By Marco Fumian
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2023)
In this essay, I present a reading of the Chinese TV drama Well-intended Love 奈何BOSS要娶我 (lit. “How to make the BOSS marry me”), a 20-episode series released in China in 2019 that I have been watching with the students of an MA course on Chinese language this year and discussed in a paper I presented at a workshop at the Oriental University of Naples (fig. 1).
I selected this particular TV drama for two reasons. First, I wanted to introduce my students to a series focused on the representation of contemporary Chinese society, to observe with them what kind of themes, values, and social relations it gives expression to, and how and why. I also sought to analyze the content of the series in light of the dominant ideological structures shaping mainstream cultural expression in contemporary China, where the processes of cultural production are typically supervised by the agencies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with the aim of infusing cultural works, especially in the realm of popular culture, with the narratives and values most supportive of the government’s views of social order. The series, produced by the private studios Huachen Meichuang 华晨美创 and Wenhua Chuanmei 文化传媒, was the recipient of a number of prizes at the Fourth Edition Golden Bud Network Film and Television Festival—an event mostly designed to award film and TV works produced for the internet—including that for “one of the best 10 TV dramas of the year” and that for the “most popular director of the year,” awarded to the director Wu Qiang 吴强. If not necessarily a guarantee of the quality of the series, the awards are at least a sign that the drama was quite representative of the tastes of Chinese viewers, as well as of the organizers of the prize.
The second reason was that the series was picked up by Netflix, where it was streamed immediately after its release on the Chinese platforms Sohu Video and Mango TV with subtitles in all major European and non-European languages. As such, the series became a source of representation of contemporary Chinese society for a very large pool of international viewers. It can be investigated both as a local Chinese cultural product and a global one whose narrative contents may have some significance for a larger international (Western?) audience that is more likely to consume the series as a form of entertainment and less interested or trained in recognizing the state-sanctioned views of social order that may lie behind it. In recent years, the Chinese government has been doing a lot to encourage Chinese culture to “go global” while at the same time imposing a stronger control over culture and promoting conservative cultural values at home. In fact, Well-Intended Love is only one of several PRC-produced TV series currently available on Netflix. My initial curiosity, therefore, was more or less this: is it possible to find among these Chinese series some common patterns, discovering what recurrent narratives, views of society and social values they tend to represent, and how these common elements, if there are any, eventually play out in terms of their relationship with the dominant ideological patterns promoted today by the Chinese government? As this is a huge task that would take a lot of work and probably require some collaboration with other scholars, I content myself, for the time being, with focusing on an analysis of this particular TV series.
As happens with many expressions of Chinese popular culture, the series reveals a noticeable degree of didacticism that is already visible in the title (“How to make the Boss marry me”), which introduces the parable of the protagonists as an exemplary one meant to have broad significance for and bring wisdom to its intended audience. As I try to show in my reading, the series recounts a romance with a typical “Cinderella” plot, and an inevitable happy ending in which all the characters’ aspirations are successfully satisfied. However, whereas on the surface this romance seems to offer a kind of empowerment to the symbolic “me” of the story (represented by the Cinderella-like female protagonist), it reaffirms the symbolic order of wealth and power in Chinese society (represented by the Boss-type male co-protagonist), naturalizing in the end a hierarchical system of class and gender that is based on inherent inequality. In what follows, I sketch out an analysis of the plot and narrative structure, focusing in particular on how the series builds up its very conservative representations of Chinese social life.
The story centers on Xia Lin 夏林 (fig. 2), a young actress struggling to get even minor roles. After a failed attempt to obtain a part and having learnt that her boyfriend has just dumped her, Xia Lin suddenly passes out, only to be informed when she wakes up in a hospital that she has been diagnosed with leukemia. Obviously in great distress, she learns by chance that the one person who can donate bone marrow is Ling Yizhou 凌异洲, a super-rich entrepreneur with whom she previously happened to brush shoulders. She desperately tries to approach him, to beg him to save her life. However, besides being handsome and cool (fig. 3), Ling Yizhou is also extremely arrogant and cold; living in a bubble of privilege, he remains totally indifferent to her plight and initially refuses to help her.
