SHANGHAI (AFP) - A wildly popular drama likened to "Sex and the City" is breaking ground on China's staid state television with content that strikes at the heart of life today for the nation's urban women.
"Ode to Joy" has broached a range of topics typically off-limits in socially conservative China including sex, sexism, and status.
The show, which just completed its second season, centres around five young women from different backgrounds who are neighbours on the same floor of a smart Shanghai high-rise apartment called "Ode to Joy."
It made headlines in May with a scene in which character Qiu Yingying bursts into tears at the sudden breakdown of her relationship.
"He asked me whether I am a virgin," she sobbed, after her boyfriend stormed out upon discovering she was not.
In many countries such a scene would hardly register, but the normally hush-hush topic set off a furore in China.
"The show started plainly but it exploded with the virginity discussion. It is a reflection of reality and it struck a nerve," said Luo Xiaoting, a blogger who comments about television under the name "Feiluo".
"The programme talks about the two things that Chinese care about the most: class and love. This show successfully puts the two in contrast - even if two people love each other, they need to be a match in class," he told AFP.
"If you are not a virgin, your value is down. The show is like a sword, piercing through reality," he added.
The show is broadcast by Shanghai's Dragon TV and available online. Reliable viewing figures are hard to attain, but the series is among the most popular in China.
By the time the latest season ended last month it had been viewed 24 billion times online, according to the show's official account on China's Twitter-like Weibo, and a third season is in the works.
The programme is also winning non-Chinese followers, according to posts on overseas fan sites.
The People's Daily, the official Communist Party mouthpiece, said it "truly reflects the mindset and lifestyle of China's urban middle class, which has experienced tremendous changes over the decades".
Despite gains under Communism, women largely remain in the shadow of men in traditionally male-dominated China, but mores are gradually changing.
Divorce rates have risen steadily, and a Peking University survey last year found the average age for first time sex in China was 22.2 years for those born after 1980, dropping to 17.7 years for those born after 1995.
Yuan Zidan, an "Ode to Joy" screenwriter, said there were "bound" to be comparisons to the hit American series "Sex and the City".
"'Sex and the City' takes love and sex as the core of discussion, whereas our drama takes women's self-awareness and growth as the core for discussion," she told AFP, adding that "Ode" was based on the lives of "millions of Chinese women."
China has seen rapid change in recent decades and the problems women face now "are very different from those faced by women decades ago."
"Not just revolving around their husbands and children, but they have more room for personal development, and face life's hardships and choices on many different levels," Yuan said.
The five characters, each with their own back story and individual style, represent a "miniature version" of fast-changing, increasingly wealthy China, and the virginity scene summed up the clash between traditional Chinese thinking and emerging openness, she said.
"We are entering a period of diversification and multiculturalism, and the virgin complex is one such point," she explained.
"Ode to Joy" fans, who are typically women, praise it for reflecting challenges they face with family, careers and relationships through characters they identify with.
Wang Peibin who works for a Fortune 500 company in Shanghai, identifies in particular with no-nonsense character Qu Xiaoxiao.
"She is mean in her words and sees through everything. She has a clear attitude on what she loves and hates. I'm not so brave, so I wish I could be more like her," the 28-year-old said.
For Shanghai housewife Yan Chaowei, "Ode to Joy" offers viewers an escape. "It's based on reality but is also more than that," the 30-year-old told AFP.
"It gives people who live cruel lives in big cities a chance to take a breather during the show. It gives them a chance to escape from reality for 40 minutes," she added.
Conversation inevitably returns to the virginity scene and, as women in China's most cosmopolitan city, Wang and Yan are in strong agreement.
Wang said: "I don't accept the virginity view of the guy at all and I don't understand people who think that virginity means everything. Those people are unforgivable."