The Campaign against “Sissy Men” and the Worship of Strength in Modern Chinese Culture

The Chinese authorities are worried that young men in China are becoming effeminate and that this threatens to Xi Jinping’s grand project of national rejuvenation. In September last year television regulators decreed that broadcasters must “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics”. Since then, we have witnessed a veritable campaign against “sissy men”.

The background of this campaign is that in recent years some pop stars and celebrities have attracted millions of admirers by crossing conventional gender borders and cultivating an androgynous look. This has included young males displaying traditionally feminine attributes.

Rejecting Effeminacy

The androgenous vogue in the Chinese pop world has drawn inspiration from Japan and Korea. But it is also an expression of a desire to break away from the narrow confines on culture imposed by the state. Crossing gender boundaries, experimenting with new gender identities and forms of sexuality that do not conform to conventional norms may be seen as part of the ongoing modernization of Chinese society. Regrettably, this is perceived as a threat by the regime in Beijing.

For men to appear effeminate seems to be especially annoying to conservative-minded people. Contempt for “sissy men”, a stance that mixes rejection with fear, is not new but has deep roots in modern Chinese history and goes hand in hand with the worship of strength, which is also a salient feature of modern Chinese culture. In a conversation with a highly educated Chinese acquaintance, then in his forties, a decade ago the notion of gender and the perception of national strength came up in a discussion of Sino-Japanese relations. He believed that a renewed conflict was inevitable and said he would be ready to go an “teach the Japanese a lesson.” In his view, however, young men in China were then too “cowardly” or “weak” to fight a war, a circumstance which he found quite upsetting.

In 1997 the Taiwanese writer and social critic Lung Yingtai published an article in the Shanghai newspaper Wenhuibao on gender relations, which caused much discussion and evoked furious responses from men in Shanghai. In fact, Lung’s main message was praise for Mainland Chinese men, and particularly Shanghai men, for their willingness to engage in household tasks and have a progressive mindset. She found that these attitudes contrasted strongly with more patriarchal mindsets in Taiwan, as well as in Western countries like Germany and Switzerland. In her observations, men in Shanghai did not find doing domestic chores demeaning, were not threatened by the successes of their wives, and did feel the urge to put their masculinity on display. She contrasted this with a discussion of gender roles in Taiwan and the traditional female virtues enshrined in classic Chinese literature, the latter of which she referred to as a “record of female self-abuse.” Lung also drew a comparison between Shanghai and Sweden, which she considered an example of a gender equal society. 

The article did not set out to ridicule or denigrate Swedish or Shanghai men. Lung praised men in Sweden and Shanghai for looking beyond gender constraints, but also pointed out the difficulty of maintaining real equality and the ease with which human relationships can fall into the pattern of dominance and subordination. At the end of her article, she wrote about the trend for men in Shanghai to financially support younger women to be their extra-marital mistresses, raising the questions: “Is it possible for male-female relationships to break away from the pattern of dominance-subordination? What are in fact the prospects for real male-female equality, for mutual respect and mutual love?”

Lung Yingtai’s article is a fascinating example of how one of East Asia’s most perceptive social critics looked upon gender relations in the 1990s. While one may question how accurate her depictions are, one of the most interesting aspects of the article were the reactions it elicited in Shanghai. While the main message was to praise Shanghai men, her characterization infuriated many who viewed it as insulting.

The current campaign against “sissy men,” commonplace remarks about young Chinese men being unfit to fight a war, and the storm of criticism against Lung Yingtai are all expressions of an important feature of modern Chinese culture since that has held sway for more than a century: the idea that the supposed feminization of Chinese men weakens the nation and hinders the attainment of wealth and power, a major goal since the late nineteenth century.

An Ideology of Strength

In the wake of the Opium War, narratives about the Chinese state and society as being weak and ailing began to circulate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In response radical thinkers began to conceptually link national failings to the supposed physical weakness of Chinese men, exemplified by the traditional literary Confucian ideal of the “talented scholar and beautiful woman” that often portrayed scholars as talented and sensitive but also as physically rather frail and anemic. They concluded that the challenge was to invigorate Chinese culture and society and to make China strong again. In the emergent ideological landscape, where the search for wealth and power came into the foreground, the idea of social evolution and especially of a Darwinist perspective on cultures and societies had tremendous appeal.

In China, the lure of Social Darwinism was so strong that Thomas Huxley’s Romance lectures on “Evolution and Ethics” of 1893, conceived of as an attack against Social Darwinism, became re-appropriated in its first Chinese translation by scholar Yan Fu as a propaganda text supporting Social Darwinism which had enormous impact among young Chinese intellectuals. Huxley, a biologist and ardent supporter of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, considered the application Darwinian principles to social relations by contemporaries such as Herbert Spencer to be profoundly mistaken. For Huxley it was essential to keep the realm of nature and biology separate from that of culture and society on the other hand apart. In the words of Yan Fu’s biographer Benjamin Schwarz:

Nothing could have been further from Huxley’s pathos at this point than Yen [Yan] Fu’s ardent desire to find in the Darwinian cosmos prescriptions for human behavior. Nothing – it may hardly be added – was more remote from Huxley’s concerns than Yen Fu’s preoccupation with the wealth and power of the state.

Yan Fu realized this and disagreed with Huxley’s views. But he found that it would be too difficult and time-consuming to translate Spencer, whose views he wholeheartedly supported, and instead, he chose to translate Huxley’s much easier text “Evolution and Ethics”. Significantly he gave his translation the title Tianyan lun 天演论 which means “On Evolution”, leaving out “ethics”, and his translation became, in the words of Schwarz, “a paraphrase of Huxley’s views and an exposition of Spencer’s essential views as against Huxley”. This text then became essential reading for China’s young radicals.

Legacies of Social Darwinism

In the twentieth century, Social Darwinism came to permeate radical political thought in China. Within the notion of “class struggle”, for example, one can recognize a specific form of Social Darwinism that designates the mechanisms through which the principle of the survival of the fittest can be implemented.  In 1915 Chen Duxiu (1879–1942), one of the leaders of the May Four New Culture Movement and from 1921 the Communist Party’s first General Secretary, published an article entitled “Call to Youth”, in which he compared youth to new cells in the human body:

The function of youth in society is the same as that of a fresh and vital cell in a human body. In the processes of metabolism, the old and the rotten are incessantly eliminated to be replaced by the fresh and living… If metabolism functions properly in a human body, the person will be healthy; if the old and rotten cells accumulate and fill the body, the person will die. If metabolism functions properly in a society, it will flourish; if old and rotten cells fill the society, then it will cease to exist.

Ever since the time of Yan Fu and Chen Duxiu, the worship of strength coupled with contempt for weakness has found expression in Chinese thought especially but not only in the Maoist “philosophy of struggle”. Contemporary China is experiencing a push towards a more centralized form of governance that has impacted many aspects of society. This of course not only impacts the social perceptions of men and masculinity, but also women. One widely discussed aspect of this is reflected in the government’s attempts to influence marriage and reproductive behavior as part of a wider effort to stave off a looming demographic crisis. The worship of strength and a contempt of weakness have long present in Chinese history and the current campaign against “sissy men” is the latest manifestation of this impulse.

The worship of strength as it pertains to the campaign against “sissy men” can be understood in the light of modern Chinese history, but in a world where peace and reconciliation should be one of our main concerns, this is not a healthy phenomenon. Therefore, rather than condemning pop stars, who have the courage to break with traditional norms, for “abnormal esthetics”, would it not be more reasonable to welcome them as a vital and liberating phenomenon on the contemporary cultural scene?