Why a TV Show About Celebrity Fathers Has Enraptured China

Where Are We Going, Dad? presents a new generation of men who, in a break from Chinese tradition, now take an active role in their children's lives.

The five celebrity dads—and their kids—on the hit Chinese TV show Where Are We Going, Dad? (Hunan Television)

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.”

The children—and their bumbling fathers—show remarkable candor. “I’m best at washing up, I can’t do anything else,” confides one dad to another as they squat, doing the dishes after everyone had eaten dinner. “My wife is great—she’s been raising our son for six years. I’m exhausted and it’s only been three days. I’m buying her a bunch of flowers when we go back,” confesses another.

The popularity of the show is measured in more than just advertising revenue. T-shirts, jeans, jackets, accessories, suitcases, and backpacks used in the show are selling out on e-commerce websites, and featured locations have become travel hotspots, with fans eager to sleep in the same beds as the celebrities and their children. A spin-off movie may be released in conjunction with Chinese New Year, and government websites predict that the all-important civil servant interviews next year will feature questions about the show. Television stations across China have jumped on the bandwagon, launching talk shows and reality programs about the relationship between parents and children.

After each episode goes to air, the Chinese internet explodes with commentary on each celebrity’s parenting style. “The five fathers on the show all have very diverse parenting styles, which is great because it shows people there isn’t just one way to raise a child,” said Li Minyi.

Zhang Liang, a cook turned supermodel, is an audience favorite for treating his son, Tiantian, more like a friend. Actor Guo Tao tries hard to communicate with his son, Shi Tou, but is seen as a more traditional Chinese father, and has been criticized online for being too harsh. The show’s most famous celebrity, Taiwanese race car driver-turned-actor Lin Zhiying, was originally praised as progressive and patient with his son Kimi. But as the season progressed, fans began to criticize him for raising a spoiled, undisciplined boy.

The behavior of these fathers have caused ordinary Chinese people to reflect. “As I watch the show, I find myself reflecting on how I am raising my own child. I think that’s part of the show’s appeal,” said Yan Jiangning, another co-founder of Daxiaoaiwan.

Even the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese government, is pleased at the success of Where Are We Going, Dad?. “The deep affection on display in the show is heart-warming and ignites a desire in people to return home to loved ones,” it said in an op-ed. In 2012, the Ministry for Education issued, for the first time, a roadmap for teachers and parents about how to raise 3-6 year olds, indicating a growing emphasis on early childhood education.

The success of Where Are We Going Dad?, adapted from a Korean show by Hunan Television, is especially remarkable considering China’s tightened regulations against foreign-sourced television. This year, Beijing banned foreign programs in prime-time (between 7 and 10 pm), and beginning in 2014 domestic satellite television channels will only be allowed to purchase the rights to one foreign program a year.

Hunan Television isn’t fazed. Where Are We Going Dad?, has thrived despite airing in an unfavorable time slot: 10-12 on Friday nights.