There’s something a little odd about using family terms to refer to romantic relationships, but with the current popularity of Tencent’s hit show Nothing But You, about a young tennis player developing feelings for his older female manager, everyone seems to be talking about 姐弟恋, jiedi lian (Older Sister/Younger Brother Romance). Even the regular handful of Anglophone China watchers are now talking about the phenomenon of older women dating younger men, and the ‘normalisation’ of it in Chinese media. Whilst the sub-genre has proliferated over the last few years (some of the most popular include Mango TV’s A Rational life and IQiyi’s Dr Appledog’s Time, both released in 2021), shows about career-oriented women dating younger men have in fact, been a thing in contemporary Chinese storytelling since at least the middle of the last decade.
The current crop handles the subject of jiedi lian in a handful of interesting ways. Find Yourself (2020, which is now airing on Netflix), makes the age difference the main obstacle to the relationship, while She and Her Perfect Husband (Tencent, 2022) takes the ideas of Oscar Wilde, and explores a marriage of convenience turned romance between a successful lawyer and her contracted younger husband, a socially awkward zhainan (geek boy).
The idea of an older female partner is not new to traditional Chinese culture, there is even the popular proverb, 女大三，抱金砖, nü dà sān, bào jīnzhuān, “when the bride is three years older, then the marriage will be like gold”. Nor is the concept of the older female love interest strange to classic literature. In The Return of the Condor Heroes (1959), one of the most well-loved romances in modern Chinese fiction, we read about the love between a xia swordsman and his older female master. This Jin Yong classic has been enjoyed for generations, with many new TV adaptations over the past decades. The relationship dynamic continues into contemporary wuxia, for instance, the attachment that forms between the protagonist of Sword Dynasty (IQiyi, 2019) and his late master’s lover. One could be forgiven for thinking that jiedi lian is a staple in science fiction romances, when shows like Parallel Love (Tencent, 2019), uses its McGuffins of ball lighting and dimensional travel to examine the dynamic, and Youku’s Rattan (2021), tries to win the award for biggest age gap, having a young male architect fall for plant-hybrid alien who is over a hundred years old.
Whilst these are all dreadfully heteronormative, and pander to the conformist mainstream Chinese society that still places a hefty stigma on unmarried ‘leftover’ women older than twenty-eight, they are very much portrayed the heroines of these stories, and shown as human, competent and empowered. Sub-genres that deal with taboo are naturally bold in their approach, but there are some real reasons why older women might be choosing younger partners in real life. Despite what some commenters are saying, it is not just the influence of Kdrama.
With better education, more economic power and increased independence, Chinese women are no longer running for the protective umbrella of marriage at an early age. When they finally do seek a life partner, they are choosing from a pool that has been globally influenced, have modern views on gender and feminist discourses and who, unlike men from older generations, do not expect them to be kitchen slaves, but will support them in their careers and life goals. The new generations in China tend to be better at expressing their feelings, and more aware of the feelings of others. Whilst there are obvious exceptions on both sides of the age divide, they take far more care of their appearance and hygiene. For the younger men, especially those early maturers, they get companions who are financially independent, with higher emotional intelligence, who are far more caring, make a lot less demands on them to reach for status and wealth, and are willing to understand and share the pressures of life.
It seems that all countries are currently concerned about the strength of the nation and unprecedented low birthrates. Chinese society is also seeing a breakdown of conventional marriage values, and it seems as though state media is more than happy to promote the Older Woman/Younger Man relationship as a route to bolstering the nuclear family, and the population. The proliferation of the genre has taken advantage of the wealth of contemporary literary material that is out there, created by women writers. The Broker (2021), adapted from Miao Juan’s novel, brings the dynamic into the world of science research. Love Scenery (2021), based on Qiao Yao’s web novel, tells the love story between a female musician and an IT undergraduate, and Sheng Li’s novel 48 Hours in the ICU inspired the series Thank You, Doctor (2022).
At the end of the day, whether the relationships are featured in danmei, baihe, jiedi or its counterpart, dashu lian, love is love, and should be celebrated whatever shape it takes, irrespective of societal norms. China is changing, and the traditional and conventional relationships it has promoted in the past, no longer fit the great diversity of its citizens. The wide variety of settings featured in jiedi lian stories suggest a certain degree of universality across Chinese society, indicating many women and men feel comfortable with the idea, and the commercial success of the novels and shows further prove their resonance. If it helps to reduce the social stigma and encourage those facing social pressures in real life situations, then all the better.
Posted in Commentary and tagged china, Chinese, feminism, gender, marriage, relationship, romance, SFF, society, sub-genre