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Not A Real Chinese Man / Vy-liam Ng

A discussion of masculinity, identity and nationalism


Masculinity is both a fragile and resilient thing.


As a person who identifies as male, both in terms of sex and gender, I understand that to engage in any exercise of self-reflection, one must consider how their place as a man, in all relevant contexts, impacts upon one’s own identity.


But in my journey to chronicle personal ideas of what makes me me, understanding conceptions of masculinity is sometimes confusing and very often, frustrating. Masculinity is a concept both abstract and innate. It’s a psychological, sociological and a physical question, but most important, masculinity and its influence on the world is omnipresent.


We live in a patriarchal society and what it means to be a man with levers of power within the realms of politics and society is a hypothetical quandary that borders upon sarcastic. Of course being a man is a powerful thing. This is not to detract from anyone’s personal struggles but there is no denying that in the modern world, being seen as a man is to recognise power by default.


To be seen as a 'real man' seems essential to retaining that power. We entertain this idea that only the real men should be at the helm. After all, as famed writer and thinker Simone de Beauvoir would put it:


'This world has always belonged to men and still retains the form they have imprinted on it' [1]


This standardised status quo of gender and power. Meaning, if someone says to me, 'I am not a real man', then that’s one thing. My power and worthiness are denigrated, and I am hurt, but this is probably expected in any struggle for control of those reigns. There apparently has to be winners and losers in this type of conflict.


But if someone else says to me, 'I am not a real Chinese man' …. now that is something else.


I’m male but am I a 'man'? And what makes a 'real' man? These abstract questions provide for abstract conversations but being accused of not being a real Chinese man was something new to me.


I’ll provide some context.


As much as I love my father, we are opposing forces. It was something foreign but surprisingly personal when hearing the words 'You’re not a real Chinese Man' leave his mouth during one of our more heated debates and it made me wonder why. What is this conflation between being a man and being Chinese? What utility does this blend of masculinity and ethnicity have in the real world?


Now this is not an essay on the fallacies of masculinity. Plenty of people smarter than me have already covered that topic. This is just a discussion of how masculinity is a fickle beast. In a world already grappling with the value of traditional gender roles, in spaces where gender intersects with power, what is the logical end when conversations of masculinity are paired with security of nation and self?


In the eyes of some, I am not a real Chinese man because I do not embody particular traits expected of the 'Chinese man'. What these traits are or were in this model of masculinity have been lost on me, but maybe, just maybe, I’m not privy to something my father knows. Maybe I’m simply being ignorant to traditional Chinese thoughts on what it means to be a man.


Growing up in the west, I’m aware that my understanding of gender roles have primarily been constructed around western ideas, and there’s been much debate over whether masculinity and femininity as binary opposites can even be applied to traditional Chinese thought. Needless to say, the same stereotypical differences between men and women exist in all societies and cultures. In Chinese tradition for example, Lijuan Shen and Paul D’ Ambrosio [2] describe the opposing Confucian and Daoist camps thoughts on gender to which those Confucian thinkers align masculinity with dominance, heroism and hardness, while those in the Daoist school, amplify the utility in what is viewed as female softness and subordinance. Yet both traditions encircle the foundational principle of yin and yang and thus, masculinity and femininity are considered two parts of one whole. It can be said that in Chinese thought, harmony in personhood is achieved through mutual reciprocation between the genders and in exemplifying the virtues of both masculinity and femininity. This is opposed to a strict western paradigm of the 'macho man' and the 'nurturing woman'.


Figure 1: Quote from 'Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean', p.150.
Figure 1: Quote from 'Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean', p.150.

 

[1] Simone de Beauvoir 'The Second Sex', p.813

[2] https://iep.utm.edu/gender-c/

 

Scholar Kam Louie writes:

'The application of the contemporary Western paradigm of the “macho man”, whose power is made manifest in brute physical strength and unerring silence to the Chinese case is largely inappropriate, because while there is a macho tradition in China it is not the predominant one. Thus, the Chinese tradition of macho hero represented in terms such as yingxiong (outstanding male) and haohan (good fellow) is counter-balanced by a softer, cerebral male tradition – the caizi (the talented scholar) and the wenren (the cultured man)' [3]

That was just food for thought. To show that there is awareness around customary differences in masculinity between my western upbringing and my eastern heritage.


But when I was accused of not being a real Chinese man, this was not to do with yin or my yang side nor was it an attack on any physiological characteristics or lack thereof. This accusation was specifically levied toward my political ideals. My thoughts on human rights and the general world. Intangible opinions and thoughts spoken aloud at home with no real repercussion. My masculinity and place as a man was belittled, not because I lacked any perceivable male stereotypes, at least not any of which I was aware; but because of my ambivalence towards defending the nation-state of modern China… hence my confusion.


