Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002
Kam Louie

Theorising Chinese Masculinity:
Society and Gender in China

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002
239 pages. ISBN: 0521806216 (hardback).

review by Chris Berry

Theorising Chinese Masculinity is a lucid and concise analysis of the cultural archetypes shaping Chinese masculinity, ranging from the earliest days to the present in less than 170 pages of text. Studies of particular examples and aspects of Chinese masculinity have been written before, such as Zhong Xueping's excellent examination of male anxiety in late twentieth century Chinese literature, Masculinity Besieged?.[1] However, as Kam Louie points out, amidst the ever-growing hubbub generated about the 'silenced' female gender, work on Chinese masculinity has been conspicuously absent. Of course, this may not reflect discrimination against men so much as the assumption that women are a problem needing investigation whereas masculinity is a norm and taken for granted. Nonetheless, Louie's monograph is the first attempt at a general theorisation of the subject, making it essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in gender in China. Attentive to historical change, especially over the last century of China's negotiation of Western culture, it provides the foundation for an emergent field of study and will be the starting point for most work on the topic for many years to come. The direct and accessible style in which it is written also makes it indispensable for classroom teaching at all levels.

Louie's basic argument is that Chinese masculinity has been structured by two archetypes that operate in a productive tension, much as the familiar yin and yang do. One is wen, associated with the gentleman-scholar or junzi promoted by Confucius, who is the patron saint of wen masculinity. The emphasis here is on the maintenance of civil order and the promotion of vertical bonds of hierarchy and filiality. The second archetype is wu, the martial masculinity symbolized by the Han Dynasty military leader Guan Yu, who is now the patron saint of cops and criminals alike. Wu masculinity is associated with the outlaw space of the jianghu, familiar to martial arts movie fans, and it emphasizes the horizontal bonds of brotherhood. Although these two archetypes operate together, it may come as a surprise to readers accustomed to Hollywood macho to learn that wen has been prioritised in Chinese culture. Scholar-gentlemen are hardly men at all in contemporary American culture, and justice is only achieved when cowboys, cops, and soldiers break the rules and resort to violence. In contrast, an ideal balance of wen and wu emphasizes the skill and strategy that comes with learning as a means of avoiding descending to the use of violence. A world in which wen masculinity does not dominate is a world of disorder and chaos.

The opening chapters of the book, in which the pre-modern histories of wen and wu masculinities are fleshed out, are full of other fascinating information that may also surprise the reader. For example, not only is scholarly masculinity more important than macho, but also it is the wen man who was attractive to women, not the macho warrior. However, as Louie shows with numerous literary examples, it would be a mistake to think that wen masculinity is in any way considerate to women. Women represent temptation and the threat of loss of control for both types of men, and while wu men are simply supposed to eschew women entirely and often eliminate them violently, wen men are encouraged to exert control over any desire they might feel for the women they attract, abandoning them as they focus on the careers and family duties.

As well as informing the reader, Louie also advances new and sometimes provocative arguments about wen and wu. For example, chapter two argues that the conventional understanding of the world of warrior masculinity may be incorrect. Whereas most writers argue that this world is more or less asexual, Louie argues that it might be better to understand it as a homosocial world in which passion between male friends was encouraged and quite likely sexual. Louie supports these claims by pointing out that passages describing instances where men and women do sleep together use the same language as those where men sleep together, and that when men sleep together, this also leads to passionate attachment, jealousy, and all the other emotions one might expect in romantic and sexual relationships.

Another strength of these opening chapters is that they are attentive to historical change and how other factors, such as the presumed class affiliation of consumers of different texts, leads to variations in the realization of the archetypes. This attention to historical detail is even stronger in the second half of the book, which considers the fate of wen and wu masculinity in the modern era. Topics covered include the working class hero in socialist fiction, Chinese masculinity overseas as depicted in Lao She's early twentieth century novel The Two Mas[2] and more recent accounts, martial arts films, and the depiction of men in fiction by Chinese women. To Louie's credit, he does not try to insist on the universal applicability of the wen and wu models or force everything to fit into this framework. For example, although he traces wen and wu traits in male protagonists in a series of novels by women writers, he notes the absence of the obsession with control that normally characterizes both wen and wu and relates this to a lack of investment in wen and wu on the part of women, whose femininity is by definition outside this dyad (118). In the last chapters, he also emphasizes that the world of wen and wu is not only being hybridised by the appropriation of elements of Western masculinity, but also becoming part of non-Chinese cultures through martial arts culture and migration. In this way, he avoids the usual pessimistic cliché about Western dominance and sees Chinese masculinity as playing a productive role in the shaping of new global cultures.

Covering a vast range of material precludes close textual analysis. By and large, Theorising Chinese Masculinity's consideration of the literature in question is focused on narrative and character traits, and issues of perspective, enunciation, style, and so forth receive less attention. No doubt as other scholars follow Louie lead and carry out more focused work on Chinese masculinity, the arguments advanced in Theorising Chinese Masculinity will become the standard knowledge in the field to be extended, put to the test, and further developed for many years to come.


[1] Zhong Xueping, Masculinity Besieged?, Duke University Press, 2000.

[2] Lao She, The Two Mas, trans. Kenny K. Huang and David Finkelstein; ill. by Ding Cong, Hongkong: Joint Pub. Co., 1984


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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