China’s most-watched TV series incurs harsh criticism for preaching women’s inferiority
Stage photo of Mother's Life  Photo:
A popular Chinese TV series featuring a heroin blindly submitting to her husband and his feudal family incurs the wrath of both young audiences and critics, with some calling into question the approval of such works advocating for decadent patriarchal culture by the country’s media industry regulator known for intense blue-penciling.

As the most-watched TV drama these days, Mother’s Life targeting elderly audience claims to have staged “a common woman’s legendary experiences and a great mother’s heroic epic,” while on the other hand, its controversial storyline has been subject to severe criticism on the Chinese social media, with many complaining the ideas expressed in the drama are “toxic”.

“In Mother’s Life, a woman’s tenet is to be born with no desire, give birth and raise children, ask for nothing back and sacrifice her own life when it’s needed,” Guo Jingyu, the director of the play was quoted by Chinese media as saying.

Ying Niang, literally meaning “a girl named Ying”, the female protagonist of the drama, has contributed all her life to the cause of giving birth to a baby boy in a bid to carry on her husband’s family line.

When Ying Niang’s first two children, both daughters, were born, they were named Zhao Di and Pan Di, literally meaning soliciting and expecting a brother in Chinese. When the heroin encountered difficult labor while delivering the third baby, she cried in anguish “my humble life is worth nothing, just let me deliver a boy for second young master (referring to her husband who’s the second son of a well-off family).”

Ying Niang was criticized for treating her daughters and son unequally. When her daughter was executed for standing up to Japanese invaders, the mother only read a small poem to honor her dead child, while when her son committed treason, she sacrificed her own life to take the bullet shot at him, which is presented in the drama as an act of sublime motherhood.

The China Women’s News, a newspaper sponsored by the All China Women’s Federation, commented that the problem with Mother’s Life is that it had dressed up malignant tumor as flowers, “the story makes the oppression of women look like their own voluntary sacrifice and contribution.”

The heroin Ying Niang believes in the so-called “three obedience and four virtues”. In ancient China a woman was required to obey her father before marriage, her husband during married life and her sons in widowhood. The four virtues expected of the traditional Chinese women include fidelity, physical charm, propriety in speech and efficiency in needle work. The feudal society highly advocated the wife’s submission and virtue.

The drama has been widely criticized by young netizens as a backward step. In spite of climbing up TV ratings measuring its large number of audiences, tens of thousands of viewers have turned to, the country’s most popular website for commenting on films, TV dramas and books, for getting anger and resentment off chest.

“This story is about teaching women to view themselves as an object, a tool to deliver sons in a bid for her husband’s clan to be carried on. No matter how the decadent ideas of women’s inferiority have been whitewashed, I feel the playwright behind the absurd scenes is shameful. We couldn’t imagine that after the feudal society has been abolished for so many years, such plays could still be put on air,” a Douban post liked by thousands of users wrote, suggesting that Mother’s Life should be renamed as A Slave’s Life.

Many others questioned how the national radio and television administration, the media watchdog famous for censoring immoral and sensitive contents, had just let go of such a “rubbish” work that might compromise positive values propped up by modern society.

The fact is, this is not the first time such feudal ethical codes objectifying women to be extoled on high-profile public occasions. Previously, it was widely reported there had been specific training programs aiming to foster more obedient young ladies.

Controversial remarks—like the best dowry for girls should be her virginity, women are supposed to roll with the punches of men and never ask for a divorce, and able women never have happy endings—were revealed to be preached by the programs. With similar lecturing coming under spotlight several times, many netizens repudiated the illegitimate trainings for cultivating bondmaids in broad daylight.

The feudal ethical code for women has its historical origin. Ancient China was a patriarchal society where males dominated and females obeyed. Females were not allowed to work, learn at school and take exams to win official rank, so they had to rely on men to acquire living resources in order to survive.

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the social and economic status of women has been greatly lifted, with the feudal ethics advocating for women’s inferiority gradually being abandoned in the modern society. Against this backdrop, the unexpected popularity of stories like Mother’s Life which eulogize feudal patriarchy has immediately caused strong backlash among younger generations.

On the other hand, some critics worry the success of the drama just reflects the fact that patriarchy still has quite a number of believers and conditions to be reborn in China. 
A commentary by the Beijing News agreed “there was still a long way to go for China to achieve equality of men and women.”

“For example, in real life, we may find many financially independent single women to be pressured to get married and have babies. In other cases, married women with kids would be well suggested to give up on their own career development in order to take better care of their families. The society has set up too many hindrances for them,” wrote the commentary, noting the success of Mother’s Life serves as a good proof.  


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