Why would my masculinity be predicated on my opinion towards international politics?


Because to some, a real Chinese man must be an extension of their nation. They personify with nationalistic pride and enthusiasm, the strength of their country, what scholars Tingting Hu and Tianru Guan interestingly describe as the principle of 'Man-as-Nation' [4] wherein masculine virtues will signify a nations rejuvenation and strength. Herein, a man is strong as their nation should be. They would defend their nation as they would defend themselves in both intellectual and physical arenas. In this view, you are not a man if not defined by the integrity of the Chinese nation-state and for people who see the world through this lens, like my father, this should have been natural for any real 'Chinese man'.


I don’t buy into this. Or at least I try not to. My assumption was that most people separate their ethnic or racial identity from their gender identity, but as I mentioned, the concept of masculinity is both fragile and resilient.


It is resilient in the sense that it is stubborn. We create parameters of masculinity which are rigid and enforced through societal pressure, anxiety and fear. We fear for varying reasons emasculation through ridicule and scorn for not keeping within these manufactured social constructs as if our masculinity defines our very spirit. Yet, masculinity is also fragile in that these boundaries can break. Conceptions of masculinity are intangible and ill-defined. It can shift and shape around other worldly ideals, sometimes constructively and to break status quos, but other times, masculinity can be exploited for ill-gotten and destructive ends.


But why does even this matter?


As we contend with the societal consequences of COVID-19 to which we see this alarming rise of racial hate crimes and violence towards East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) communities around the world [5], we at the same time struggle with this politicisation of ESEA people. A spotlight, mostly an unwelcome one, has been placed over our communities wherein our identities are being untangled by powers beyond our control and often without our input. Importantly, when others lay claim to our stories, they have opportunity to manipulate discourse away from what matters. That being, at least what I hope for, some semblance of unity and harmony across ESEA communities where racial discourse is spoken aloud with humility and inclusiveness as to draw in allies across the board.


What worries me most is that within the much needed and recent 'Stop Asian hate' discourse, there are camps who will conflate a legitimate campaign to fight racism toward the ESEA people, with politics over nation-state and Chinese identity. And what I wish to unpick here, is how these conversations of masculinity and what it means to be a man are both powerful and alluring enough to entice men away from strength in unity and into political tribes. These 'real Chinese men' supposedly hunt and gather only for the strength of their clan and not for those outsiders, despite sharing more in common than not.


When we speak of these heart-breaking violent attacks on the ESEA community, we are already fighting from the back-foot. Our minds are primed toward to defensiveness and security, and naturally so. No one can levy blame on anyone else for wanting to protect those they love but here, this natural human instinct to defend our communities as an extension of ourselves is being exploited by powers above us. There is a manipulation of insecurity when the parameters of the real Chinese man are conflated with security of the nation-state.


I find this handling of masculinity regressive and manipulative, utilised more and more towards harmful means where ethnic identity and my pride as a Chinese man is no longer personal to me, but is being conditioned and qualified upon ethno-nationalist sentiment measured by other men.


Even recently at a Stop Asian Hate protest, in what should have been a harmonious event to rally ESEA people and allies around the basic principle of being anti-racist, a brawl [6] involving mostly men, would break out amongst pro-Beijing and Pro-Hong Kong groups, where neither were really being 'anti' anything except each other.


Figure 2: Screenshot of video of brawl at Stop Asian hate rally 27th Nov 2021
Figure 2: Screenshot of video of brawl at Stop Asian hate rally 27th Nov 2021

 

[3] Louie, K, (2002), 'Theorising Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China' CUP. p.8

[4] Hu, T. Guan, T. (2021) '"Man-as-Nation": Representations of Masculinity and Nationalism in Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior II'. SAGE Open. July 2021. doi:10.1177/21582440211033557

[5] https://www.itv.com/news/2021-10-06/true-scale-of-covid-hate-crime-against-asians-in-uk-revealed-as-victims-speak-up

[6] https://www.thestandard.com.hk/breaking-news/section/4/183629/Chinese-emigrants-in-London-fought-each-other-in-group-brawl

 

Irrespective of any political views on the issues of Hong Kong and China, this brawl shows two things being true at the same time. First, there is a genuine worry that any dialogue toward Stop Asian Hate in response to an increase in racial violence from COVID-19 will forever be fractured and delegitimised as it wonders further and further into political territory.


Secondly, for those outside looking in, this is simply a video of ESEA men fighting each other at an anti-racist rally. That is an image both ridiculous and sad.


