Masculinity in Chinese History
by Mu Zhou
The ideal image of a masculine man in China in 1840 bears almost no resemblance to its western contemporaries or its predecessor a thousand years ago. Westerners at that time perceived Chinese men as “sexless” or “feminine,” while the Chinese perceived western men as “barbarians equipped with advanced weapons.”
The concept of masculinity in China is closely associated with the economic and cultural development across different regions and over different historical periods. However, its overall trend of development throughout Chinese history has been quite linear. By the end of the 18th century, the ideal Chinese image of the bearded, martial warrior had gradually been replaced by the image of the dainty scholar. Given this phenomenon, in the eyes of Westerners, Chinese men had become increasingly “less masculine.”
To understand the Chinese ideology of masculinity, one must possess some basic knowledge of zhouyi, a philosophy originating from the Western Zhou dynasty (11th century BC - 771BC), and the concepts of wen and wu, derived from Confucius’ writings from the Spring and Autumn period (770BC - 476BC). Both philosophies had long lasting effects on the Chinese ideology of masculinity. Zhouyi depicts the universe as a mixture of two vital energies: yin and yang. Yin is feminine whereas yang is masculine. These two essences are interlinked and supplement each other. They are placed in a dichotomous position in the taiji symbol, as shown in the image below:
Yin is the black sphere, while yang is the white sphere. Both yin and yang occupy a spot in the dominant sphere of the other, representing a potential for change.
Mr. Kam Louie, a native of Hong Kong and a professor of gender studies, writes in his book Theorising Chinese masculinity, “real men are supposed to have plenty of the yang essence,” which is “defined vaguely as determination, strength and good self-control.” However, the ideal man is not absolutely yang, but possesses both masculine and feminine merits. As Louis points out, “the ideal situation is when [the man] absorbs yin essence from the woman, without losing his precious yang essence to her.” The opposite holds as well. In Confucian ideology, which originated in the Spring and Autumn period (770BC- 476BC), the state is run by two forces: wen and wu. According to Louie, the core meaning of wen centers on literary and cultural attainments that would distinguish a civilized man from an untutored savage. The core meaning of wu centers on martial, military, force, and power. As for whether yin or yang is to account for these traits, Confucius emphasizes, “wen and wu necessarily occurred in the male sex.”
People adhering to wu were restricted to the rules of being righteous, courageous, responsible, self-disciplined, and loyal to the emperor. According to Louie, they were different from European knights, because they “eschewed women,” and didn’t have as many “aristocratic values” or “lofty ideals” as the European knights did. They also differed from the Japanese samurai, whose behaviors were not guided by righteous ideals, but were only loyal to their feudal lords. People of wen, in contrast, were not less righteous, disciplined, nor courageous, but expressed these qualities through arts and literature. The scholarly government minister who drew paintings and composed great poems is the epitome of wen.
Due to differences in economic and cultural development, the perception of masculinity in different regions of China differed significantly. In many poor regions in ancient China, where people exerted every bit of their manpower to grow crops, there were hardly any cultural improvements, nor were there gender roles. Men and women had to work in the fields all day long, or else the whole family would die of hunger. On the contrary, rich areas such as the Jiangsu province had obvious gender roles, since women were not needed in doing heavy manual labor. Moreover, men were more couth in rich regions in the south than in poor regions in the north. As a result, soldiers in the northern part of China were more valorous in combat than the ones in the south. This difference in the concept of masculinity is primarily due to the variations in economic development. Gender roles and masculine ideology could only exist in relatively rich, particularly urban, areas of ancient China. It was in these areas that the notions of yin and yang, wen and wu, had become most striking and prominent in defining masculine roles in the society.
According to Louie, Confucius and his followers, who originally introduced the concept of wen and wu, evidently favored wen over wu. In his writings, Confucius would often praise scholars and bureaucrats as the most influential members of society. Nevertheless, by the Western Han dynasty (206BC-8AD), wu was dominant over wen in male society. In earlier periods of Chinese history, particularly in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States (770BC-221BC) Period and the Qin dynasty (221BC-206BC), wu officials in general had enjoyed higher positions than wen officials had, because the ruling class had placed emphasis on military affairs. One of the kings of the Zhao Kingdom of the Warring States, for example, ordered a mass mobilization of troops, instructing his people to dress in the fashion of warlike northern tribesmen, so that the people of Zhao could gain the martial skills and ferocity of the tribesmen. In another, more grisly example of wu’s dominance over wen during the aforementioned periods, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty ordered thousands of scholars to be buried alive and their works burned, in order to strengthen his dictatorial power and weaken the influence of Confucianism and wen. The Qin emperor put great trust in his generals, who governed vital areas of the empire, and were in charge of the construction of his mausoleum and the Great Wall. At that time, instead of bookworms, a man endowed with physical strength, bravery and leadership among soldiers was highly recognized and admired upon.
Later on in Chinese history, particularly since the Western Han dynasty (206BC-8AD), Confucianism became officially accepted as the official doctrine in guiding government policies. China had been unified, and in addition, the threat of invasion from barbarian tribes had diminished. Therefore, economic and cultural development commanded most of the central government’s attention. Moreover, as Louie argues, Confucius mentions in his The Analects that the rulers of the state should rule with moral power, instead of by force. According to Confucianism, “wu is inferior to wen as representing the need to resort to force to achieve one’s goals.” Naturally, wen officials came to enjoy higher positions than wu officials did. With the official adaptation of Confucianism, wu officials and force became relegated to a minor role, only to be called upon when problems could not be solved by wen officials, or by means of courtesy and benevolence.
The growing influence of wen is not to say that Chinese men in general had necessarily become “less masculine,” as perceived by westerners in the 19th century. The majority who lived on the toil of manual labor was by no means “sexless” or “feminine.” However, they were not considered “masculine,” and because of masculinity’s association with power, they did not enjoy high social status and a high position in officialdom.
According to the philosophy of zhouyi, ideally speaking, neither the yin nor yang should consume too much of the other. In most parts of Chinese history after Confucius, an ideal masculine man had possessed both wen and wu qualities. For instance, an official disciplined in both his pen and his sword had been highly recognized.
Historical records show that the wu spirit lingered in Chinese society until the early Qing (1644AD-1912AD) dynasty, and was recognized as late as the Ming dynasty (1368AD-1644AD). The following description is excerpted from a book written by H.R. van Gulik, entitled Sexual Life in Ancient China:
At that time [“Ming”] athletics were still admired, young students practised boxing, fencing and archery, and riding and hunting were favourite pastimes. Thus bodily strength was one of the recognized attributes of a handsome man. They are depicted as tall and broad shouldered, and the nudes of the erotic albums show them with heavy chests and muscular arms and legs.
According to Gulik, during the Tang (618AD-907AD) and Song (960AD-1279AD) dynasties, proficiency in the arts of archery, riding, sword fighting, and boxing, which were practiced by both civilian and military officials was highly praised. These evidences show that despite being surpassed by wen, the ideal Chinese masculine man at that time continued to bear qualities of wu.
Nevertheless, by the late Tang dynasty, observes Louie, “civil ministers were sneering at the illiteracy and brute strength of the military ministers,” as a result of wu being considered inferior to wen. Louie quotes the Confucian classic, Spring and Autumn Annals: “The virtues of wen are superior, the greatness of wu is lower, and this has always and will always be the case.” He argues that in most of Chinese history after Confucius, wen officials ascended to the elite part of the hierarchy of talents, and the wu officials stayed in the non-elite part.
Part of the reason for this trend is that lack of necessity degraded military readiness, while the emperors of China began centralizing their power by reducing the role of the military. As soon as he was enthroned, the first emperor of Northern Song (960AD-1127AD) announced that all leaders of the municipality, many of which were wu officials, be replaced by wen officials. He also persuaded his generals on a banquet to give up their position in the military and be content about being a millionaire. The emperor did so because he didn’t want any treason in the military to pose a treat to his rule. This policy of degrading wu officials undermined military strength on the one hand, but on the other, it extinguished any possibility of the outbreak of civil wars within the dynasty. The policy also promoted the status of wen officials, which reduced the aggressiveness of the entire nation. This centralization of military was mostly carried on and carried forward in later dynasties.
Physical strength no longer appeared in the criteria in judging a Chinese masculine man. The ideal masculine man had gradually become a knowledgeable and intelligent person, who was consummate in reasoning and morality, and at the same time, loyal to his emperor and country. Many heroes who emerged in the later part of China’s dynastic period, which ended in 1912, were wen officials, who defended their nation against foreign invasion. For example, Prime Minister Wen Tianxiang (1236AD-1283AD), who defended the Southern Song (1127AD-1279AD) against the Mongolian invasion, was well known as a patriotic writer. General Qi Jiguang (1528AD-1587AD), famous for his feats in suppressing the Japanese pirates in alliance with Chinese bandits, was also a poet who achieved high literary recognition.
The decline of wu reached its bottom during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912AD). As Gulik observes:
Ardent lovers [were] preferably depicted as younger men without beard, moustache or whiskers…The Chinese, and more especially the members of the literary class, began to consider physical exercise as vulgar and athletic prowess…The ideal lover is describe as a delicate, hyper-sensitive youngster with pale face and narrow shoulders, passing the greater part of his time dreaming among his books and flowers, and who falls ill at the slightest disappointment.
This observation corresponds to Lu Tonglin’s somewhat radical approach, as she asserts in her Gender and Sexuality: “Chinese literary history has been a history of men who want to become women.”
The aforementioned phenomenon of the Qing dynasty might not had necessarily been the result of the progression of wen’s dominance over wu, arguably due to the official adaptation of Confucianism; perhaps rather, as Professor Schrecker of Brandeis University contends, it was “a period in which a culture fell on hard times.”
In his lectures, Professor Schrecker quotes the zhouyi philosophy: “things rise when at their bottom, and fall when at their peak.” The May Fourth generation condemned the old Chinese masculine image even more virulently than the most critical western intellectuals of the 19th century, and the masculine image changed drastically from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century. Perhaps this explains the revitalization of the wu spirit that had occurred throughout the 20th century.
Mu Zhou (’06) is a final year student at Brandeis University majoring in History and Economics.