Kam Louie. Chinese Masculinities in a Globalizing World. London and New York: Routledge 2015. 168 pp. 97804157112 (hardback).
“Masculinities” is a widely discussed topic in gender studies that has increasingly found its way into China studies. Recent developments linked with globalization and hybridization and with the newly asserted dichotomy between “the West and the East” have become topics of heated debate, especially within the People’s Republic of China. In Chinese Masculinities in a Globalizing World, the Hong Kong-based scholar, Kam Louie, builds on his previous works, in particular, Chinese masculinity: Society and Gender in China (Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2002) to deal with the contradictions that have emerged as a result of China becoming a global and regional power. The re-making and re-inventing of various forms of gendered identities, the historical and cultural roots of China, and the hybrid identities first observed in Hong Kong and Taiwan, all play essential roles in the new perceptions and the changes that have been observed by the author. While still very much focused on Chinese concepts, the author admits that other Asian cultures, particularly those of Japan and Korea, have recently strongly influenced world cultures as well as China with their hybridized forms of masculinity which have often been exported as youth and popular culture.
The first part of the work provides a valuable overview of the emergence of masculinity as part of gender studies, starting from the days when non-white masculinities were perceived and studied merely as a minority phenomenon (especially in North American gender studies); Asian masculinities were viewed only in comparison with concepts derived from an overarching Western civilization and culture. For China, Louie shows how wu-wen (the literary-martial dichotomy) traditionally shaped gender roles, but started to be critically challenged after the May Fourth movement in 1919. Today, he claims, Chinese masculinity can be regarded as a non-aggressive form of “wen masculinity” and has started to play an even more important role in China’s strategy for achieving soft power through cultural and public diplomacy by emphasizing the non-aggressiveness and tolerance deriving from traditional Chinese cultural values. Louie then highlights the flexibility and changes in traditional Chinese culture and draws attention to new forms of Confucian values as well as to the dissemination of Chinese culture through Confucius Institutes worldwide and the role played by popular culture, which has created very hybrid new forms of masculinities.
The author also remarks that the male-centeredness of Confucianism was seldom discussed or criticized in the past, and that even today, when Confucianism is again on the rise in China, the diminished role of women is seldom criticized. Instead, it is often subordinated to a more general focus on the rationality of personal relations within the Confucian system. This is of particular interest since Confucianism has once more become the “brand” of China as propagated by the Chinese Communist Party – something which seems to be inherently contradictory given the history of Marxism and its introduction to China as a Western ideology vehemently opposed to Chinese tradition.
In the second part of the book, in Chapters Three to Seven, Louie examines several cultural products to provide an empirical basis for his hypothesis. These products include Zhang Yimou’s influential movie Hero, which is taken to demonstrate the great success of this work seen as a modern Confucian ethos. Louie points out that the “culturally rooted principle that Zhang Yimou appeals to in Hero relates to the wen-wu spirit of the hero” (p. 39), but he assumes that Zhang Yimou was very much interested in making the film a commercial success and that, for this reason, he concentrated on traditional gender concepts and the wen-wu hero. This study is followed by a detailed analysis of various novels and films from Australia that deal with Chinese migrants and their perception of gender roles. In these cultural products, traditional Chinese values based on Confucianism are challenged by the new environment and remain unstable. Louie then further explores the way in which masculinity again undergoes transformation when the authors return to China. The returnees adjust as they start to realize that the classical Chinese notion of manhood is not going to help them live in contemporary China in the way that they had expected. Louie concludes that the wen-wu dichotomy is not only challenged when Chinese men move to non-Chinese environments, but that their thinking on gender has also been radically transformed in China itself. This questioning of masculinity by Chinese men in exile does not, however, lead to the total acceptance of non-Chinese concepts, while at the same time these men are not able to turn back to more traditional forms of masculinities when they return – permanently or temporarily – to China, as can be seen in some of the stories published on the popular returnee website, Haiguinet.
In the rather short third part of his book, Louie then takes a more detailed look at the ways in which other Asian cultures that have undergone rapid transformation, such as the Japanese and Korean, have recently started to influence China. The reasons given for this are the accelerated flows of ideas and interactivity on a globalized scale which have led to the deconfiguration and demarcation of what was once firmly embedded in Confucian ideology.
To summarize, Louie has revised his earlier more essentialized stances and now provides fascinating insights into questions which deal with gender, masculinity, and ethnicity, as well as with the flow of people and ideas in a global space. Louie has made remarkable progress in describing the wen-wu dichotomy as fluid and discursively constructed, but he could perhaps elaborate further on questions concerning the ways in which the Chinese margins have influenced the discourse in the People’s Republic of China. New networks have been built up, often online, between Chinese individuals both in and outside China that have a strong influence on gender-related concepts in the PRC.
(Jens Damm, Chang Jung University, Tainan)