China's 'Sex and the City' strikes a chord with many urban women

A popular drama likened to “Sex and the City” is breaking ground on China’s state television with content that strikes at the heart of life today for the nation’s urban women.

A wildly popular drama likened to “Sex and the City” is breaking ground on China’s state television with content that strikes at the heart of life today for the nation’s urban women.

“Ode to Joy” has broached a range of topics typically off-limits, including sex, sexism and status.

The show, which has just completed its second season, focuses on five young women from different backgrounds who are neighbors in a smart Shanghai high-rise apartment called “Ode to Joy.”

It made headlines in May with a scene in which a character bursts into tears at the breakdown of her relationship.

“He asked me whether I am a virgin,” she sobbed, after her boyfriend stormed out on discovering she was not.

In many countries such a scene would hardly register, but the normally hush-hush topic set off a furor in China.

“The show started plainly but it exploded with the virginity discussion. It is a reflection of reality and it struck a nerve,” said blogger Luo Xiaoting.

“The program talks about the two things that Chinese care about the most: class and love. This show successfully puts the two in contrast? even if two people love each other, they need to be a match in class,” he told reporters.

“If you are not a virgin, your value is down. The show is like a sword, piercing through reality,” he added.

The show is broadcast by Shanghai’s Dragon TV and available online. Reliable viewing figures are hard to attain, but by the time the latest season ended last month it had been viewed 24 billion times online, according to the show’s Weibo account. A third season is in the works.

Women largely remain in the shadow of men in traditionally male-dominated China, but that’s changing.

Divorce rates have risen steadily, and a Peking University survey last year found that the average age for first-time sex in China was 22.2 years for those born after 1980, dropping to 17.7 years for those born after 1995.

Yuan Zidan, an “Ode to Joy” screenwriter, said there were bound to be comparisons to “Sex and the City.”

“‘Sex and the City’ takes love and sex as the core of discussion, whereas our drama takes women’s self-awareness and growth as the core for discussion,” she told reporters. “Ode” was based on the lives of “millions of Chinese women.”

China has seen rapid change in recent decades and the problems women face now “are very different from those faced by women decades ago.”

“Not just revolving around their husbands and children, but they have more room for personal development, and face life’s hardships and choices on many different levels,” Yuan said.

The five characters, each with their own back story and individual style, represent a “miniature version” of fast-changing, increasingly wealthy China, and the virginity scene summed up the clash between traditional Chinese thinking and emerging openness, she said.

“We are entering a period of diversification and multiculturalism, and the virgin complex is one such point,” she said.

“Ode to Joy” fans, typically women, praise it for reflecting challenges they face with family, careers and relationships through characters they identify with.

Wang Peibin who works for a Fortune 500 company in Shanghai, identifies with no-nonsense character Qu Xiaoxiao.

“She is mean in her words and sees through everything. She has a clear attitude on what she loves and hates. I’m not so brave, so I wish I could be more like her,” the 28-year-old said.

For Shanghai housewife Yan Chaowei, “Ode to Joy” offers viewers an escape.

“It’s based on reality but is also more than that,” the 30-year-old said.

“It gives people who live cruel lives in big cities a chance to take a breather during the show. It gives them a chance to escape from reality for 40 minutes.”

Wang and Yan are in agreement over the virginity scene.

Wang said: “I don’t accept the virginity view of the guy at all and I don’t understand people who think that virginity means everything. Those people are unforgivable.”

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