Wedding photography in China is like no other: creative, elaborate and theatrical. A couple pose next to a bucolic Tuscan hillside with its bubbling fountain and clear skies, as the photographer clicks away.
Next to them is a Victorian gentleman’s drinking club and a salon straight out of the Palace of Versailles. Also within view are lavender fields, blossoming Japanese cherry trees, and a ski chalet decorated with Santas and fake powder snow.
We are surrounded by dozens of intricate replica foreign worlds. Yet we are in the scruffy northeast suburbs of Beijing, under the flight path, where we’re filming wedding photography for the BBC World News documentary series “Secrets of China.”
Previous generations used photographs as a proof of marriage – a single black and white image of the couple staring fixedly at the camera. Many families today remember a time, under Mao, when romantic love was frowned on as bourgeois and the state had a role in deciding who you married.
Today, romance is wildly popular and doing your photos, often months before the big day itself, has become a national ritual. It’s a chance to doll up and dream of a romance fit for Hollywood. But there’s more than a whiff of unreality to today’s wedding spectacles. Nothing is real – not the books on the bookshelf, nor the liquor in the whisky bottles. Not even the expressions on many of the brides’ faces. Certainly not the backdrops, though the sets are often photo-edited for the real thing, maintaining the illusion the couples were actually there.
Wedding photos have thus become emblematic of the China that young people inhabit, one that is more colorful, worldly, connected and individualistic than ever before. They enjoy unprecedented opportunities to express and entertain themselves. One of the recurring themes of the documentary series was that everyone we met told us life was richer, more prosperous and more varied than that of previous generations.
But are they happy? Paradoxically, new freedoms throw up new challenges. How do you balance these new opportunities with the pressure to conform to the strict rules that continue to be imposed by family, state and society? As life has become more varied and complex, these rules are thrown into sharper contrast, and finding the balance can be more bewildering.
Often, during filming, young people tell us of a pressure to look a certain way and have a certain kind of romantic relationship. There’s a pressure on women to marry before society declares them “leftover,” and on men to have certain attributes – an apartment, a good salary, even a certain height – before they can be considered good marriage material.
Others feel pressure from the widespread expectation that young people should support their parents in old age, or from the highly rigid and competitive school system.
“Escaping the system would be suicide. First of all, your parents would probably kill you!”
The UK-educated son of China’s richest man, 28 year old Wang Sicong has a unique perspective and is famously outspoken.
“Unless you’re extremely confident or extremely stupid, there really is no way of succeeding outside the system,” Wang said. “The state chooses what’s mainstream, and you have to conform to that. If your ideals are not mainstream, then you’re [considered] wrong.’
Through the series, the BBC World News team did encounter people who choose to buck the system. We filmed a group of young women defying the label “leftover” by refusing to get married in their 20s for the episode “Desperate for Love.” For “Fit in or Fail” we filmed Hong Kong students taking on the Chinese state by fighting what they consider is encroaching “mainlandisation” of their city. And while filming on Hainan
Island for “How to get Rich” we encountered a bunch of surfer dudes bringing chilled California to a south China fishing village.
“In China, people are very, very obsessed with money. If you’re rich, you’re respected. If you’re poor, people look down on you. I think it’s more important to be healthy and enjoy yourself than to make money,” 28 year old kite surfer Ah Xiang says, with a smile. He scrapes a living by teaching the odd passing surfing enthusiast, but it’s a far cry from the expectation that men his age should get on the housing ladder and support their parents in old age.
Are these young rebels trailblazers for a generation that is becoming more free, more selfish, less prepared to put up with the system? Maybe, but as things currently stand, they remain a tiny minority. Meanwhile most people live within the boundaries set by state and society.
But could this explain the popularity of fantasy worlds, from the dreamy sets of the wedding photographs to the colorful virtual reality of online gaming?
The outspoken young billionaire Wang Sicong believes so. He has staked part of his own fortune on the growing popularity of online games. He owns one of China’s biggest gaming teams and recently founded a live game streaming platform.
“[Gaming] is really a way of escaping the mundane day-to-day life where you just go home and study all the time.” Wang says. “Once you go online you can take off the mask and say what you really think, instead of what is mainstream.”
Online games such as League of Legends and Dota2 immerse their players in a world that prizes creativity and strategy, where heroes compete around an elaborate fantasy course, engaging in life and death struggles for glory.
“It might look boring because every time is more or less the same. But when you have truly grasped the game, it’s different every time,” said Zhu Jiawen, a shy and soft-spoken teenager who lights up when he talks about the game he has played since he was 10.
Zhu is one of gaming’s success stories. A player for Royal, one of the country’s biggest League of Legends teams, he’s a pinup in teenage bedrooms across China. Fans flock to watch him and his teammates compete in glitzy competitions which resemble a cross between a TV game show and a basketball match.
But the vast majority of China’s gamers, who now number more than the entire population of the United States, never get to see adoring fans waving heart-shaped pink LED lights of their names. Instead they may be confronted with the gritty reality that, particularly with the pressures of China’s rigid school system, virtual reality can be more of a destructive force than an escape.
Around 24 million people are considered to be addicted to the internet in China alone. There have been tragic stories of kids falling ill or even dying of exhaustion while playing games; a 13 year old boy murdered his father after a disagreement over going online.
Many more end up slipping behind with school work. “Some people who are obsessed with playing may see their academic results drop. It depends on how you manage your time,” said Zhu, the gaming star.
Far from the glitz of the competitions, we are in polluted Shijiazhuang, China’s coal and steel country. A teenager in full military uniform stands to attention. After a morning of intense drills and marching, he is being encouraged to talk about his condition.
“I’m here because I’m addicted to playing online video games. My longest record was playing for three days and two nights. I didn’t eat or sleep for three days – I only drank water. It made me feel relaxed. But gradually I found I couldn’t stop playing it. Once I got into Sixth Form I wasn’t outstanding. I wanted to prove myself in other ways.”
The Liu Xiao Bing Educational Training Workshop on the dusty outskirts of Shijiazhuang is a private school established to address this Catch-22. Its founder and principal is the inspirational Mrs Liu. “When normal schools refuse to take the kids and parents can’t deal with the situation, then someone has to step up and help”, says Mrs Liu. “That’s what our school is for.”
Most are between 14 and 16 years old, and a third of the boys have problems with internet addiction. “The kids here have various issues,” said Mrs Liu, “including internet addiction, fighting, school fatigue and problems communicating with others. We also have kids who cannot focus and are hyperactive.”
She has a simple approach to reintegrate students back into the mainstream. Immersion in endless repetitive tasks: everything from staring at the wall for hours to cleaning the school’s communal toilets. But the stiff medicine is mixed with sweetness, and her tactics seem effective. After a spell in the school of several months the students are able to return to the normal state school structure.
But Mrs Liu’s school is a one off. For the vast majority of those who struggle with the balance between individualism and conformity, China can be an unforgiving place.
“I would really love to see a normal school where kids like these would be accepted but for now that’s not possible.”
Jane McMullen is producer of the BBC World News Documentary series “Secrets of China”