Nothing But Thirty is a new Chinese TV series which became quite popular when it was broadcast earlier this year. Filmed in 2019 just before the virus shut down China and then the rest of the world, it provides a good look at modern China in the form of its richest and most advanced city: Shanghai.
The story (43 episodes, each about 42 minutes long) covers some six months in the lives of three women, each of whom is about to turn 30 years old and who all live in Shanghai. The title is slight modification to a famous statement made by Confucius about himself. In the Analects he said: At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right. Confucius was speaking about his life, his path which allowed him to become the great sage of antiquity. What exactly Confucius meant when he said At thirty, I stood firm is unclear. The TV drama is similarly ambiguous with its modification of the phrase. Are we supposed to think these women have nothing except their years?
30 years old is a very important age for women in China. After that age, women are considered nearly un-marriageable, and they are referred to as leftover women (sheng-nu). So, to be 30 a thirty-year old woman in China is really the end of the road if you are single. If you are still unmarried, you have essentially no chance of finding a Chinese husband and your options are limited to seeking romance with a non-Chinese man.
Nothing But Thirty apparently started out as a largely autobiographical online novel, written by a woman who was turning thirty and facing a crisis in her life, namely that she no longer loved her husband. The online novel attained very favorable reviews and the rights were purchased by the TV production studio (we see these events depicted in the TV series, in a completely self-referential fashion).
The writer’s real name is Zhang Yiji but her alter-ego is given the very ordinary name of Xiaoqin which can be translated metaphorically as Fern. Fern is shown as remarkably childlike and innocent despite the fact that she has been married for some four years at the start of the show. The author always puts themselves into their novels, but usually makes some effort to change their personality and backstory. Here, the author has portrayed Fern as a remarkably appealing, and fundamentally good-hearted person. She is just a pleasure to be around and the actress must be given all due credit for bringing this wonderful person to life. Of course, this is an idealized version of the author, nevertheless, there is a humanity and spirit to this character who does have a few flaws.
The character who I initially thought was the focus of the series (and the writer) is Wang Manni. She is single at the start of the show and seems to be in the most danger of becoming a frustrated and lonely leftover woman because she is working as a saleswoman for a fashionable store in the center Shanghai. Her name can be metaphorically translated at Juliet-Kay (as the Chinese characters in her name have the meaning: independent, free, and also hint at being romantic – which is a not entirely a good attribute in Chinese culture). According to the author, Juliet-Kay’s character is based on a very good friend. Juliet-Kay is a very well drawn character, with many strengths and weaknesses. I wouldn’t say I liked her character, but she is well drawn with some virtues and some flaws. For example, Juliet-Kay lies fairly often and she does it well, but rarely does she lie to gain an advantage.
Lastly we have Gu Jia, the ideal woman and the one who is not quite believable. Gu Jia can be translated as good at taking care of the family. To my mind, Gu is one of the worst-sounding Chinese names and Jia is devoid of any hint of meaning in English. So, if I were naming her for the English version of the show, I would call her Mary Hearth. Mary is very pretty, she is rich, she has a cute son (who is also way to smart for his age) and her husband is the artist/CEO of a fireworks company which makes good money producing fireworks for events and entertainment venues across China. Not only that but Mary Hearth is given dialog which shows she is whip-smart but also she has remarkable insight into human nature and character. She seems to always know the right thing to say. I am not sure if she ever lies even one time in the show. The actress who plays her – Tong Yao – is very good at keeping her face completely expressionless when she hears something which she doesn’t wish to comment on.
I strongly recommend this TV series because it shows real humans, facing real problems, and dealing with them in a realistic fashion. Also, there is a great deal to be learned from it as it shows the life of fairly ordinary Chinese people today. These are not police, not doctors, not spies – instead they are ordinary people living ordinary lives with quite normal problems. The stories are slightly exaggerated in a few areas, for example the young woman who ensnares Mary Hearth’s husband is excessively brave, meaning she seems to have no fear as she goes all out in pursuit of a married man.
