Post-Socialist Femininity Unleashed/Restrained: Reconfigurations of Gender in Chinese Television Dramas




China, gender, television studies, femininity

How to Cite

Chen, S.-W. S., & Lau, S. W. (2016). Post-Socialist Femininity Unleashed/Restrained: Reconfigurations of Gender in Chinese Television Dramas. M/C Journal, 19(4).
Vol. 19 No. 4 (2016): transform
Published 2016-08-31

In post-socialist China, gender norms are marked by rising divorce rates (Kleinman et al.), shifting attitudes towards sex (Farrer; Yan), and a growing commercialisation of sex (Zheng). These phenomena have been understood as indicative of market reforms unhinging past gender norms. In the socialist period, the radical politics of the time moulded women as gender neutral even as state policies emphasised their feminine roles in maintaining marital harmony and stability (Evans). These ideas around domesticity bear strong resemblance to pre-socialist understandings of womanhood and family that anchored Chinese society before the Communists took power in 1949. In this pre-socialist understanding, women were categorised into a hierarchy that defined their rights as wives, mothers, concubines, and servants (Ebrey and Watson; Wolf and Witke). Women who transgressed these categories were regarded as potentially dangerous and powerful enough to break up families and shake the foundations of Chinese society (Ahern). This paper explores the extent to which understandings of Chinese femininity have been reconfigured in the context of China’s post-1979 development, particularly after the 2000s.

The popular television dramas Chinese Style Divorce (2004, Divorce), Dwelling Narrowness (2009, Dwelling), and Divorce Lawyers (2014, Lawyers) are set against this socio-cultural backdrop. The production of these shows is regulated by the China State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), who has the power to grant or deny production and distribution permits. Post-production, the dramas are sold to state-owned television stations for distribution (Yu 36). Haiqing Yu summarises succinctly the state of Chinese media: “Chinese state manipulation and interference in the media market has seen the party-state media marketized but not weakened, media control decentralized but not reduced, and the media industry commercialized but not privatized” (42). Shot in one of the biggest cities in Shandong, Qingdao, Divorce focuses on Doctor Song Jianping and his schoolteacher wife Lin Xiaofeng and the conflicts between Song and Lin, who quits her job to become a stay-at-home mom after her husband secures a high-paying job in a foreign-invested hospital. Lin becomes paranoid and volatile, convinced that their divorced neighbour Xiao Li is having an affair with Song. Refusing to explain the situation, Song is willing to give her a divorce but fights over guardianship of their son. In the end, it is unconfirmed whether they reconcile or divorce. Divorce was recognised as TV Drama of the Year in 2004 and the two leads also won awards for their acting. Reruns of the show continue to air. According to Hui Faye Xiao, “It is reported that many college students viewed this TV show as a textbook on married life in urban settings” (118). 

Dwelling examines the issue of skyrocketing housing prices and the fates of the Guo sisters, Haizao and Haiping, who moved from rural China to the competitive economically advanced metropolis. Haiping is obsessed with buying an apartment while her younger sister becomes the mistress of a corrupt official, Song Siming. Both sisters receive favours from Song, which leads to Haiping’s success in purchasing a home. However, Haizao is less fortunate. She has a miscarriage and her uterus removed while Song dies in a car accident. Online responses from the audience praise Dwelling for its penetrating and realistic insights into the complex web of familial relationships navigated by Chinese people living in a China under transformation (Xiao, “Woju”). Dwelling was taken off the air when a SARFT official criticised the drama for violating state-endorsed “cultural standards” in its explicit discussions of sex and negative portrayals of government officials (Hung, “State” 156). However, the show continued to be streamed online and it has been viewed and downloaded more than 100 million times (Yu 34). In Lawyers, Luo Li and Chi Haidong are two competing divorce lawyers in Beijing who finally tie the knot. Chi was a happily married man before catching his wife with her lover. Newly divorced, he moves into the same apartment building as Luo and the drama focuses on a series of cases they handle, most of which involve extramarital affairs. Lawyers has been viewed more than 1.6 billion times online ( and received the China Huading award for “favourite television drama” in 2015. Although these dramas contain some conventional elements of domestic melodramas, such as extramarital affairs and domestic disputes, they differ from traditional Chinese television dramas because they do not focus on the common trope of fraught mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships.

