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Tiny Times: The Rise of the West in Chinese Pop Culture

When China’s richest writer-turned-filmmaker Guo Jingming released his debut film Tiny Times, he managed to provoke two extreme reactions. With their mood of decadent excess, Tiny Times reflects the growing materialism in China. Not everybody is pleased about the values they represent in this movie. If Chairman Mao was alive, he might shudder in disgust. The movie greatly deviates from Mao’s ascetic communism and it’s more of a wholesale celebration of materialism and conspicuousness which can be described as a fusion of The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City.

Sex and the City Shanghai Edition

The Tiny Times series follows four fashion-obsessed and attractive young women: Ruby, Nan, Lily and Lin around Shanghai. It’s the chronicles of their romances and lives. They constantly make references to expensive brands such as Gucci and Prada and also sports cars. With their characters always in opulent environments, they tend to enter into relationships with well-dressed handsome men.

Chinawood

It was a blockbuster which didn’t spare expenses on production with a very polished look, Hollywood standard cinematography, set design, and costumes. Most of the crew members and cast hail from Taiwan. Even with the criticism, this did not stop it from beating Hollywood’s “Man of Steel” when it opened in June of 2013, grossing over $43 million in its first week. Its sequel, Tiny times 2’ also scored big by grossing about $47 million three weeks after its opening in August.

It was such a lucrative endeavor bringing in more that $200 million to the Chinese box offices. Even with its third installment, it managed to push the heavyweight Hollywood blockbuster Transformer: Age of Extinction into second place. As Beijing-based Stephen Cremin says,

“This is the first high-profile film to appeal primarily to the generation born in the 1990s who’ve been the main movie-going audience in China.” There was so much controversy around the film, with some labeling it a “feminist movie.”

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Material Girls

The 90s generation is greatly influenced by pop culture and has strong inspirational preferences which are completely changing the face of Chinese Cinema. They are a representation of this huge market that resulted from reforms in China that fostered economic growth. Tansen Sen, professor of Asian History says, “I couldn’t imagine in the late 80’s that you would have movies like this.”

This movie pressed hot buttons and touched some topics that remain quite sensitive. It was a slap in the face for those people who feel that materialism, worship of money, and individualism has gone too far in China. Professor of Media Culture at the City University of New York, Ying Zhu says that this movie mirrors exactly how the society has traveled in the past two or so decades, the obvious material worship, the lack of real humanity, and the lack of moral grounding.

Women in China are “Leaning In”

The portrayal of women as losing ground in economic participation is quite perturbing since it is not the situation on the ground. According to the director of China market research group Shaun Rein, Chinese women comprise 50% of the total household income. In 2011, the Economist reported that the women labor force participation rate in China was higher than any other country in the world. Around 25% of senior management positions are held by women in China, compared to 24% in Europe, 18% in the USA, and just 5% in neighboring Japan. Some might argue that 25% is a far cry from 50% and a lot needs to be done for gender parity but still the gender gap in China is not as wide as the movies might have you think.

A research was done, including observations and ethnographic interviews of women in Beijing and Shanghai which illustrated empowered practices and mindsets depicted by the movie. Guo Jingming’s portrayal of women was, they inhabitants of this materialistic universe with values defined by money, and they aspire for wealthy men. Tensen Sen says he sees China as a very pop culture oriented society and there was no sense that it was a communist society that he was describing. There is a disconnect between the society he writes about and the one he lives in. It is all fantasy writing but not the exact representation of the Chinese society.

Aspiration for Wealth is Strong in China

Having come from a middle –class background and tasted the fruits of reforms, his target audience is the young people living in second-tier cities such as Wuhan, Nanjing and Chongping but not the ones residing in Shanghai or Beijing metropolises. The group that is definitely less sophisticated but with insatiable materialistic longings. The Chinese film industry is working to capture this young audience and give them what they want to watch. It is more of a marketing gimmick than societal representation. It is no longer about the epic history drama but romantic comedies and teen romances.

Some of the critics blasted the movie as shallow and materialistic fearing that it would corrupt the young people into worshiping money. Zhou Liming, who is a popular film critic weighed in. “Tiny Times reflects undisguised desire. ” For example with its main character gaining voice after becoming so wealthy and living in a glass house in high-end Shanghai. The film depicts office politics, the lifestyle of the arrogant and rich, the struggle for success, friendship and love.

Shaking Up Traditional Chinese Values?

Han Song who is a blogger said that most of the film’s fans appreciate how it depicted individual dreams rather than setting in national or historical broader contexts of corruption issues and social imbalance. Most of the films critics are the 60s and 70s generations whose main concern is corruption and social imbalance issues. Raymond Chou, China’s leading film critic feels that this movie is taking the country in the wrong direction and says “It’s hinting to the young generation that you can do anything to win material goods because that’s how value is determined, by the kinds of clothes you wear and the kind of bags you carry”.

Clash of the Generations

This is a generational clash, with the young people thinking they do not need to carry the baggage of the Chinese dream and social responsibilities. All they need to do is live their life just like the rest of the world, while the older generation feels like the youths need to get empowered and continue with the Mao legacy. The modern Chinese woman wants more than an arm candy, they want equal opportunities, senior government positions, they want to feel empowered and not just coming second after men.

WWMD (What Would Mao do?!)

Mao Zedong is probably turning in his grave because of this fad. Tiny times is rising beyond the criticism and continuing to hit up the Chinese cinemas. It’s celebrated by many and frowned upon by some. It has a bold wide view of materialism which is a far cry from what Mao envisioned 60 years ago. The movie is not only capable of starting Mao, but it is also an opinion shaper in the Chinese modern culture. To what extent has the Western pop culture penetrated China? It is quite an intense debate with materialism remaining neutral, neither positive nor negative. Such movies might not have come out of China in the initial years, but it doesn’t mean that they never consumed them. They know what’s playing in New York or even Paris. The big question here should be, is “Tiny Times” success alongside such big controversy and criticism the surest sign of progress yet?

Tiny Times: The Rise of the West in Chinese Pop Culture
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