The History of Masculinity in China

Zhanhao Zhang

In 2020, during the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, committee member Si Zefu  criticized male teenagers for being too “feminine.” The Ministry of Education responded by promoting physical education and research on the influence of popular culture on the “feminization of male adolescents.” Suddenly, the concept of masculinity (阳刚之气) and its traditional meanings became a hot topic on Chinese social media. Many people, especially men, emphasized the importance of physical strength over emotional expression. The history of masculinity in China, however, is one of continuous change, often driven by different processes of global cultural integration. This history demonstrates that Zefu’s aggressive brand of hypermasculinity has not always been the norm.

In early imperial China, masculinity was linked to physical strength and courage. Classic of Poetry, a collection of verse dating from the 11th century to 7th century BCE, is one of the most influential ancient Chinese texts. One of its poems tells the story of an admiring wife praising her husband, describing him as “mighty, and…the hero of the country”(伯兮朅兮,邦之桀兮). Verses of Chu, another ancient Chinese classic, asserts that an ideal man is “both brave and martial, but in the end, is strong and can’t be humiliated”(诚既勇兮又以武,终刚强兮不可凌). The poems and songs of the early imperial era present physical and mental strength as central components of proper masculinity.

During the Northern-Southern Dynasty (420 – 589 CE), the concept of masculinity shifted with the popularization of Buddhism. Although Buddhism was introduced to China many centuries before the Northern-Southern Dynasty, it was not until this era that the Buddhist classics were translated to Chinese en masse, leading to a period of intellectual flourishment across several different schools of thought. Disillusioned with widespread political chaos, many sought spiritual rejuvenation through Buddhist ideas, such as karma and Samsara.

Buddhist thought had a significant impact on every aspect of Chinese life, especially gender. Key aspects of Buddhism include the not-male-not-female (非男非女) embodiment of compassion, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, and the notion of feminine Buddhahood (佛陀相好). Although the Buddha was originally depicted in male form, the Avalokitesvara was often characterized in China as a woman; some representations included attributes associated with both men and women. Since Buddhism had so much impact on Chinese culture at that time, men began presenting themselves in styles historically associated with femininity. According to The Family Instruction for the Yen Clan, written by the Buddhist philosopher and politician Yan Zhitui in the late 6th century, “in the heyday of Liang Dynasty, the aristocracies…were all shaved and wore makeup”(梁朝全盛之时,贵游子弟……无不熏衣剃面,傅粉施朱). Though these cosmetic choices were considered an expression of femininity, they gained popularity among elite men during the spread of Buddhist principles. 

Another key aspect of Buddhism was the importance of wisdom and the denunciation of violence (尚智轻武). Men–especially members of the growing literati-gentry class who enjoyed social mobility through the imperial university examination system–depended less on bodily strength and more on the cultivation of wisdom. The curriculum of the examination emphasized intellectual credentials, such as knowledge of ancient classics; by passing the examination, students could acquire official posts in the government administration. The Northern-Southern Dynasty therefore marked an era in which Chinese masculinity placed less value in physical strength and more in beauty and wisdom.

The header artwork for this article is an illustration of Jia Baoyu, a central male character in Dream of the Red Chamber–one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels of the 18th century. In the novel, Jia is described as follows: “the face is like a mid-autumn moon, the color is like a flower of a spring dawn, the temple is like a knife cut, the eyebrows are like ink painting, the face is like peach petals, and the eyes are like autumn waves (面若中秋之月,色如春晓之花,鬓若刀裁,眉如墨画,面如桃瓣,目若秋波).” 

Though written in the mid-18th century, the novel still fuses its physical description of a main male character with delicate features that echo the seemingly feminine characteristics of manhood during the Northern-Southern Dynasty era. Physical strength is not a central component of Jia Baoyu’s character. 

In recent decades, however, globalization has ushered into China new forms of hypermasculinity from Anglo-Saxon cultures. These ideas have significantly impacted Chinese conceptions of manhood. Though the US popular culture and Hollywood are high-profile spreaders Western hypermasculine norms, the Chinese state often reinforces them. In recent decades, the government in Beijing has endorsed certain Western masculinities in an effort to promote itself as an exceptional model of prosperity. According to the Representation Project, this contemporary American masculinity highlights athletic ability, power, and the repression of emotions. Liu Xiang, a Chinese track-and-field Olympian who won the gold medal for hurdling in 2004, became the image for this political campaign. In the past, Asian men were considered not capable of competing with other racial groups in track and field. Liu Xiang’s success became an example of Asian men’s physical power that was covered by the mass media. Liu Xiang became a new model for Chinese masculinity, a concept derived from an Anglo-Saxon culture that emphasizes physical power. 

Western hypermasculinity is not the only conception of manhood that has influenced contemporary Chinese society. Korean and Japanese popular culture started to flow into China in the late 20th century. The commercial popularity of Korean K-Pop in the past decade has resulted in what one analyst has called a “feminine aesthetic phenomenon” in male film and television; more men, according to certain critics and politicians, have started to incorporate “feminine” elements into their overall appearance. This new style of manhood has challenged the masculine model propagated in recent decades by the Chinese state. The mainstreaming of the K-Pop style of masculinity is a partial cause of the domestic masculinity crisis articulated last year by Si Zefu. 

It is difficult to argue what traditional Chinese masculinity is because it is an expression that has continuously changed and drawn influence from foreign cultures throughout its history. Moreover, what China is experiencing in its masculinity crisis is not unique to China but is an issue faced worldwide. People should not understand gender and sexuality with strict divisions and categories, in which men can only be masculine and women can only be feminine. The history of masculinity in China challenges people of today to be more inclusive of every expression of gender and sexuality.

Image: Jia Baoyu, from the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, Gai Qi (1773-1828) – Hongloumeng tuyong, Huaipu jushi, 1879

Zhanhao Zhang is M.A. student at Georgetown University studying Global, International, and Comparative History. He studies the history of modern China, specifically Christian missionary work from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.

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