Family values

The most talked about TV show in China is about bad parenting

Yao Chen-w

Yao Chen: stars in the hit drama All Is Well

While it is hardly news that parents will go to great lengths to give their children the best education possible, a major scandal at some of the leading universities in the United States has exposed helicopter parenting at a whole new level.

Nearly 50 people, including celebrities and top business executives, have been charged this month with conspiracy to commit fraud and racketeering for their part in a scheme to get students into Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and other big-name schools. Those charged include actress Felicity Huffman, Douglas Hodge, a former chief executive of Pimco, and Bill McGlashan, a partner at the investment giant TPG.

One ploy involved bribing university officials to pass off applicants as athletic recruits even if they did not play the sport.

Other applicants were coached to claim medical disabilities, allowing them extra time to take entrance tests.

The extent of the scandal has generated nearly as much attention in China as the US, in part because it plays into a host of debates about modern parenting.

Indeed, a new drama about the disastrous effects of poor parenting is one of the biggest attractions on primetime television in China at the moment. The series, called All Is Well and adapted from the book of the same name, follows the Su family after the death of the family matriarch (from a heart attack after a marathon mahjong session). Set in Suzhou in Jiangsu province, the plot centres on the youngest daughter Su Mingyu (played by actress Yao Chen), who is estranged from her family after getting fed up that her parents favoured their sons over her.

For instance, they sell their property to send their oldest son to the US to attend college and they oblige when their second son asks for money to go on holiday. But when Mingyu asks for financial support to go to tutorial school in the hope of getting into Tsinghua University, they tell their daughter to give up any hope of attending the top-tier school.

“Your oldest brother needs money to study in the US; the second brother needs money to secure a job; you’re a girl, how can you compare with your two elder brothers?” the mother says.

All the male characters on the show are deeply flawed. The oldest son, Mingzhe, shirks his responsibilities to care for his aging father by staying in the US and the middle child, Mingcheng, is a mommy’s boy who relies on his parents to buy him an apartment and find him a job. He’s also abusive toward his younger sister, hitting her on several occasions, says Sixth Tone.

Su senior isn’t a candidate for father of the year, either. The man turns a blind eye when his wife mistreats their daughter and he knows about his son’s bullying but does nothing to protect Mingyu.

“Compared to the mother’s cold-heartedness, the father’s greed and self-centredness is even more despicable,” reckons Guangming Daily.

The family saga, which has a rating of 8.3 out of 10 on Douban, the TV and film review site, is a primetime hit for Zhejiang and Jiangsu Satellite TV, with many female viewers saying that they find it very relatable.

“The two older brothers are just like the men in my family: mediocre and useless,” one netizen wrote.

“The show is one of the most realistic dramas today. The gender inequality is too real. The acting is also superb. The scene of Su Mingyu looking unmoved at her mother’s funeral only to go back to her car to bawl is just so well done. The scene shows that despite her tough exterior, she’s still vulnerable. Yao Chen’s acting is very powerful,” another gushed.

All is Well also points out that for better or worse, parents have a lasting influence on their children’s lives.

Fed up with her toxic home life, Mingyu left her family when she turned 18 and went on to become a successful businesswoman. But her upbringing is not without consequences: in the workplace, she is decisive but domineering and cold-hearted. In her personal relationships, she never shows signs of weakness. Her father says to her at one point: “Your strong temper is just like your mother.”

“[All Is Well] doesn’t portray parents as unfaultable, in keeping with traditional moral principles,” remarked producer Hou Hongliang during a press conference. “Rather, it helps us see the real conflicts in our families and the problems existing within ourselves.”

Guangming Daily sees some potential inspiration for the show in Hong Kong singer Anita Mui’s fraught relationship with her mother. Mui’s mother often talked to the media about how inadequate Anita was as a daughter and how she could pressure the star for money. To prevent her mother from mishandling the cash, the pop star put all her assets into a trust, allocating a fixed monthly allowance to the parent (Mui died in 2003 from cervical cancer). But that did not stop her mother from spending wantonly. She hit rock bottom when she ran out of cash and had to auction off a pair of her late daughter’s pyjamas in 2015 to make ends meet, Apple Daily reported.

“There are so many parents that treat their children like they are properties. They often talk about how much they have sacrificed for them but that’s just a ploy to control their children,” the newspaper said.


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