“If the Youth are Effeminate, then the Nation is Effeminate”: Militarized Masculinity and Xenophobic Nationalism in China

In early September this year, the Chinese government issued a document prohibiting “effeminate men on TV”.  China’s mainstream news organizations have followed published a series of articles to criticize effeminate men, believing that feminine masculinity is an abnormal aesthetic that should be corrected, and this also cause a hit discussion on the Chinese Internet. In a very short period of time, the discourse of “if the youth are effeminate, then the nation is effeminate” (translated from: shao nian niang, ze guo niang.) has been widely spread and recognized nationwide (this sentence was originally a well-known classic in China, “if the youth are strong, then the nation is strong”, which translated from: shao nian qiang, ze guo qiang). This kind of nationwide criticism of effeminate men, and even the discourse of accusing them of being sinners for delaying the revival of the nation, makes me very confused. Because in my understanding of Chinese culture, traditional Chinese masculinity does never come from a muscular appearance. Even the definition of masculinity has no absolute standard in traditional Chinese culture. Therefore, I really want to find out where this masculinity based on the appearance of strong muscles comes from, and what the current large-scale criticism of effeminate men in China serves.

The Masculinity in Traditional Chinese Classic

In order to prove the difference between traditional Chinese masculinity and contemporary one, I consulted Confucian and Taoist classics. There are contradictory expressions of masculinity in Confucianism. When men are dominant in front of women, this man should be submissive to his father, and to his monarch. So, this male masculinity is relative is not absolute. Even the monarch must be the son of his father, so men are not always in a dominant position, but the obedience position is absolute.

In addition to Confucianism, Taoism also has a profound influence on Chinese culture. In Taoist theory, yin-yang theory is another main theory for the construction of gender in China. It puts men and women in a double-binary structure. From the outside, the yin is female and the yang is male; from the inside of the individual body, both men and women have both yin and yang at the same time, no matter from the perspective of the group or the individual, and the ideal state is “yin and yang complementation” in order to achieve “yin and yang balance”.

Therefore, we can see that whether it is Confucianism or Taoism, the construction of gender temperament is not absolute, but relative. In other words, they emphasize that the masculinity of ancient Chinese society is based on power rather than gender.

The Masculinity and Gender Role in the West

When the masculinity of ancient China is so distinct from that of today, the only answer is that the understanding of masculinity in China today is influenced by foreign cultures.

When I reviewed the evolution of Western masculinity, I confirmed my conjecture. American social historian Leo Braudy (2010), in his book From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity systematically combed the interactive relationship between historical contexts and the mainstream masculinity discourses in Western societies. He pointed out that masculinity is a historical concept. Before the emergence of modernity in the 17th century, although people believed that men were a “better” gender compared to women, they did not think that there was any fundamental distinction between the two sexes; in the social concept at that time, women only exist as a “lower” and “imperfect” male, both physically and mentally. Just like the relationship between Adam and Eve recorded in Genesis, Eve is a woman created by God taking a rib from Adam. Therefore, in the study of biblical masculinity, the image of Adam is regarded as the standard of Western masculinity (Thurman, 2015).


It was not until the 18th century that the discussion of gender differences gradually developed and in the mid-to-late 19th century, men and women were two “very different” genders—and therefore should have “very different” characters. The distinction between masculinity and femininity is gradually taking shape, and the difference between the two genders in body symbols has also become increasingly strict. This trend of change is rooted in two important historical factors, Braudy mentioned: one is the theory of national competition derived from a mixture of biological determinism such as the theory of evolution and nationalist ideology; the other is shared by the frequent wars and revolutions, and the resulting social turmoil in the west. In terms of the former factor, in the European and American societies of the 19th century, with the rapid development of science and technology, a mode of thinking that tried to use natural science theories to explain all social and cultural phenomena gradually became the mainstream. Among them, taking Darwin’s theory of evolution as the origin, many theories that equate individual physiological development with the depth of nation-state social development have gradually emerged, and a kind of anxiety about “racial degeneration” has gradually spread over European countries. Briefly speaking, this “racial degeneration theory” holds that “society is the distinctive expression of the individual, an enlarged form of the individual body-almost male body. In this way, personal corruption and national degeneration are always combined. Just like people, society can get sick and die (343). On this basis, the “racial degeneration theory” advocates that, compared to the strength of the ancient male body, the weakness of the contemporary male body is a pathological behavior of deviation. This deviating behavior will inevitably lead to the weakening and even degeneration of the population and the nation-state, and make the nation-state eliminated in the increasingly fierce population competition.

