Ideas of what it is to be a man are changing fast, Tom Pattinson draws attention to some of the specifically Chinese tensions within these shifts
Last year, China’s authorities went some way to co-opting rap in a bid to channel China’s youth culture and explain Chinese culture abroad. By the start of this year, China had turned the volume down on rap, banning hip-hop culture and tattoos. Along with actors of ‘problematic moral integrity’, the expected slew of rappers, hip-hop stars and other celebrities were dropped from TV shows and called out for their misogynistic and overly macho lyrics and actions. The nascent hip-hop culture disappeared almost as quickly as it had come into being.
Phoenix-like from the hip-hop ashes, a new generation of clean, safe, pretty boy bands emerged on TV talent shows, who didn’t have rips in their jeans (nor tattoos on their necks). A boyband known as New F4 rapidly became China’s new heartthrobs, but their androgynous looks and use of make-up drew criticism from some circles and it didn’t take long before state media broadcaster Xinhua called them out for being ‘Sissies’.
The PLA said that it was becoming increasingly hard to recruit healthy young men. The reason? Too many video games, too much fizzy pop and too much masturbation..
“These sissies promote an unhealthy and unnatural culture which has a not-to-underestimate negative impact on the youth. The sissy culture, driven by consumption, challenges the public order and worships a decadent lifestyle,“ Xinhua posted.
The use of the derogatory term may raise eyebrows, but nevertheless the question remains – are Chinese men having a masculinity crisis? It seems the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) think so. At the end of the summer, the PLA said that it was becoming increasingly hard to recruit healthy young men. The reason? Too many video games, too much fizzy pop and too much masturbation.
Sitting around all day in your pants playing by yourself apparently not only leads to increased lemonade consumption but also physical decline. The obvious solution was an immediate ban on all new video games but the problem remains for the PLA. Recruiting young men into the army is becoming harder as a rising level of unfitness is combined with an unwillingness to live a physically challenging lifestyle. The pass rate from one region in Hubei fell to a record low of just 25.6 percent last year from 30.8 percent in 2011.
Whilst various branches of Chinese media fought over whether boys should be able to wear make-up or if ‘Sissy’ is an acceptable or derogatory term, there is no doubt there has been a rise in androgynous men in Beijing’s urban areas. According to China Skinny, Chinese males in many cities are more like to own a pair of platform heels than a pair of work boots. Could it be the one-child policy has led to young men being doted on and not having to fend for themselves? Have they been given too much and prefer to spend their weekends shopping in the mall for designer clothes than spend it playing outside? Or is it a reaction to the rising status of women and relative decline of the male?
China has always divided men into Wen (literary men) and Wu (fighting men) with literary men being granted higher status. As a strong patriarchal society, Chinese men have traditionally never needed to interrogate their masculinity. However, this position has, in more recent years, swung pendulum-like back and forth. During the Cultural Revolution, it was declared that ‘women hold up half the sky’ which led to an uncomfortable rebalancing act for many. In the 80s, films, actors and rock stars, possibly in recognition of western male stars or possibly to rebalance the male dominance lost in the 1970s, became much more macho.
Over the 40 years of economic growth since opening up and the one-child policy, women have become equally well-educated, hold key roles in companies, and will often be the main breadwinners. All this undermines traditional notions of macho masculinity and can encourage increasingly powerful women to look for a softer, more feminine form of male identity.
And, of course, businesses are fully aware of the opportunities that emerge from a new market. Whilst new ranges of male make-up hit the shelves and luxury fashion brands reach out to 20-something boys, wealthy parents can also now pay for their ‘Sissy boy’ sons to be re-educated at training camps to find their “lost masculinity”.