This if anything, is a warning to myself and others like me. If the question of being a Chinese man is to only embody and deploy values positively aligned with the nation-state, wherein any detraction from this would be to go against a supposed natural order, or any attack on the state, is at the same time considered an attack on my identity, then I ask, who made up those rules and for what reason?


My masculinity is mine and mine alone. To give that up to those who construct their world view around outdated ideas of men leading with sword first, do not have my best interests at heart. They have ideals of superiority and perpetual conflict within them, not of equality or of genuine empowerment.


The rise of Chinese Nationalism and the masculine role


July 1921 saw the creation of the Chinese Communist party. A fledging party of likeminded young urban intellectuals who would foster the political ideals that would change the course of Chinese politics over the coming years. 100 years later, on the 1st July 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping would give his keynote speech to mark the centennial anniversary of the birth of Modern China.

The speech would rouse audiences both domestic and international with its tale of a China overcoming insurmountable odds. Jinping would tell a story of China as the resolute underdog. A nation and its people who had reclaimed its honour and pride from those who sought to deplete it of its integrity and corrupt it from the outside. With vindication in his tone, Xi Jinping would claim:


'Through tenacious struggle, the party and the Chinese people showed the world that the Chinese people had stood up, and that the time in which the Chinese nation could be bullied and abused by others was gone forever [7] '


To recount these story beats is not to get into a debate over current political animus between nation-states or to even discuss in great detail the nuances of Chinese history. But for myself, a British-Born Chinese man, and for those who have struggled with questions of identity and place in Western society, this picture of a China and this fulfilment of 'being Chinese' has a certain captivating allure.


There is a powerful narrative at play of pride and regaining strength from an oppressor. There is no point in tiptoeing around the conflict between the East and the West to which the western powers are considered by some to be ideological colonizers of the Middle Kingdom. From the Cold War and the Bamboo curtain, the Chinese state as described by Xi Jinping is one who has placed rejuvenation of state and Chinese pride at the centre of its growth. Rejuvenation not so much from force majeure but from historic subjugation. The nation and its people are spoken about on level terms, wherein the successes and suffering of the state are described as being carried by the people.


The Chinese people and the Chinese state are therefore the same thing within this tale.


Jinping states:


'After the Opium War of 1840, China was gradually reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society and suffered greater ravages than ever before. The country endured intense humiliation, the people were subjected to great pain, and the Chinese civilization was plunged into darkness [8] '


Figure 3: Xi Jinping delivers his keynote speech at a ceremony marking the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, China, on July 1, 2021. Ju Peng/Xinhua via Getty Images
Figure 3: Xi Jinping delivers his keynote speech at a ceremony marking the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, China, on July 1, 2021. Ju Peng/Xinhua via Getty Images

Xi Jinping speaks further about how the country would come together, with the Communist party as the head of the dragon, to lead the nation and its people out of this darkness and into the light by 'fighting bloody battles with unyielding determination, achieving great success' [9].


He speaks of pride and praise for those who came before and engaged in these battles, ready to die for the cause of unity and independence, invigorating these feelings of national togetherness.

In other words, success was found in nationalism.


Nationalism is not a naughty word in isolation. Loving your country is by no means a bad thing, but the question I put forward is what do you love your country for?


In the colloquial sense, speaking of nationalism can just invoke images of people waving flags and cheering for civic love of their home. Or maybe it can invoke images of military might. Well-armed soldiers ready to fall on the sword willing to protect the nation that they hold dear.

 

[7][8][9] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/ceus/eng/zgyw/t1889022.htm

 

Figure 4: China National Day celebration 2016 via social media
Figure 4: China National Day celebration 2016 via social media

Figure 5: China Military Parade via Getty Images
Figure 5: China Military Parade via Getty Images

The common denominator between either image is that there is some lofty, over-encumbering affinity for the nation itself. But nationalism as with masculinity is a malleable term in context of other ideals. Gendered nationalism is where conversations around the nation-state, its security, its composition, its everything, derives from how masculine and feminine gender roles are constructed within the nation.


George L. Mosse [10] encapsulates this idea in arguing that modern masculine stereotypes exist in mutual relationship with modern nationalism. Dating back to the days of medieval tournaments, chivalrous knights and warrior castes, the 'tough guy' male stereotype that we know today has progressed lockstep with the militarization of the modern nation state. These male roles were seen to be pivotal in the making of a nation especially in terms of war and fending off its enemies, and it can be said, the reason these masculine stereotypes find power today is because of the stock we have placed in these roles of the past.


But are roundtable knights and warrior castes relevant in an interconnected global world where conflicts are being fought less in trenches and more on computer screens?


