In February 2021, China’s Education Ministry issued a notice that called on schools to reform their physical education lessons. The aim? To make boys more traditionally ‘manly’. This immediately generated huge controversy, colliding with the belief of young Chinese people in particular that a man should be allowed to display ‘characteristic, simple human emotions.’ To this cohort, to be timid or gentle is not to deny one’s manliness. Many public discussions ensued, within which we can see clear shifts in views on masculinity in China.
‘Residual’ masculinity: Restraint and responsibility
The traditional Chinese model of a good man is inextricably linked to his social relationships. Asked what makes a ‘real man’, a typical answer would be: “A man has to be responsible. He must be a good husband to his wife, a good father to their child, and a good son to his parents”. This can be traced back to Confucian thought on what it means to be a well-cultivated man (rather than a woman). Emotional self-restraint is a vital component; within a traditional patriarchal society, men represented social order. Their task was to discipline, to direct and to educate their community.
An interesting concept relating to historical masculinity ideals in China is wen-wu (文武), proposed by scholar Kam Louie. Wen (文) or ‘civil’, suggested a culturally refined masculinity, wu (武) or ‘martial’ a warlike masculinity. In different periods right up until the modern day, the relative importance of wen versus wu has altered along with political and social values.
‘Dominant’ masculinity: Authenticity
As China opened up to the world in the 1980s, its perception of masculinity changed as the country’s economy and competitiveness grew rapidly. Men were still required to be ‘responsible’, but that now meant being a breadwinner. Success was holding a good job and providing your family with a higher standard of living: in other words, money. Having the courage to take risks and compete in the business world became the essence of masculinity.
At the same time, women were gaining more freedom and power within relationships and families. Men were expected to adapt, and to become better communicators. Masculinity was redefined (primarily in the cities). Fathers became less authoritarian, and new role models (such as singer Jay Chou, with his popular love songs) promoted the value of sensitivity and emotional vulnerability. Popularly described as authentic self-expression, the modern ideal of masculinity is clearly inclined to 'wen'. The state may prefer the ‘tough guy’ concept of 'wu' as a reflection of its own power, but it is fighting a strong popular preference for the ideal of a high-achieving man with an ‘authentic’ appeal.
Emerging masculinity: Delicacy and beauty
As one of K-Pop’s largest markets, China has been deeply influenced by its representation of masculinity. With its own idol industry based on this Korean model, young Chinese women have enthusiastically embraced the new masculinity on display. This has contributed to the national anxiety over a ‘gender crisis’.
This new masculinity is represented both aesthetically and emotionally. Male idols are usually slim, with light skin, dyed hair and full makeup: they have a feminine delicacy and beauty. They have no problem with expressing private emotions, telling fans how much they love them. The wen-wu paradigm cannot explain the trend. Instead, the line is blurring between traditional models of gender. Traditionalists have been duly shocked, but there is no sign of this emergent masculinity subsiding.
Where this leaves us: female tastes versus male aspirations
It is clear that a driving force here is women’s consumption power. Variety shows, TV dramas and social media represent and debate their tastes, and as a result a more delicate and beautiful male image has expanded the masculinity spectrum. As women’s disposable income continues to rise, brands chase collaborations with these ‘effeminate’ male celebrities. In 2014, a former K-Pop star, Lu Han, set the Guinness world record for most comments on a Weibo post.
At the same time, a masculinity to which men might aspire is rarely seen or discussed. It is possible to see glimpses of a yearning for a more martial type. For example, the 2017 sequel of the Chinese movie series Wolf Warrior, depicting the patriotic action story of a Chinese soldier, became the highest-grossing film in Chinese film history, with far bigger male audiences than female. But male aspirations are still mainly opaque, whether we look at what men view or buy. How can brands complete this picture, and bring more men into the debate? The more that domestic and international companies can imagine what kind of future men in China might want, the better placed they will be to answer their needs.
The paradox of the inner man
We have seen that it is women who have driven appreciation of a new androgynous aesthetic. As a result, intensive grooming and beautification are now the norm for countless younger men. They feel free to express themselves outwardly in a way that generations before them would never dare. It is an evolution in masculinity that is far beyond anything in the West: Chinese men in the largest cities can, without fear of any judgement, openly buy and wear make-up in public.
Much of this aesthetic revolution can be credited to the many male celebrities and key online influencers who have become highly successful beauty ambassadors. Unsurprisingly, they have now expanded into other categories. Luckin coffee and even beer brands such as Tsingtao are adopting ambassadors who personify this newly feminized masculine ideal.
For some, this has equated to progress. For the Chinese state, it has become a crisis in masculinity. Men’s looks have become too ‘soft’ and must be toughened up. And yet, has the government picked the wrong battle?
In the West, many current conversations around masculinity focus on men’s interior lives. Their feelings are being explored. How can toxic and patriarchal masculinity be discouraged through education, and how can men contribute to greater gender equality within society? The process is not perfect, but discussing issues such as objectifying women, physical aggression and emotional openness is recognized as vital.
But in China right now, these are not topics of public discourse.
Instead, young boys are, by and large, still taught to behave like a ‘traditional’ man. And who would criticize the promotion of values that include responsibility, resilience, leadership, a willingness to do the right thing, and a sense of duty? The problem, however, lies in the concomitant requirement that boys learn to be ‘hard’ and emotionally inexpressive. China’s one-child policy only exacerbated this, turning pampered sons into egotists who have had little encouragement to look within themselves.
The dissonance between men’s spiritual fetters and their freedom to express themselves through their appearance is clear. So, how can today’s young Chinese men work out how they really feel? How can they define themselves, and develop new perspectives on their interior lives?
Many brands have very profitably participated in masculinity’s recent aesthetic developments. By starting to explore the meaning of masculinity in China, they could go much further. They could help the country’s young men to become more comfortable in their own skin.
Lilian Li (left) is a research associate and Chuyue Kuang is a strategist at strategy consultancy Yuzu Kyodai in Shanghai.