China’s New All-Male TV Show Spurs Debate on Male Idols

“Call Me by Fire” has become one of the hottest reality shows of the summer and triggered online debate about its male contestants

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2:23 AM HKT, Fri August 27, 2021 3 mins read

Call Me by Fire (披荆斩棘的哥哥) has become one of the hottest reality shows in China this summer and stirred online debate about the expectations put on its male idols. The new all-male program is a follow-up to Sisters Who Make Waves, which has enjoyed two successful seasons so far.

Fire debuted on August 12 on Chinese streaming site Mango TV and was the most popular online variety show on the day of its release — with 140 million views.

The show has a score of 7.5 out of 10 after 17,595 votes on user-rating site Douban. The hashtag for the show on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo has so far accumulated 5.82 billion views.

A Nostalgic Concert

Like Sisters, Fire is a knock-out competition where 33 mid-career male celebrities aged 27 to 57 competed to form a performance group.

Many contestants have been in the entertainment industry for more than a decade, such as the lead singer of the Chinese rock band Black Panther, Zhang Qi, Taiwanese singer Terry Lin, Miami-born rapper MC Jin, and the former guitarist of the highly influential Cantonese rock band Beyond, Paul Wong. Participants also include dancers, pianists, actors, and even martial artists.

At present, only three episodes have been released, with the first episode divided into three parts. For many viewers, the show is seen as a nostalgic concert.

“They are precious pearls! I’m so moved and satisfied to see so many great veteran idols performing on the same stage,” reads a comment on Weibo.

“Great lineup! I watched the first episode, and it was full of youthful memories. I am willing to support these veteran artists even if they turn the competition into a concert,” reads another comment on Douban.

One of the most talked-about performances on social media was the theme song from the classic ’90s Hong Kong crime film series Young and Dangerous. It was performed by Jordan Chan, Jerry Lamb, and Michael Tse, who were the main characters in the series and now are in their 50s.

Fire is not the first attempt to replicate Sisters’ success: In December 2020, Shine! Super Brothers debuted on Dragon TV and Youku and was an unmitigated disaster. The show was roundly criticized for giving a platform to ex-stars who don’t deserve it.

“Awkward, embarrassing, super cringy,” reads a one-star write-up on Douban, where Brothers has a score of just 4.6 out of 10 after 14,306 votes. The review continues, “The production team is disgusting. None of the 21 men are attractive. Screw them all!”

Male Idols Lay (Fall) Flat

While Fire has been mostly well-received, it has not escaped criticism, with some netizens pointing out the easy ride of the male contestants compared to the women’s experiences on Sisters.

On Sisters, 30 female contestants were scored after every performance while battling for seven places in an all-female singing group. Many of the participants on Sisters practiced for more than 10 hours a day to secure a coveted spot in the top seven.

In contrast, Fire seems much less competitive, with more than half of the competitors able to stay on the show until the end.

Also, most male idols chose to perform their best-known works during the show’s debut, which was criticized by some as ‘lying flat’ (a slang term describing a resigned, unresisting, and unbothered attitude towards work tasks).

“The career cycle of male celebrities is really long, even for those who commit misconduct,” wrote one commenter on Douban. “These brothers are treated so well compared to the sisters, who had to practice really hard. Brothers can just stay in their comfort zone and put on a concert. Isn’t this unfair?”


Some netizens have also turned against the TV program after a scandal attached to one of its contestants became public two weeks ago.

Chinese singer-songwriter Henry Huo’s ex-girlfriend accused him of cheating on her during their nine-year relationship — posting proof online on August 10. Screenshots of their text messages also revealed that Huo disliked and even insulted the show.

Huo’s team announced four days later that he would leave Fire and end his singing career. Most of his parts have been cut from the first three episodes.


Huo is the latest in a string of male idols to come under fire in recent weeks.

Most notably, Chinese-Canadian pop idol Kris Wu was officially arrested for suspected rape earlier this month. Also, actor Zhang Zhehan, who recently attained fame starring in the hit Chinese drama Word of Honor, has been cancelled after photos of him visiting a controversial Japanese shrine in 2018 resurfaced on Chinese social media two weeks ago.

Cover photo via Mango TV

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