When the integrity and utility of these traditional masculine roles are questioned in a time when gender roles are being torn apart and critiqued, how easy is it then to influence the minds of insecure men who find their importance in the world threatened. Nationalistic narratives provides masculinity an avenue to the past where these gender roles were defined for the benefit of men and their power.


Therefore, when looking at the scholarship of gendered nationalism one must first understand the glamour of nationalism before any gendered spin comes into play.


Political scientist Benedict Anderson speaks of the nation as an 'imagined community' [11]. Adding to this, T.H Marshall’s essay on citizenship and social class conceptualises citizenship in terms of belonging to this nation as a 'status bestowed on all those who are full members of a community' [12] and therefore, this membership is exclusive for full citizens and should in theory be 'united, exclusive and worthy of sacrifice' [13]


Austrian politician and leftist thinker, Otto Bauer in his 1924 essay of 'The Nation' would describe the idea of nation as one intertwined with 'ego', specifically national ego. He would opine that classical thinking in belonging to a nation tracks with saying that 'if someone slights the nation, they slight me too for the nation is in nowhere but in me and my kind [14] '.


As intellectual as these older white men quoted here are, Tamar Mayer [15] simplifies this for me in saying that nationalism:


'is the exclusive empowerment of those who share a sense of belonging to the same “imagined community”'


Therefore, an expression of nationalism is to defend this community, to embody a 'national ego' as an extension of one’s own ego. One’s own ego being a manifestation in of itself of self-interest and individual security.


But Mayer writes 'But what kind of ego is at stake in the case of the “nation”?'


We can see an answer to this characterised in the words of Xi Jinping. Here, the national ego of China is the male ego.


The villains of China’s story are not just those who are seen to be political or ideological enemies of China, it is those forces who in undermining Chinese masculinity, are in turn undermining the security of the nation. To pierce the nation’s ego as its shield is to attack the heart of masculinity, and this is the appeal of nationalism. To protect your country, is to protect yourself, is to protect your ego.


Enduring Nationalism through a crisis of masculinity


We are living in a time wherein generations of people look to critically evaluate the structures of the modern world. Exploiting nationalism as a threat to masculinity must contend with the so-called 'woke' culture where things like traditional gender roles are challenged. These are powerful civic movements which can rally populaces and shift the balance of power to people over state.


So how does the state retain this power?


Simple… crisis. Perpetual crisis is perpetual conflict.


Crisis must be the backdrop to sustain a placation of ego. It keeps the nation on edge as we look to greater forces to protect us from looming catastrophe, and we renegotiate our social contracts from a position of fear.


Crisis in this context comes in two forms. Crisis of security and crisis of moral character. Exploiting both through conversations of masculinity in jeopardy is but one way for the state to secure the narrative toward nationalistic ends.


In terms of crises of moral character, this is tied to security but reflects upon a corruption of the nation-state and the community within. A kind of silent subjugation without weapons but with rhetoric. The moral fibre of the community is seen as binding force that sets the nation apart from its enemies and drives them to success. We look to claim moral superiority as good must triumph over evil.


If the nation is a symbolic extension of the man, then we must ask what makes a 'good' man? Since within a framework of crisis, a crisis of the nation’s moral character must also be a crisis of masculinity. For example, in China it has been reported that their Ministry of Education in response to a supposed national crisis of masculinity, seeks to cultivate masculinity in schools. This initiative purportedly involves:


'Hiring and training more gym teachers, testing students more comprehensively in physical education, making health education compulsory and supporting research into issues like the "influence of the phenomenon of internet celebrities on adolescents' values."' [16]


On that latter point, in China there is apparently a ban in media representations of 'effeminate men' [17] as the state seemingly attempts to take control of masculine roles, maybe to get their boys ready to defend the state in a crisis of security.


Scholar Lili Zhou speaks of this in her PhD thesis stating that this 'need' to transform Chinese men would occur in times of national crisis. She writes that the image of a good man would transmogrify from the fragile scholar as opined by author and academic Geng Song [18] (whose work we will come back to) to the heroic warrior. Zhou writes:


'The need for national salvation and democracy brought about an array of changes to the standards of what constituted a good man: the image of the pale-faced scholar was replaced by the brawny male ideal that plays modern sports and undertakes military drills' [19]


Figure 6: Singer/actor Roy Wang Yuan of boy group TFBoys performs during his first solo concert 'Yuan' at Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre on August 31, 2019 in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province of China. CG/VCG via Getty Images
Figure 6: Singer/actor Roy Wang Yuan of boy group TFBoys performs during his first solo concert 'Yuan' at Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre on August 31, 2019 in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province of China. CG/VCG via Getty Images

Figure 7: Liu Yu (L) and Uno Santa of Buy Group INTO1 attend a YSL promotional event on May 13, 2021 in Shanghai, China. Zhu Ren/VCG via Getty Images
Figure 7: Liu Yu (L) and Uno Santa of Buy Group INTO1 attend a YSL promotional event on May 13, 2021 in Shanghai, China. Zhu Ren/VCG via Getty Images

 

[10] Mosse, George L. 1996. The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity. New York: Oxford University Press.

