Age before beauty

The TV show that has been watched 2.5 billion times

Xiaojun w

Li Xiaoran: her character marries a man 19 years older

It only took a short trip to Shanghai to persuade Rupert Murdoch that he should leave his wife for a younger bride, in this case a woman 37 years his junior and also in his employ.

Wendi Deng was an executive at Star TV tasked with guiding Murdoch around China’s commercial capital. Their relationship developed quickly. According to Vanity Fair, the mogul telephoned the company’s chief executive to explain why Deng was not at her desk: “Look, you may have noticed Wendi isn’t back from vacation,” Murdoch informed him. “She is currently with me and she won’t be coming back to Star TV.”

Just 17 days after divorce from his longtime wife Anna, Murdoch and Deng then got married on the tycoon’s yacht Morning Glory.

Murdoch was besotted by what Vanity Fair describes as “his bewitching Chinese wife”. One News Corp employee in Shanghai recalls how Murdoch would go shopping for Wendi on his China trips. Stepping down from his private jet, she recalls he pulled out a piece of paper and gave it to her. “It was a list of things Wendi wanted him to get for her in China: bird’s nest, which we make into soup, and it makes your skin look better; some candy; Chinese medicines; snacks you don’t get in the US. I thought, lucky Wendi. Here is a man who runs a multinational company. He flies 15 hours from the US to China, and the first thing he asks the staff to do is the shopping list. He was definitely in love.”

Fourteen years later, the 82 year-old divorced his 45 year-old spouse.

It’s a theme that will be familiar to devotees of the Chinese hit drama Big Husband. It too involves the marital travails of an older husband and his pretty but much younger wife. And the show’s climax – which recently aired – also sees the couple end up in the divorce courts.

Big Husband has been shown on some of China’s most popular television stations (namely Beijing TV, Zhejiang TV, Anhui TV and Shanghai Dragon TV). From mid-February, the channels have been broadcasting as many as three 40-minute episodes a day. That might seem like overkill, but the strategy seems to have worked in keeping audiences hooked during prime time. In Beijing Big Husband pulled in the highest viewing figures in three years.

The viewing audience grew further when the series was licensed to online video sites too. All the major operators paid for the rights to stream the 48 episodes. So far they have been watched online a collective 2.5 billion times, reports Tencent Entertainment.

So what was it about the drama that gripped local audiences? The plot centres on the marriage of Ouyang Jian and Gu Xiaojun (played by actress Li Xiaoran). The former is a 49 year-old university professor, while his female interest is his former student, now 30 and editing a fashion magazine.

The plot has plenty of scope for moments of drama, not least Gu’s relationship with her father – Gu Dahai – who strongly opposes the union. He represents a very old-fashioned type: a patriarch used to dominating the family and its affairs. Gu Dahai scolds his wife and expects his daughters to be submissive. He also beats up the husband of his elder daughter after he has an affair. On being introduced to Ouyang, old Gu is so incensed by the age gap that he beats him up too.

Xiaojun is his younger daughter and much more independently-minded and modern. In her many arguments with her father, she doesn’t use his filial title but simply calls him by his name Gu Dahai. Nor does this career woman make for a pliant wife for Ouyang. When she’s unhappy with his behaviour, she makes him sleep on the sofa. As the episodes progress, viewers see the older man literally tip-toe around in trying to please her.

(In this respect, it’s again reminiscent of the Murdoch marriage. One scene described in the Vanity Fair article sees Deng lecturing her husband when he mistakenly puts his chopsticks into a communal serving dish: “Rupert! Don’t do that! How many times I told you?”)

What really seems to have enthralled audiences is the way that Big Husband reflects China’s generational fissures and gender gaps – mapping a fast-changing society. For example, Ouyang’s daughter (from his first marriage) is spoiled and used to getting what she wants from her doting dad. Initially she objects to her father’s new marriage but when she is promised a BMW she changes her mind and even starts lobbying Xiaojun’s parents for their blessing.

Only 10 years younger than her new stepmother, she calls Xiaojun her “little mother sister”. Likewise she’s no pushover when it comes to man-management (she bullies her boyfriend and orders him around like a slave).

Time Weekly points out that Big Husband has tapped into a very real marital phenomenon in terms of the widening age gap between China’s married couples. That’s because divorces have been on the rise, and older men tend to marry younger women if they marry again. A survey in Nanjing found that 18.1% of wedded couples now have an age gap of 6-10 years and 4.6% had a gap exceeding 10 years. The figures from the 1990s were 7.9% and 0.47% respectively.

Similarly, a Shenzhen survey of 100 divorcees showed that 80% of men remarry, whereas just 5.4% of women do (a ratio that explains some of the dialogue in the movie Old Cinderella, see WiC230).

The average age gap between spouses is said to be rising by 0.6 years annually, as older men pick more youthful brides. Indeed, just look at the Red Star column this week, where speculation is rife about whether an online shopping tycoon is romantically involved with a girl 19 years younger than him.

Inevitably, whether such age gaps matter is one of the themes debated in Big Husband. Xiaojun’s father thinks they do, pointedly telling her she’ll have no one to keep her company when she is a senior citizen because her husband will be dead.

Netizens feedback on the show have been effusive. One fan said it is worth “watching again and again, to experience the emotion of the characters”, while another referred to its addictive quality (“I need to control myself to watch only one episode per day”).

That’s all good news for the producer of the series New Classics Media, which hopes to IPO in Shanghai this year. (Its other TV hits include Hot Momsee WiC211 – as well as Beijing Love Story, and Zhang Yimou’s film The Love of the Hawthorn Tree.) The studio has an estimated value of Rmb3 billion ($482.85 million).

Nor is it any surprise that fans are begging for more. They might get it too, given the way the last episode ends. It sees Ouyang pushing for a divorce because he doesn’t think the age gap problem can be fixed. But when the couple reach the government’s divorce office, Xiaojun refuses to play ball, quoting the writer Lu Xun: “Only the true warrior dares to face the bleak life”. Then she tells him she’s pregnant; at which point he says he has been a coward and kneels down to win her forgiveness. They go home together as man and wife – which surely means that a second season of Big Husband will soon be on its way.

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