In Defense of “Sissy” Chinese Men
Chinese idol Xiao Zhan
In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has grown increasingly alarmed by what it perceives as the “feminization” of China’s young men. Xi Jinping, the Party’s leader, has pushed regulators to “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics” on tv and other media and to introduce new curricula to encourage boys in “manly sporting pursuits.”
Song Geng, a scholar of Chinese masculinity and an Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong, explained that the CCP fears that “if Chinese men become effeminate then [China] will become a weak country that cannot compete with [its] rivals.” This tallies with the worries of Si Zefu, a top delegate of the CCP’s Consultative Conference Standing Committee, who lamented that “boys no longer want to become war heroes [which] threatens China’s survival and development.”
Aside from being unable or unwilling to fight, there’s also the worry that “sissy” men will shirk their social responsibilities. As Wang Hailin, a government-affiliated, popular Chinese screenwriter, put it: “if a man pays too much attention to his outfits and his makeup, it means that he is trying to avoid responsibility and our society is going backward…If we have more manly men, it means that our society is moving forward and improving.” A government think tank, The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has even claimed that the rising popularity of effeminate celebrities is part of a CIA plot to emasculate Asian men. It says this strategy was pioneered in Japan to create a generation of “soshokukei danshi” or “herbivorous boys” who don’t look for jobs, sex, or romantic relationships (who are often blamed for Japan’s economic decline and falling birth rates), and that the same playbook is now being used against China.
Wu Jing as the action hero Leng Feng in Wolf Warrior 2 – who exemplifies the kind of masculinity the Chinese government is trying to promote
But a perusal of China’s history reveals that this tradition of “sissy” men is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. What’s more, today, that tradition of masculinity is more of an asset than a liability.
Professor Kam Louie, a scholar in traditional Chinese masculinity, and former Dean of the Arts Faculty at the University of Hong Kong, argues that the Chinese ability to tolerate ambiguity and the tradition of yin-yang, in which opposite concepts exist simultaneously and within one another, gives Chinese masculinity the flexibility to evolve and grow whilst Western masculinity has remained monolithic and restrictive.
The Chinese ability to tolerate ambiguity and the tradition of yin-yang gives Chinese masculinity the flexibility to evolve and grow whilst Western masculinity has remained monolithic and restrictive.
Take, for example, Li Jiaqi, China’s “Lipstick King.” The country’s most successful lipstick salesman and model, Li situates himself at a popular intersection of Chinese masculinities. Though he is an unabashed “xiao xian rou” or “little fresh meat” (meaning a handsome young man – part of the “sissy” aesthetic the CCP hopes to eradicate), Chinese netizens have called him a “real gentleman” who is “responsible, courageous, with plenty of will to succeed.” Though he is clearly devoted to his “makeup and outfits,” Li has harnessed the power of social media and China’s burgeoning beauty economy to become a self-made millionaire.
In their seminal 1994 article, “Chinese Masculinity: Theorizing Wen and Wu,” Louie and his colleague Louise Edwards, a historian of Chinese culture, explained that there have traditionally been two primary Chinese masculinities: “wen,” associated with cultured, scholarly behavior, and “wu,” associated with martial prowess and strength. Louie and Edwards trace the wen-wu dichotomy back to the Analects of Confucius, which states that “there is no man who does not have something of the way of wen and wu in him.” But though wu has its place in Chinese tradition, Louie and Edwards wrote, it is the “cerebral male model [that] dominates that of the macho, brawny male.” Even Mao Zedong, hardly the most dovish of Chinese leaders, in his 1936 poem “Snow” laments that great Chinese rulers like Tang Taizong and Song Taizu “were lacking in literary grace…had little poetry in their souls…[and] know only shooting eagles bow outstretched. For truly great men, look to this age alone.”
There have traditionally been two primary Chinese masculinities: “wen,” associated with cultured, scholarly behavior, and “wu,” associated with martial prowess and strength.
This trend is evident through much of China’s traditional literature. The Classic of Poetry (the oldest volume of Chinese poetry dating back to the Zhou Dynasty of 1046-771 BC), for example, tells of the legendary sage-kings, King Wen and his son, King Wu, and focuses not on military “clashes of arms” but on the “heroism of cultural elegance.” Professor C. H. Wang, a scholar of Chinese and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington, Seattle, explained that in this account, weapons of war are a cursed thing, only to be used when necessary, so after defeating the enemy, King Wu (following his father’s example) orders his subjects to “suppress martial spirit and cultivate cultural subjects, namely rites and music.”
The Classic of Poetry extols King Wu as follows:
Now of the land’s full trust possessed,
Model for all of the ranks below:
Filial feelings aye in his breast,
Filial feelings the pattern* show.
Him, this Man of men, we admire
So reflecting the gentle grace;
He, ever mindful of his sire,
Grandly adopts his work, his place.