[11] Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso.

[12] T.H Marshall, (1950) 'Citizenship and Social Class, and Other Essays' Cambridge U.P.

[13] Breuilly, J. (1993) Nationalism and the State, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[14] Bauer, O. (1996 [1924]) “The nation,” in G.Balakrishnan (ed.) Mapping the Nation, London: Verso, pp.

39–77. (The original was published in 1924 as Chapter 1 of Die Nationalitätenfrage und die

Sozialdemokratie, Vienna.)

[15] Mayer T. (2000) Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation. London: Routledge. p.1

[16] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/china-proposes-teaching-masculinity-boys-state-alarmed-changing-gender-roles-n1258939

[17] https://globalnews.ca/news/8164763/china-ban-sissy-men-effeminate/

[18] Song, Geng. 2004. The Fragile Scholar : Power and Masculinity in Chinese Culture. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. Retrieved December 2, 2021

[19] https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/bitstream/10453/23551/5/02Whole.pdf

 

Zhenyu Wang & Yuzhou Taonote that 'global crisis not only influences the rise of nationalism but also its evolution' [20].


From their research we see is how nationalistic sentiment has evolved toward national superiority. They find that people who believe they are in states in crisis are much more likely to engage in the derogation of groups not considered part of an idealised nation and importantly, tend to define one’s own group by criteria of descent, race, or cultural affiliation.


This tendency going from nationalism to national superiority is warlike and breeds an exclusionary community.


In context, when we look at crisis of security, COVID-19 as one of the biggest crises of the modern world has not only caused mass loss of life and destabilised the economic order, but, as has now been widely publicised, global anxieties over COVID-19 have contributed to the increase in anti-Asian hate [21].


These violence attacks in particular have already put our communities in the West on high alert as fingers are pointed toward those with a Chinese face.


So, to protect the Asian from the hate, where does one turn to when the fear of being undermined and enfeebled becomes overwhelming? Where does one find safety and comfort from this racism if not found within their own community? Especially if these violent attacks increase in frequency and we begin to feel as if our eastern hearts no longer find comfort in our western homes.


They could turn to the words of Xi Jinping as he regales them with overtures of a down-trodden hero rediscovering a natural strength that always lay within but was downtrodden for a millennium.


These words play on anxieties of emasculation and if anything, lead to an overcompensation of masculinity to exert strength, and as much as this term has become political in itself, masculinity in favour of nationalism is toxic.


The David and Goliath story peddled by these political powers requires a protagonist and an antagonist to work. China in this story, to be the good guy, must stand parallel to the West in order for its growth through gritted teeth and heroic acts to be displayed in its intended glory. China here is painted in virtuous colours while the West are the archetypal evildoers.


Now I do not mean to deny the achievements of modern China nor do I want to downplay the complicated history between China and Western powers especially in terms of the West and its imperialist attitudes. I want to re-iterate. I am not an apologist for the nation-states of the West but neither will I be coerced into being one for those authoritarian powers of the East.


Figure 8: Another Sick Man. /Nan 1898 Cartoon by Sir John Tenniel on The 'Sick Man Of Europe' Consoling The 'Sick Man Of Asia.'
Figure 8: Another Sick Man. /Nan 1898 Cartoon by Sir John Tenniel on The 'Sick Man Of Europe' Consoling The 'Sick Man Of Asia.'

 

[20] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11366-021-09728-5 [21] https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/12/covid-19-fueling-anti-asian-racism-and-xenophobia-worldwide

 

There is truth to Jinping’s words of course and I am mindful of crisis of the past. The Opium wars happened. The Boxer rebellions happened. China was derided as the sick man of Asia for decades by those across narrow seas and beyond territorial boundaries. As will be explored later, depictions of the East and its people in western history and media have served to not only alienate, but to specifically emasculate ESEA men. Thus, Jinping’s words are not inaccurate, but they are emotive and exaggerated against the backdrop of crisis. There is power in its framing to invigorate ideas of national unity and strength, to paint China as the righteous hero facing off against a corrupt force who were jealous of our power and wished to destroy us. Any Chinese person, let alone a man, could feel naturally drawn to these words revering Xi Jinping as the representation of an innate strength that had always belonged to us but was never allowed to fully awaken.