The story shares some similarities with Jane Austen’s classic novel, Pride and Prejudice. 95% of the scenes have one or more of the three leading women in them. Scenes when we have just two men talking to each other are extremely rare. Early on, Mary Hearth’s husband had a friend, but he was removed from the series by episode five, and never seen again. The author’s alter-ego, Fern, has a husband and he has a younger brother and there are a few scenes with just these two men talking together. Otherwise, men have essentially no existence and no inner life when there aren’t women around to talk to.
I don’t blame the author harshly for this, but it is important to understand going in, that this series does not attempt to understand men deeply, nor does it portray the major male characters in a favorable light. We literally have no idea what Mary Hearth’s husband was thinking when he decided to begin his affair with the much younger girl Yu Yu. He never explains his feelings to anyone. Instead we get dialog from various women (his wife, the young girl Yu Yu) who say what they think he is feeling. He himself remains a cipher, nearly mute in a number of important scenes. This is also true for Fern’s husband. He spends the first half of the series essentially saying nothing while his marriage breaks into pieces. Now, it could be that this TV show accurately depicts modern Chinese men’s inability to talk honestly about what their feelings, but I, as a writer, expect more and better dialog from all the characters in a drama. Realism can go too far!
- The Chinese health care is shown as (a) modern with very fancy hospitals and fast diagnosis of problems. Also an integrated medical records system. The very young-looking woman comes down with a stomach ache in a restaurant and immediately goes to a hospital where they examine her and conclude that she is fine.
What do we learn? That the Chinese healthcare system in Shanghai, China’s richest and most modern city, is better than that of any healthcare I’ve seen in the USA.
- The Chinese justice system is shown. One minor character runs a fireworks factory and we learn that one day there is an accident at his factory and two people die. The owner is immediately arrested, and taken to the jail. He is not bailed out and his wife is frantic with worry. The next day we see our main character worried about their own factory and demanding new and more rigorous safety measures. What do we learn? That the Chinese justice system is fast. It is not shown as bad, but it is fast, and it comes down hard on people in positions of responsibility. In the Common law, we have an aphorism, Justice delayed is justice denied. Yet our justice system circa 2020 is not fast, instead it moves slowly, and those with money can delay proceedings for years, regardless of the merits.
- We see in several episodes when two people do not send text messages to each other, instead they speak to their smart-phone, this short spoken message is then sent to the person. The other person is notified a spoken message is waiting for them, and then, when they wish, they listen to it.
What do we learn: Because this is a spoken message, the information in these short voice messages is much richer and more emotionally powerful than simple text. This is the future of messages. Text messages will be relegated for communication with people when a written record is necessary. For your friends and lovers, you will send them short voice mails.
- All but one of the characters in this show are the single child in the family. China instituted a one child policy back in 1979 and so, here we are in 2020, and for thirty years, no one in China has grown up in a family with siblings. One of the characters, the young man who falls in love with Fern describes this problem briefly but there are no other other mentions of this.
What do we learn: The effects of all these characters being single children are significant and, speaking as an American, it is really sad to see how all these young people just do not have brothers and sisters.
- One example of fine writing/or exemplary directing: a fast montage at the end of episode 25 when Juliet-Kay has decided to move back home and we see her in a flash back with her old boyfriend as they are staring at the clock in a grocery store, it turns to 6 pm and then they buy the now, somewhat wilted bok choy. This was a really touching moment, the fact that life consists of these mundane moments, that are meaningful only to the two people involved. For the author to remember these moments and put them into the show is really impressive. Brought tears to my eyes, that the past is gone and there is no returning. Happy memories, sad ones, they are all gone and there is no way to bring them back
The Problem of Monogamy in Chinese Culture Today
In episode 22 (the half-way point) we see that women in China have to worry about their husbands taking on younger or more interesting women as lovers.
What we learn: This, I think, is a major problem for China going forward. In short: how much of traditional Chinese culture are they going to bring into the 21st century?
It is a fact that all men in China could marry multiple women up until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Millions of people alive in China today had grandparents who were part of multi-wife families. Having multiple wives was a normal part Chinese culture since the beginning of their civilization. Everyone in China knows the history of China, the past is very much an open book for the Chinese and nearly all the Emperors of the past had more than four wives.