* Wen can also mean pattern
13th century painting of King Wu by court painter Ma Lin
Perhaps it is this tradition of wen that the CCP hopes to suppress, seeking an ascendancy of wu to avenge the “century of humiliation” it feels the Western powers inflicted upon China through their military dominance. Adding insult to injury, pervasive Western media has consistently mischaracterized Chinese masculinity as either feminized or impotent rather than refined and dignified. If the century of humiliation is taken as proof that the Chinese model of wen-dominated masculinity leads to “herbivorous boys” who cannot compete against macho, Western men then it is easy to see why the CCP might wish to expunge it in favor of the hypermasculine wu.
But this attitude is a step “backwards,” invoking as it does, a past era of international brinkmanship and hot war that has largely wound down into cold or trade war. It is the cultured, educated wen that is far more closely aligned with globalist ideas of diplomacy and progress in which rational actors fight not with the sword, but with the pen, and not for territory, but for prestige and prosperity. After two catastrophic world wars, the international community formed the United Nations, and much of Europe, which had for so long been at war, formed a union to promote commerce and discourage conflict. In this context, Xi’s decision to push militaristic-wu masculinity seems entirely out of step with the rest of the world.
Historically, the Chinese route to power and prestige was not through physical might and military prowess, but through scholarship and civil service. For more than 2,000 years, China held imperial examinations to choose government officers, or scholar-officials, based on merit rather than familial or political relationships. These exams revolved around Confucian texts and commentaries. Even after decades of study less than 2% of candidates would pass, but for those elite few, their entire families would be elevated to the gentry.
But aside from being regarded as powerful, scholarly gentlemen have also been regarded as physically attractive throughout Chinese history. Men like the poets Song Yu (298-263 BC) and Pan An (247-300 AD) are stereotypical scholar heartthrobs from “caizi-jiaren,” or “scholar-beauty” romances. In his book, The Fragile Scholar: Power and Masculinity in Chinese Culture, Song Geng describes these men as “the embodiment of both physical beauty and poetic talent.” In the poem “The Lecherous Dengtuzi” (c. 298–263 BC), Song Yu is described as “a man of handsome features and calm bearing,” attractive enough to cause trouble in the King’s harem.
Scholarly gentlemen have been regarded as physically attractive throughout Chinese history.
Similarly, Pan An’s beauty was of such note that it was recorded in Chinese historical texts like Jinshu (the History of Jin, c. 1234 AD) and Shishuo Xinyu (A New Account of the Tales of the World, c. 420–479 AD), and exceptionally good-looking men are said to be “handsome as Pan An.” In Jinshu, Pan An is described as “handsome in appearance and bearing…women who met him all surrounded him by hands and threw fruits in his chariot, so when he returned, his chariot was full of fruits.” Another young man featured in the Shishuo Xinyu, Wei Jie, is described as so delicately beautiful with his shoulders that “couldn’t bear the weight of silken gauze” that “onlookers lined up along the road like a wall” and, spellbound by his beauty, “stared Wei Jie to death.”
This adoration of effeminate young men crops up frequently in Chinese texts. Another classic novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, first published in 1791 during the Qing Dynasty (and since made into countless operas, movies, and a 2010 tv series starring Yang Yang), follows the life of protagonist Jia Baoyu, an unstudious but naturally creative and talented poet; born with a piece of luminescent jade in his mouth, Baoyu is a slender, beautiful young man with a special affinity for women, unafraid to cry, and entranced by flowers. The jade is significant, having long been used as a symbol for beauty, purity, and goodness.
Yang Yang as Jia Baoyu in the 2010 adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber
The caizi or wen aesthetic of Baoyu strongly resembles other modern tv heroes in romantic comedies like You are My Glory who have pale, handsome faces, slim builds, nerdy occupations, and display a marked sensibility that inevitably enthrals the heroine. Similar programs like A Love so Beautiful and Meteor Garden feature long-haired young men playing high school or university students, fashion-conscious, intelligent, aloof, and impossibly handsome to the girl-next-door protagonist.
The heartthrobs of Meteor Garden (2018)
And it is girls and women who are watching. Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky,” and since Communist rule began in 1949, China has been utilizing its vast female population in the workforce and labor market. In 1990, 73% of women participated in the labor market, and even after dropping to 61% in 2019, China retains one of the highest female participation rates in the world. Having now transitioned to a partially capitalist economy, China’s women wield incredible buying power. In the tv “idol” market (replete with effeminate men), 90% of paying consumers are women, and 1/3 of these spend between $15 and $80 per month on idols or their products. Some women report spending as much as 10-15% of their income purchasing idol-endorsed merchandise, voting for their preferred candidates, sending them elaborate fan gifts or organizing celebratory events with other fans. Even the term “little fresh meat” is indicative of the consumeristic nature of these stars’ relationships with their fans.
When it comes to masculinity, Chinese women have been clear about what they want, putting their money where their mouths are. One marketing study in 2015 found that of 690 luxury advertisements featuring men, 283 featured a classically wen man, followed by 222 featuring the “little fresh meat” aesthetic, and only 56 featured a wu man. Thus, suppressing China’s tradition of wen masculinity and forcing wu masculinity on people risks alienating not just “sissy” young men, but also their legions of female admirers who are boosting the economy with their spending in the entertainment and beauty industries.
