Is Chinese Masculinity in Crisis or an Opportunity for Brands?

Acrush is the latest hot boy band to appeal to the insatiable taste for “little fresh meat”—young, good-looking male celebrities in the mainland Chinese popular culture scene. While the appeal of good-looking men as desirable partners should come as no surprise, the preference for a boyish androgynous appearance has raised eyebrows and stirred some debates about the state of Chinese masculinity. Even so, it might come as a greater surprise to the uninitiated to learn that Acrush is made up of five young women whose cross-dressing is so convincing it has challenged gender norms for both men and women.

With newfound access to financial resources, Chinese male consumers are now paying more attention to their grooming needs, and the market for men’s grooming products in China is growing. Elsewhere, reports show the increasing sophistication of Chinese male consumers, who are spending an average of 24 minutes on daily grooming routines. Brands have caught on to the rising popularity of these new Chinese male stereotypes and are using “little fresh meat” celebrities to boost their campaigns and sales. But beyond the obsession with androgynous looks, are there other aspects of the changing landscape of Chinese masculinity to tap into? And where is this new shift towards androgynous masculinity coming from?

In the West, alternative masculine identities resist hegemonic, sometimes called toxic, masculinity norms, such as pressure for men to show toughness, aggression, strong physical appearances and even misogynistic attitudes. Alternative masculine identities also reflect the desire for self-expression and autonomy to make choices in career, lifestyle, sexuality and fashion styles that break gender stereotypes.

The shifts in Chinese masculinity may well be informed by similar motivations for individuality as China opens itself up to the world and is influenced by global value trends. It is also a result of women achieving more in education and career, driving men to seek alternative traits to anchor their masculine identities. But there are also unique cultural meanings underlying the emerging Chinese masculine identities. As the landscape of Chinese masculinity changes, opportunities and possibilities emerge for brands looking to play a role in consumers’ identity projects.

Not long ago, the stereotypes of Chinese masculinity were informed by martial arts action stars like Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan, whose films depicted Chinese men as physically tough and fiercely patriotic heroes who fought to the death for their country (men) and for the pride of Chinese culture. Be it fighters or officials, the masculinities of these Chinese men on display were seldom defined by their beauty. Serial dramas of the same era depict Chinese men, who now, instead of being Kung Fu fighters, are successful professionals, cops or gangsters in their stereotypical gender roles as providers, protectors, breadwinners, and womanizers.

Fast forward to contemporary times, and the popular drama series are now primarily romantic comedies where the Chinese men have more multifaceted identities and are unmistakably, more androgynously good-looking. The influx of J-pop and K-pop culture has also influenced the growing desirability of androgynous male beauty norms in China.

Does this mean Chinese masculinity is in crisis? Is it softening up? Are Chinese boys being feminized and losing interest in being men or manly anymore?

The Chinese authorities presumably think this is the case, and have moved to “re-masculinize” boys through introducing new textbooks called “Little Men,” targeted at schoolboys in grades four and five. Answering this call, entrepreneurs have seized the commercial opportunities to open boot camps targeted at toughening up boys, and parents have been receptive to it.

As Chinese society and the economy opens up, opportunities emerge for Chinese men to become more than just units of production burdened with ensuring the survival of the communist ideology in order to become tough, macho-like heads of the household. During the cultural revolution, physically and emotionally strong men embodying socialist values were preferred. But the cultural revolution gave women a more equal role to play in society, and this continued post-cultural revolution. In the post-revolution period of economic growth, female empowerment and a changing socio-economic order have made it difficult for men to perform their masculine credentials as financial providers in their household. In short, contemporary Chinese men have learned to reinvent themselves.

The roots of the “soft” Chinese masculinity model

Going back into Chinese history, masculinity ideals have been a blend of both the soft and the hard, the ying and the yang, specifically, the 文wen (scholar) and the 武wu (martial). Being an androgynous man is a legitimate means of masculine performance, as it conforms to the wen masculinity model. The four handsome men of China (四大美男) were examples of this ideal in times when beautiful men were likened to white jade and flowers and appealed to women’s tastes to the same degree as strong and robust men. The wu model is almost self-explanatory—it’s association with physical prowess, martial valour and is exemplified by military generals, such as Guan Yu, depicted in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, every man has a bit of wen and wu in them, and the ideal man should be wen wu shuang quan (文武双全), possessing both literary talents and martial prowess.

The emerging “softer” Chinese masculine identities are not a rejection of traditional masculinity but a revival of the wen masculinity—and this is more than just androgynous looks.

The cultural revolution has all but wiped out wen masculinity ideals—the scholar and intellectual man was a scapegoat for China’s humiliation at foreign hands and an enemy of a truly communist society. In a China undergoing economic growth and opening up to the world, wen masculinity is making a huge comeback. As Chinese societies grapple with female empowerment, political changes and new socio-economic realities, masculine identities have re-synthesized wen and wu elements.

However, different aspects of the wen ideal have found their way into the emerging Chinese masculine identities. The popular drama series “Ode to Joy” has been lauded for depicting multifaceted women beyond stereotyped gender roles of daughters, wives and mothers. But the male characters on the show have also reflected how different aspects of the wen masculinity model are expressed in contemporary ideal types. There is the focus on embracing creative talents, scholarly achievements, tech whiz, business masculinity—a blend of aggression and intellect, being a warm-hearted good-looking family man (nuan nan 暖男) among many others. And increasingly, these ‘alternative’ ideals and identities are becoming the norm.

There are those who feel that Chinese men are becoming soft, that boys are becoming emotionally and physically weak as they aspire to attain more handsome looks. Good looks is just one aspect of the wen masculinity model that has made its comeback. Beyond the androgynous trait, there is much more to contemporary masculine identities in how Chinese men are reinventing themselves.

What can brands and marketers learn from this?

In recent years, brands have taken notice of the shifting Chinese masculinity landscape towards men who pay more attention to their appearance and desire to look good. Products such as Nivea’s skin whitening cream for men have portrayed the man who needs good looks to achieve professional success. L’Occitane rides on the popularity of Little Fresh Meat such as Joker Xue as brand ambassadors, focusing again on good looks.

But there still remains potential for brands to understand other Chinese masculine identities that focus on highlighting other elements of wen masculinity—intellect, literary talents, mannerisms, virtue and family values. Marketing campaigns can speak to these nuances and play a role in helping Chinese men reinvent themselves.

This post originally appeared on Campaign Asia, our content partner.

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