A woman’s world

New costume drama about a matriarchal society earns plaudits


Zhao Lusi: newcomer stars in The Romance of Tiger and Rose

In Yunnan province, women from the Mosuo tribal community sit at the head of the table; sons and daughters live with their mothers, along with the children of the daughters, following the maternal bloodline. Women are the family members who own and inherit property and run the households.

The men have little to no say in the childrens’ upbringing. They are mainly in charge of building and repairing homes and slaughtering animals. All the decisionmaking lies with the women.

For the rest of China, the Mosuo tribe is an unusual minority. Women have traditionally occupied an inferior position in Han Chinese culture. The idiom, ‘men in charge of the outside, women in charge of the inside’ underlines the stereotype that a woman’s place is in the home.

In May, a low-budget TV series that tries to overturn traditional gender norms became a surprise success. The Romance of Tiger and Rose, which was released on Tencent Video, follows Chen Xiaoqian (played by newcomer Zhao Lusi), a struggling screenwriter waiting for her big break, as she finds herself transported into a real-life version of a period drama that she herself has written.

The story takes place in ancient times in a fictional city called Huayan. There, a matriarchal society reverses gender roles: men aren’t allowed to pursue their studies or have careers; instead, they are raised to be obedient and submissive. Being talentless, in fact, is a male virtue in Huayan (a play on the Chinese proverb, “the virtue of a woman lies in her lack of talent”). The status of men is so low that when their part in procreation leads to the birth of boys rather than girls, they are denigrated as “useless”.

“Essentially, all the social conventions that are designed to hold women back are now put onto men,” commented Cosmopolitan China. “Even men who want to study are told that their only hope of advancing is if they marry into a wealthy family.”

Women go to school, command armies and hold public office. They are allowed to keep more than one man as a ‘concubine’. They are the heads of the household and they pass their family names on to their children (this was a point of contention a few weeks ago when the comedienne Papi Jiang – who is known to champion strong, independent womanhood – chose her husband’s surname for her daughter; see WiC496).

“What sets Tiger and Rose apart is that it goes beyond the traditional Mary Sue story line [a female character who is perfect, lacking any flaw] by reversing gender stereotypes. It provides a lot of laughter and also raises a lot of issues about gender inequality in our society,” China News Net reckons.

The drama, which is only 24-episodes long, has accumulated over 600 million views on Tencent Video.

“The wave of ironic scenes deserve a full score,” wrote one commentator, implying that the experiences of the male characters weren’t too unfamiliar for many Chinese women today.

Not everyone praised the show. Critics complained that the reversal of gender roles was too obvious, serving more as a gimmick to generate buzz. Others said that – if the subject matter was designed to stir more serious debate – it was wasted on a lot of the viewers who instead were charmed by the show’s love story. “As I become older, I don’t look forward to series that are too serious or too intense. I just want to watch something light and sweet,” one netizen explained.

“Life is already hard enough. Who doesn’t want to watch something simple and happy – a brainless drama to decompress?” another concurred.

In a stressful year characterised by the restrictions of the pandemic, as well as the job lay-offs and business failures that Covid-19 has brought in its wake, who can blame them? Most of the video platforms seem to have taken heed, piling schmaltzy dramas onto their schedules. Even though they take place in different settings, what’s common in many of them is that they are treading well-worn territory, with fairy-tale-like love stories. Last month Intense Love, another romantic drama starring actress Zhang Yuxi, was typical, drawing large audiences for Hunan Satellite TV.

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