A BBC series illuminates the problems and potential of China’s twenty-somethings

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.

– Asia Sentinel