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Reviewed by:
  • Theorising Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China
  • Hong Xiao (bio)
Kam Louie. Theorising Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 239 pp. Hardcover £43.00, IBSN 0–521–80621–6.

In this thought-provoking book, Kam Louie applies the wen-wu framework as an analytical tool to conceptualize masculinity in Chinese culture. Drawing upon icons, symbols, and images from classic and contemporary Chinese literature as well as Hong Kong and mainland China films, Louie successfully outlines how wen and wu comprise Chinese masculinity. As Louie points out, while Chinese male sexuality is not entirely off the radar screen of gender studies in the West, the limited published works often deal with nonmainstream concerns such as homosexuality. When mainstream sexuality is the focus, with a few notable exceptions, the treatment of the subject rarely goes beyond an application of Western models or the yin-yang framework. Even less frequent have been book-length discussions of the subject, and none has focused on defining male attributes utilizing the wen-wu framework. This book opens the door to a new terrain of the study of Chinese masculinity. [End Page 175]

The book begins with a brief overview of the challenge in theorizing masculinity in general and Chinese masculinity in particular. As many scholars of gender studies have convincingly contested, theorizing masculinity is often problematic because masculinity has multiple and ambiguous meanings. Definitions of masculinity differ from one culture to another and even vary within the same culture. Louie highlights the need to analyze Chinese masculinity as an independent category because Chinese sexuality is constructed quite differently from that of the West. Within the framework of Western stereotypes, images of Chinese men do not conform to the macho model of masculinity. In scholarly books and mass media, Chinese men appear less “sexual” or “sexy” and more “intelligent” than both black and white men. To have a better understanding of Chinese masculinity, Louie argues for “adopting an indigenous theoretical construct” in an analysis of sexuality of Chinese men. This indigenous theoretical construct is the wen-wu dyad.

Although studies of gender and sexuality in Chinese culture have commonly employed the yin-yang paradigm, Louie argues that the wen-wu schema is more appropriate and enlightening in theorizing Chinese masculinity. This is so because, Louie maintains, while men and women can both be discussed in terms of the yin-yang model, the wen-wu construct of sexuality is applicable exclusively to men. Only when women have transformed themselves into men can they be “productively discussed in terms of wen or wu.”

What is the wen-wu framework? How does it help us unveil the meanings and practices of manhood in Chinese culture? In the Chinese language wen and wu each has more than twenty definitions. The core meanings of wen center around qualities such as scholarly, civil, mental, and genteel, manifested most commonly in the world of scholars and gentlemen. Wu attributes represent primarily ability in martial arts, military leadership, physical skills, and power, emphasized typically in the world of warriors and machos. Wen and wu represent two forms of masculinity. Even though both wen and wu embody masculinity, historically, however, wen attributes take supremacy over wu attributes. Not only do scholars enjoy a higher social status than do warriors, women also prefer wen men to wu men.

The next two chapters focus on the analysis of two wen-wu icons, Confucius and Guan Yu. Guan Yu is one of the three sworn brothers in the popular classic novel The Three Kingdoms, a man with a distinctive appearance (red complexion, long beard, and great height) and supreme ability in the battlefield. Being “the most glorified and worshiped of all characters in Chinese history and literature” (p. 26), Guan Yu is commonly considered a god of war and thus an embodiment of the wu attributes. Physical strength and military prowess alone, however, do not exemplify the wu ideals. An ideal wu man, like Guan Yu, must also have utmost self-control, integrity, honor, sense of justice, and loyalty. In addition, he must not be vulnerable to temptations of female beauty and material wealth. Louie then contemplates the origin and...