Jinping himself is considered the epitome of Chinese masculinity. A proper Chinese alpha male that rightfully defends his nation as an extension of himself. Chinese media would exploit the heroic traits of self-sacrifice and humility to form a cult of personality around Xi Jinping as the father of modern China – Xi Dada [22] (Big Daddy Xi). An authoritarian strongman that within a framework of crisis, shows that he has rediscovered that hidden strength and will use it to push back against the western imperialists. To those without a north star, Jinping is a clean representation of those Confucian masculine ideals of being strong warriors without fear.


Famed military leader and alleged short man Napoleon Bonaparte would apparently say:


'Let China sleep. For when she wakes, the world will tremble [23] '


And if I were to give stock to Xi Jinping, his words are heard by Chinese men as the rallying cry of a waking dragon. The logical conclusion to confront crisis is to find power from somewhere.


I can’t deny that I also find this captivating. There has been a void in my chest growing up in the West as a solitary Chinese face where we can feel disconnected from any larger community, and it is natural to feel like you do not belong here.


For those men without place, Jinping’s words find further credibility when we see this crisis of masculinity sustained and fabricated in the west. Growing up, depictions of ESEA men in western media was demoralising, knowing in your mind’s eye that these portrayals did not mesh with the image of strength we yearned for, or the connection to wider society we needed.


In the pivotal longitudinal study 'Tokens on The Small Screen: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Prime Time and Streaming Television' it was noted that 'representation on television is significant because it can affect our sense of what Lori Kido Lopez refers to as “cultural citizenship' [25]


Yet growing up, we would feel pushed to the peripheries of popular culture as we had nothing to look up to except the bookish and puny nerd, or the goofy, heavily accented parody. Comedy foil to be laughed, not with. When this is all you see on TV, it is normal to feel disconnected, desexualised and disempowered in contrast with the western man.


And when aligned with depictions of ESEA women as objects of sexual desire for the strong white action hero, these dragon ladies and lotus blossoms, there is another oppressive weight upon our backs as our worthiness as sexual partners is put in competition, without our say, against our white counterparts.


I get it. I understand the frustration that comes with all of this. This pseudosexual dimension where a loss of masculinity, desirability and strength all coalesce to make one feel like a husk of a man, and it is strange recognising these feelings of emasculation is due in part to my ethnicity.


Figure 9: Theatrical release poster for 1957 film 'Sayonara' starring Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka
Figure 9: Theatrical release poster for 1957 film 'Sayonara' starring Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka

Figure 10: Mickey Rooney as I. Y. Yunioshi in 1961 film "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
Figure 10: Mickey Rooney as I. Y. Yunioshi in 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's'

Figure 11: Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in 1984 film “Sixteen Candles”
Figure 11: Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in 1984 film 'Sixteen Candles'

 

[22] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/03/01/xi-jinpings-authoritarian-rise-in-china-has-been-powered-by-sexism/

[23] https://www.napoleon.org/en/history-of-the-two-empires/articles/ava-gardner-china-and-napoleon/#_ftnref2

[24] https://www.aapisontv.com/

[25] DuCros, F. M., Chin, C. B., Lee, J. J.-H., Yuen, N. W., Deo, M. E., & Milman, N. (2018). Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on TV. Contexts, 17(4), 12–17. https://doi.org/10.1177/1536504218812863

 

I mention this not to find excuses for those who advertently or inadvertently then gravitate towards the strongman aura of Jinping and his authoritarian nationalising narratives.


I mention this to give some recognition to the context of which ESEA men in the west may grapple with issues of masculine identity. Where do I find pride and strength in being a Chinese man if my primary sources offer no respite from feelings of emasculation?


The Jinping model provides such easy template for finding this inner pride and he offers a sense of empowerment to those rendered frail by the western lived experience. But as is the core of this essay, to what means is this template being used?


An altered truth is found in those who offer it, but we have to be careful. We cannot confuse wanting to be seen as strong with wanting to be heard as men.


I am very much guilty of looking to China as my ancestral homeland for direction. I know Chinese culture through the lens of my family and through TV of course, but these are narrow lenses that without guidance or context, can make us feel as if we are David without a sling. Especially if in the west, we are burdened with these western ideals of masculinity, strength and sexual machismo.


Jinping has offered me, as a Chinese man, the power of a sleeping dragon to fulfil all of my wants. But is what he offers really what I’ve wanted since I was a younger Chinese boy?


Empowerment – a cinematic example


One may wonder what the big deal is if Jinping wishes to cultivate a generation of manly men to push back against the west. The west are not themselves virtuous heroes in the history of humankind and humans are organically primed to fight, aren’t they?


