The tumultuous relationship between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard had all the elements of a tabloid reporter’s dream story: Hollywood megastar breaks up with the French mother of his two children (Vanessa Paradis) to pursue his love interest on set (Heard) who, by the way, is 23 years his junior. But quickly – just 15 months on – things turn ugly with Heard filing for divorce and obtaining a temporary restraining order against the actor, alleging he has been both verbally and physically abusive to her throughout their marriage.
China, too, has been embroiled in its biggest celebrity break-up of the year.
On August 14, actor Wang Baoqiang announced on his personal weibo that he is to divorce his wife of seven years, Ma Rong, a former actress and the mother of his two children. The divorce appears to be anything but amicable, with the 32 year-old accusing his wife of having an affair with his agent Song Zhe, who is also married.
“Since I married Ma Rong in 2009, I have kept my wedding vows; I have been sincere to her and loyal to my marriage. I protect my wife and take care of my children and all of our parents; I make efforts to be a good husband, dad and son…. But I can’t stand the evil behaviour of betraying a marriage and destroying one’s family,” he wrote in the post.
“Now, due to Ma Rong’s improper extramarital sexual relations with my agent Song Zhe, which has severely hurt the marriage and destroyed the family, I have solemnly decided to dissolve my marriage with Ma Rong and release Song Zhe from his position.”
Ma quickly struck back, filing a lawsuit against Wang in a Beijing court for defamation. She also claimed on her own weibo that Wang was the guilty party. “The more one tries to hide, the more one is exposed,” she wrote cryptically. “The truth will finally come out.”
Since then, news of Wang’s divorce has gone viral, surpassing the Rio Olympics as the highest trending item online last week. So far, news of the divorce has accumulated almost 10 billion views and shows no sign of slowing.
In a country where the divorce rate has been climbing and extramarital affairs are commonplace, the overwhelming interest in the scandal – the BBC wrote that “it is what everyone in China is talking about” – is a bit surprising. Hong Kong’s Mingpao Daily reckons that the reason the news has attracted so much attention is because it has the combination of “sex and money”, two elements that are guaranteed to grab eyeballs.
Another factor is Wang’s popularity and onscreen persona. Born to a poor family in Hebei province, the plain-looking actor spent the majority of his childhood at the Shaolin Monastery learning martial arts. After various insignificant roles, he was chosen by famous director Feng Xiaogang to star in the hit film A World Without Thieves (2004), turning Wang into an overnight star. He later starred in a series of blockbuster films like Lost in Thailand (2012) and Personal Tailor (2013), often playing endearing though somewhat naïve and dimwitted characters.
And thus far the overwhelming majority of netizens have sided with Wang. Some have promised to show their support by buying a ticket for his next feature Buddha’s in India, which is scheduled for release this December. Others have even donated money to help cover his legal fees (rather unnecessary given the actor is reportedly worth $150 million).
As one put it: “If this story had been about any other celebrities I would think this is just a soap opera conjured up by the tabloids. But because it is about Wang Baoqiang it’s different – we all know he has worked hard to save every penny he’s made. I don’t think it is right for Ma Rong to do this to him.”
“Wang Baoqiang is a village boy – he has suffered a lot,” one fan wrote. She pleaded to Ma, “All your money was made by him. Please don’t take away his hard-earned money.”
To be fair, the union between Ma and Wang had always sparked more scepticism than confidence. The two met in 2007 when Wang was already a major star but they came from very different backgrounds. Ma was a rich city girl studying broadcasting at Northwest University in Xi’an while Wang, though a successful actor, was poorly educated. Their physical attributes, too, couldn’t be further apart.
Essentially, it was a marriage between “a Phoenix and a Peacock”, says Sohu Entertainment. “Phoenix men are those who are born impoverished but they achieve worldly success through their own efforts… Ma, meanwhile, is a textbook Peacock: a beautiful woman that grows up highly educated in a well-off family,” the news portal suggests. “While it makes sense that Wang would pursue a Peacock – she is tall, beautiful and sophisticated – their relationship is also very risky. These marriages often encounter even more problems than an average couple because the two have such different value systems.”
As of this week the scandal has shown no sign of dissipating. Even the state-run media, which traditionally shuns celebrity gossip, has chimed in. News broadcaster CCTV invited legal experts onto its financial channel to discuss how Wang’s assets would be split (under Chinese law, Ma is entitled to half of his wealth). It is rumoured that the assets in question include nine apartments (one in Los Angeles), a Bentley, a BMW and luxury goods like jewellery and handbags.
Phoenix News has implored netizens to give the couple space to deal with what is ultimately a private matter: “The truth is, we are obsessed with Wang Baoqiang’s divorce because it gives us a glimpse into their private life. While we pick apart their marriage, it also forces us to evaluate our own marriages and our values and the ugliness of humanity,” says the portal. “But at the end of the day, it is a matter between Wang and Ma. We should give them a break and let everything settle according to the law.”
The scandal also reflects the difference in perception when it comes to women cheating in China. When they do, the wives are cast as the villain. When the men are unfaithful, the fault lies with the mistress. “It’s a double standard,” Lü Pin, the editor-in-chief at Gender Watch, a feminist website, told Phoenix News. “Society is particularly intolerant towards women cheating on their husbands. We always find a reason, or an excuse, for men cheating. More often we’ll forgive men, and give [them] a second chance.”
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