With the pace of Chinese modernization reaching exponential rates, you could be forgiven for thinking that the traditions surrounding love and relationships are morphing just as fast as the country’s urban skylines. And it certainly looks that way in the China depicted in this summer’s box-office smash, Tiny Times — or at least it does at first. Touted as the Chinese Sex and the City, the glitzy chick flick, which broke China’s opening-day records, follows four best friends in Shanghai as they totter around on Manolo Blahniks pursuing love and career success. The characters are suitably well traveled and urbane. And filmic backdrops do not come much more alluring and romantic than the great cosmopolis of Shanghai, which mesmerizes and draws in the young and ambitious from all over the country (director Guo Jingming, who wrote the series of novels that Tiny Times is based on and is currently China’s highest-earning writer, was one such bright young thing, forsaking his humble home in southwest China for the lights of the Bund).
But where’s the sex?
Well, there isn’t any — not on screen, anyway. The girls are super intelligent (Sandy To, a University of Hong Kong sociologist who has studied the demographic, tells TIME that postgrad degrees from overseas universities are de rigueur among Shanghai’s female highflyers). They’re hot enough. And they’re looking to meet the right guys too. But by the end of the movie they’re all single and celibate, having ditched high school sweethearts, jealous partners, controlling boyfriends and other hangers-on. In this respect, Tiny Times perfectly dramatizes the burning question asked by every successful young Chinese woman today: Where are all the decent guys?
In a nation where sex-selection preferences have resulted in vastly more boys than girls, you would think that finding the right man would be a cinch — especially when the woman possesses the desirable attributes of looks, brains and career. But that’s not the case. In her research, To found a good deal of frustration among high-achieving women in Shanghai, aged 27 or above and single (a class derogatorily dubbed shengnu or “leftover women”). The state-run All-China Women’s Federation — perhaps in an urgent bid to find partners for China’s surplus men — says women who remain unmarried have only themselves to blame for being too “willful” or “picky.” But To discovered that educated women have trouble finding a male partner who does not try to stifle their careers or interests.
The researcher interviewed 50 professional women in Shanghai between 2008 to 2011, and found that they had trouble getting married because men felt that they were too successful. As a result some of the women were dating foreigners. “It’s the discrimination they face from very traditional Chinese men that leads them to more open-minded Western men,” To says. It isn’t just Chinese men who are holding on to traditional attitudes, however. To found a paradox among her high-earning interview subjects — that they could easily support a household, and afford to have a husband earning less than them, “but they still strive towards marriage in the traditional sense, in that they want to find men who can be the main breadwinner.”
There’s another factor that distracts many a Cosmo-sipping Shanghai girl from the pursuit of love and marriage. And that’s mom and dad. China’s one-child policy means that many women in their 20s and 30s bear the full burden of caring for their aging parents (and if they are tempted to evade those duties, there is a law to catch them out). “Parents are primarily dependent on their only children as a result of the family-planning policy and … barely functional social-welfare programs,” says Shanghai-born academic Jue Sun, who studied the romantic experiences of Shanghai women for her doctoral thesis at the University of Hong Kong, and was interviewed by e-mail for TIME.
Sun adds that while the state often tries to get involved in personal relationships, the women she spoke to did not lay the blame of their romantic frustrations on the state. “They are not inclined to contest the social circumstances through direct participation in the public sphere,” she says, “but rather to negotiate privately.” The characters in Tiny Times certainly lead completely apolitical lives — one wonders if that’s why the movie has had such an easy ride with China’s notoriously picky censors. The state-run People’s Daily has grumbled about the movie’s ostentatious materialism and individualism in an essay that it headlined “Sequels to Tiny Times Cannot Be Allowed Unconditionally.” But the filmmakers are unfazed: the sequel Tiny Times 2.0 is already out, barely two months after the original movie. And without giving too much away, the new movie is a lot sexier than the first one. Things change fast in the new China.