The Changing Definition of Male Role Models in China

Online reaction to a provocation viral song shows that people are growing bored of chauvinistic, swaggering depictions of masculinity.

Han Han. Photo: Weibo.

In January this year, Han Han — a rally car racer, blogger, director, and long-serving cultural provocateur once dubbed a “literary bad boy” by Time magazine — found himself embroiled in yet another controversy. Ten days before the release of his second film, “Duckweed,” he posted a video of the movie’s theme song on popular Chinese microblogging website Weibo.

Called “A Real Man’s Manifesto” and featuring lyrics penned by Han himself, the song recounts the words of a fictional man on his wedding day, as he tenderly lays out his demands to his wife-to-be. “You must never go to bed before me; You must always rise earlier,” croons the man. “The food you cook must be fragrant and sweet; The clothes you wear must be in good taste.”

“What kind of lyrics are these?” asked one of the first Weibo responders in apparent disgust, before diagnosing Han with zhinan’ai, or “straight man cancer,” a commonly used slang term for casually misogynistic men. It was a charge that tens of thousands of other users agreed with, judging by the number of times the post was upvoted.

Han responded by revealing a second song, “A Real Man’s Oath,” the next day. Set to the same tune but with altered lyrics, the singer swore to love his wife forever, humbly proclaiming his “foolish but hardworking nature.” Han pointed out that both tracks were based on two Japanese songs from 1979 that were popular in China at the time; the first set of lyrics were the words of a boorish unmarried man, and the second were those of a wiser husband, who would soon be transformed into a more understanding but “henpecked” spouse, to use Han’s term. After acknowledging — perhaps sarcastically — the great contributions that women’s rights defenders were bringing to Chinese society, Han suggested that “they should not be so sensitive.”

His fans agreed, citing the two songs as evidence of his celebrated satirical eye, which — through his blogs and novels — had previously taken aim at such issues as the education system, government corruption and media freedom. Critics, on the other hand, believed that his lyrics and the explanation that followed revealed him to be at best a shrewd self-promoter, and at worst a chauvinist throwback. Either way, the episode is an example of how masculinity is an increasingly pressing concern in the Chinese cultural scene, both in the way it is enacted and the way it is represented.

Unprecedented economic growth alongside the rise of consumerism, urbanization, and globalization have all contributed to the emergence of multiple, often competing, male role models in China. Across both traditional and social media, men and women are now presented with a bewildering array of idealized male “types”: from the loving new-age fathers and partners of TV shows like “Dad, Where Are We Going?” to the besuited modern metropolitan “gentlemen,” from cute “little fresh meat” boy bands and TV actors to Chinese cinema’s macho action heroes. Meanwhile, Chinese media regularly declares a so-called crisis of masculinity that, to the most melodramatic commentators, threatens to turn the nation’s boisterous boys into weedy little wimps.

These are neither solely a Chinese phenomenon nor a particularly new one, as fears about the state of the nation’s men have been sporadically voiced since at least the 19th century. Whether one sees the current “crisis” as actual or merely perceived, it is nonetheless unsurprising that writers and filmmakers consistently return to the question of how best to be a man in this new, fast-changing world.

Han is by no means the only writer who has wrestled with the thorny problem of “real” manhood in China. Yet the way in which Han represents — and therefore helps construct — masculinity can shed light on some of the ways in which gender roles are developing in Chinese film and literature.

One of the more unexpected elements of Han’s theme songs is the fact that he does not, as a rule, write about cozy domesticity. Notwithstanding the mainstream commercial success of his films and novels, he is better known for his narratives of alienation and rebellion, celebrating those who turn away from mainstream society.

The heroes of these stories are invariably swaggering young men. In what one might interpret as an illustration of Han’s brand-building genius, this is actually an archetype that bears a striking resemblance to Han’s own performance of masculinity in the numerous advertisements in which he stars. The majority of the characters Han has created would agree with his exhortation to “do battle with the world” — as is splashed across Han’s commercials for Camel outdoor clothing — or, indeed, with the declaration blaring from a Subaru-sponsored banner on Han’s personal blog: “I go my own road.”

By the same token, at the core of “Duckweed” is not the love affair between a man and a woman, but the story of how a dysfunctional father-son relationship is repaired through male bonding. After a catastrophic accident, a young race car driver named Lang travels back in time to meet his parents when they were young and still unmarried. While Lang is ostensibly interested in meeting his mother, who died when he was still a baby, the majority of the narrative centers on his attempts to better understand his father.

Upon discovering that his father is a small-town hoodlum, Lang joins his gang, and as they drink, drive, and fight together, generational conflicts are reconciled and the pair become not just father and son, but “brothers.” It is, in other words, a celebration of the redemptive power of male-male friendships and of life on the margins of society. In answer to the silent question of how best to be a man, the answer is loud and clear: Go your own road, but remember to keep your male buddies beside you.

Bromance, cars, and countercultural “cool” are themes that run through much of Han’s work and are, as the advertisements he features in suggest, a major part of Han’s own public image. It is an equation that might remind some audiences of the Beat poets or Hollywood buddy and road movies, lending Han the kind of masculine image that has been described as owing “equal debts to Kerouac and Timberlake.”

Han himself has acknowledged the influence of non-Chinese films on his works. But this form of masculinity is also instantly recognizable to any Chinese audience as belonging to the jianghu, a world of outlaws and outcasts on the margins of society, living beyond the reach of state authority. In this male-dominated underworld, the moral code demands bravery, integrity, and brotherhood above all else.

Despite his reputation as a disruptive cultural presence, Han taps into deep-seated ideals of masculinity — drawn from both local and global sources — that have a consistent commercial appeal. In the process, reflecting a pattern evident across the Chinese literary world, women are often sidelined and silenced, featuring largely as props for the exploration of modern manhood.

Fortunately, the critical response to Han’s tasteless theme songs points to a growing backlash against chauvinistic behavior in China and what some activists have called a nascent “gender revolution.” It remains to be seen whether this backlash will prompt male authors to grant women a louder voice in the future.


–This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone