- Theorizing Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China
In Theorizing Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China Kam Louie offers us a very clear and concise analysis of the cultural models of Chinese masculinity from ancient imperial times to the present age of transnational contact. Although academic works on Chinese masculinity are not totally absent, systematic and thorough historical surveys of this topic are still rare. While gender studies of China are predominantly on femininity or other women-related issues, man as a gendered category has long escaped serious academic attention. Louie's book could be considered a pioneering effort to provide a rather comprehensive study of this subject. Besides describing in detail the historical development of the male image from premodern to contemporary times, Louie also focuses on the ways in which Chinese men have been represented under the Western gaze and how these representations have negotiated with the dominant Western culture.
The fundamental structure of masculinity in China, according to Louie, operates according to the two poles of wen (literary attainment, cultural knowledge, the mental) and wu (martial valor, martial arts, the physical), which are far more complementary than antagonistic, although the wen polarity has always been prioritized over wu in the conventional Chinese mindset. wen maleness is exemplified by Confucius, the sage of the gentleman-scholar type, whereas Guan Yu, the God of War, represents the wu masculine ideal. These two archetypes of Chinese masculinity [End Page 497] converge in the stern observance of moral demands, self-restraint, and a resistance or even a misogynistic attitude to the faults associated with femininity (i.e., sexual pleasure, comfort, and loss of virility) in order to pursue lofty forms of justice and homosocial binding. The recent popularity of Hong Kong martial arts films in the West may help Western readers become accustomed to the traditional Chinese idea that the ideal balance of wen and wu places emphasis on strategy and learning as a means of avoiding the use of violence. Louie repeatedly asserts that, in the Chinese cultural context, all men by definition have some wen and/or some wu, thus negating a simplified dichotomy.
The highest ideal of Chinese maleness is that of a single individual who can demonstrate at the highest level the cultural credentials and physical skills of wen and wu. That is to say, the great man who can hold a brush in his right hand and a sword or some other weapon in his left, demonstrating prowess in both kinds of effort. But in terms of their sex appeal, it is always the softer, cerebral, scholarly men of wen who are more attractive to Chinese women than their macho, brawny opposite. Other than analyzing the heterosexual relationships of Chinese manhood, Louie also provocatively suggests that brotherhood and passions between men are never simply homosocial but can have sexual implications. He supports this claim by making reference to many classical texts that depict men sleeping together, leading to strong emotional attachments and jealousy, as if they were in a romantic or erotic liaison. What distinguishes Louie's wen/wu duality from the conventional yin/yang binary opposition (which is also an artificial difference that defines the Chinese male in relation to Western men and reinforces the stereotype of a feminized Chinese masculinity) is that he believes his dyad of Chinese masculinity to be more resilient, flexible, and adaptable to historical change, hybridizing with Western culture while simultaneously exerting its own global influence on non-Chinese cultures.
Covering a vast range of historical and contemporary materials and a variety of genres, from classical philosophy to traditional vernacular fiction (e.g., The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin), through Lao She's early twentieth-century novel The Two Mas, the subversive portrayals of men by modern Chinese women writers, to contemporary Hong Kong action cinema—all in a relatively slim volume—Louie is at his best, for example, when observing and depicting character, but he is not so good at analyzing his texts on a...