Masculinities in China

Authored by: Derek Hird

Routledge Handbook of East Asian Gender Studies

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138959897
eBook ISBN: 9781315660523
Adobe ISBN:


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Discourses, forms and practices of masculinities have seen significant transformations throughout Chinese history; yet, enduring patterns and themes can be picked out. The two most enduring concepts in Chinese masculinities, wen (cultural attainment) and wu (martial attainment), form the departure point of this study, which surveys masculinities in China chronologically through the premodern, Republican, high socialist and reform eras. Despite the epistemic changes throughout the twentieth century, the wen–wu dyad has remained a relevant, if diluted, perspective from which to interpret masculinities in contemporary China. Echoes of the “fragile scholar” (才子 caizi) can be seen in today’s androgynous pop stars; the “Confucian gentleman” (君子 junzi) is promoted as China’s civilisational archetype; the middle class adopt wen aspirations; the affective relations of “good fellow” (好汉 haohan) brotherhoods are echoed in carousing during yingchou socialising; and the male protagonists of contemporary TV dramas infuse Confucian morality and brotherly loyalty into a calculating market logic. Furthermore, male honour is still a key component of masculinities, albeit expressed through wealth and concepts such as “face”, “ability” and “responsibility”, rather than “righteousness” or slavish devotion to political leaders. The tender father and romantic partner may have taken centre stage, but achieving honour through one’s wife – via her fidelity, submission, education, presentation or state of leisure – persists, and concubines are making a post-Mao comeback in the shape of “second wives”. A lively gay culture exists without legal or political affirmation. Yet above all, the story of masculinities in China is the story of power and its contestation, as it is anywhere. The reconfiguration of masculinities in China has served elite men’s struggles to retain their privileges vis-à-vis women and other men; and Chinese men broadly continue to reap many benefits in what remains for the most part a man’s world.

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