Think of a drama series that has 15 times higher viewership than that of Game of Thrones. Yes, “Ode to Joy” is a such a show that has accumulated 13.2 billion views online in China (as of May 17th). Per-episode views have reached an astounding 313 million, not to mention cable viewership. Why is this show so popular in China? Why has it spurred so much debate among its viewers?
(Ode to joy with English Caption available)
To sum up, this is a Chinese version of “Pride and Prejudice” in a modern setting. While the five main female characters in this series were not relatives, the show essentially discussed the same set of issues in life: class, morality, love, etiquette, and of course something different from that of the 19th century, job security. The five main female characters came from distinct backgrounds: Andy was an orphan who eventually studied at Columbia Business School and became a fierce and independent businesswoman; Qu was raised from a wealthy but relatively complicated family background. These two lived on their own in their respective flats, whereas Qiu, Fan and Guan, three girls raised from ordinary families, shared a flat on the same floor in the “Ode to Joy” apartment. After an elevator accident that got these five stuck together for a while, they became close friends, sharing their joy and sorrow, anger and fear. The tension, however, always existed among the five, as they had different perspectives of life, marriage, morality and even choice of clothing.
First time “class” becomes a keynote in a Chinese drama
Since the economic reforms during the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s slogan “Allowing Some People to Get Rich First” has raised a flurry of millionaires and wealthy families in China. The flipside of this phenomenon is that the idea of “class” has been formed and social mobility has been rather stagnant, owing primarily to inflation across all asset classes, in particular real estate. “Ode to Joy” did not shy away from this topic, but addressed it quite poignantly – the three girls who shared a flat constantly complained that their neighbors couldn’t understand their lives because they lived in a different “class”. This also led to another popular question for any young Chinese female : “Should I marry a man who is wealthy or a guy I love?”
(Fan is a girl who is facing her “30s” crisis in this TV series- she had a boyfriend who loved her but had unpractical thoughts that someone rich would marry her one day)
While female characters seemed quite independent in this series because of their respective careers, they were “vulnerable” in a sense that public perception still attributed their social status to their spouse or their relationship status. Individual efforts to stand up for themselves seemed futile. Meanwhile, the idea of “class” was also evident in every single elements in this show – Fan and her roommates were “tagged” to buy cheap stuffs online; Qu, who had a bunch of wealthy friends, seemed to be spending much of her leisure time in expensive nigh clubs, or having western-style parties; Andy was immersed into a bourgeoisie lifestyle that distanced her away from the mass – she openly discussed and commented her neighbours with her boyfriend, who was a successful businessman, though with no bad intentions.
“You can always find your mirror image in this show”
One of the key reasons why this show became so popular was the fact that most city dwellers could relate themselves to one character or another. Take Guan as an example: she came from a well-educated family with strict rules that she could not have a boyfriend before graduation. Yet her parents were eager to accompany her to blind dates after she graduated; her key concern of life was work because she had little self-esteem – not graduating from a key university – and she was fighting hard for getting a full-time position for her internship. Her experience was shared by a lot of college graduates, especially those who did not come from first-tier cities and were fighting for decent survival.
(“I used to complain about how tough it was at school, but in retrospect(after work), it is such a happy period of my life,” says Guan. Source: weibo)
Intense debate on the show revealed “class tension”
Despite the universal acclaim of the show’s down-to-earth showcase of reality, some viewers were also critical of its portrayal of wealthy people as “flamboyant prejudice against the poor”. “The author of this series desired to be associated with the two girls (richer ones), and despised the rest of the three,” said one popular comment on China’s drama review website douban.com, “what percentage of the population can own an apartment in Beijing or Shanghai in their early 30s?”
(Qu did whatever she wants as a “second-generation rich” kid, but was often criticised as “narcissistic, cruel and snobbish”)
A show full of ads, but not without surprise
Controversial screenplay was not the only highlight of this show, a wide array of commercials thoroughly displayed the core business aspect of a successful TV series in China. Vipshop (NYSE:vips), the e-commerce website; Sougou, the search engine; “Three squirrels”, the popular brand of nuts; as well as established brands such as adidas, Mercedes and Godiva, have all pulled their tricks to display naturally in this show. Money-oriented as it seems, these brands could have thrown millions of dollars into the show just to enjoy the benefits of being watched 300 million times per episode.
The true surprising ad of the show was the advent of Facebook – translated as “lianshu (脸书)” in the show. Facebook probably set the record as the first product that was not available in China, but already made a TV commercial on live Chinese TV. It was shown during the part when Andy, who just came back from the States, chat with her online buddy without blockage. Given that this show passed the regulatory approval, it was customary to think that Facebook’s entry into China was probably all set? Facebook investors must be pleased by Mr. Zuckerberg’s tireless effort to run at the Tiananmen Square despite the smog. It surely did pay off now!
(Facebook could be entering China as soon as this year, indicated by this show)
“Ode to Joy” may be the most successful TV show of modern context in China so far. The psyche it reflects, the rising awareness of feminism and the social tension it brought could be of in-depth study by China watchers. The “Ode to Joy” did not resonate joy any longer, but rather a rhapsody of reality.