Maybe. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Starting at a base level, I mentioned before that I wish to see unity in ESEA groups that are not splintered along political fissures. ESEA men fighting other ESEA men is fruitless in a larger fight against racism.


On a more global scale, of course I wish to see peace. I point to the words of the late and great comedian George Carlin who said:


'All patriarchal societies are either preparing for war, at war, or recovering from war' [26]


Let’s be honest with ourselves. We know this is true and as dramatic as this may sound; I do not wish for a generation to live in a world where hotheads and inflated egos continue to lead younger men and women into battles of supremacy.


Jinping as with other authoritarian strongman figures offers this world on a plate as one for the taking.


East vs West. The sleeping dragon vs the bald eagle and today, I fear these narratives of Eastern supremacy wherein masculinity, in fragile and toxic forms is being utilised more now a tool of overt nationalism.


But I offer another perspective of ESEA male empowerment and it is one found within the same spaces utilised by those ethno-nationalists. That being in cinema and in media.


Figure 12: Jason Scott Lee as Bruce Lee in 1993 film 'Dragon: A Bruce Lee story'. In this scene, Bruce Lee fights British Sailors who were harassing a Chinese woman
Figure 12: Jason Scott Lee as Bruce Lee in 1993 film 'Dragon: A Bruce Lee story'. In this scene, Bruce Lee fights British Sailors who were harassing a Chinese woman

Figure 13: Donnie Yen as Ip Man in 'Ip Man 2'. In this scene, Ip Man faces off against Taylor 'The Twister' Miller, a racist British Boxing champion
Figure 13: Donnie Yen as Ip Man in 'Ip Man 2'. In this scene, Ip Man faces off against Taylor 'The Twister' Miller, a racist British Boxing champion

Hong Kong martial arts media has been a staple of many childhoods including my own. Many of my favourite films, from the Fong Sai Yuk and Wong Fei Hong series to Bruce Lee classics and the modern Ip Man films, not only had amazing fight choreography that would inspire many but would centre on an ESEA male lead that was talented, powerful and influential.


At the same time, many of these films contained nationalistic undertones that were vessels for these appealing underdog stories. Either battling the oppressive forces of the western imperialists or the Japanese emperor, Chinese and Hong Kong Cinema in particular has employed popular media to deliver to those like me, tales of Chinese men taking control and fighting back.


Figure 14: Theatrical post for 1976 movie "Ba guo lian jun"
Figure 14: Theatrical post for 1976 movie "Ba guo lian jun"

One of my all-time favourite series was 'Once upon a time in China' starring Jet Li as the legendary Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung. The famed martial artist and physician who over a series of six films and a TV series, would battle against corrupt bureaucrats and western imperialists with almost mythical fighting prowess. Even for those who did not grow up with these films, the theme song [27] itself has become a part of Chinese pop culture and is easily recognisable to many as an anthem of Chinese power with its deep, resounding anthemic tones and booming militaristic beat.


Figure 15: Scene from 1997 'Once Upon a Time in China and America'. Here Wong Fei-Hung faces off against a cowboy
Figure 15: Scene from 1997 'Once Upon a Time in China and America'. Here Wong Fei-Hung faces off against a cowboy

 

[26] Carlin, G. (2015) “3 x Carlin: An Orgy of George including Brain Droppings, Napalm and Silly Putty, and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, Hachette Books

[27] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbQ4ZKI-hKM

 

It is really difficult not to get amped up when hearing that song and I am not saying anyone should feel ashamed doing so.


Seeking out these representations of the ESEA man was akin to chasing a high. Was it any wonder how euphoric it would be to watch the first fight scene in season 1 of Cinemax’s Warrior as protagonist Ah Sam would beat down some racist white men? And compare that feeling to watching Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood divisive scene of Bruce Lee being bested by Brad Pitt. To many this felt demeaning, almost insulting and despite how much I liked that film, and how much I wished to apply reason and logic to that scene, I must admit I felt deflated simply because I saw a Chinese hero of mine beaten by a white man.


Figure 16: Scene from ep.1, season 1 from Cinemax show 2019 'Warrior'
Figure 16: Scene from ep.1, season 1 from Cinemax show 2019 'Warrior'

Figure 17: Scene from 2019 film 'Once upon a time in Hollywood'
Figure 17: Scene from 2019 film 'Once upon a time in Hollywood'

It would be easy to lean into the latter feeling of defeat and offer the former image as something to be desired and achieved. This dichotomy I believe is something many ethno-nationalists exploit without context, offering impressionable ESEA men what they feel has been denied to them, power in a white mans world.


