When Dr Song Geng of the School of Chinese was growing up in Mainland China, it was a common assertion that the humiliations the country suffered from the time of the Opium Wars up to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 were in part a reflection of the weakness of the Chinese character, in particular its men.
“We were told through the media and cyberspace that Westerners called us the ‘sick man of East Asia’, that Chinese men were not masculine enough, were not qualified enough, and that’s why the country was humiliated,” he said.
But now, as China has risen to superpower status and is interacting ever more frequently with the rest of the world, that view is being turned on its head.
Traditional Chinese culture has been revived on the Mainland along with a strong masculine ideal that triumphs not only at home but in encounters with foreigners.
Dr Song has been studying that evolution by analysing depictions in popular television, where an increasing number of shows feature characters who interact with foreigners or display evidence that they have spent time abroad, such as speaking English or drinking wine.
This ease with things foreign – alongside the demonstrations of wealth that are expected of the modern Chinese man – has come alongside the strengthening trade, educational and other links that China has developed with the rest of the world.
Crucially, however, the Chinese characters and their ideals win out in the end.
For instance, some romance programmes feature European characters with whom the female lead initially falls in love, only to discover in the end that her heart belongs to the Chinese protagonist, who is more knowledgeable or morally superior.
There is also a popular detective show Love Me, If You Dare that features a US-trained expert who returns home to China and is consulted by police officers from around the world to help them solve crimes.
“His image shows the confidence or ambition of China as a nation – he’s not sacrificed as a marginal figure, he’s at the top and he’s superior to white men. The Hong Kong police, the American police, they all have to consult him,” he said.
A curious response
Dr Song has also conducted focus interviews to understand how the masculine images on television are being received. A most odd result was obtained for a television programme about the Sino-Japanese war called Red, when he asked middle-aged women and women in their 20s for their responses to the male lead.
“The middle-aged women said they liked him because he was patriotic and sacrificed a lot for the country, and they said they were happy when the Japanese were killed because they hate the Japanese. But the younger group said they liked this character because of his handsome looks – he resembled a Japanese pop star! They said this was their ideal kind of boyfriend,” he said. “They also said they liked the story, but they totally ignored the political message.”
The combination of pride in the capabilities of the Chinese protagonists on the one hand and absorption of foreign influences on the other illustrates the unusual character of Chinese nationalism.
“Cosmopolitanism is not associated with nationalism. If you are cosmopolitan, you first identify yourself as a citizen of the world. But in Chinese popular culture, cosmopolitan works hand in hand with nationalism because it’s a symbol of the success of reform and the development of China,”
Dr Song said.
Another curiosity in all of this is that the focus on masculinity is itself an outcome of China’s engagement with the world. In pre-modern China, people were identified firstly by their relationship to others and not by gender. Dr Song likens it to a yin and yang identity rather than masculine and feminine.
“Yin and yang are more fluid. So if I talk to my father, my father is yang to my yin, but when I return home to my wife and children, I am the yang and they are the yin. The emperor is always yang and the people yin. It all depends on your position in this pyramid.
“But all this has changed. Now, when China faces the globalising world, our self-identity is closely related to the imagination of masculinity,” he said.
Dr Song presenting research findings at an international conference.
Dr Song’s publications on Chinese men and masculinities.
China Asserts Its
The ideal man in China has been changing in ways that reflect the country’s modernisation and its growing political stature in the world.
Dr Song Geng
Now, when China faces the globalising world, our self-identity is closely related to the imagination of masculinity.