While China’s first entertainment star Shen Danping’s marriage to Kraeuter, a German man, in the mid-1980s is today celebrated as an exemplary fairy tale in the Chinese media, back then she faced strong rejection from both her family and work unit when she attempted to register her marriage. Her parents allegedly felt shamed by her desire to marry a ‘foreigner’ (laowai) and declined to attend their wedding celebration. Her work unit initially refused to issue supportive documentation for their marriage registration. The couple also faced social pressure as Shen was suspected to be marrying Kraeuter for the purpose of going abroad for personal advancement. This alluded to the economic disparity between China and the West together with the residual anti-capitalist/foreign ideology that permeated Chinese society during the early reform era. In this climate, women became the scapegoat for China’s unsolved gender stratification and foreigners fell victim in the aftermath of the Maoist ideological war.
Since Shen, a number of Chinese female celebrities married foreigners and migrated to Europe, the USA, or East Asia with their husbands during the 1980s and 1990s. This included Siqin Gaowa’s (film actress) marriage to an overseas Chinese man with Swiss nationality in 1986, He Zhili’s (table tennis champion) marriage to a Japanese table tennis player in 1989, Chen Chong’s (film actress) marriage to a Chinese-American doctor in 1992, Wei Wei’s (Mandopop singer) marriage to an American composer in 1994, and Li Lingyu’s (singer and actress) marriage to a Canadian entrepreneur in 1999. The gendered phenomenon stirred public discussion and debate centred on the morality of celebrity as a national asset ‘marrying out’ to foreign land along with their loyalty and patriotism to China. As one author notes in the Entrepreneur magazine that ‘In the eyes of the Chinese celebrities, not only is American English better than Chinese, their [American] Chinese is even better than that of Chinese people’ (Feng Xinzi, 1994, 34). The sarcasm reflects the social anxiety of Chinese nationalists over elite Chinese women who married foreigners. This occurred at a time when China suffered from ‘brain and talent drain’, and was struggling to deal with the new wave of western cultural imperialism together with the potential danger of being peacefully transformed into a capitalist regime (see: Ong 2007: 22-3; Zhang Qingfei 2015: 87). This discussion also took place within the context of an emerging ‘crisis’ of Chinese masculinity especially post-mid-1990s when growing consumerism had opened up new spaces for expressions of masculinity.
In contrast, many other media reports focused on idolising Chinese celebrities who married foreigners, highlighting both their professional accomplishments and romantic love. Female celebrities were portrayed as leaders of a new generation of modern women who were physically attractive, well accomplished (include ‘breadwinners’ of the family), capable of domestic work, and heartily committed to China. These accounts promote the notion of a ‘contemporary ideal Chinese womanhood’, which strongly encouraged the public (Chinese women) to emulate their role models to contribute to both society and family, with the hinted expectations for women’s dual achievements both at work and home. Moreover, the media reinforced the notion of a hierarchical/class division between the lives of ‘ordinary’ Chinese and ‘extraordinary’ Chinese celebrities. Celebrities as social elites live the dream life and that life will remain a dream for the average Chinese person (Wang Pan 2015: 102).
The PRC media observed a reversed trend of transnational migration in the new millennium as many celebrity couples, i.e. Si Qin Gaowa, Zhang Tielin, Ning Jing, and Chen Lu (champion figure skater known as ‘ice butterfly’ in China) who had moved overseas now returned to China. Some of the ‘stars’ allegedly claim that their changes of nationality do not represent an alteration of Chinese identity, and they prefer to live in China because it offers opportunities for career development and China is where there fans are based. Foreign partners of Chinese female celebrities were portrayed as supportive ‘henpecked’ husbands following their wives around (fù chàng fū suí), which reversed the common gendered practice of wives following husbands (fū chàng fù suí). Meanwhile, non-ethnically Chinese foreign males who married local Chinese women and acquired their celebrity status in China (e.g. Canadian actor Roswell Mark known as ‘Da Shan’ and American actor Kos-Read Jonathan, known as ‘Cao Cao’ in China) were reportedly self-identified as Chinese. In highlighting celebrity couples’ emotional attachment to China and foreigners’ identity of being Chinese, the media built a strong rapport with the reader and strengthened the public’s pride of being Chinese.
With the growing reports of celebrity Chinese-foreign marriages, media coverage of celebrity Chinese-foreign divorces increased. On the one hand, the media showed a strong preference to sensationalise the fragile and melodramatic nature of celebrity Chinese-foreign romance. ‘Real’ stories are intertwined with speculations and ‘rumours’ of celebrity couples, which strategically entertained and preserved the curiosity of readers in the commercially-driven media market. On the other, divorce is constructed as amicable, peaceful and liberating, and is equivalent to ongoing friendship between couples. It is also gendered as it signifies female autonomy and empowerment rather than as a source of emotional hardship and financial disadvantage. Divorced celebrity Chinese fathers and mothers are constructed as selfless exemplary parents with strong bonds with their children. Such construction caters to audience expectations of the ‘glamorous’ celebrity life-style, especially when the nation is upholding the banner of freedom of love and gender equality.
Media construction of celebrity Chinese-foreign marriages and divorces testifies to a ‘thickened’ celebrity culture in China today. This can be attributed to the proliferation of large-scale entertainment industries and commercial advertising (Jeffreys and Edwards 2010: 1-3). In this model, the Chinese media capitalises on the private stories of celebrities while celebrities use the media to augment their fame. This has not only produced hundreds of millions of followers but has also enlightened them to rethink the topics of gender, race, and class in 21st Century China.
Dr. Wang Pan is a lecturer at the School of International Studies, University of Technology Sydney. Her research interests include Chinese Media Studies, Cultural Studies and Intercultural Marriage Studies. She is the author of the book Love and Marriage in Globalizing China (Abingdon: Routledge 2015). Image credit: Beijing Review.