The second transformation factor is the “war and revolution”. In the middle and late 19th century, the rapid development of modernity made the political and economic structure of Western countries urgently need to be redistributed, and the class structure within the country also necessarily required to be reintegrated, which caused widespread social unrest. This macro-context has provided the “racial degeneration theory” and the closely related “national competition theory” with a socio-psychological foundation. At the same time, it also led to the emergence of a series of social phenomena with body discipline as the case and racism and nationalism as the core: such as the rejection of immigrants, thinking that the racial mixing brought about by immigration is the biological root of reducing the superiority of the white race; advocating war, thinking that war can promote the “maturity” of the male body and the “purification” of the “social body”; promoting competitive sports, believing that improving personal physical fitness and will quality through exercise is beneficial to preparing for war; constructing boy scouts, developing their militarized characteristics from the body to the spirit, from childhood of men, to ensure that they grow up to conformity adults needed by national-state competition, and so on.

The visual representations that strictly distinguish between the man and woman at the physical level are also emphasized at that time. Because people believed that gender ambiguity would hinder fertility and affect the future of the nation, while absolute gender distinction is essential for maintaining the vitality of a civilization. It is of key significance because it can ensure that people give birth to children of physical normal and sufficient numbers (355).

This process of “physical turn” in mainstream Western masculinity discourse in modern times has also been confirmed in the study of British feminist scholar Lynn Segal (1993). She pointed out more clearly, at the beginning of the 19th century, Christian masculinity—spiritual, intellectual, moral self-restraint, and dedication—was the ideal of the bourgeoisie. But by the end of the 19th century, this temperament was challenged and even replaced by a more muscular, more militaristic masculinity that rejected all aesthetic and affective factors. In short, in Europe and the United States at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Social Darwinism has almost become a popular and dominant perspective to understand everything, and the masculinity discourse dominated by physicality has also been firmly bound to the chariot of national honor and national destiny and then integrated into the social ideological mechanism that promoted the outbreak of the two world wars.

Alexander and Mohanty (1997) believe that militarized masculinity played an important role in colonial reproduction. They also add the crisis in heteromasculinity into the discussion. Specifically, they cited the debate on “gay” in the military in the US: “Ostensibly, the purpose of this debate was to determine whether effeminate” masculinity could be relied upon to undertake one of the most important tasks of citizenship: that of loyalty to and defense of one’s country. The central preoccupation was whether such feminized masculinity (which was deemed neither masculine nor citizen at all) would jeopardize manly masculinity (heteromasculinity) as it undertook its job: defense of the imperial nation” (xxvi).

Militarized Masculinity and Xenophobic Nationalism

After reviewing and comparing the connotation of Chinese and Western masculinity, I am able to confirm that the contemporary Chinese understanding of masculinity completely adapts from a Westernized logic. What also needs to be paid attention to is that the Chinese government is investing in this promotion of militarized masculinity. Therefore, I will analyze four Chinese government media’s criticism of effeminate men to reveal how the Chinese government promotes militarized masculinity, and more importantly, guess what its purpose is. What needs to be explained in advance is that the texts I chose to analyze here are four comments on effeminate men published in governmental Chinese newspapers and media: Guangming Daily, China National Defense News, People’s Daily, and Xinhua News Agency. The People’s Daily is published by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party; the founder of the Xinhua News Agency is the Chinese Communist Party, and the China National Defense News is sponsored by the Ministry of National Defense People’s Republic of China; the Guangming Daily is directly led by the Propaganda Department of the CPC Central Committee. Therefore, analyzing the discourses published in these four media can effectively reveal the role of the Chinese government in the discussion of effeminate men, its attitude in the discussion, and the value it wants to convey to the public.

In the China National Defense News article, Qian pointed out that any society and individual needs a “spiritual backbone.” Citing the history of ancient Rome and the Qing Dynasty, he believed that from the decline of the nobles in ancient Rome after advocating luxury and pleasure, and the decay of the nobles in the Qing Dynasty, history has repeatedly warned people that the spirit of military and masculinity should not be lost at any point. And young people are the hope of the family and the future of the nation. On their growth path, they can have entertainment stars as the company, but they need more the guidance of spiritual idols. Qian made it clear: soldiers with masculinity and a willingness to sacrifice for the nation are naturally indispensable role models for the youth.

