What does it mean to be a dad? China’s most popular reality show has the whole country asking that question

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Image: Sina Weibo

A reality television show about fatherhood has swept China and prompting a national rethink about the role of Chinese men in the household. The show, “Dad, where are we going?” sends five celebrity fathers and their young children on 72-hour-long adventures in remote idyllic locations, where they compete to accomplish various survival tasks.

Three episodes after the show premiered in October, one in every 10 (link in Chinese) television viewers in 46 major cities was watching it during China’s primetime TV slot of 10pm on Friday. A search for the show on Sina Weibo turns up 50 million results. The show’s Weibo page has over 3 million followers (registration required)—not including the 2 million fans following the page of one of the children on the show. It was rated online as the top show of 2013 (link in Chinese).

Aside from giving a glimpse into the private lives of Chinese stars, the show has Chinese media, bloggers, and the featured celebrities themselves debating the traditional backseat role Chinese fathers have taken toward parenting. The People’s Daily praised the show for highlighting the issue. “Dad, this phantom-like figure, has been markedly absent from their children’s education,” the paper said (link in Chinese).

Women have long been the principal caretaker in Chinese families but as more Chinese women take up jobs—China now has one of the highest rates of female employment in the world–some say men need to be more active parents. At least in the show, they don’t quite seem to know how to do that. Former Olympic diver Tian Liang struggles to be patient when his daughter cries for hours straight—he chants to himself “I need to be a good father. I need to be a good father.” Film director Wang Yuelun struggles with how to tie his daughter’s hair into a ponytail. Only one of the five men can cook.

They do get better as the show progresses. It opens with the fathers comforting crying children. One braids his daughter’s hair while another adjusts the curtain on a bus so the sun doesn’t shine on his sleeping daughter’s face.

The show, whose premise is that all five fathers want more quality time with their children, highlights the fact maybe a lot of Chinese fathers would like to get more involved. According to a survey of 502 Chinese adults in August by the communications firm JWT, 60% of fathers (pdf, p.56) said they felt they didn’t have enough time to spend with their children, compared to 37% of women polled. And 93% said the corporate world should be more accommodating to working dads (pdf, p. 11).

For now, the fact that “Dad, where are we going?” has a reputation of promoting a “return to family ethics,” as the People’s Daily says, should help it avoid the fate of some other reality TV shows that Chinese authorities have phased out for being “overly entertaining.”