So, why NOT bring back the marriage patterns of the past? It’s not enough to say “No, we changed, we adopted the European rule on this issue.” It is quite clear from the story that many men are happy to carry on relations with several women at the same time. As historians know, the prohibition on a man having more than one recognized wife was not solid, even in Europe. Five hundred years ago, the men at the top of the social pyramid in Europe were allowed to have long-standing sexual relations with multiple women. Such women were called mistresses and their role was, at times, nearly equal to that of the wives. The position of “King’s Mistress” was an official position in France starting around 1700. Other major nobles (Dukes, Counts, Viscounts) sometimes had mistresses as well. Given this history, and the fact that the ban on allowing a man to marry multiple women is based largely on Christian (and Jewish) theology, it seems clear that Chinese society is far more accepting of a man having multiple women than it was 50 years ago.
As Chinese nationalist sentiment continues to grow, the argument against this practice in China may boil down to “Why should we (the Chinese) accept a European cultural tradition which we never followed until 100 years ago. Why should we say the Europeans and Americans are right on this issue when we think they are wrong about so many other things?
Based on my analysis, I can make several strong arguments against the traditional Chinese system of marriage. (1) It diminishes the relationship between a man his wife when the man can bring in a succession of younger and more beautiful women into the household as he gains wealth and status. (2) It makes the relationship between a man and his children far more distant and utilitarian. There are many examples in Chinese history of a man thinking his younger children, born from his most recent marriages, are better than his older children, even when this was not true. (3) It often results in bitter conflict between the women as they are seeking to move up in their rank within the household, and it often has them compete with the children of other wives. (4) It hurts society as a whole because it results in a large group of men who have few (if any) marriage prospects because so many women are married to a small sub-set of rich and powerful men.
However, I can also make arguments in favor of the Chinese system.
First, some women when given a choice between being the #2 wife of a rich man, versus being the primary wife of a poor man, will freely choose the role of #2 wife.
Europeans dismissed the 2nd and 3rd wives of Chinese men as mere concubines but this was a false understanding of the situation. Chinese marriage customs demanded that a man have one primary wife, and the other wives had to accept a lesser status. Under some circumstances the first woman you married was not given the status of primary wife. In rare cases, you could marry a 2nd or 3rd wife and she became your primary wife due to her social status (this happened if you married the daughter of the Emperor – it didn’t matter how many other wives you had, the daughter of the Emperor immediately became your Number 1 wife).
It is true that for a very small number of extremely powerful men, they could have women in their household who were mere concubines, meaning the men could have sex with these women but did not have to recognize any resulting children as their legitimate heirs. But this was quite rare. Most new women came into a household as a 2nd wife, or 3rd wife and they had official status from day one and their children (if any) had legitimacy within the household. Yes, they had less status than the primary wife, and their children often had a smaller claim on an inheritance, but their status was legally recognized as wives of the husband. A second wife of a man was not a concubine who that man could dismiss on a whim. No, a second wife was a legal wife – period. Yes, Chinese households were very hierarchical, but 2nd and 3rd (and sometimes 4th) wives were part of the system.
Women in China accepted this system without much complaint for thousands of years. Just as women in some Islamic cultures today accept being a 2nd or 3rd wife. Simply because Christianity teaches this is wrong, cuts no ice with societies that are not Christian.
Secondly, powerful men had little incentive to ever divorce their first wife, and under many cases, divorce was simply not allowed. In general, a primary wife would remain the primary wife for her entire life, barring some unusual circumstances. This compares favorably to the system found in America today where men and women end their marriage after a child or two is born and then they go their separate ways, often they form new families with all the attendent problems of step-mothers, step-children and hugely with complex legal issues of visitation rights, spousal payments and so forth. The contrast between the American system today vs. the system of Imperial China is not one of polygamy vs. monogamy. We do not live in system of monogamy today. Instead American and Europeans live in the system where they often changing spouses – cultural anthropologists call our system serial monogamy. It is not clear that the old Chinese system is worse that what we practice today in the US and Europe. If the choice were between the Chinese traditional system and the monogamy practiced in Europe in 1700, then I would pick the system in Europe from 300 years ago. But that IS NOT the comparison on hand. Instead the comparison is between multiple marriages and multiple divorces vs. the Chinese system where divorce was extremely uncommon.