Chinese mainland TV series The First Half of My Life has remained one of the most discussed topics on Chinese social platforms since it hit small screens in China three weeks ago.
Based on Hong Kong writer Isabel Nee Yeh-su's novel of the same name, the show focuses on the romances and lives of urban residents in Shanghai. Its main character is Luo Zijun, a 37-year-old care-free Chinese housewife who suddenly must return to the workforce after divorcing her husband Chen Junsheng, who was having an affair with his colleague Ling Ling. Luo gradually grows into an independent career woman with support from her bestie Tang Jing and Tang's boyfriend He Han, both senior managers at consulting companies.
While the core of the story might look familiar as audiences have seen it before on similar shows such as the U.S. series The Good Wife, Luo's comeback in First has far fewer thrills than other shows, while the drama's depiction of an independent woman remains controversial.
Nobody likes a cheater
The show's depiction of relationships has ignited debate online, revealing much about what audiences today think of certain moral values and marital culture in China.
Chen, a project manager at a consulting company, falls in love with his colleague Ling as she appears to be a gentle and caring woman. Yet, it is revealed that Ling, a divorced woman with a son to feed, is only putting on act in the hopes of getting the financial security that comes with having a husband. Though Ling's situation as a single mom may cause some to sympathize with her plight, most Chinese audiences slammed her for her selfishness in breaking up someone else's marriage. The character has been such a focus of audience hatred that Wu Yue, the actress who plays Ling, had to turn off the comment function on her Sina Weibo account since some fans of the show were attacking her online.
The romantic relationship that ends up developing between Luo and He was also criticized. For many Chinese netizens, falling in love with your best friend's boyfriend, even if their relationship is already on the brink of falling apart, is still unacceptable.
Comfort vs independence
Besides tackling relationships, the story also discusses the independence of modern Chinese women, a rare theme in recent mainland series.
By showing Luo's evolution from a simple-minded and spoiled housewife to a dedicated career woman, the story seems to hint at the awakening of a woman's spirit of self-reliance. However, instead of experiencing struggles on her way to landing a job and making her own way in the world, it's all smooth sailing for Luo since she has the help of Tang and He, who even come to her rescue when she makes a mistake at her job, which she only got through a recommendation made by He. The story then descends into a cheap Mary Sue story, which brings Luo's pursuit of independence into question.
Instead of improving her poor professional and interpersonal skills, Luo "acquires" economic independence via resources and good luck. By having Luo land a job with the help of a man and constantly being on the lookout for a man to marry, the show seems to be saying the character's redemption can only be found through men.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Tang is the perfect elite woman, independent, both materially and spiritually, sophisticated and elegant. Yet, she is mocked and looked down upon for remaining single, despite being in a 10-year relationship, by Luo and Luo's mom, both of whom represent conventional Chinese women who think it's inappropriate for a woman to stay single after certain age and that single career women are a pitiful group who choose to suffer to make a living instead of finding a husband so they can enjoy a comfortable life.
The show seems to have suffered as a result of its controversial story. Its rating on Chinese media review platform Douban has fallen from an 8/10 during its first two weeks to a 6.5/10.