The CCP’s efforts could also exacerbate other problems, specifically through wu’s innate misogyny.
Central to wu masculinity is the self-control to resist women, even to eliminate them as threats to the men’s loyalty to brotherhood or nation. Citing the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a classical Chinese novel from the 14th century, Louie wrote that at best, wu masculinity encourages “chaste and upright behavior” (avoidance of women), and at worst, it “encourages men to slaughter their wives and children to ensure their loyalty to [China’s ruler].” In one telling of the story, Guan Yu, the wu God (or God of War), overcomes a treacherous plot by killing a woman given to him as a gift, thereby proving his manhood. The macho heroes of another great 14th-century Chinese classic, The Water Margin, also eschew the charms of women in favor of battle and brotherhood – women in this story are frequently portrayed as temptresses or troublemakers and are often horrifically slaughtered by the heroes. Obviously the CCP’s proclamations have not directly asked men to disrespect women and cast them away as distractions, but promoting a definition of masculinity that demonizes and devalues women will not help a country that is already facing stark challenges in this regard.
Print of Wu Song, one of the macho heroes from The Water Margin, who is so strong that he beats a tiger senseless with his bare hands. He later disembowels his sister-in-law after she cheats on and murders his brother. (Picture Credit: Art Institute of Chicago)
China has very high rates of intimate partner violence; one study found that as many as 1 in 3 Chinese women will experience domestic violence, with a woman being abused every 7.4 seconds. In addressing falling birth and marriage rates, the CCP has focused on “errant” women, attaching epithets such as “sheng nu” (meaning leftover women) to unmarried, usually highly-educated women to frighten or shame them into getting married, even entertaining proposals to match these “leftover women” with unmarried, usually rural, men. This is all the more egregious because it is so out of step with the desires of Chinese women: research conducted in 2015 by Yingchun Ji, a Professor of Sociology at Shanghai University, found that Chinese women have “more egalitarian preferences in the interpersonal realm.” Perhaps even more disturbing are the reports of foreign brides being trafficked into China and forced into unwanted marriages from which they cannot escape; a problem that the CCP has mostly ignored, or tried to hide through creative propaganda.
But many young Chinese men seem to realize how narrow-minded it is to define masculinity only in terms of wu. A recurring theme among proponents of multiple Chinese masculinities is the Confucian ideal of “junzi” (translated as “gentleman” or literally “noble son”) in which a man is self-disciplined, ethical, and devoted to self-improvement. With its focus on moral uprightness and purity, junzi-style masculinity expands on wen and can be applied to scholarship, politics, business, and professional life. For this reason, it is popular with young Chinese men who are wondering what it means to be a Chinese man in a globalized world. Yu Qiuyu, a modern day Chinese scholar-official turned influential writer whose works are now set texts in Chinese schools, believes that “to be junzi is to be…the most ideal Chinese person.”
And as Confucius says in the Analects, “the junzi is widely versed in wen.” “Sissy” young Chinese men, in touch with their feminine side and widely admired by young female consumers, are secure enough to accept that, as one Weibo user put it, “pretty boys have become women’s ideal lovers.” Other netizens say things like, “Sissies will not ruin the nation, the keyboard warriors and the male chauvinists who find women inferior will ruin the country” and that “a delicate face does not mean a weak heart, slender shoulders do not reveal a fragile soul, and a ‘betrayal’ of outdated masculine stereotypes is not a betrayal of the nation.” In a similar vein, Li Jiaqi, the “Lipstick King,” has said that it’s “superficial” to “judge a country’s national power through the way the people dress;” and that a country is better defined by whether there is “positive energy in their society.”
This kind of “positive energy” is difficult to define, but is hard to find in Western masculinity, with its emphasis on physical strength, sexual conquest, acquisitiveness, repudiation of femininity, and oft-exaggerated machismo, which is increasingly being criticized as “toxic.” These traits have been linked to increased instances of misogyny, homophobia, aggression and violence, gun crime, sexual assault, and suicide.
But whereas Western culture celebrates the muscular sporting hero and mocks the slim computer nerd, the Chinese tradition happily encompasses the “yingxiong” (hero), the “haohan” (real man), as well as the “caizi” (talented scholar), and the wenren (man of letters); newer additions have included the “little fresh meat,” the “zhainan” (home guy/awkward nerd), and even the “lao la rou” or “old cured meat” (the rough equivalent of the handsome “silver fox” older man). This is not to say that Chinese masculinities do not have their own troubles with misogyny (they do), but where Western men have been pigeonholed by one, narrow definition of manhood, Chinese men have more than one route to desirable masculinity – and always have.
Ultimately, the cultural excellence that Xi Jinping seeks will be found not just in macho men, but in China’s long, diverse tradition of sensitive, tolerant, cultured, wise, and scholarly ones. The so-called crisis of masculinity that the CCP fears, in fact, has enriched China’s culture for millennia and will help it thrive in the 21st century.