Ode to Joy is an absolute hit in China.
At one point, this 50-episode drama was the number one trending topic on popular Chinese social media Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter. Its popularity and ability to generate wide discussions on courtship relations, lifestyles, personalities–and most importantly class divisions–are phenomenal.
The show features five women from various backgrounds living on the same residential building floor in Shanghai, and the plot moves along with their conflict, drama, tears, and laughter along the way.
The drama, while not overly controversial, or quite at the level as Sex and the City to the U.S., implies — or even amplifies — a cruel but rarely publicly discussed reality: after 30 years of skyrocketing economic, political and social development, social class has been stratified in the Communist China. This is despite the fact that for decades the nation had kept “class” a sensitive word, attempting to eradicate the class system altogether.
When millions of viewers identify themselves with the girls from average backgrounds, lamenting the mounting life pressures, many TV critics say there is no joy in the drama; it is rather an Ode to Money, that it exaggerates the under-touched pain — the rich can achieve almost anything and everything they want, yet the poor lead a life of hardship with little mobility.
The five protagonists living in the Ode to Joy residential compound can be characterized as: a successful overseas returnee, a spoiled rich silver-spoon kid, a vain human resource manager dreaming to marry a rich man, an ordinary small-town girl, and a hard-working quiet one.
The latter three share a rented apartment, neighboring the two wealthy privileged who each occupy an entire elegantly decorated flat.
From the very beginning of the drama, the audience can sense the class divide. The American-educated overseas returnee working in finance and the rich second generation who, although has also studied abroad, can barely speak a complete English sentence, both represent China’s nouveau riche, or the so-called elitists. The girls, who have to share an apartment and dream of either marrying off or working hard to achieve an ideal life, apparently allude to the majority of ordinary people, if not the lower middle class.
The ordinary office girl, fired as a sacrifice of office politics, sits in her rented apartment worrying about next month’s rent. Her HR roommate, at an age considered to be a “leftover woman,” anxiously seeks a rich man to marry because she is constantly bugged by her patriarchal parents and good-for-nothing brother for money.
All their troubles and plights come from one source – money, or lack thereof.
Meanwhile, their much better-off neighbors must deal with a whole different level of problems, obtaining spiritual worlds far more sophisticated.
Besides solving seemingly insignificant money issues, they deal with tangled relationships, self-fulfilment issues and psychological issues too “first-world” for their working class neighbors.
Earlier this year, Peking University released the 2015 China Social Life Development Report, pointing out that the 1% of the top-rich Chinese families own 1/3 of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 25% is only left with 1% of the wealth. The income gap has grown far bigger than ever before, the report said.
Apart from the increasing dramatic income gap, the contrast in education opportunities, quality of healthcare, and employee benefits that people from different social classes receive are stark. Hardly one could change his or her social status through hard work.
Ordinary people certainly don’t need to read report to know that; Ode to Joy tells all.