By Phillip Graham,2014-09-04 22:07
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Derek Hird


    University of Westminster

Paper given at the Joint Asian Studies Conference, Leeds

    University, Sept 2004.

Representations of masculinity in contemporary China

    This paper is an investigation of representations of

    masculinity in contemporary China.

    Firstly, what is masculinity? Much has been written in

    recent years in the Western academy on the concept of

    masculinity. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who has written about

    masculinity in English literature, points out that sometimes

    masculinity has not got anything to do with men. She says:

    “As a woman, I am a consumer of masculinities, but I am not

    more so than men are; and, like men, I as a woman am also

    1a producer of masculinities and a performer of them.”

     1 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. 1995. “Gosh, Boy George, You Must Be Awfully Secure in Your Masculinity!”.

    In Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis and Simon Watson, eds. Constructing Masculinity. p.13.


    Judith Halberstam, who specialises in queer theory, has

    written extensively about female masculinity. She asserts

    that “masculinity must not and cannot and should not reduce

    2down to the male body and its effects.” She explains: “If what we call „dominant masculinity‟ appears to be a

    naturalized relation between maleness and power, then it

    makes little sense to examine men for the contours of that

    masculinity‟s social construction. Masculinity…becomes

    legible as masculinity where and when it leaves the white

    3male middle-class body.” For Halberstam, it is more

    important to pay attention to alternative masculinities that

    4“are mostly queer and female.”

    In the search for a theory of gender that can

    encompass such alternative masculinities, it is worth

    considering Judith Butler‟s proposition that there is “no

     2 Judith Halberstam. 2002. “An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity without Men”. In Rachel

    Adams and David Savran, eds. The Masculinity Studies Reader, p. 355. Malden, Mass.; Oxford: Blackwell. 3 Judith Halberstam. 2002. “An Introduction to Female Masculinity”, p. 356. 4 Judith Halberstam. 2002. “An Introduction to Female Masculinity”, p. 355.


    5gender identity behind the expressions of gender.” For

    Butler, gender identity is constructed by re-iterated acts.

    Butler thus challenges what she calls the “heterosexual

    matrix”, which she suggests premises masculine and

    6feminine gender identities on “biological” sex. Thus

    masculinity, for Butler, is nothing more than a cultural

    performance, whose artificial construction is exposed by

    non-conventional gender performances such as drag.

    In accordance with this line of theorising, this paper,

    therefore, recognises a distinction between masculinity and

    male subjectivity, where masculinity is understood as a

    cultural performance mostly but not exclusively performed by

    men; and male subjectivity is understood as the gendered

    identity which could be masculine or feminine or neither -

    of anyone who self-identifies as a man.

     5 Judith Butler. 1990. Gender Trouble, p. 25. London: Routledge.


    Masculinity in revolutionary China

    The discursive representation of masculinity in

    revolutionary China before the late 70s was strikingly

    different to what emerges from China today. In examining

    this period, it is useful to employ Halberstam‟s insight that

    female masculinity best exposes the cultural construction of

    masculinity. So rather than focus on the well-known

    representations of robust male workers and peasants, it is

    worthwhile examining how the official discourse

    masculinised women during this period.

    According to Mao, women were able to do anything

    men could do. The media carried depictions of strong and

    active women doing men‟s work: they were known as “iron

    girls” (tie guniang 铁姑娘). Signs of femininity, such as long

    hair, make-up and dresses, came to be associated with the

    decadent West and the subordinated position of women

     6 Judith Butler. 1990. Gender Trouble, p. 17.


there. The standard look for Chinese women came to be

    short hair and a short jacket and trousers. Breast-binding

    7became more common. No area of men‟s work was

    deemed off-limits to women: the magazine Zhongguo Funu

    中国妇女 (Women of China) had cover photos of women

    8soldiers and articles lauding the military experience.

    However, the lived experience of the vast majority of

    women during the revolutionary period was not like the

    idealised depictions of „iron girls‟. Tasks were still gendered,

    especially in the countryside; and women‟s role as

    housewives was not challenged during most of this period.