Centred on the politics of family ethics, these hugely popular dramas present the transformation in gender norms as a struggle between post-socialist and pre-socialist understandings of femininity. On the one hand, these dramas celebrate the emergence of a post-socialist femininity that is independent, economically successful, and sexually liberated, epitomising this new understanding of womanhood in the figures of single women and mistresses. On the other hand, the dramas portray these post-socialist women in perpetual conflict with wives and mothers who propound a pre-socialist form of femininity that is sexually conservative and defined by familial relationships, and is economically less viable in the market economy. 

Focusing on depictions of femininity in these dramas, this paper offers a comparative analysis into the extent to which gender norms have been reconfigured in post-socialist China. It approaches these television dramas as a pedagogical device (Brady) and pays particular attention to the ways through which different categories of women interrogated their rights as single women, mistresses, wives, and mothers. In doing so, it illuminates the politics through which a liberal post-socialist femininity unleashed by market transformation is controlled in order to protect the integrity of the family and maintain social order. 

Post-Socialist Femininity Unleashed: Single Women and Mistresses 

A woman’s identity is inextricably linked to her marital status in Chinese society. In pre-socialist China, women relied on men as providers and were expected to focus on contributing to her husband’s family (Ebrey and Watson; Wolf and Witke). This pre-socialist positioning of women within the private realm of the family, though reinterpreted, continued to resonate in the socialist period when women were expected to fulfil marital obligations as wives and participate in the public domain as revolutionaries (Evans). While the pressure to marry has not disappeared in post-socialist China, as the derogatory term “leftover women” (single women over the age of 27) indicates, there are now more choices for single women living in metropolitan cities who are highly educated and financially independent. They can choose to remain single, get married, or become mistresses. Single women can be regarded as a threat to wives because the only thing holding them back from becoming mistresses is their morals. The 28-year-old “leftover woman” Luo Li (Lawyers) is presented as morally superior to single women who choose to become mistresses (Luo Meiyuan and Shi Jiang) and therefore deserving of a happy ending because she breaks up with her boss as soon as she discovers he is married. Luo Li quits to set up a law firm with her friend Tang Meiyu. Both women are beautiful, articulate, intelligent, and sexually liberated, symbolising unleashed post-socialist femininity. Part of the comic relief in Lawyers is the subplot of Luo’s mother trying to introduce her to “eligible” bachelors such as the “PhD man” (Episodes 20–21). Luo is unwilling to lower her standards to escape the stigma of being a “leftover woman” and she is rewarded for adhering to her ideals in the end when she convinces the marriage-phobic Chi Haidong to marry her after she rejects a marriage proposal from her newly divorced ex-lover. 

While Luo Li refuses to remain a mistress, many women do not subscribe to her worldview. Mistresses have existed throughout Chinese history in the form of concubines and courtesans. A wealthy and powerful man was expected to have concubines, who were usually from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Ebrey and Watson; Liu). Mistresses, now referred to as xiaosan, have become a heated topic in post-socialist China where they are regarded as having the power to destroy families by transgressing moral boundaries. Some argue that the phenomenon is a result of the market-driven economy where women who desire a financially stable life use their sexuality to seek rich married men who lust for younger mistresses as symbols of power. Ruth Y.Y. Hung characterises the xiaosan phenomenon as a “horrendous sex trade [that is] a marker of neoliberal market economies in the new PRC” (“Imagination” 100). 

A comparison of the three dramas reveals a transformation in the depiction of mistresses over the last decade. While Xiao Li (Divorce) is never “confirmed” as Song Jianping’s mistress, she flirts with him and crosses the boundaries of a professional relationship, posing a threat to the stability of Song’s family life. Although Haizao (Dwelling) is university-educated and has a stable, if low-paying job, she chooses to break up with her earnest caring fiancé to be the mistress of the middle-aged Song Siming who offers her material benefits in the form of “loans” she knows she will never be able to repay, a fancy apartment to live in, and other “gifts” such as dining at expensive restaurants and shopping at big malls. While the fresh-faced Haizao exhibits a physical transformation after becoming Song’s mistress, demonstrated through her newly permed hair coupled with an expensive red coat, mistresses in Lawyers do not change in this way. Dong Dahai’s mistress, the voluptuous Luo Meiyuan is already a successful career woman who flaunts her perfect makeup, long wavy hair, and body-hugging dresses (Episodes 12–26). She exudes sexual confidence but her relationship is not predicated on receiving financial favours in return for sexual ones. She tells Dong’s wife that the only “third person” in a relationship is the “unloved” one (Episode 15). 

