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
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!