Ma Nuo-ism: The Controversy Surrounding China’s Most Popular TV Show

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[This first appeared in China Grooves magazine]

It may come as a surprise to many living in China, but, apparently, money and material possessions are of vital importance to young Chinese. More shocking: Such things are high among the criteria used to choose romantic partners!

If such details are unknown to you, then watching Fei Cheng Wu Rao (If You Are The One) will be quite a revelation. Produced by Jiangsu Satellite TV and airing on the weekend since January, the show is not unique, but merely the most popular among a slew of reality dating shows that have been hitting Chinese airwaves of late.

This particular show features a panel of twenty-four attractive, young Chinese women. Over the course of the program, they are introduced to a series of bachelors. At the outset, the man indicates to the host, Meng Fei, which girl he prefers—or, rather, in the show’s lingo, who “arouses his heart.” Over the course of three subsequent stages, the man tells a bit about himself via video clips of his home and work life and testimonials from colleagues. If the women find him unappealing in some respect, they can turn off the lights on their podiums. If, at the end of stage three, all the lights have been extinguished, the man is sent packing; if, however, lights remain, the tables reverse and it becomes the man’s turn to eliminate the remaining women.

As the show runs its course, candidates are asked to justify the reasons why they have eliminated one another. Westerners will be familiar with the self-promoting vanity and petty viciousness that reality show stars are capable of, but the bluntness of it has captured the attention of the Chinese and caused worry among officials.

During its first six months, Fei Cheng Wu Rao focused a great deal on money. As the men were introduced, little pop-ups on the screen would detail whether they owned a car or a house. Nor did the men play down such facts—one, Liu Yunchao, has been singled out for particular scorn for his extended bragging about his nearly million dollar bank account and multiple sports cars. While it’s worth noting that Liu was voted off the show an was actually an actor playing up the part, the underlying sense remains that morality and priorities he chose to display were in keeping with the show’s style.

Another controversial moment occurred when Zhu Zhenfang refused to shake hands with a male contestant, explaining: “Only my boyfriend gets to hold my hand. Everyone else, 200,000 renminbi per shake.”

The most famous contestant, however, is Ma Nuo. The young model from Beijing gained notoriety for her sharp rejection of a suitor. Asked if she would come for bike rides with him, she replied that a BMW would be far more “cool.” Her statement spread through the internet and metamorphosized into the more dramatic and memorable: “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bike.” While the words are not hers, the statement sums up what many see to be the skewed values of modern Chinese matchmaking.

While such attitudes are par for the course on Western shows, in China it’s a revelation. The various contestants all reflect real dilemmas facing ordinary Chinese: Concerns over money and houses, over the involvement of parents, over a man’s ability to advance himself in the workplace. It’s easy to relate to many of the biographies and become emotionally caught up in whether or not a contestant finds a good match. Statistics show that many Chinese feel this way: Throughout May and June, the show was the number one program in China. Message boards flared up in discussions, stars became famous, rights were franchised off to different countries, and Jiangu Sattelite TV was able to charge astronomical advertising rates for it’s commercial slots.

This all changed at the beginning of June when the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) issued a statement criticizing the character of such shows, describing them as “vulgar.” It was emphasized that shows were not to allow models, actors, and “second-generation rich” free-reign to wallow in their wealth, promote unethical views of marriage, and preach “mammonism” for the whole world to see.

Joking aside, the prevalence of the attitudes seen on Fei Cheng Wu Rao is no surprise to anyone living in China and that is precisely the reason the government has decided to step in. A show of this sort, expressing the views that it does, is an affront to Socialist values and allowing it to continue without comment would imply acceptance.

To escape the cancellation that had met competitors like Wei Ai Xiang Qian Chong (Run For Love) in the weeks following the SARFT’s statement, Fei Cheng Wu Rao re-jiggered its format. Gone were specific mentions of money—though whether or not someone owned items which cost a significant amount remained permissible for discussion. A middle-aged psychiatrist named Huang Han was added to the show to dispense professional opinions, but meshed awkwardly with the youthful cast and disappeared after a few weeks. Overall, contestants began to emphasize their commitment to family and community. Passions for volunteer work suddenly came into vogue. Without a steady stream of moral corrosion to catch the public’s attention, ratings dipped.

As time goes on, more and more rumor and controversy swirls around the show and its more infamous participants. Ma Nou has, allegedly, been banned from appearing on all reality programming in China. Suspicious viewers have conducted background checks revealing that multiple contestants hail from the same Beijing university and suggesting that getting on the program is a fix. And a competitor, Hunnan Sattelite Television, has claimed the show is ripping off their program Women Yue Hui Ba (Take Me Out)— whose franchise rights they bought from an English broadcaster.

In short, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

Watching a recent episode, the difficulties of producing such a show were all too apparent. When the forth bachelor of the evening, a mild, bespectacled man with a squeaky voice and shy demeanor emerged, the podium lights immediately cut out by half. Then came his videos; one clip of him in a cramped officer with several other IT technicians and another showing him preparing lunch and stuffing it into a Tupperware container. Both clips were utterly depressing in their ordinariness and in their sense of routine. The man was utterly average and now found himself at the mercy of a panel of women, themselves under enormous pressure to dispense withering, memorable critiques.

What could be worse than an utterly average person to be unceremoniously booted off the stage and denied his shot at happiness. If this guy couldn’t succeed, who in modern China could have hope . . .And yet he won out! He found his match—and not just any of the women, but the one who had “aroused his heart.” Where an American show would never have included such a guy in the first place, here he was, on tv, taking home the girl. The cynics can grumble that it all seems staged, but the optimists and romantics can take heart. The show succeeds in so far as it balances the defeats and hassles of daily life with the possibility for love wining out in the end.

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