Thus, from the very beginning, the series sets up an awkward relationship between the two main characters that is key to the development of the plot. In this relationship, Xia Lin enters the scene as the protagonist and events are focalized through her point of view; she is, in other words, the “me” of the title who is supposed to strike a chord with the “me” of the ideal viewer. Clumsy, slightly naïve, and not particularly talented, she is a young woman with a modest social background and no resources other than her own ambition and moral strength, but who is determined to chase her dreams in the competitive Chinese society. With no support from anyone (we learn nothing, in the course of the story, about her family) apart from that of her close female friend and confidant Jia Fei 贾菲, she is therefore a “typical character” who is supposed to mirror, with her social characterization, the condition of young people like her who are under pressure to “struggle” (奋斗) for a place in Chinese society, as we see in an infinite number of popular films and novels, as well as in official media.
Ling Yizhou is the secondary protagonist. His role is to symbolize—as a quintessential “BOSS,” with capital letters!—the social “other” of the unapproachable elite, whom Xia Lin needs to approach and win over, more out of dire necessity than as an object of desire. In the process, she exposes his sentimental and fragile side. After some wrangling, Ling Yizhou surprisingly agrees to donate his bone marrow, but on condition that Xia Lin signs a marriage contract with him (he does not appear to be interested in women, but he needs a façade to show the world he is a regular married man). It is suggested at the beginning of the series that he is gay, but it becomes clear, after a few episodes, that he is simply wary of women because he was abandoned by his mother when he was a child. The true motivation behind the fake marriage is that he wants to show his grandmother, the only woman he loves and respects, that he is happily settled with a woman. So although he does not exactly start well as a champion of love, Ling Yizhou cannot be accused of lacking Confucian filiality.
Despite its less than promising beginning, it is clear from the get-go that this is a classic romance: the awkward encounter evolves into perfect match, and the two main characters reshape their fake marriage into a true love story (fig. 4). But to get there, to make their relationship an exemplary one, they first need to go through a process of personal and interpersonal growth. For this reason, the first half of the series exhibits features that can be linked to patterns of the bildungsroman: both characters, in order to build a mature and lasting relationship, need to first develop a certain type of moral sensibility, learning virtues and values such as sincerity, care for others, respect, trust, and, most important, a sense of independence and equality. Xia Lin, in particular, has to prove that she is an honest woman, that she is not a self-seeking social climber who would do anything to catch a rich man, as many other women in the story try to do. Indeed, she respects both her marriage contract and Ling Yizhou’s property; she doesn’t try to seduce him, avoids taking economic advantage of him (in spite of him allowing her unlimited access to his unlimited credit card), and all the while defends her independence and struggles to continue her not-so-brilliant career as an actress.
But then, in the tenth episode, there is the first major plot twist: Xia Lin in fact never had leukemia and her “illness” was a trick devised by Ling Yizhou, who for some strange reason had fallen in love with her without even knowing her and made up the whole story of the donor and the marriage contract to attract her. At this point it becomes clear that it is not Xia Lin who needs to prove her virtue; the bildungsroman narrative thus shifts to Ling Yizhou, whose problem is that he is a control freak who thinks he can manipulate anyone without any consideration for their feelings—he is the one who needs to prove himself now. In the meantime, Xia Lin leaves the luxury villa where she lived in a semi-reclusive state to regain her full independence, while Ling Yizhou begins to mend his ways thanks to the wisdom of his grandmother, who teaches him that to love someone he needs to respect them as human beings with their own freedom and independent feelings. This lesson eventually sets their relationship on the right track; Ling Yizhou begins to behave as the romantic and considerate guy he is expected to be, while Xia Lin comes to realize that she is already deeply in love with him. Unfortunately, Ling Yizhou is in a car accident and loses his memory, which becomes another test for Xia Lin, who has to reawaken his memory and his love for her through dedication and care.
Once the feelings between the two main characters are finally balanced, the sentimental bildungsroman mode subsides and is replaced by full-on melodrama. The two lovers now no longer need to look inside to prove themselves and improve their romance; instead, they have to look out for and guard against the external attacks that threaten their relationship. The melodramatic mode, which is based on exaggerated theatrical conflicts, takes the upper hand, and the series turns into a battle of family dramas each more unbelievable than the other. Just to list a few examples. First, we have this rich girl named Anran 安然 (fig. 5), a childhood friend of Ling Yizhou, who is so jealous and possessive that she first tries to drug Xia Lin and then Ling Yizhou, though both attempts fail.