Another mistress who challenges old ideas of the power dynamic of the rich man and financially reliant young woman is the divorced Shi Jiang, Tang Meiyu’s former classmate, who becomes the mistress of Tang’s husband (Cao Qiankun) without any moral qualms, even though she knows that her friend is pregnant with his child. A powerful businesswoman, Shi is the owner of a high-end bar that Cao frequents after losing his job. Unable to tell his wife the truth, he spends most days wandering around and is unable to resist Shi’s advances because she claims to have loved him since their university days and that she understands him. In this relationship, Shi has taken on the role traditionally assigned to men: she is the affluent powerful one who is able to manipulate the downtrodden unemployed man by “lending” him money in his time of need, offering him a job at her bar (Episode 17), and eventually finding him a new job through her connections (Episodes 23–24). When Cao leaves home after Tang finds out about the affair, Shi provides him with a place to stay (Episode 34). Because the viewers are positioned to root for Tang due to her role as the female lead’s best friend, Shi is immediately set up as one of the villains, although she is portrayed in a more sympathetic light after she reveals to Cao that she was forced to give up her son to her ex-husband in America (who cheated on her) in order to finalise her divorce (Episode 29).

The portrayal of different mistresses in Lawyers signals a transformation in the representation of gender compared to Divorce and Dwelling, because the women are less naïve than Haizao, financially well-off because of their business acumen, and much more outspoken and determined to fight for what they want. On the surface these women are depicted as more liberated and free from gender hierarchies and sexual oppression. Hung describes xiaosan as “an active if constrained agent . . . whose new mode of life has become revealingly defensible and publicly acceptable in socioeconomic terms that reflect the moral changes that follow economic reforms” (“State” 166). However, the closure of these storylines suggest that although more complex reasons for becoming a mistress have been explored in the new drama, mistresses are still regarded as a threat to social stability and therefore punished, challenging Hung’s argument about the “acceptability” of mistresses in post-socialist China. 

Post-Socialist Femininity Restrained: Wives and Mothers

Countering these liberal forms of post-socialist femininity are portrayals of righteous wives and exemplary mothers. These depictions articulate a moral positioning grounded in pre-socialist and socialist understandings of a woman’s place in Chinese society. These portrayals of moral women check the transgressive powers of single women and mistresses with the potential to break families up. More importantly, they remind the audience of desired gender norms that retain the integrity of the family and anchor a society undergoing rapid transformation.

The three dramas portray wives who are stridently righteous in their confrontations with women they perceive as a threat to their families. These women find moral justification for the violence they inflict on transgressors from cultural understandings of their rights as wives. Lin Xiaofeng (Divorce) repeatedly challenges Xiao Li to explain the “logic” underlying her actions when she discovers that Xiao accompanied Song Jianping to a wedding (Episode 14). The “logic” Lin refers to is a cultural understanding that it is her right as wife to accompany Song to public events and not Xiao’s. By transgressing this moral boundary, Xiao accords Lin the moral authority to cast doubt on her abilities as a doctor in a public confrontation. It also provides moral justification for Lin to slap Xiao when she suggests that Lin is an embarrassment to her husband, an argument that underscores Lin’s failure and challenges her moral authority as wife. Jiang Miaomiao (Dwelling) draws on similar cultural understandings when she appears at the apartment Haizao shares with Song Siming (Episode 33). Jiang positions herself in the traditional role of a wife as a household manager (Ebrey) whose responsibilities include paying Song’s mistresses. She puts Haizao into a subordinate position by arguing that since Haizao is less than a mistress and slightly better than a prostitute, she is not worth the money Song has given her. When Haizao refuses to return the money a tussle ensues, causing Haizao to have a miscarriage. 

Likewise, Miao Jinxiu (Lawyers) draws on similar cultural understandings of a wife’s position when she laments popular arguments that depict mistresses such as Luo Meiyuan as usurping the superior position of wives like herself who are less attractive and able to navigate the market economy. Miao describes these arguments as “inverting black into white” (Episode 19). She publicly humiliates Luo by throwing paint on her at a charity event (Episode 17) and covers Luo’s car with posters labelling Luo a “slut,” “prostitute,” and “shameless” (Episode 18). Miao succeeds in “winning” her husband back. The public violence Miao inflicts on Luo and her success in protecting her marriage are struggles to reinforce the boundaries defining the categories of wife and mistress as these limits become increasingly challenged in China. 

