Masc off, China goes beyond Gender Norms
From male celebrities casually flaunting a full face of makeup, to transgender people confidently recognising their right to equality, things are more progressive than outsiders would like to believe.
Between JK Rowling, bizarre bathroom debates, and the ever-fluctuating political considerations as to whether trans people deserve human rights, many western societies find themselves twisted into knots over the concept of gender and its social implications. China provides an interesting counterpoint in simply not giving a f**k.
The history of gender in China is not unlike that of many other cultures. From the earlier stages of civilisation, women have occupied a subordinate position to men, with most progress being made only in the 20th century and later. In China, women were often literally nameless, with feet bound in a ham-fisted social assertation of beauty over mobility, marriageability over personal worth.
Contrastingly, since the establishment of the PRC in 1949, value has been assigned to women’s traditional domestic roles as well as their individual work and pursuits — in line with the feminist principles of the Communist movement at large.
Mao’s proclamation of gender equality, “Women Hold Up Half The Sky”, has been heard all around the world.
Historically speaking, China was once slightly behind the times in terms of gender and sexism, and yet now things are hugely different.
Traditional ‘masculinity’ in China appears to be disintegrating, with traditionally feminine traits being taken on by young men with little fanfare or dirge. Wearing makeup, being meticulous about skincare, and being highly fashion-conscious was previously unthinkable for young men and now has quickly become vogue among younger generations. Meanwhile, western countries feel the need to differentiate ‘eyeliner’ and ‘guyliner’, or ‘handbag’ and ‘manbag’.
Lay Zhang Yixing, originally from Changsha, is a widely successful popstar who has topped music charts in China as well as overseas in Korea and America. On the streets of China, you will find him on MAC Cosmetics advertisements, boldly flaunting a full face of make-up; or on enormous Calvin Klein billboards, posing topless as the brand’s first ever Chinese global spokesperson. Contradictory to the expectations of those who think China is unreceptive of changing norms, he also happens to be a publicity ambassador for the Communist Youth League of China — one of the party’s most historical organisations.
On one hand, it is progressive in the sense that men are publicly allowed to present themselves as ‘unmasculine’ without negative social consequence, but why is this simply not a subject of controversy?
In most, if not all cultures, gender comes as a socially constructed binary — with social and cultural distinctions drawn between the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’. These are somewhat intuitive in that people do not need to think of them consciously unless they are acting against them. Makeup and skincare is largely a feminine-coded area, so for example when Lay Zhang — a young man — acts as a Global Representative for MAC Cosmetics, it creates an apparent contradiction of masculine and feminine. The contradiction, however, becomes less apparent as long as there is no significant backlash. This is why China has reached the point where men advertising makeup is not considered abnormal by most people, even if western audiences would be shocked to see such a thing.
The same is true for the transgender community in China.
Jin Xing, originally from Shenyang, is a nationally cherished transgender icon who draws 100 million viewers weekly with her self-titled variety show that broadcasts in and beyond China. In her youth, she rose to prominent ranks in the military — both as a dancer and as a soldier. Despite now pursuing a creative career in the entertainment industry, she does not shy away from discussing transphobia, discrimination and Chinese families’ traditional marriage expectations on her other widely successful show ‘Chinese Dating’. If China was the backward and traditional society as it is portrayed, then, certainly, she would not be well received, let alone be celebrated daily by her 13 million Weibo followers.
While trans people find their identity subject of debate and controversy in the west, just this summer, a transgender woman in Beijing won a landmark case against her former employer who fired her for taking a leave of absence for her gender confirmation surgery. This is not to say that China is a hidden progressive paradise — sexism is still widespread and sometimes more toxic than other countries, but it does speak to how different societies approach the changing face of gender, and China is far from the backward and unforgiving society that it is portrayed to be.
For years, the West has been perceived as the best or only place for ‘edgy’, ‘modern’, ‘unusual’, ‘untraditional’ people and ideas to flourish. However, as China’s cultural landscape continues to grow and change, it now stands on the more progressive side of many debates, including gender.
There is one moral that can be gleaned from China: contrary to the demented claims of transphobes and ‘traditional’ men, accepting the flexibility of gender brings no harm to a country, no social breakdown or anarchy, and no weakness. Perhaps, actually, gender is not the cornerstone of civilisation after all.