Then we have a character called Chu Yan 楚炎 (fig. 6), a dandyish celebrity and Ling Yizhou’s best friend who was abused by his father as a child. Chu is mysteriously caught in a fire, and everyone believes him dead, but, surprisingly, comes back onto the scene and finally even makes up with his abusive dad who repents his cruelty. Then we have the unexpected reappearance of Ling Yizhou’s mother, who is torn for having abandoned him as a child and tries, with the help of Xia Lin, to make up with him, though it will later turn out that she is incorrigibly evil and eventually tries to take over Ling Yizhou’s company when he falls into a coma. And, last but not least, the threat that drives the whole second half of the series is this hyperbolically bad guy, Nan Jintian 南锦天 (fig. 7), acting behind the scenes who gradually emerges as Ling Yizhou’s antagonist. He is also a super-rich scion of a capitalist family, but his problem is that he hates Ling Yizhou because his stepmother is in fact Ling Yizhou’s mother, who never loved him, so he believes, because of her lasting love for Ling Yizhou. Therefore, he plots to hurt Ling Yizhou by kidnapping Xia Lin, who in the meantime has become pregnant, and he nearly kills Ling Yizhou when Ling bravely comes to her rescue.
By the final episode, everything ends well and order is restored: the evil stepbrother is eventually shot by the police; the spoiled little girl who was his accomplice rots in jail with a life sentence; Xia Lin manages to resurrect Ling Yizhou from his coma by talking to him about the sweetness of their future family life and even manages to save Ling Yizhou’s company from the schemes of his two-faced mother; after discovering that his dad’s health and business are both failing, the celebrity Chu Yan eventually decides to work with him. Although at the beginning there was some insinuation of him also being gay (Xia Lin suspected a relationship between him and Ling Yizhou), he finally meets a cute and saucy girl who works as a delivery woman but who in reality is the daughter of another entrepreneur, who by coincidence is about to ally with Chu Yan’s father to help him revive his company. Even the helpers of the two main characters, Ling Yizhou’s faithful assistant and Xia Lin’s confidant, fall in love in the end and agree to marry (fig. 8). This is the customary happy ending, in which all characters are finally united in a series of “well-intended” matches, as we can see in the final scene where Xia Lin and Ling Yizhou are having a party with their friends (fig. 9) in the proud presence of the wise grandmother who gives them her blessing. Suddenly, though, Xia Lin’s water breaks, signaling that she is about to give birth, after which we have a coda where we see Ling Yizhou happily going to his office with his little boy (of course, a boy!) showing how good a father he is, able to reconcile work and family (fig. 10), and Xia Lin goes on taking up her little parts as an actress, all to prove that they managed, in the end, to become a modern family with middle class values based on love, trust, respect, equality, and independence.
This is the explicit moral of the story. However, looking deeper, we can find more implicit messages that are still fundamental to the narrative. For instance, certain superficially progressive messages—the sense of empowerment of the female protagonist who manages to climb up the social ladder thanks to her integrity and perseverance, or the exemplary enactment of a model middle class relationship based on trust and equality—in fact serve to obfuscate the profoundly conservative ideology that pervades the story. In particular, it seems to me, what the bildungsroman and melodramatic patterns of the drama really do, with their accent on the free moral choices of the characters and the sublimated conflict between good and evil characters, is to cover up the structure of the underlying social order on which the story is grounded, with its system of unequal relations, ultimately naturalizing this order and fueling desire around it.
Let’s consider, for example, the case of Xia Lin’s leukemia. The potential tragedy of this event is immediately suppressed because its function is simply that of working as a narrative device, whose only purpose is to bring together two characters who live in two incommensurable worlds. Leukemia bridges this unbridgeable distance, but it does so by fixing Xia Lin in a subaltern position: Xia Lin enters the relationship with Ling Yizhou by begging him for help. The trick is that this subaltern “condition” is played out by means of a metaphor; it moves along the allegorical ground of Xia Lin’s apparent disease, which appears as a socially neutral matter of fate, not one of class disparity. But her subordination remains embedded in the relationship because she is always constrained by the perimeter drawn around her by the properties of Ling Yizhou. For this reason, even when it is clear that leukemia was no more than a deus ex machina to begin the story, Xia Lin continues all the same to be dependent on Ling Yizhou, who has to learn to be respectful and sensitive but at the same time still retains the natural right to control her not simply because this is what a man should do, but also because he has unlimited resources to do it. All along, he is expected to provide for her, making her acting look more like a pastime than a serious career; and he must protect her as well, because she is not very good at protecting herself and often gets in trouble. In one example scene toward the end of the series, Xia Lin has been kidnapped and is worried about her situation, but she suddenly remembers that Ling Yizhou placed a GPS device in her earrings so he could locate her and save her from any trouble. The series presents this as totally plausible. Finally, in the last episode, when Xia Lin apologizes to Ling Yizhou because her naivety has caused him a lot of trouble, he answers magnanimously, saying it doesn’t matter and telling her “Mumu, you are good-hearted” (木木, 你很善良), meaning simply that she does not need to be smart, because for that he is already enough. Mumu (木木), incidentally, is the nickname he decides to give her at the beginning of their relationship because this is the name he finds appropriate for her and that his grandmother also likes: so she simply becomes Mumu in the new order of the Ling family.
