China’s hottest TV series right now is women-centric, edgy, and surprisingly short

Society & Culture

Densely packed into 12 episodes, "Rock It, Mom" is a new Chinese TV series making waves for its sensitive portrayal of a flawed female protagonist rarely seen on the small screen. And you can watch it on YouTube.

"Rock It, Mom"

The most popular women-centric Chinese TV series all seem to revolve around romance, workplace drama, or power grabs during imperial times. So it is that Rock It, Mom (摇滚狂花 yáogǔn kuáng huā) is a refreshing surprise.

Released by Chinese video streaming site iQiyi earlier this month, the 12-episode series follows a washed-up female rock singer who tries to mend her fractious relationship with her daughter while exploring new opportunities in her career. It has become an unlikely hit, eliciting widespread positive reviews, especially from female audiences.

Smoking, cursing, and drinking

Rock It, Mom tells the story of Péng Lái 彭莱, an over-the-hill, middle-aged rock singer. A run of disappointing relationships caused her to move to the U.S., where her music career never took off, leading her to return to China. As she tries to put her troubled life back together in her home country, she reconnects with her long-lost teenage daughter, Báitiān 白天, whose passion for rock music inspires her to restart her career.

“Rock It, Mom”

Directed by Lǐ Jùn 李骏 and Jīng Lìpéng 荆丽鹏, the show is part-coming-of-age tale of a misfit teenager going through puberty, part-exploration of mother-and-daughter love, and part-character study of a Chinese woman who is living her truth while defying societal expectations to settle down, prioritize family, and behave in a stereotypically gendered way.

What sets Rock It, Mom apart from other Chinese series with female leads is that it contains real delicacy and emotional power, both attributable to a knockout performance by veteran Chinese actress Yáo Chén 姚晨. Once the most followed person in the early days of Weibo, Yao is also known for leveraging her massive social media following to speak out against social issues, including China’s pollution problem, food contamination, and poverty. In 2013, Yao was selected as a UN Refugee Agency Goodwill Ambassador, the first from China, to help give visibility to refugee issues in the Chinese-speaking world.

On Douban, China’s most respected movie reviewing site, Rock It, Mom currently stands at 7.4 out of 10, an impressive score that makes it one of the best-received TV shows this year. Many viewers seem to be surprised that the series has gone so far to make Yao’s character compelling, regularly showing her smoking, cursing, and struggling with her drinking problems. “It’s beyond me how this show managed to get past censorship rules and acquire a release, but I’m glad that we get to see it,” a Douban reviewer wrote, while another person said, “I’ll always have respect for Chinese TV creators who dare to push the envelope when it comes content and characters.”

A perfect antidote to the relentlessness of marathon shows

One of the refreshing aspects of Rock It Mom is its brevity. Watching a Chinese TV show used to require serious commitment: From historical dramas to family comedies, China’s TV industry has long loved stretching shows to 50-plus episodes, with many that serve no purpose other than to extend their runtimes.

However, 2019 signaled a change to this epidemic of overextended Chinese TV dramas. In an effort to eliminate series that have too many filler episodes, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), China’s top regulatory body for entertainment, introduced a policy that forbids TV shows and web series to go above 40 episodes.

Since then, the average length of Chinese TV series has decreased from 39 episodes in 2017 to 33 episodes in 2020, according to data analyzed by Dúmóu 毒眸, a WeChat social media account on China’s entertainment sector.

A crop of short dramas has surfaced and received rave reviews as a result. For example, The Bad Kids (隐秘的角落 yǐnmì de jiǎoluò), a 12-part web series that centers on three children who accidentally bear witness to a murder, was one of the most talked about Chinese TV shows in 2020, spurring memes and social media hashtags with millions of views.

“The Bad Kids”

Now, Rock It, Mom, whose 12 episodes were dropped in a span of five days, has become the breakout series of the year.

Much of the popularity of these short series seems to stem from the idea of not outstaying one’s welcome, and of taking a self-contained, truncated approach to storytelling. They also in no small part benefit from the highly competitive streaming age, where Chinese viewers’ attention spans are getting shorter.

Pushing the boundaries of female characterization on television

The soaring popularity of Rock It, Mom is also proof that putting women front and center in shows is a practical choice that makes financial and cultural sense.

A study on 10 popular Chinese TV shows in 2019 conducted by WeChat public account Jùyánshè 剧研社, an independent media outlet focusing on analyzing trends in the TV industry, found that 80% of viewers were women. Given how dominant women are in TV-watching, it’s a no-brainer that more series are making women their protagonists. Meanwhile — with the #MeToo movement still active in China despite setbacks — women’s issues have changed the TV landscape. Although the trend — which is sometimes known as “She Era” (她时代 tā shídài) — has produced a flurry of women-centric shows in the past few years, Chinese TV creators are still going through a trial-and-error phase to identity the type of representation and relatability women want on screen, and the way to make this commercially viable.

In 2016, Ode to Joy (欢乐颂 huānlè sòng), a show about five millennial women navigating life in Shanghai, paved the way for its genre, but it inevitably led to a letdown as petty quarrels between the protagonists, and dysfunctional romantic relationships took center stage. Nothing But Thirty (三十而已 sānshí éryǐ), a 2020 drama about three women who are about to enter their 30s — the age when women are expected to get married and have children in Chinese culture — strived to convey a message of female empowerment and independence, but ended up falling short in that regard by depicting the protagonists as reliant on successful romantic relationships to be happy.

“Delicious Romance”

There are exceptions, though. Delicious Romance (爱很美味 ài hěn měi wèi), a small-budget 20-part web series released last November, earned strong reviews by putting forward a new premise of a women-centric show that completely steers away from romantic tropes that have plagued “She Era” series, allowing for a more relatable perspective to be shared and told to audiences through stories about body image issues and sexism in the workplace.

Rock It, Mom, as pointed out by its fans, also presents a new possibility for the category by shining a positive light on an eccentric woman who is more than what she seems. “She’s not the typical mother you would see on Chinese television. She has her own way of living. She is full of attitude. She’s someone who has a real personality and I love her for that,” a Douban user commented.

You can watch the series on YouTube, though currently without English subtitles: