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  • Mastery of Words and Swords: Negotiating Intellectual Masculinities in Modern China 1890s-1930s by Jun Lei
  • John Christopher Hamm (bio)
Jun Lei. Mastery of Words and Swords: Negotiating Intellectual Masculinities in Modern China, 1890s-1930s. Series Transnational Asian Masculinities. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2022. x, 221 pp. Hardcover HK $580.00, isbn 978-988-8528-74-5.1

Jun Lei's Mastery of Words and Swords draws on a range of literary and visual sources to analyze the complex construction of masculine identities by China's intellectual and cultural elites during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her study is divided into two parts, the first of which contains a pair of chapters that establish disciplinary and theoretical frameworks for the four chapter-long case studies in the second. [End Page 212]

Chapter 1, "Performing Chinese Masculinities on the World Stage: An Introduction," acknowledges Kam Louie's pioneering role in extending the study of gender in Chinese literature and culture from its original focus on women to include the consideration of masculinities as well, and draws on Louie's influential model of traditional Chinese masculinity as constructed through the negotiation of the categories of wen (civil, literary) and wu (military, martial). The premodern prioritization of wen qualities in the masculine ideal—both for the educated elite and for most of the society whose apex they occupied—was challenged during China's encounters with global modernity in the form of Western imperialism. Racialized colonial discourse characterized scholarly models of masculinity as effeminate and associated them with the allegedly congenital weakness of the "sick man of Asia." Internalization of this discourse by Chinese intellectuals led to a crisis in masculinity and calls for a more militant manhood. By opening her review of this familiar story with Lu Xun's critique of female impersonator Mei Lanfang, Lei skillfully highlights the imbrication of what she sees as some of its most significant elements: the performativity of masculinity, the concern for the gaze of a global audience, and the national stakes in gender identity. She proposes that her own contributions will be threefold. Empirically, she will offer the first systematic study Chinese masculinities during the crucial transitional periods of the late Qing and the early Republic. Methodologically, she will venture beyond canonical literary texts to examine a wider archive of literary, print, and visual culture. And theoretically, she will develop a new set of models and categories that will facilitate a response to a key question: "Can we locate agency, or any form of counter-orientalist discourse in reconstructing Chinese masculinities in spite of the power imbalance in the semicolonial settings?" (p. 9).

The second introductory chapter, "Violence and Its Antidotes: Theorizing Modern Chinese Masculinities," casts a wide net in gathering the materials from which Lei will construct her own theoretical apparatus. Lei duly notes the need to attend both to cultural difference and to cross-cultural commonalities in "drawing on strands of scholarship within and outside of China studies, more specifically, poststructuralist theories of gender and masculinities, scholarship on cosmopolitanism, and relevant postcolonial theories of uneven transcultural exchange between the East and the West" (p. 27). Balancing Judith Butler's ideas about subjugated performativity against Erving Goffman's more agent-driven notion of performance, she argues that the masculinities of this period were characterized by a heightened degree of performativity and staged with reference to both the "elsewhen" of the Chinese past and the "elsewhere" of the West and Japan. She then outlines two strands that will inform the remainder of the study. The first is the "brutalization of scholars," that is, the alignment of a new scholarly identity with hypermasculine traits, including violence, both physical and discursive. This "brutalization" both emulates and serves as a form of [End Page 213] resistance to the hegemonic militaristic masculinity of nineteenth-century Western colonialism. The second is a complementary occupation or appropriation of what she calls "feminine space," a discursive terrain accommodating qualities, emotions, and desires disallowed by the dominant constructions of masculinity. While this "feminine space" might seem to echo or recuperate some of the qualities of premodern wen masculinity, it differs from its predecessor in being shaped by the...