chapter  21
18 Pages

Chinese Male Bodies: A Transnational Study of Masculinity and Sexuality

ByTravis S. K. Kong

What comes to your mind when you think about Chinese men?1 Would he be the notorious Dr. Fu Manchu of the ‘Yellow Peril’ tradition at the turn of the twentieth century or the contemporary triad ‘big brother’ of many gangster movies, which signify either the ‘evil dictator of the East’ or hyper-masculinity with violence? Would he be a Kung Fu master like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jack Li, with a particular taste of Zen asceticism, such as Shang-chi or Li Mu-bai (Chow Yun-fat’s character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who usually has a small or slender body and excellent martial arts skills and almost always has strict control over emotion and sexuality (unlike Western heroes such as James Bond, with his Bond girls)? Or would he be an effeminate man with a strong homosexual undertone like Song Li-ling, the Chinese spy in M. Butterfly or flamboyant and campy openly gay TV actor like Alec Mapa? Or an infantile or adolescent figure like William Hung who jumps and sings with ‘No Regrets’ in American Idol ? Or a diligent, obedient, docile, somewhat nerdy and sexually neutered good citizen of an ethnic minority, like Charlie Chan or Hiro Nakamura (played by Masi Oka) in Hero? These rather limited representations of Chinese male icons and figures seem to serve what Western (especially American) cultural producers find acceptable to Western audiences in popular culture, in which the Chinese man, ‘domestically effeminate and exotically hypermasculine is oppositionally juxtaposed with the culturally dominant image of white hegemonic masculinity, implicating the clear power relations between the two’ (Hirose and Pih, 2010: 191; cf. Chan, 2001; Eng, 2001; Lee, 2000) unless he acts like an American white man. If you travel to China or Chinese-dominated cultures and communities in Asia, you may observe a great variety

of masculinities of all sorts, many of which are somewhat different from the Western model of masculinity, which glorifies big, strong, muscular bodies. In these communities, masculinity may be equated with morality (e.g., a good man should control his sexuality), and may not stand in opposition to femininity and homosexuality (as understood in the West). For example, masculine models in China range from the talented-but-fragile scholar and the Confucian junzi (gentleman) to the military hero of ancient China, to the selfless Maoist revolutionary hero of modern China, to the contemporary ultrafeminine ‘cream man’ or hybridized sexy metrosexual and pinwei (tasteful) cosmopolitan middle-class man, and many more. How do we understand Chinese men in general, and Chinese male bodies in particular? If the male

body is central to the formation of men’s identity, how does the Chinese male body relate to the construction of Chinese male identity and Chinese masculinity? If bodily form intersects with race, gender,

sexuality, class, age, etc., how do the interlocking effects of the ‘intesectionality’ of these ‘categories of difference’ shape Chinese men’s lived experiences and identities in terms of gendered relations, labour experiences, sexual practices, media representations, etc.? In comparing Western and Chinese men, the Western male body has always been set as the standard to measure against other racialized bodies whilst the Chinese male body has predominately been portrayed as feminized, homosexualized or neutered with the other extreme being framed as violently hyper-masculine. How may this ‘oriental’ construction be challenged? What alternative masculinities might be imagined? In China and in other Chinese communities within Asia, does Western masculinity still maintain its hegemonic status? If not, what are the dominant masculine ideals? If we are now living in a globalized world, how do we reconcile the body politics of different traffics circulating the globe, which include – the diasporic Chinese male body in Western cultures, the Chinese male body in China and within Chinese culture, and the Chinese and other Asian male bodies in Asian cultures? This chapter gives a brief account of the emerging study of Chinese male bodies, situated in the bur-

geoning literature of men’s or masculinities studies since the 1980s. I will first situate the male body, as a cornerstone of men’s identity, within a hierarchy of masculinities in which the body has intersected with other ‘categories of difference’, such as age, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, class, etc., that produce interlocking effects of men’s lived experiences at a given time and place. This notion of ‘intersectionality’, borrowed from Black feminist thought, fits well with Connell’s classic study of masculinity and enables us to see not just the multifarious forms of oppression and domination that Chinese men are suffering from, but also the resistance and subversion to them. Second, I will briefly outline the study of Chinese male bodies, which mainly derives from two research

areas. The first and more established one is that of diasporic Chinese male migrants and/or their second and third generations and how they have struggled against the Western notion of ‘hegemonic masculinity’; how the ‘oriental’ construction of Chinese masculinity as passive, feminized, or neutered has been constructed; and how these migrants have derived strategies – conformity, rejection, accommodation, redefinition, etc. – to accomplish masculinity that is sensitive to different institutional and social arenas. The second, emerging area of study is that of Chinese masculinity and the body in the contexts of China and/ or Chinese communities in Asia. This literature points out that the perception of Chinese masculinity as falling short of Western masculinity is a result of strategic and hegemonic Western construction of masculinities, and attempts to conceptualize Chinese masculinities differently from the Western model. It has also shown a different hierarchy of masculinities, based less on race and more on class, age, body, gender, and other ‘categories of difference’, that marginalizes Chinese masculinities from within. Finally, I will point out possible future lines of research that need attention.