Alternative his-storytelling: paradigms for approaching imaginaries of East Asian masculinities


Colonisers make women and animals of all their subjects. Under this gaze, women and animals are conquerable because they are not men, and colonised men are feminised or made animal because they are not ‘real’ men. Seeing the rest of the world as incapable of rational, extractive thought is how the world was divided and conquered. The colonised became, according to Said, “a subject race, dominated by a race that knows them and what is good for them better than they could possibly know themselves.” 

This is important to understanding the ways in which diverse masculinities have been subsumed into Western figurations of the noble savage and the effeminate Other. This imaginary was instrumental to justifying the subjugation of external populations; such historical ideas still linger today in very material ways. Chong Chon-Smith writes that race remains a category of bodily control from a “universal power centre of white national manhood” wherein “Asian masculinity invokes cultural myths of scholastic dominance and emasculated bodies.” This speaks to characters such as Takashi in Revenge of the Nerds, Data in The Goonies, or Lawrence in School of Rock. Ideas such as these still constitute the fertile ground on which bodies are at once racialised and gendered – a process of articulation that limits the passage of some bodies over others.

Instead of asking how these stereotypes remain entrenched today, this article seeks to tell another story. With the widespread popularity and accessibility of Korean dramas, Chinese films, Taiwanese pop songs, and Japanese anime, how can we account for perceptions of ‘soft masculinity’ in East Asian popular culture? After all, unlike the unracialised (or perhaps White) categories of the ‘metrosexual’ or the ‘hipster’, literature and writing in English on East Asian iterations of a masculinity characterised by emotional sensitivity continue to be racially marked or culturally distinct. This is how the members of BTS are recognised as flower boysOr how the DBSK is recognised as ‘feminine masculine.’

“Particularly as these cultural forms do not speak to the ‘hegemonic’ West but to local, transnational and diasporic audiences, can we link contemporary representations of masculinity to geographically situated histories of masculinity? If so, how?”

In some ways, this discourse may be indicative of the racialising paradigms mentioned above, but are there other ways we can account for the appearance of various masculinities in non-Western cultures? Particularly as these cultural forms do not speak to the ‘hegemonic’ West but to local, transnational and diasporic audiences, can we link contemporary representations of masculinity to geographically situated histories of masculinity? If so, how?

BTS members V and J-Hope. Image via Creative Commons.

Histories of Chinese masculinities

In his groundbreaking study, Theorising Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China, Kam Louie provided scholars with one of the first resources in English to explain Chinese representations and ideas of masculinity on their own terms. Louie introduces the wen/wu dyad (文武, or the cultural attainment–martial valour respectively). Under this paradigm, the Chinese masculine binary is one that contrasts the scholar against the warrior, the cultural against the physical, intellectual prowess against martial skill, literary excellence against physical power, and social civility against military bravery.

It is through this paradigm that Louie argues against a hegemonic Western model of manhood – one that connects dominant masculinity with physical strength. Louie argues that historically it is the literati male, one that exercised his power through self-restraint and intellect, that formed the dominant masculine ideal in Chinese literature and culture. While both wen and wu traits were expected of men, the “macho tradition in China … is not the predominant one.” The wen man was entrenched as the male ideal, as he was written into history and literature by a male literati class that wrote of ideal versions of themselves, such as in the scholar–beauty romances of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties.

“gender in pre-Modern China was less politically relevant than the primacy of social roles explained through the yin/yang binary – yin being ‘feminine’, dark and yielding, yang being ‘masculine’, bright and active.”

In The Fragile Scholar: Power and Masculinity in Chinese Culture, Song Geng contests negative Western perceptions of effeminate men in Chinese cultural forms by examining the yin/yang paradigm of power relations. In historicising the figure of the caizi  (才子) or ‘fragile scholar’, Geng argues that gender in pre-Modern China was less politically relevant than the primacy of social roles explained through the yin/yang binary – yin being ‘feminine’, dark and yielding, yang being ‘masculine’, bright and active.

While Western audiences tended to (and perhaps still do) see the character of the fragile scholar as effeminate, Geng locates the figure in the yin/yang paradigm of social relations. Here Geng writes, “yin/yang is not restricted to the sexual connotations of male/female.” Further, yin/yang is not “a biological entity but a fluid position in the hierarchy of social and political power.” In considering social relationships in dynastic China under the yin/yang paradigm, masculinity and femininity are not absolute traits as they are in the modern West, but shifting positions adopted in a web of social hierarchies.

And now?

Some may argue that the wen/wu dyad and the yin/yang paradigm are things of the past, and indeed China’s violent modernisation after the fall of the Qing involved the destruction of the social and political structures that would have grounded wen/wu models of masculinity and yin/yang sociality. But culture is not so easily contained and marked off, and cultural models that were represented in historical records, literature and folk culture for millennia cannot be so easily quarantined to the past.

While ‘pan-East Asian soft masculinity’ might well be a new hybridised form of ideal manhood that caters to contemporary feminine tastes, it remains unclear why feminine desires in the region might preference ‘flower boys’ and if it is truly the power of feminine consumption that has produced a certain kind of masculinity.

Here I agree with Geng: while metrosexuality might account for some particular habits of the soft masculine, “pan-East Asian soft masculinity has its roots in the Confucian tradition of scholar masculinity shared by many East Asian cultures” valuing the “physically weak, delicate and handsome, with androgynous beauty.” Feminine cultural consumption cannot shape ideals about contemporary masculinities alone: long histories of differing representations of ‘the ideal man’ continue to inform cultural preferences and ideas locally.

In the Chinese-language context, to be accomplished in one’s studies still remains a largely positive trait in contrast to the English-language pejoratives ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’, which mark off scholarly skill and attainment as antisocial and gender-neutering. Here the wen ideal remains entrenched, though changed. The most popular boy in the Taiwanese film Our Times is still the number one student in school academically, and the smart male love interest in the Chinese film So Young is still desirable despite being antisocial and cut throat.

What has changed since the time of Louie and Geng’s writing is that women are now also in line for scholastic attainment, a public privilege denied to women in imperial times. The most popular girl in school in the Taiwanese film You Are the Apple of My Eye is both class captain and the smartest girl in the class. In the Chinese film Yesterday Once More we meet a clever girl who is determined to get into Tsinghua University.

Scholastic attainment is still a virtue but it is no longer solely masculine. Though women can be smart, however, they are not afforded the same narrative privileges of men. Women can be smart, but they have to eventually learn femininity and unlearn the competitiveness, innovation and individualism that drives scholarly achievement. This is why wen, despite its modern form, remains a masculine trait overall.

Vivien Nara

Author: Vivien Nara

Vivien Nara is a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Interested in East Asian screen and popular cultures, her research examines how contemporary Chinese-language youth films play a part in wider shifting discourses on gender, modernity and social relations in 21st-century China and Taiwan.

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