Review of Kam Louie’s ‘Theorising Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China’

by Yao Souchou

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Theorising Chinese Masculinity is a work of some ambition. It is slim book, consisting of 165 pages of text and the remaining 30 odd pages taken up by notes, bibliography and index. In these sparse pages the author has the task of arguing for a general case about the constitution of masculinity – in the singular – in China. It is a monumental undertaking in subject if less in scope or empirical details, and the route by which this is achieved is via Chinese literary studies. Thus there are masterly discussions of the ideal of masculinity in Guan Yu, the soldier who embodies martial virtue and personal loyalty in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Wu Song, one of the central characters in The Water Margin who vents his revengeful fits by beheading his adulterous sister-in-law and her lover, and of course, the various Confucian texts. In more contemporary times, the uncertain fate of Chinese masculinity is seen through the eyes of the protagonists of the novels of Zhang Xianling, Lao She and the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat (‘The Coolest Man Alive’).

There is a distinct systematic elegance in Kam Louie’s engagement with these texts and personae. Rejecting the conventional ying-yang binary in traditional Chinese thought, Kam Louie argues that ‘theorising’ Chinese male-hood can be better served by turning to another dyad: wen (literary attainment) and wu (martial virtue). These twin qualities may first appear to signify, within the realm of male-hood, quite opposite aesthetic and cultural qualities. A man of wen maleness, for example, might be read as a ‘soft’, and even a feminine counterpart of one richly endowed with wu masculinity. But this is not quite the case. Rather, the working of wen-wubinary does not so much constitute two types of maleness as mark a particular mode of masculinity in the same body. Thus when Guan Yu escorts his sworn-brother Liu Bei’s wife across a land of war and devastation, entertaining no ‘impure thoughts’ all through his solitary nights by the campfire, he is not all martial prowess but a wen-wu masculinity supreme – a sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger with an unyielding moral and sexual code. If wen is essentially a male virtue, then there is a kind of masculinity even in the tragic Jia Baoyu from Dream of the Red Chamber who struggles to find his own destiny in the world of women, and more remarkably in the scholar Xhang from Tale of the Western Wing whose sentimental regards and flirtatious arts do not compromise his maleness. In both articulations, self-control, in the form of sexual denial or strict observance of social and cultural demands, is the key to the libidinal economy. In a kind of Levi-Straussian transformation, the ideal Chinese maleness is to be found in a person who can harness the cultural credential and physical skill of wen and wu: one who can, in life and thoughts, hold a brush in n one hand, a sword – or a machine pistol – in the other. The ‘perfect man’ is found in Mao Zedong, military strategist, poet and calligrapher, and more famously in Chow Yun Fat, the Hong Kong actor who combines in his film presence a propensity for ballistic, pistol-toting violence with vulnerability and an almost feudal notion of honour and male-friendship.

In the Introduction Louie Kam sets out what he does not wish to do. For his purpose is to do away with the ying-yang binary, the essential biological difference that determines Chinese male self-definition through relations with Western men and thus enforces the idea of neutered and feminised Chineseness in this context. Yet one cannot help feeling that some consideration of these issues might have given the argument a more dialectical force. For one thing, it is theoretically difficult to think of masculinity, as Kam Louie does, as primarily constituted by ‘structural categories’ that are centrally located in the male realm to begin with. The result is to see Chinese maleness as a matter of self-inscription. One wonders if wen qualities do not already hint at the feminine Other, silent and invisible as she necessarily has to be, in the geography of masculine desire. One thinks here of the physical beauty of Jia Baoyu and his meticulous taste in fine, gorgeous clothing, and not less sharply, in a quite different context, T E Lawrence’s ‘national cross-dressing’ in flowing white Arab robe completed with headgear and ornamental sword, so masterfully portrayed by Peter O’Toole in his posturing on top of the Dasmacus-Medina train after the raid. If alterity is a critical issue here, it is to remind ourselves of the narcissistic energy that lies in the male imagery of self-sufficiency. In China as elsewhere, anxious male-hood makes much of this self-sufficiency, for it knows in its heart that male privileges rely on a world where women crucially matter. For all its virtue of self-control, maleness draws its succour from precisely what the feminine Other holds in abundance: sexual pleasure, domestic comfort and social companionship. Ultimately the wen-wu scheme of things might turn out to be a product of male fantasy: an enclosed world without women, where literary cultivations and martial skill are the necessary foundation of Chinese male self-fashioning.

If anxious male desire insists on a place in a book about masculinity and gender, the body. too demands reckoning. For all the talk of sexuality, the Chinese male body in Theorising Chinese Masculinity is a mere shadow, an apparition without form or substance. And one might say that the literary approach needs a body that is a floating signifier, one to which texts – for it is primary texts rather than history and social conditions – provide fixity and semantic grounding. All this risks ‘linguistic transcendence’: the illusion that what is spoken or written is sufficient index of what happens on the ground. The formal elegance of the wen-wu system gives no hint of the banal, chaotic world of the everyday. When Kam Louie speaks of Chinese men, one is not sure that he has in mind the restaurant works in Sydney Chinatown, the rural migrants huddling with their baggage in the city train stations in China, or the young Chinese men in Kuala Lumpur shopping mall whose masculinity is affirmed by their permed hair and flowing baggy trousers.

This call for gritty empiricism is no mere grudging complaint from one writing from anthropology. For in that discipline the insistence on ethnographic realism has been, like other social sciences, much enriched by the postmodern literary turn. Text and textuality, discourse and representation, social construction and fantasy are now a part of its working language. For anthropology anyway, one way out of the problem of ‘linguistic transcendence’ is to work with texts that are socially recognised as ‘iconic’, written with all the dominant ‘anxiety’ of the time, articulating contingent social and philosophic preoccupations. Thus, masculine anxiety in Elizabethan England can be reasonably harvested from works like Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, or the poems of Donne. Or for that matter, kinship in nineteenth- century England can be fruitfully gleaned from a close reading of Jane Austen’s novels. For given their canonical status, and what is culturally coded and semantically embedded there, the deployment of such texts makes good strategic sense. It is less certain that the many texts in Theorising Masculinity are ‘social products’ of their respective times in the same sense. To the more demanding readers at least, if these have been selected with this view in mind, rather than by random choices, it is something that has to be demonstrated. Abundant with analytical boldness, rich in expansive literary imagination, Theorising Masculinity makes a claim for a place in the cultural studies of Chinese male-hood. Nevertheless, there is no getting away from the fact that, both in China past and present and the societies of Chinese diasporas, Chinese male-hood has taken forms more strange and varied than the book would have it. If Theorising Masculinity is a major contribution to the subject, it also makes frustrating reading because of its poor empiricism, and the lack of what has become de rigueur for Chinese Studies, attention to historical/dynastic variations and regional differences.


Yao Souchou teaches anthropology of Modern China at the University of Sydney. He has carried out fieldwork in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, and is the author of two books and several articles on the cultural politics of Southeast Asia. Before coming to Sydney, he was a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. Kam Louie‘s Theorising Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China was published in 2002 by Cambridge: Cambridge University, 239 pages IBSN 0521806216

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