.
Despite all the limitations, the show was a groundbreaking depiction of courtship. It took decisions about love and marriage from the private home to the very public domain of broadcast TV. For Chinese romance, this was its own “great leap forward.”
By the early 1990s, Chinese TV networks found themselves in fierce competition with one another. Economic liberalization had loosened restrictions for what could appear on the airwaves, but there was now the added pressure of turning a profit. More than ever before, networks needed to produce entertaining shows that attracted audiences.
It was during this period that dating shows started to transform, depicting live, on-air matchmaking and dates between single males and females.
For example, Human Satellite TV’s Red Rose Date featured 12 single males and females who interacted with one another by performing, playing games, and having roundtable chats. Audiences could also tune into shows imported from overseas, such as Love Game, a popular Taiwanese show that matched singles through three rounds of speed dating.
These new shows were ways for singles to get to know each other in a fun, flirty environment. And for those who had little dating experience, it was a model for courtship; soon, the viewing public was able to reconceptualize ideas of love, relationships, and marriage.
At the same time, traditional courtship and marriage rituals were evaporating.
For example, in 1970, only 1.8% of couples lived together before marriage. By 2000, that number had skyrocketed to 32.6%. Meanwhile, divorces in China rose from 170,449 couples in 1978 to 3.5 million in 2013, while marriages with foreigners increased from fewer than 8,500 couples in 1979 to more than 49,000 couples in 2010.
“I’d rather weep in a BMW than laugh on a bike”
There have been some consequences to this shift: As TV became more commercialized, so, too, did love and marriage.
By the late 2000s, dating shows needed to continue to evolve in order to compete with other programs. Strategies that dating shows adopted included hiring polished hosts, borrowing set designs and show formats from Western reality shows, and incorporating technology to better interact with audience members and TV viewers at home.
Today, it’s not uncommon to see commercial products and brands being hawked on various dating programs or hear hosts casually mention sponsors during an episode. Many sponsors sell products we associate with romance and dating, such as cosmetics, clothing, diet drinks, and dating website memberships.
Moments from some shows have gone viral, with many emphasizing materialistic values. In 2010, an unemployed male suitor on If You Are the One asked a female contestant if she’d go on a bike ride with him for a date. She responded that she would “rather weep in a BMW” than laugh on a bike.
Other pointed retorts include “I won’t consider you if your monthly salary is under RMB 200,000” ($33,333) and “If you come from the countryside, you can forget about it.”
Traditionalists have argued that the shows reflect the pervasive materialism, narcissism, and discrimination against the poor among China’s younger generations.
Not that arranged marriages could be thought of as pure love. But, to some viewers, if there were an ideal of pure love, this certainly wasn’t it. And it was a far cry from a dating show that purported to “serve the people.”
Not surprisingly, widespread outcry only augmented the fame of the shows and their contestants, and SARFT—China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television—eventually took action.
In 2010, SARFT urged domestic TV stations to remember their social responsibilities and promote virtues advocated by the Chinese Communist Party. Since then, some shows have gone off the air while others have rectified their “misconduct.”
The government’s message was clear: While Chinese people needed to be free to love and marry, it couldn’t impinge on socialist values.
In a way, the government’s wariness with dating shows reflects many of the tensions in today’s China. While a free-market economy and state authoritarianism appear contradictory, the authorities will often intervene to try to strike a balance. And so love and marriage continue to operate within the wobbly framework of a Chinese state that attempts to simultaneously control and profit from an onslaught of global forces.