Five celebrity fathers and their children traipse around China, riding camels through the western deserts, fishing off the east coast, and selling vegetables for their bus fare home in remote southwestern Yunnan province. One dad doesn’t know how to do his daughter’s hair, but give him a couple of episodes—he’ll figure it out. Another one must survive with his son for three days in the desert, where, because neither can cook, the two only eat instant noodles.
These story lines are part of Where Are We Going Dad? which, since its debut in October, has become one of China’s most popular television shows, averaging more than 600 million viewers each week (and more than 640 million downloads online). Sponsorship rights for the show’s second season sold for 312 million yuan (about $50 million), more than ten times higher than the rights to the first season. And searches for Where Are We Going Dad? turn up over 40 million hits on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter.
What accounts for the show’s popularity? The show features a new generation of Chinese fathers, who, as part of the country’s burgeoning middle class, have faced more exposure to modern child-rearing techniques such as taking an active role with their children.
“In traditional Chinese culture, the conventional conception of parenthood is that the father is stern and the mother is kind. But on the show, we see fathers who are much gentler on their kids and more involved in their upbringing,” said Li Minyi, an associate professor of early childhood education at the leading Beijing Normal University. “This show raises an important question for modern Chinese society—what is the role of fathers in today’s China?”
Confucian tradition dictates that there is no human trait more important than filial piety: obeying your parents’ wishes and looking after them in their old age. But Chinese parents increasingly realize that discussing and respecting their children’s choices may be a more appropriate way to prepare them for modern society. “As they raise their children, parents are growing up at the same time,” said Wang Renping, a popular education expert, in an interview with the Qianjiang Evening News. “They cannot use parenting styles from 20 years ago to guide the development of children born 20 years later.”
“There’s a huge difference between the way our parents raised us and how we are raising our children. This is an extreme example, but I remember my friend telling me that growing up, her mother would tie her to her bed and go to work,” said Zhou Lingling, one of the co-founders of Daxiaoaiwan, a new media magazine on WeChat which, in contrast to traditional Chinese techniques, encourages parents to let their children play. In just five months since its founding, the magazine has attracted over ten thousand subscribers.
Part of the appeal of Where Are We Going Dad? is the chance to peek into the lives of popular Chinese celebrities and their children. Audiences revel in watching the failed attempts of celebrity dads making dinner, braiding hair, and disciplining children—tasks often left to mothers in a society still influenced by the notion that “men rule outside and women rule inside.”