But this overt paternalistic behavior is not simply the effect of some old-fashioned masculinity; rather, it is the direct consequence of the main character’s entitlement as a champion of the rich and powerful. In the fictional city where the story is set, Ling Yizhou seems to own practically everything: his company seems to have a stake in all the city’s businesses, and since there is no reference in the story to anything related to the political sphere, he comes to represent a sort of almighty authority that is both economic and political. Ling Yizhou has the power to control all his partners and competitors, rewarding them when they behave well and crushing them when they misbehave, so his authority is also a regulating moral law; it creates order. He even has the resources to help the police when they are conducting their investigations, and the police are very eager to answer to him as if he was their boss too. And he consistently acts as a guide and a patron for all the other characters, including his faithful helper Wen Li, who swore to him eternal loyalty (fig. 11) because Ling paid for his studies when he was poor. In the end, Ling Yizhou’s economic empire is threatened by the attacks of a group of evil capitalists, but thanks to the help of his friends, his company is eventually saved and the order of wealth and power exemplified by his character is finally restored.
At a deeper level, therefore, the story provides a legitimation, in fact a glorification, of such an order that the series naturalizes and reinforces in many ways. First, the narrative suggests that whether the rich are good or evil is simply a matter of personal quality; the legitimacy of the order itself is intact, you just need to make sure that the good rich are in charge and the bad rich are crushed. And the producers of the series make sure to create toward this order an endless flow of desire, primarily by creating as its archetypical symbol a character like Ling Yizhou, who is a capable leader, is sexually attractive, but at the same time is also presented as a vulnerable and malleable figure in need of help to change and grow up. And then desire is created, as it often happens in Chinese films and TV series, through a bombardment of images of wealth, such as luxury houses, fancy cars (with Maserati as the ubiquitous, iconic vehicle) (fig. 12), glittering skyscrapers, shopping malls, and so on. In addition, the series makes this order appear approachable and familiar, especially highlighting the exemplary parable of the gradual humanization of the male hero. But it is the main female character, made to represent the typical everywoman of Chinese society (and in terms of class, one might say “everyman”), who works the miracle of remolding the hero’s subjectivity, with an aim to instill a sense of satisfaction in the average viewer who is supposed to identify with her. In this way, the drama ends up erecting a metaphysics of wealth and power, an overarching order that is just there, has always been there, and will always be there, enacting once more the myth of the successful man (成功人士) once described by cultural critic Wang Xiaoming 王晓明 as a fable of the rich and powerful gentleman who only shows the bright half of his face, while deliberately clouding everything that is dark and unsayable on the workings of his wealth and power.
Of course, the narrative ingredients that make up this story can be tackled from many angles. We could look at the conventions of the romance as it developed long ago in the Western tradition, since there is no doubt that many clichés and stereotyped themes in the series are a product of that tradition. Or we could look at the cultural expectations of Chinese viewers, many of whom might share the same conservative social and cultural views as those expressed in the drama, for example about marriage, gender relations, views of femininity and masculinity, and so on. But I think it would be hard to overlook that this particular narrative is also enabled and enhanced by some particular ideological configurations that are encouraged and structured today by the state, and it is not difficult to see how the exemplary parable set up in the story dovetails to a large extent with some typical narratives and values promoted by the CCP, such as the need to teach youths to be ambitious and upwardly mobile, relying on themselves and not complaining about their bad luck or government policy if things don’t work out; or the wish to disseminate harmonious images of society where conflict is sublimated and expressed only in personal moral terms, social hierarchy is rationalized as something inevitable, and the patriarchal power of the elite is legitimized as necessary and desirable, provided that it is morally sound and capable of leading. It is a narrative that builds up the image of a benevolent capitalist authoritarian order, and by inscribing all the characters of the story in this order, it also projects the structure of this order onto the symbolic horizon of viewers.
