In February 2021, China’s Education Ministry issued a notice that called on schools to reform their physical education lessons. The aim? To make boys more traditionally ‘manly’. This immediately generated huge controversy, colliding with the belief of young Chinese people in particular that a man should be allowed to display ‘characteristic, simple human emotions.’ To this cohort, to be timid or gentle is not to deny one’s manliness. Many public discussions ensued, within which we can see clear shifts in views on masculinity in China.
‘Residual’ Masculinity: restraint and responsibility
The traditional Chinese model of a good man is inextricably linked to his social relationships. Asked what makes a ‘real man’, a typical answer would be: “A man has to be responsible. He must be a good husband to his wife, a good father to their child, and a good son to his parents”. This can be traced back to Confucian thought on what it means to be a well-cultivated man (rather than a woman). Emotional self-restraint is a vital component: within a traditional patriarchal society, men represented social order. Their task was to discipline, to direct and to educate their community.
An interesting concept relating to historical masculinity ideals in china is wen-wu, proposed by scholar Kam Louie. Wen or ‘civil’, suggested culturally refined masculinity, wu or ‘martial’ a warlike masculinity. In different periods right up until the modern day, the relative importance of wen versus wu has altered along with political and social values.
‘Dominant’ Masculinity: authenticity
As China opened up to the world in the 1980s, its perception of masculinity changed as the country’s economy and competitiveness grew rapidly. Men were still required to be ‘responsible’, but that now meant being a breadwinner. Success was holding a good job and providing your family with a higher standard of living: in other words, money. Having the courage to take risks and compete in the business world became the essence of masculinity.
At the same time, women were gaining more freedom and power within relationships and families. Men were expected to adapt, and to become better communicators. Masculinity was redefined (primarily in the cities): fathers became less authoritarian, and new role models (such as singer Jay Chou, with his popular love songs) promoted the value of sensitivity and emotional vulnerability. Popularly described as authentic self-expression, the modern ideal of masculinity is clearly inclined to wen. The state may prefer the ‘tough guy’ concept of wu as a reflection of its own power, but it is fighting a strong popular preference for the ideal of a high-achieving man with an ‘authentic’ appeal.
Haoran Liu: A-list young actor in China who is famous for his approachable image and outgoing personality
Emerging Masculinity: delicacy and beauty
As one of K-Pop’s largest markets, China has been deeply influenced by its representation of masculinity. With its own idol industry based on this Korean model, young Chinese women have enthusiastically embraced the new masculinity on display. This has contributed to the national anxiety over a ‘gender crisis’.
This new masculinity is represented both aesthetically and emotionally. Male idols are usually slim, with light skin, dyed hair and full make-up: they have a feminine delicacy and beauty. They have no problem with expressing private emotions, telling fans how much they love them. The wen-wu paradigm cannot explain the trend: instead, the line is blurring between traditional models of gender. Traditionalists have been duly shocked, but there is no sign of this emergent masculinity subsiding.
Where this leaves us: female tastes versus male aspirations
It is clear that a driving force here is women’s consumption power. Variety shows, TV dramas and social media represent and debate their tastes, and as a result a more delicate and beautiful male image has expanded the masculinity spectrum. As women’s disposable income
continues to rise, brands chase collaborations with these ‘effeminate’ male celebrities. In 2014, a former K-Pop star, Lu Han, set the Guinness world record for most comments on a Weibo post.
At the same time, masculinity to which men might aspire is rarely seen or discussed. It is possible to see glimpses of a yearning for a more martial type: the 2017 sequel of the Chinese movie series “Wolf Warrior”, depicting the patriotic action story of a Chinese soldier, became the highest-grossing film in Chinese film history, with far bigger male audiences than female. But male aspirations are still mainly opaque, whether we look at what men view or buy. How can brands complete this picture, and bring more men into the debate? The more that domestic and international companies can imagine what kind of future men in China might want, the better placed they will be to answer their needs.
Xukun Cai: Winner of the male group survival show Idol Producer (later the show changed its name to Youth with You)