Finding Mr Right

Why a celebrity marriage caused a social media meltdown


Zhao and her husband

The doorway of a traditional courtyard house in Beijing always comes with a pair of mendang, i.e. the stone bearings on both sides, and hudui, the wooden pins above the door for hanging lanterns. These decorations tell visitors a lot about the household. A square-shaped mendang, for example, suggested the owner was a government official; while only prominent families were permitted to install more than two hudui. Over time mendang hudui evolved into a proverb for people picking their marriage partner, meaning they should find someone with matching social status. It was believed if you married someone from an inferior background it would drain a family’s fortune and taint its name.

So when Zhao Liying, one of the local entertainment scene’s hottest properties, announced on her personal weibo account that she had married actor Feng Shaofeng, you might have thought it a match made in heaven. After all, the two are both in showbiz: although the career of the 40 year-old Feng has seen better days, he is still widely recognised in the country.

But instead of wishing them well, many of Zhao’s fans were dismayed. At one point, their wedding announcement even crashed Sina Weibo’s servers because of the huge traffic on the platform. In half an hour, Zhao’s post drew half a million comments. Judging from the remarks, many netizens were unimpressed by the union. Many described the marriage using more modern idioms, likening it to “a pig ruining a beautiful cabbage”.

Zhao is 31 and Feng reportedly met her when filming Monkey King 3, which was released earlier this year. The duo had denied rumours they were dating until last week, when Zhao posted an image of them holding their marriage certificates. The date was October 16, her birthday. Feng confirmed the news by commenting “Happy Birthday dear wife” under her post.

Some of her fans expressed their shock. “I always think Feng Shaofeng is a playboy, a loser, he does not deserve Zhao Liying,” one thundered.

Such was the widespread disbelief that the post “Liying, blink if you are being held hostage,” received over 10,000 ‘likes’ on weibo.

The reason fans are so protective of Zhao, says CCTV’s China Movie Channel, is her background as one of the hardest working actresses in the industry. She didn’t attend drama school and she was no overnight success. Instead, she has worked diligently for over a decade, first appearing in cameo roles in a few TV series before finally getting noticed in The Journey of Flowers, a popular historical drama released in 2015.

“This whole time Zhao Liying worked so hard to be recognised so now that her career has taken off and she has found happiness, fans should be happy for her,” the movie site concluded. “But what we don’t understand is: why Feng Shaofeng?”

That appears to be a question many struggled with.

When it comes to popularity, Feng is certainly no match for Zhao who is now one of the biggest TV stars in the country with countless endorsement deals. Her face adjourns everything from luxury brand Dior to online video streaming platform iQiyi. In 2017, she was ranked fourth on Forbes China Celebrity List, generating Rmb190 million ($27 million) in income in one year.

Her husband, meanwhile, hasn’t had a big hit since the show Prince of Lan Ling in 2013. Feng’s last few TV series were rated no more than 4 out of 10 on Douban, the film and TV review site. Indeed, it was Feng’s dating history that made him a constant fixture in the Chinese tabloids. He had been linked to many A-list starlets like Yang Mi. His personal life was so colourful that some joked that, “he changes a girlfriend every time he films a new TV show”.

Zhao’s betrothal has fuelled an already hot online debate about women “marrying down”. As more women across the country become increasingly well-educated and then find high-paying jobs, the likelihood of them finding a mendang hudui match is said to have decreased. Not willing to settle, more and more highly-educated women end up delaying or even forgoing marriage. In 1982, less than 5% of urban women reached their late 20s without marrying. Now nearly 30% of urban women of the same age are single.

One blogger advised women not to compromise and ‘marry down’.

“A woman who marries down is someone who thinks she’s not deserving,” the blogger wrote.

Social class was another component of the coupling discussions. “Marriage is not just about passion. At some point, there is the reality,” opined Sohu, a portal. “The reality is that when a man is too far away from your social status, education background and lifestyle, you are not going to share the same outlook on life and values… Passion needs only the heart; but marriage uses the brain.”

This topic cropped up too during an earlier celebrity story that temporarily ‘broke’ the Chinese internet – the divorce of actor Wang Baoqiang from actress Ma Rong (see WiC337).

Here the compatibility question was widely discussed: Wang came from a lower class, poor rural background while Ma was a college-educated woman from a richer urban family.

“While it makes sense that Wang would pursue a ‘Peacock’ – she is tall, beautiful and sophisticated – their relationship is also very risky,” Sohu noted at the time. Wang’s messy divorce – which even the BBC observed in August 2016 “is what everyone in China is talking about” – may be one reason Zhao’s fans are so worried about mistaken matches.

But Sunflower Entertainment, another popular blog, asked that the newlyweds be given a break.“No matter what kind of person Feng Shaofeng is, since Zhao Liying has chosen him as her life partner, it means there are qualities about him that she admires and appreciates. All we can do is to wish this pair of lovers a happy life,” it wrote.

Perhaps another takeaway from the controversy: outrage needs an outlet and if politics is off-limits, well this is what you get…

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