Confucius once said, “Thirty, therefore independent” (三十而立 sanshi er li). This Chinese saying is usually used to encourage young people to be established in their careers by the age of 30. However, in the newest hit drama of a similar name, Nothing But Thirty (三十而已 Sanshi Eryi; better translated as “it’s only thirty”), the saying takes on a different connotation: one of women’s empowerment.
The show, which premiered on Dragon TV on July 17, stars Jiang Shuying, Tong Yao, and Mao Xiaotong as three women all about to enter their thirties — typically the age when unmarried women in China are given the derogatory title of “leftover.” The show chronicles their journeys navigating societal expectations and double standards as they rip through red tape (literally in some promo photos), find love, and advance in their careers.
Notably, the show claims to bring forth a new narrative to Chinese television: one that centers women in their own stories and seeks to tell realistic tales of struggle. It also comes hot on the heels of the viral success seen by talent show Sisters Who Make Waves, which pits a host of female stars over the age of 30 against each other. And in 2018, Yanxi Palace was another hit show which sought to humanize China’s marginalized women and dispel sexist gender roles. Yet earlier this year, gender-flipped fantasy drama The Romance of Tiger and Rose was deemed by most an unsuccessful attempt to capitalize on China’s growing feminist viewership.
So does Nothing But Thirty mark a breaking of new ground for feminist narratives in the mainstream, or are its themes mere window-dressing for more TV fluff?
In a recent clip released on the show’s Weibo page, Zhong Xiaoyang (played by Kevin Yan) confesses his love for one of the main characters, Zhong Xiaoqin (Mao Xiaotong), who has just divorced her husband. Despite her protests that she is six years older than him, and divorced, he says, “Those things have nothing to do with it. I like the person you are.”
Another trailer for the show begins with Gu Jia (Tong Yao) telling her husband, “Let’s get a divorce.” The expression on her face is tired, yet resolved. The moment feels refreshingly candid for a Chinese drama, as does the show’s entire premise: stories told from modern women’s perspectives, without a catch.
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In the midst of a female-centric reckoning whose success is yet to be determined, netizens’ reactions are the only way to gauge whether or not the show is truly making waves. So far, it has a 7.8 rating on Douban, an IMDB-like forum for TV shows and movies that’s renowned for its discerning user reviews. However, the show’s hit moments have consistently made it onto Weibo’s trending list, sparking meaningful discussions (link in Chinese) about issues such as cheating and divorce.
In an interview with Beijing News, producer Chen Fei said the show seeks to reflect the sentiment that, “nowadays, women are more likely to face their own desires and live for themselves in accordance with their hearts.”
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He also said that both the male and female characters were written to be imperfect and true to life: “We hope that what the audience sees is not a drama that looks down on reality from on high, saying that women are all-powerful. This is not our method, nor our intention.”
Says one Douban reviewer: “More shows about women over 30 should be made like this. Women should not only be shown in a maternal light, but should live for themselves.”
Several one-star reviews, however, criticize Nothing But Thirty for depicting women as reliant on successful romantic relationships to be happy, a criticism also leveled at The Romance of Tiger and Rose. Others say that the characters don’t represent the working class, who make up a majority of Chinese women.
In an age when issues such as sexual harassment, reproductive rights, and abuse are finally being discussed on China’s main stage, a show like Nothing But Thirty has the potential to carry real momentum in the cultural sphere — if the remaining episodes continue to strike a chord with viewers and really examine such issues.
As another Douban review puts it: “The plot is good […] I hope the screenwriter and director will have intention, and won’t use the catchphrase of women’s empowerment to perpetuate their own ideals.”
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