In contrast to the violent strategies that Lin, Jiang, and Miao adopt, Tang Meiyu resists Shi Jiang’s destructive powers by reminding her errant husband of the emotional warmth of their family. She asks him, “Do you still remember telling me what the nicest sound is at home?” For Cao, the best sounds are Tang’s laughter, their baby’s cries, the sound of the washing machine, and the flushing of their leaky toilet (Episode 43). The couple reconciles and even wins a lottery that cements their “happy ending.” By highlighting the warmth of their family, Tang reminds Cao of her rightful place as wife, restrains Shi from breaking up the couple, and protects the integrity of the family. It is by drawing on deeply entrenched cultural understandings of the rights of wives that these women find the moral authority to challenge, restrain, and control the transgressive powers of mistresses and single women. 

The dramas’ portrayals of mothers further reinforce the sense that there is a need to restrain liberal forms of post-socialist femininity embodied by errant daughters who transgress the moral boundaries of the family. Lin Xiaofeng’s mother (Divorce) assumes the role of the forgiving wife and mother. She not only forgives Lin’s father for having an affair but raises Lin, her husband’s love child, as her own (Episode 23). On her deathbed, she articulates the values underlying her acceptance of this transgression, namely that one needs to be “a little kinder, more tolerant, and a little muddleheaded” when dealing with matters of the family. Her forgiveness bears fruit in the form of the warm companionship and support she enjoys with Lin’s father. This sends a strong pedagogical message to the audience that it is possible for a marriage to remain intact if one is willing to forgive. 

In contrast, Haizao’s mother (Dwelling) adopts the role of the disciplinary mother. She attempts to beat Haizao with a coat hanger when she finds out that her daughter is pregnant with Song Siming’s child (Episode 31). She describes Haizao’s decision as “the wrong path” and is emphatic that abortion is the only way to right this wrong. She argues that abortion will allow her daughter to start life anew in a relationship she describes as “open and aboveboard,” which will culminate in marriage. When Haizao rejects her mother’s disciplining, her lover dies in a car accident and she has a miscarriage. She loses her ability to speak for two months after these double tragedies and pays the ultimate price, losing her reproductive abilities. 

Luo Li’s mother (Lawyers), Li Chunhua, extends this pedagogical approach by adopting the role of public counsellor as a talk show host. Li describes Luo’s profession as “wicked” because it focuses on separating the family (Episode 9). Instead, she promotes reconciliation as an alternative. She counsels couples to remain together by propounding traditional family values, such as the need for daughters-in-law to consider the filial obligations of sons when managing their relationship with their mothers-in-law (Episode 25). Her rising ratings and the effectiveness of her strategy in bringing estranged couples like Miao Jinxiu and Dong Dahai back together (Episode 26) challenges the transgressive powers of mistresses by preventing the separation of families. More importantly, as with Haizao’s and Lin’s mothers, the moral force of Li’s position and the alternatives to divorce that she suggests draw on pre-socialist and socialist understandings of family values that underscore the sanctity of marriage to the audience. By reminding errant daughters of deeply embedded cultural standards of what it means to be a woman in Chinese society, these mothers are moral exemplars who restrain the potentiality of daughters becoming mistresses. 


Market reforms have led to a transformation in understandings of womanhood in post-socialist China. Depictions of mistresses and single women as independent, economically successful, and sexually liberated underscores the emergence of liberal forms of post-socialist femininity. Although adept at navigating the new market economy, these types of post-socialist women threaten the integrity of the family and need to be controlled. Moral arguments articulated by wives and mothers restrain the potentially destructive powers of post-socialist womanhood by drawing on deeply embedded understandings of the rights of women shaped in pre-socialist China. It is by disciplining liberal forms of post-socialist femininity such that they fit back into deeply embedded gender hierarchies that social order is restored. 

By illuminating the moral politics undergirding relationships between women in post-socialist China, the dramas discussed underscore the continued significance of television as a pedagogical device through which desired gender norms are popularised. These portrayals of the struggles between liberal forms of post-socialist femininity and conservative pre-socialist understandings of womanhood as lived in everyday life serve to communicate the importance of protecting the integrity of the family and maintaining social stability in order for China to continue to pursue development. 


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Author Biographies

Shih-Wen Sue Chen, Deakin University

Shih-Wen Sue Chen is a Lecturer in Literary Studies in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. Her research interests include children’s literature and culture, Chinese internet culture, and book history.

Sin Wen Lau, University of Otago

Sin Wen Lau is a sociocultural anthropologist. She is a Lecturer in the Chinese Programme at the University of Otago. Her research interests include the anthropology of China, Chinese Christianity, Gender and Globalization.