It is worth noting, at this point, how according to Geng Song, author of the book Televising Chineseness: Gender, Nation and Subjectivity, the current ideological agenda of the Chinese state has contributed to produce a “coupling of patriarchy and nationalism” that has found expression in a large variety of TV products, most notably TV dramas. Interestingly, he mentions in this regard a genre that has become popular in China in the last years, that of the so-called “bossy CEO” (霸道总裁) that typically depicts the “love between a wealthy and domineering young man, a member of the business elite or a success in another social arena, and a girl of humble background with modest accomplishments.” Indeed, Well-Intended Love fits very well into this kind of drama. Even more interestingly, the author also points out that Zhang Yiwu 张颐武, an influential Chinese critic who has always affirmed the virtues of Chinese popular culture, was celebrating this genre already in 2015, predicting that it would contribute to enhance the global influence of Chinese culture, helping the “Chinese wind” (华风) overcome the so-called “Korean fad” (韩流). But is this really possible?
If we look at the presence of a series such as Well-intended Love on Netflix, matched with other apparently similar dramas of which at least one belongs to the genre of the “bossy CEO” examined by Geng Song (Boss and me, 2014), we could say that Zhang Yiwu is at least partly correct. This, in any case, brings us back to the kind of questions I posed at the beginning: is Well-intended Love a representative case of the dominant social narratives exported from China that are available these days to global audiences? Can its conservative views of class, gender, and sexuality be considered a hallmark of the “Chinese wind”? And, if they can, how are these views received by international audiences? Are there different kinds of reception coming from different types of audiences? Are views such as those expressed by this TV drama somehow distinctly Chinese or do they reflect some broader conservative trends that resonate among various cultural and political backgrounds? Is it possible to find, in the same global platforms, examples of Chinese dramas that contest and subvert such conservative views? Would it be worthwhile to compare the social narratives of the popular Chinese dramas with, say, the Korean ones or those produced in Taiwan? These are very broad questions, that would need a lot of work to find some satisfactory answers. But perhaps these are questions that would also be interesting to work on, to have a better mapping of the narratives and the receptions of the Chinese popular culture “going global” these days.
Orientale University of Naples
 The workshop, “Leading the People Through Changes Unseen in a Hundred Years: Dimensions of Governmentality in Contemporary Chinese Society,” was held on May 30, 2023; the participants were Børge Bakken, Rogier Creemers, Diego Gullotta, Flora Sapio, Wang Xuanjing, Mugur Zlotea, and me.
 On the CCP supervision on the production of TV dramas and TV products in general, see Ying Zhu, “TV China: Control and Expansion,” in Shawn Shimpach, ed., The Routledge Companion to Global Television (Abingdon; New York, Routledge, 2019): 436-444. On the literary and artistic policy under Xi Jinping, see Michel Hockx, “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty: Literary Policy in Xi Jinping’s China.” Law & Literature (2022): 1-17.
 On the imperative to struggle, expressed through an overlapping of official discourse and popular culture, see my “Fendou: A Keyword of Chinese Modernity,” Modern Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (2021): 1268-1314.
 Wang Xiaoming 王晓明, Zai xin yishixingtai de longzhao xia: 90 niandai de wenhua he wenxue fenxi在意识形态的笼罩下︰90年代的文化和文学分析 (Under the cloak of ideology: an analysis of the culture and literature of the nineties) (Nanjing: Jiangsu renmin, 2000).
 On this, see for example Marco Fumian, “‘Chronicle of Du Lala’s Promotion’: Exemplary Literature, the Middle Class, and the Socialist Market”, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 28, no. 1 (2016): 78-128.
 Geng Song, Televising Chineseness: Gender, Nation, and Subjectivity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2022).
 Ibid., p. 73.
 Zhang Yiwu 张颐武, “Badao zongcai wen ye shi wangluo wenhua chuanbo de yi zhong fangshi” 霸道总裁文也是网络文化传播的一种方式 (Bossy CEO writings are also a way to spread internet culture) Zhejiang zaixian (Dec. 18, 2015. URL: http://media.people.com.cn/n1/2015/1218/c40606-27943987.html