In explaining my own framework for analyzing traditional masculinity last week, I forgot a very important element of the “constant” section. Men have to be true to their heaven-given nature, and they have to respect the heaven-given nature of others. This means that Song Jiang in Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳) has to accept and deal with the ferocious berserker Li Kui because Li is one of his sworn brothers. Li does his best to learn self-control, but due to his heaven-given nature, he is not terribly successful. Jia Baoyu in The Story of the Stone is an immortal stone in love with a flower fairy. He has been sent to the human realm to learn a lesson, and he must attain balance and self-control by eventually studying and passing the imperial service exams as an exercise in filial piety to his family. He is, however, mainly controlled by his true nature and returns to the immortal realms after successfully passing the exams. In the real Liu family, Pa is very in touch with his own nature, and he takes great pride in knowing the natures of each of his seven children. He deals with each child in a particular way based on his perception of that child’s true nature. Perhaps this deep sense of a fated or heaven-given identity is what enables Pa to feel secure in the face of Western masculinity.
Although Pa is not worried about comparing himself to men of the West, most scholars tend to agree that Chinese men have been in a crisis of masculinity since China’s defeat in the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century. Since that time, more and more Chinese men have felt that they come up short in comparison to Westerners, and they keep trying to improve themselves to restore their traditional sense of confidence vis-à-vis the “over-sexed hairy barbarians” or “Western devils.”
The May Fourth movement was one way in which Chinese men of the early 20th century attempted to redefine themselves. They looked to Meiji Japan and saw that its rapid Europeanization enabled it to become an imperial power in Asia; hence, the men of the May Fourth movement attempted to emulate the Japanese in westernizing themselves. In general, the May Fourth men tended to be warriors with the pen. In The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers, Leo Ou-Fan Lee describes a book of satire from the 1920s that describes these men. “Such a man is able to read and to write and is somewhat familiar with traditional Chinese literature as well as Western authors. He is bohemian and amorous, emotional rather than rational. He is up-to-date on the literary scene. He has modern, fashionable clothes; drinks and smokes; patronizes brothels; and has debts and an illness (preferably tuberculosis or syphilis). He writes his own original fiction or translates literature on fashionable topics into Chinese. He regularly contributes articles to journals and magazines. He attends meetings and gives long speeches. He sponsors new writers, and he is ready for change (39-40)” (Summary from my MA thesis). I think the bite of the preceding satire shows that men of that era were not entirely satisfied with the May Fourth model.
During the Maoist era, ideal masculinity was redefined as the rugged, stolid peasant fighters of the People’s Liberation Army. These men populate the pages of the short stories by Ru Zhi-juan and the novels Tracks in the Snowy Forest and Red Crag. They are also seen in the genre of films known as “Red Classics.” Xueping Zhong has written a book called Masculinity Besieged about Chinese films and literature of the post-Mao era and how they continue to seek a satisfactory ideal for Chinese masculinity in comparison with Western men.
My perception of the preceding styles of masculinity is that they are not balanced. The May Fourth version seems to have swung to the wen and yin extremes. Confucianism was considered to be rigid, out-dated, and an impediment to progress, while Buddhism and Taoism were seen as ignorant superstitions that are incompatible with modern science; hence, the Confucian-Buddhist/Taoist binary was discarded among the May Fourth intellectual elite. The Maoist view of masculinity seems to be a pendulum swing to the wu and yang poles. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism were also eschewed as superstitious, feudalistic thought during the Maoist era.
With the repudiation of China’s three religious/philosophical traditions, modern men may lack a nuanced compass for their constancy. Filial piety still resonates strongly, but it is increasingly reduced to earning lots and lots of money with which to support elderly parents and to give them elaborate funerals. Honoring one’s ancestors mainly means that a man must be a resounding business success in quantifiable, monetary terms. These views differ from what I have noticed in Pa’s practice of filial piety. His idea of filial piety includes caring for the feelings of the elderly. This is why he took pains to ensure that Ma could spend time with Grandma Chu. Pa strove for success in business, but to me, it seems that a large part of what he considers a life well lived lies in the facts that he did not sell off any of his daughters, even when the family was poor, and that he successfully raised his children to be upright, contributing members of society. He is quite proud that all of his grandchildren are becoming successful adults in a moral sense, instead of a merely in a monetary sense. Yuni and many of his younger Maternal Uncles do not share Pa’s emphasis on feelings and upright living. They focus mainly on money and business success as the measure of their masculinity and the proof of their filial piety.
This shift in emphasis on the meaning of “filial piety” might confirm Kam Louie’s argument that contemporary, transnational businessmen have replaced the Confucian literati scholars as ideal men in China…
Last summer, when I was in Shanghai, I read a newspaper article about an elite school in Beijing that trains beautiful women how to be wives of China’s new elite class of billionaires. Only beautiful women with exquisite skin and figures are accepted. They learn how to manage luxurious households, how to deal with mistresses, how to order at the finest restaurants, how to listen sympathetically to their men, etc. etc. When they are ready to graduate, the school also provides discreet matchmaking services at the expense of the billionaires who want elegant, well-trained, docile wives.
The effect of what women want in men is probably important to the construction of contemporary masculine identities. Fall semester of 2010, our Asian Studies graduate seminar did a sociological study of 40 consumers of Korean popular culture among the residents of southern California. One of the surprising results was that most of them liked the K-pop stars and Korean TV dramas because they wanted to watch the beautiful male stars. Many of these consumers, the majority of whom were Asian-American females, espoused standards of male beauty similar to those enumerated in Song Geng’s The Fragile Scholar and other scholarly works about traditional Chinese masculinity among Confucian literati officials of the imperial era. In addition to the almost effeminate beauty of the male stars, the women were attracted to their designer clothes and affluent life-styles. Looking back on my arguments with female friends in Taiwan when I was preparing to marry Yuni, I realize that most of my friends objected to the fact that he was too brawny, too dark, too unrefined, and too poor. They, too, were looking for successful businessmen in the fragile scholar style as their ideal men. So modern women, perhaps, are not as worried about comparing Chinese/Asian men to Westerners, creating a quandary for the men… do they try to show up the brawny Western devils or land a nice Chinese wife with their lily-white skin, ruby lips, slender hips, and bulging wallets?
In conclusion, I think that contemporary Chinese masculinity is a work in progress. Men of different regions, different generations, and different social classes all seem to have different ideas of what it means to be a proper man. Yet, the Confucian ideals of filial piety and honoring one’s ancestors, at the very least through lucrative professional accomplishments, seem to resonate among Chinese men of all ages and social classes around the world. The Taoist and Buddhist ideals in my father-in-law’s version of masculinity do not seem as prevalent among younger men, urban men, and men of my acquaintance from mainland China. I expect this lack of mitigating factors gives modern men more stress and more feelings of inadequacy, especially since guilt-tripping men about their lack of filial piety and career success is a woman’s best weapon in the modern Chinese battle of the sexes.