Why On-Screen Portrayals of China’s Middle Class Fall Flat

After decades spent producing mindless, middling fare glorifying middle-class values, it’s time for China’s film industry to take a more critical look.

A Still from the 2018 film “Lost, Found.” The movie’s protagonist, Li Jie, looks like a strong, capable, and disciplined woman, but when her child goes missing, the film peels away her pretensions of middle-class stability and reveals the truth of her situation. Picture from Douban

The term “middle class” is not an easy one to define. This is especially true in China, where the idea is very much still under construction.

Ask a Chinese person what they think of when they hear the words “middle class,” and they’ll likely reel off a list of images drawn from movies and TV shows that glorify the pleasures of bourgeois life: professional success, an apartment in a soaring high-rise, glamorous vacations in tropical resorts, luxury brands, and haute cuisine. Cultivating a moderately prosperous middle class capable of stimulating domestic consumption has long been a key national goal in China, and the country’s media industry has worked hard over the years to inculcate the country’s population with the right values. Entire movies seemingly exist for the sole purpose of extolling the virtues of vapid consumerism and materialism.

Recently, however, cracks have begun to emerge — hints that, beneath the happy façade, this life may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

For all the attention domestic media gives the middle class, they are neither a deeply rooted nor firmly entrenched part of Chinese society. Unlike the West, the middle class remains a distinct numerical minority in China. From the Communist victory in 1949 up until the launch of the reform period in 1978, China’s leaders spent decades suppressing and liquidating anyone connected to the bourgeoisie. The country’s middle class, therefore, had to essentially be recreated from scratch beginning in the 1980s.

This meant instilling middle-class values in a population raised on socialism. Naturally, popular media was to play an important role in this project, and according to the cultural critic Dai Jinghua, by the mid-1990s, China’s film and television industry had begun to align itself with what it identified as middle-class taste and values. In doing so, it overturned socialist norms that had prevailed for decades. “[It was a process that] sought to ‘feed’ and construct a Chinese middle class,” Dai writes.

Over the ensuing two decades, this mass-media support has allowed China’s middle class, despite its apparent fragility, to wield disproportionate influence over Chinese society. Flaunting one’s possessions and cultural capital became a way for this group to try and solidify their newfound status by differentiating them from those lower on the economic ladder. In turn, the country’s growing obsession with middle-class life only encouraged film and television producers to push bourgeois values even further.

Promotional posters for the 2010 film “Go Lala Go” and the 2017 film “The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes.” Too many Chinese films continue to emphasize fashion, luxury, and glamor while rarely interrogating underlying social issues or the real-life challenges faced by members of China’s middle class. Pictures from Douban

Yet films that amount to little more than two-hour advertisements for wealth and urbanity are not exactly fulfilling cinematic experiences. Meanwhile, attempts to put a glossy sheen on middle-class life can hollow out plots, leaving narcissistic, unlikeable leads to carry the movies. Read the full article here.


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.