Images of the modern Asian man are everywhere—always the same tinted hair, immaculate style, semi-soulful expression. This phenomenon of ‘soft’ masculinity is nothing new. Pop culture from recent decades has produced a dizzying montage of Chinese bailing linan (‘white-collar metrosexuals’), Taiwanese boy bands, Korean ‘flower boys,’ and Japanese ‘herbivores’ (men who prefer fashion over sex).
What’s clear is that these images are feeding a female appetite. Whether it’s middle-aged Japanese wives obsessed with sweet-natured Korean actors or Hong Kong schoolgirls with baby-faced male beauties from Boy Love (Japanese same-sex manga), female subcultures are replacing tough, manly providers with sleek new archetypes that better cater to their private fantasies. Unsurprisingly, all the talk is of Asian masculinity in ‘crisis’, slowly succumbing to the cultural domination of the feminine.
But such talk may be overdone. It may be, rather, that contemporary culture is giving new life to old ideas about masculinity.
Take, for example, the zhainan, the Chinese version of the otaku—the nerdy, retiring young man who gets his identity from his addictive online consumption. Lately there’s been a flurry of stories and articles about this zhainan figure, and, in particular, his unexpected desirability. But in a way he’s been around much longer. Indeed, he can be found in the pages of classic Confucian literature; he's the fragile scholar whose obsession with the arts makes him a deeply feeling, and therefore ideal, love interest.
A shared Confucian tradition explains why Asian masculinity, unlike its Western counterpart, puts so much emphasis on soft power and sensitivity. That isn’t to say that the notion of strong masculinity was necessarily a Western import: China, for instance, already had a longstanding macho canon in the popular haohan figure, the lower-class swashbuckler with loyal brotherhood ties. In fact, the strong and soft have always existed as complements rather than contrasts, in a delicate balance between the boldness of ‘wu’ (martial prowess) and the subtlety of ‘wen’ (scholarly refinement).
These cultural nuances have often been erased or ‘feminised’ by more binary notions of gender from the West. All of which suggests that it’s a mistake to worry about contemporary Asian masculinity. While nations and patriarchs agonise over a crisis of masculinity, men in the real world are stretching the possibilities of gender.
A growing number are discovering the pleasures of playing with sexually ambiguous identities. Among the popular subcultures of urban China are the cross-dressing performers called weiniang, self-proclaimed ‘fake ladies’ who build entire lifestyles around maintaining their gentle appearances. Meanwhile, in anonymous corners of the Internet, men have been quietly involved in pioneering new expressions of intimacy and community. Many are active on forums for homoerotic fiction, where they regularly collaborate in underground forms of storytelling.
And in the mainstream, many men are having to layer on different masculinities to navigate the everyday. Women may be the key driver behind the Soft Male’s rise, but men are responding to the demand for ‘softness’ too. Especially where it has a clear place in their lives.
Many have genuine emotional involvement in their families’ lives because to do so marks them out as enlightened members of the sophisticated urban ‘middle-class’. Those same men, though, might equally find themselves in worlds filled with other men, where soft, middle-class behaviours give way to rougher work and play rituals. Over-ordering, over-drinking, and loud karaoke-singing in business settings have become routines for turning guanxi (professional connections) into gemenr (brothers, best mates). By putting on the haohan’s traditional bravado, men are able to shape the corporate, ‘wen’ subculture through bold, ‘wu’ expressions of bonding.
In all this ambiguity, if there’s one thing we can say with confidence it’s that Asian masculinity is a living, emerging story. And in these histories, rituals and aesthetics, there is much for brand guardians to think about when it comes to projecting ideas of masculinity.
Crystal Shi is research executive with Flamingo Singapore