The Guangming Daily article criticized effeminate men on TV from another angle, but it is also linked to nationalism. The author Chen believes that after effeminate male stars have gained a lot of love, some historical themes play, and revolutionary historical theme play have also invited them to play heroes and tough guys. This makes the supposedly masculine, mature, and righteous image become deformed and feminine. Especially in some works on the theme of the War of Resistance against Japan, the male star wears exquisite makeup and dressed in expensive clothes, which did not match the real image of soldiers during the War. These adaptations of the history of the War destroyed serious historical narratives and were harmful to the nation.

The article in the People’s Daily approaches nationalism in another way. The author emphasized that the masculinity of a soldier is truly handsome by redefining handsome. “The blood and bravery of a soldier make people feel strength and spiritual charm beyond appearance.” By defining the masculinity of soldiers as handsome, the People’s Daily article hopes to make the masculinity of soldiers a new trend that is sought after, thereby changing the public’s love to effeminate men. These articles have achieved the purpose of turning people’s attention from male actors to soldiers by criticizing effeminate men, thereby serving militarism and nationalism.

Another manifestation of nationalism in these articles is xenophobia. effeminate men are packaged as an imported culture, and the reason why it is popular in China is because of the operation of capital. In the Guangming Daily article, the appearance of effeminate men on television is because “film and television production agencies and brokerage companies’ commercial packaging and market operations”, making the image of effeminate men in Japan and South Korea popular in China. The Xinhua News Agency’s article even linked the effeminate men culture with capitalism, money worship, and the supremacy of entertainment. While criticizing the effeminate men culture, it also hinted at the corruption of capitalism. By connecting effeminate men with imported, and so-called decadent capitalism, the Chinese government hints that capitalism is eroding Chinese youth, thus forming a unified nationalism that rejects the other culture.

Criticism of effeminate men on TV from the Chinese government media centered on nationalism, militarism, the future of the nation, the national historical narrative, and xenophobia. It is not difficult to see that the entire language logic is Westernized, which is fully in line with the theory of “racial degeneration”, linking the personal body with the image of the nation, sets the current situation in the context of “war and revolution”, and achieve the xenophobic nationalism through accusing effeminate men as the bad imported culture. When we put the Chinese government’s refusal to effeminate men on TV in a larger context of international relations, the Chinese government’s purpose of promoting militarized masculinity may be more clearly inferred. This September was amidst the anxious confrontation between China and the United States under the epidemic After many confrontations and reconciliations, Sino-US relations finally reached an almost rupture when the Biden administration intervened in Taiwan affairs. This is very likely to make the Chinese government consider the current situation as “war and revolution”. The Chinese government’s rejection of effeminate men and its promotion of militarized masculinity and xenophobic nationalism may be considered as a response and preparation for the current situation. Even so, as someone who studies postcolonialism and decolonization, I see the urgency that the perspective of colonialism needs to be added to the discussion of this topic. Because as I just mentioned, the Chinese government’s admiration of militarized masculinity is essentially a westernized idea. Then, in the international context of China is resisting Western values, it is very interesting to see how the Chinese government uses a Westernized logic to resist Western values. Chinese government’s admiration of militarized masculinity is only a small part, and there are more examples that use the westernized logic to resist Western values, such as the Chinese government has invested in infrastructure in third world countries on a large scale, and the xenophobic nationalism mentioned before. These discussions can guide us to a broader topic: whether the world can truly get rid of colonialism. Because when China is fighting the West and to do the decolonization process, they still use the colonial logic. As a result, the so-called decolonization movement, in essence, it’s just a change of colonists. And the world will operate in a new round of colonization.




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Braudy, Leo. From chivalry to terrorism: War and the changing nature of masculinity. Vintage, 2010.

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Qian, Zongyang. “For Chinese teenagers, masculinity is a necessity.” China National Defense News. 1 (2018). [钱宗阳. “中国少年,阳刚之气不可消.” 中国国防报. 1 (2018).]

Thurman, Eric. “Adam and the Making of Masculinity.” The Oxford handbook of biblical narrative. 2015.

Xin Shiping. “The wind of niang pao must be stopped.” Xinhua News Agency. (2018). [辛识平, “‘娘炮’之风当休矣.” 新华网. (2018).]