But here is where I believe there is another perspective of empowerment to take.


What did I actually revere about these ESEA male role models of cinema and TV?


Was it just their fighting skills? No that was just cool and a nice showcase of ESEA heritage.


Was it the narrative framing of an ESEA male pushing back against the west? Maybe. But this is an oversimplification of the power these movies had that minimises the depth of these characters. Yes, while this specific narrative device is compelling, it is the character of Wong Fei-Hung, of Ah Sam, of Bruce Lee that I actually revered. They exhibited a quiet and humble strength that humanised them in contrast to the caricature of the bullish western man.


It wasn’t the fact that they beat down an oppressive force, it was the fact that they had the strength of courage to rise above it in the first place. They were not one-dimensional beings of machismo, they exhibited sensitivity and humility as well as fighting talent.


For example, remembering Ip Man, he was teacher and community figure first. He would lead with words before fists and believed in peace over violence. Violence, as with many ESEA martial arts traditions would be permitted only as a last resort.


In the closing scenes of Ip Man 2, it was the speech Donnie Yen would deliver to the white audience that moved me most. When he would extend an open hand to other cultures and spite tradition as to allow his humbleness to pierce cultural boundaries, was that not more heroic than a closed fist to the solar plexus?


This is the image of the hero that was most enthralling. The flying fists and feet were just a visually delightful bonus.


What I hope for here is the contextualisation of heroism not as a display of overt machismo and arrogance, but of humility and leadership.


There is something of a renaissance now with ESEA male leads in Western films and yes, we have Shang-Chi with his fighting abilities, but he is more than martial arts superhero. He is an ESEA man with personal struggles and love for his family and friends despite embodying ideological differences.


We have Steven Yuen in Minari who enters into battles with his own ego, jeopardising his family and marriage only to show heroism after inflicting trauma upon his loved ones.


These are multi-dimensional ESEA men and they present to us varying contours of heroism and strength that sit outside the archetype of the manly man fighting against the evildoers.


Boys fight. Boys get angry. Boys feel but never show. There are social constructs that serve to only isolate us as men and weaponize our insecurities for destructive means.


This is my beef with what ethno-nationalists do. They prey on our insecurities and self-doubt to generate an army of one-dimensional thinkers and if anything, this propensity toward machismo and toughness, is not 'Chinese'. It is what they abhor. A western concept.


This conception of gender discourse in Chinese tradition is discussed by Geng Song, in his analysis of the 'fragile scholar' [28]. Here, Geng Song discusses how gender discourse was more power-based than sex-based in pre-modern China, and Chinese masculinity was androgynous in nature. He says that:


'It is obvious that the critique of Chinese men has been underpinned by the internalization of the dominant Western notion of masculinity as the universal norm. Chinese men are judged against the myth of the Western macho heroes by the Western standards and are thus labeled effeminate' [29] .


Thus, this traditional image of the fragile scholar would only come to embody weakness when compared to the west but in retrospect, masculinity in China was more fluid and did not have to signal any kind of 'strong manly' attributes.


Geng Song would further this and state that


'The Chinese intellectuals' self-reading of their cultural memory in an effort to achieve a "stronger " male identity and come out of a nationalist sentiment, "coincides " with the Orientalist construction of the effeminate, weird and evil Chinese men as the Other. Both discourses overlooked the hegemonic nature of the "normative masculinity.' [30]


Therefore, the push for a manly man in modernity is nothing but an echo of outdated western ideals of masculinity. We are being led by the nose into a head-to-head war which does not need to happen.


What would truly be heroic and ironically more Chinese, is to return to an understanding of masculinity that removes itself from violent machismo, and centres upon humility as a human virtue.


To go against the macho grain is much more heroic to me and symbolic of masculine virtues than signalling to the world that I am a real Chinese man with a tough Chinese spirit.


Of course, some people revel in this idea and live in a state of perpetual theatre to display toughness through violence.


I for one, hope for a better world. I am a real Chinese man. I have been since I was a real Chinese boy. My masculinity is mine alone and like Pinocchio, I refuse to be a puppet anyone.


 

[28] Geng Song, G (2004) 'The fragile scholar: power and masculinity in Chinese culture.' Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press

[29] Ibid p.9

[30] Ibid



 


Vy-liam Ng

is a writer, legal specialist, and PhD student, contributing regularly to platforms such as Resonate and besea.n. His articles draw from his background in law, specifically, immigration and human rights. His research focuses on the Rohingya, genocide and statelessness in East and South East Asia.


In September 2021 I was so relieved for my son to go back to school for face-to-face lessons. He didn’t work so well during lockdown. He refused to participate in the online lessons – he said they wer