    Emily Honig believes the „iron girls‟ are best seen as

    9emblematic and not representative. Possibly their most important influence was to provide a rallying call for women

    seeking to carve out a space for themselves in the world of


     7 Nimrod Baranovitch. 2003. China’s New Voices, p. 109. Berkeley: University of California Press. 8 Honig in CFCM


    This attempt to erase gender inequalities certainly

    opened up hitherto men-only careers and propelled women

    into positions of power in public life, but it was not

    accompanied by a corresponding feminisation of men. The

    media did not generally depict men carrying out domestic

    chores or raising children. Nor did it encourage men to grow

    their hair long, wear make-up and feminine clothing. Men still

    set the standard which women had to reach. The

    revolutionary difference in gender terms, of course, was that

    masculinity was not seen as an exclusively male preserve.

    Post-Mao discourse of sexuality

    The emergence of consumer capitalism in China over

    the last decade or so has created an unprecedented

     9 Emily Honig. 2000. “Iron Girls Revisited: Gender and the Politics of Work in the Cultural Revolution.” In

    Barbara Entwistle and Gail E. Henderson, eds. Re-drawing Boundaries, p.110. Berkeley: University of

    California Press.


discourse of sexuality. Also, the increased affluence and

    mobility of young people in consumer capitalist societies

    enables them to muster enough economic capital to create

    and maintain a distinct lifestyle space. Cosmopolitan centres

    in China such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are the

    obvious sites of contestation of gender norms. For example,

    the 1990s saw the emergence of gay subjectivity in these

    and other cities in gay bars and clubs, internet discourse,

    10academic works and investigative journalism. However, despite the increasing amount of gender experimentation

    and its representation on the internet, explorations of gay

    11subjectivity are not permitted in mainstream media. However, if today‟s discourse of sexuality continues to

    develop, then at some stage gay lifestyle representations will

    reach the mainstream media.

     10 Academic works include: Li Yinhe and Wang Xiaobo. 1991. Their World: An Inquiry of the


    Homosexual Community in China (Tamen de shijie: Zhongguo nantongxinglian chunluo toushi), Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin chubanshe.

    Investigative journalism includes: Fang Gang方刚. 1995. Tongxinglian zai Zhongguo同性恋在中国. Jilin吉林: Jilin renmin chubanshe吉林人民出版社.


    Mainstream Post-Mao Masculinity

     The post-Mao media discourse on men has positioned

    them on a quest to regain a distinctive masculinity, which in

    the 1980s involved digging deep into China‟s cultural past for

    heroic role models such as the haohan of the Shuihu

    12zhuan; and which in the 1990s, having been given the go

    ahead by the government, involves the construction of an

    idealised masculinity based on wealth, education and social

    status: in short, it encompasses the aspirations of the

    emerging Chinese middle-class male.

    There are two contrasting opinions often aired in the

    mainstream press about “masculinity” (nanzi qigai 男子气概

    or yanggang zhi qi 阳刚之气): one is a concern about what

     11 The ban on homosexual representations. 12 Baanovtvh on Zang thingy shuo


are seen as the base and disruptive instincts of men and the

    other is a worry that young men of today are going „soft‟. In

    either case, „normal‟ men are expected to manifest a

    culturally acceptable level of what is assumed to be their

    natural masculinity. If they get too wild, then they must learn

    to tame their manly urges; conversely, they must not engage

    in soft, unmanly behaviour: at least not without other

    13redeeming masculine qualities.

    The concern over base male instincts makes a

    distinction between the terms nanxing男性 (usually translated as „the male sex‟) and nanren 男人 (usually

    14translated as „men‟). Nanxing masculinity is defined as

    immature, irresponsible, selfish and status-seeking in

    contrast with a mature nanren masculinity which is

    responsible, rational and controlled. Nanxing masculinity is presented as instinctive whereas nanren masculinity is learnt.

     13 References! 14 Quote a few articles!


Nanxing masculinity could be equated with the masculinity of

    the liumang 流氓 (“hooligan”), as described by Geremie

    15Barmé in his essay on Wang Shuo and liumang culture.

    Barmé quotes Zhou Zuoren‟s (周作人) recognition of these competing masculinities: “two daemons live within me… One

    16is a gentleman, the other a liumang”.

    Nanren tames the nanxing. Sexual instinct is seen as something potentially destabilising that needs controlled.

    The controlling process includes getting married and having

    children. The social mechanism which compels men to do

    this is the family and peer pressure to aspire to the

    traditional ideal of filial piety. The ideal of the dutiful son,

    husband and father more than anything is still at the core of

    what it means to be a man in China today. If the established

    gender order were to break down, the worry is that the

    17nation itself might descend into chaos.

     15 Barmé 16 Barmé, 29. 17 References!


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