Likened To ‘Sex And The City,’ Chinese Drama ‘Ode To Joy’ Pushes Cultural Boundaries


The popular Chinese television drama “Ode to Joy” features five millennial women from different walks of life living in Shanghai, and the show tracks their relationships and careers. It’s been compared to “Sex and the City,” because it portrays unmarried women and takes on topics like sex, sexism and class.

Ying Zhu (@yz10128), a professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island, and her daughter Frances Hisgen join Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about the show and its impact on Chinese culture.

Interview Highlights

On a scene from the show’s second season that sparked debate

Ying Zhu: “This is the scene in the second season of the show where one of the main characters was dumped by her boyfriend, because it was revealed by accident that she was not a virgin. This has triggered much online discussion on whether virginity is still a prized asset for women in modern China. And the talk of sex in public might still be a taboo, but I have to say that in private, young people in the big metropolitan centers have adopted a more liberal attitude towards sex and dating. And so, granted that chastity before marriage continues to be equated with female virtue in places outside of big cities, I have thought that the loss of virginity is no longer perceived as such a stigma.”

On reaction to virginity as a plot point

Frances Hisgen: “My friends and I in Shanghai were also kind of shocked that [virginity] had become a plot point, because it seemed in big metropolitan cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou — where a lot of millennials come from inland China and migrate to work — not being a virgin before marriage is something that’s very normal. But it’s important to keep in mind that this show has a viewership that spans all of China, and across the country — especially in inland China — attitudes towards virginity are very different.”

“My sense is women have made incredible progress with the careers that are open to them. But in the family sphere, in the domestic sphere, there is very much the ideal of a heterosexual marriage with one child — previously, now two children.” Frances Hisgen, on young Chinese women feeling pressure to marry

On pink drama

YZ: “‘Ode to Joy,’ which came out last spring, has its lineage to the so-called pink drama, which refers to a new breed of female-centered, contemporary Chinese urban TV drama, which was itself inspired and heavily influenced by ‘Sex and the City.’ And similar to ‘Sex and the City,’ Chinese pink drama focuses on characters’ personal lives, and the arrival of pink drama marked a real decisive shift from earlier women’s dramas, the so-called ‘virtuous wives and good mothers.’ The first Chinese pink drama was ‘Pink Ladies,’ that’s where the name actually came from, which came out in 2003, followed by ‘Falling in Love,’ which came out in 2004, just as ‘Sex and the City’ was wrapping up.”

On young Chinese women feeling pressure to marry

FH: “My sense is women have made incredible progress with the careers that are open to them. But in the family sphere, in the domestic sphere, there is very much the ideal of a heterosexual marriage with one child — previously, now two children — that once you hit your 30s, or even your early 20s, you feel this pressure to marry, to settle down. ‘Leftover women,’ one of the other phrases they use is, are like ‘yellowed pearls,’ these women who hit their late 20s without being married. So, one of my friends in Beijing, she’s 24, she’s a successful news producer, but she migrated to Beijing from a city in inland China, and she already feels at just 24, the incredible pressure from her family to get married, to not focus on her career so much, but to focus on finding someone to settle down with, buying an apartment and then having children.”

On where the show fits in contemporary Chinese culture

YZ: “It’s interesting, I think ‘Ode to Joy’ continues this kind of trajectory of pink drama, but has returned to a more conservative or conformative outlook concerning gender roles. The drama depicts five women from different walks of life, with a common yearning for marriage. And, I remembered when ‘Falling in Love’ came out a decade ago, one Chinese viewer pointed out that if ‘Sex and the City’ portrays four independent women looking for love, ‘Falling in Love’ portrays four marriage-seeking women pretending to be independent. But by the time we get to ‘Ode to Joy,’ 12 or 15 years later, the independent streak is gone. And so the question is, what has transpired over the past decade?”

On what the show reveals about notions of an ideal career

FH: “I think it’s very interesting the types of careers portrayed in the show. It seems, well, Andy, the most conventionally successful character, is a CFO at a corporation in China. And it seems that it’s reflecting a real change in career aspirations in young people right now. That the preferred job is at a Fortune 500 company, and if you can’t find that, at another foreign company, and then as an absolute last resort, at a state-owned enterprise. Which is a huge shift from even five to 10 years ago, where working at a state-owned conglomerate was really the best thing you could do coming out of college.”

On the statistic that eight of the 10 wealthiest women in the world are from China

FH: “Yes, and this show has an impressive display of consumerism, of handbags, of luxury cars. And I think it really reflects the wealth that young Chinese women are gaining, and the premium purchasing power that they have in the country.”

YZ: “Which explains why you have all these shows coming out, because they are targeted consumers, they’re quality demographics.”



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