Saturday, September 15, 2012

Musings on Chinese Masculinity

My time in the hospital with Elder Sister changed the dynamics of my relationship with many members in the family. With respect to all the relatives in Taiwan, it was a good thing. All those relatives finally accepted me fully; however, their acceptance seemed to change things with Yuni. But before I get into the next phase of our story, I think sharing some of the theoretical notions about Chinese masculinity, which I learned doing research for my MA thesis, might be helpful to my readers’ understanding of my narrative.

The study of Chinese masculinity is an emerging field. Much more has been written about Chinese women, probably because gender studies came out of women’s studies and is itself a newer discipline. There really are no neat frameworks for defining Chinese men. In an earlier post I wrote about Yin-Yang theory and Chinese femininity, but that same theory does not work so clearly for men. The reason is that the yin and the yang came to represent relative power in relationships around the first century BCE in the writings of the Neo-Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu. Women were always the yin in Neo-Confucian writings, as the bottom of the third pair of critical human relationships: father—son, emperor—vassal, and man—wife. The other two relationships are male—male relationships, and in each, the first of the pair is yang and the second yin. This means that traditionally, Chinese masculinity was more fluid that Western masculinity. The same man could be yang with respect to his wife, son, and underlings, but when he faced his father (and males of an older generation) or superiors at work, he would be yin. Song Geng has an excellent book called The Fragile Scholar that uses the yin-yang paradigm to analyze representations of masculinity in Chinese literature. He makes the point that Chinese men during the imperial era practiced bisexuality, especially men in positions of power. And this fluid masculinity promoted masculine standards of beauty that were very close to feminine standards of beauty. Men used their beauty and sexual wiles to advance their careers in ways similar to American stereotypes of women with chauvinistic bosses. BUT when a beautiful yin young man returned home, he reverted to yang with his own wife, servants, and concubines.

Other scholars do not emphasize the yin-yang paradigm to analyze masculinity because it seems too fluid and nebulous. In 1993, Kam Louie and Louise Edwards proposed analyzing Chinese masculinity according to the two types of imperial posts for men: wen (literary) and wu (military). Kam Louie has developed this paradigm with a number of articles and a complete book, in which he looks at various protagonists in Chinese literature to see whether they fit the criteria for a wen man or an wu man. Louie believes that the wu (military) male was dominant from the early imperial era up until the Tang Dynasty when the examination system for imperial posts was fully implemented and being highly literate became the top requirement for obtaining a position as an government official. One of Louie’s articles suggests that in modern times, the Confucian scholar or wen man has been replaced in China with the transnational businessman as the ideal for masculinity. In Chinese literary representations, the wu man is muscular, strong, courageous, loyal, bearded, and asexual. The wen man is literate, refined, slim, emotional, and amorous. Throughout most of Chinese literary history, only literate men get the girl. There is a Tang Dynasty martial arts story called Kunlun Nu about a martial arts hero, who helps his literary friend liberate the friend’s beloved woman from her family that opposes their marriage. As soon as the girl is in the arms of her poet lover, the martial man rides off seeking his next adventure. (See Daniel Hsieh’s Love and Women in Early Chinese Fiction.) Martial heroes did not “get the girl” in Chinese novels and stories until the end of the imperial era.

Some theorists like Brownell and Wasserstrom look at males in their roles as fathers, husbands, and sons. Matthew Sommer looks at Chinese men from the imperial era in their sexual power relationships denoted by who is the penetrator and who is the penetrated. He looks at the laws in the Qing Dynasty with respect to homosexuality and rape to tease out these power relationships. Martin Huang looks at how Chinese males define themselves vis-à-vis women, sometimes even speaking with a woman’s voice when writing letters to a male superior. Many officials addressed the emperor as his “loyal wives.”

And those are just modern scholars. As Wendy Larson points out, throughout Chinese history, Chinese authors were principally males writing for males about males; most of Chinese writings from antiquity to present deal with how men are supposed behave and exist. Confucian scholars had one idea, Buddhist texts showed a different ideal, and the Daoist texts had yet another norm for masculinity. These three strands constitute traditional Chinese culture, and Chinese masculinity was influenced by all these sources. Kam Louie describes how Chinese authors before the Opium Wars considered Westerners to be barbarians and almost animals in their hairy, over-sexed masculinity. Chinese masculinity developed apart from considerations of competing with or matching up to the West. But after China’s defeat in the Opium Wars, Chinese masculinity entered a crisis from which it has yet to recover. Chinese men had to reinvent themselves in a way to compete with the now more dominant men of the West.

In addition to competing with the physically more robust men of European descent, Chinese men have to compete now with educated women in the modern work place. The release of women from their traditional position within the homes has affected Chinese masculinity and even family relations. My next few posts will deal with the three strands of tradition, and what I see of them today among Chinese men of my acquaintance. I will also look at the idea of Inside-Outside in the context of the modern-day Chinese battle of the sexes. I think these discussions will make the rest of my story more intelligible to my readers. I was certainly perplexed for over a decade as to why different people acted as they did in the year or two following Elder Sister’s tragedy.

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