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Modern China

36(4) 404­–434
Chinese Masculinities © 2010 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
Revisited: Male Images
DOI: 10.1177/0097700410368221
in Contemporary

Television Drama

Geng Song1

This article investigates the discourse of masculinity in contemporary
Chinese popular culture by critical readings of TV drama serials (dianshi
lianxuju), a crucial and underresearched site for the study of ideology, shown
on prime-time national channels in recent years (2003–2007). In particular,
it examines the male images in three sweepingly popular TV programs—The
Big Dye House (Da ranfang), Halfway Couples (Banlu fuqi), and Unsheathing the
Sword (Liangjian)—as “cultural types.” It looks at the social, economic, and
cultural factors that have affected men and representations of men in today’s
China against the backdrop of the dynamic interplay between nationalism,
globalization, and consumerism. Building on the burgeoning research on
Chinese masculinity in the past decade, it argues that forms of masculinity
are becoming increasingly hybrid in a globalizing China and that the male
images in these dramas are a product of social changes tied in with new
formations of power.

masculinity, television, popular culture, social change, contemporary China

Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia

Corresponding Author:
Geng Song, Faculty of Asian Studies, Australian National University, Building #110,
Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia
Song 405

This article investigates the discourse of masculinity in contemporary Chi-

nese society by, in particular, focusing on the male images in several television
drama serials (dianshi lianxuju) shown on prime-time national channels in
recent years (since 2003).1 As television has become the most popular mass
medium in China, TV drama is without question the most widely watched
and most influential cultural artifact in China today. Roughly one billion Chi-
nese have access to television. Statistics show that in 2005, 514 TV dramas
and 12,447 episodes were produced in China, and an average of 6.6 episodes
were broadcast per day per channel. It is estimated that the “Chinese viewer”
watches an average of 63.5 minutes of television drama per day—a diet con-
stituting 36.5 percent of overall television consumption (Li Chunli, 2006).
The cultural impact of TV dramas on everyday life is so profound that after
the nationwide broadcasting of a certain popular serial, the lines and charac-
ter names in it often become vogue words (Gan, 2006a). However, scholarly
attention to this genre of popular entertainment has been far from adequate.
Even less adequate are studies from a gendered perspective.2 This article, a
critical reading of the representation of men and masculinity in recent TV
dramas, explores the social, economic, and cultural factors that have affected
men and representations of men over the past few years in China. As such, it
provides a perspective from which to examine and understand social change
in China, especially changes in gender ideology in the context of globaliza-
tion and commercialization.
Though in the past decade Chinese masculinity has become an emergent
field of study and a new body of work has identified many characteristics of
the construction of masculinity in indigenous Chinese culture (Louie, 2002;
Song, 2004; Huang, 2006), in-depth and empirical research on masculinities
in contemporary Chinese society remains for the most part a gap to be filled.3
Most of the above-mentioned studies share a common interest in eagerly
proving that the Chinese construct of gender is different from the Western
construct. The differences are without question of great importance. For
instance, scholars have argued that “gender” in the Chinese space may pro-
vide people with more choices than the dichotomy of male/female (Barlow,
2004) and masculinity in premodern China was primarily power-based rather
than sex-based (Song, 2004). However important and illuminating that may
be, masculinity(ies) in contemporary society must be examined as a set of
competing constructions, instead of a fixed, monolithic, unchanging “Chi-
nese masculinity.” Sociologists have suggested that in the postcolonial
world masculinity is ever changing and is mainly a hybrid discourse (Connell,
1995; Connell, 2000; Demetriou, 2001). In most societies, the hegemonic
masculine discourse has been taken over by a “hybrid bloc” that “unites
406 Modern China 36(4)

various and diverse practices in order to construct the best possible strategy
for the reproduction of patriarchy” (Demetriou, 2001: 337). In response to
the recently burgeoning field of “Chinese masculinity,” Kwai-cheung Lo
(2004: 258) points out that “in a rapidly globalizing Asian environment, the
simple East-West dichotomy and confrontation is insufficient in regional
gender studies, as is the sheer assertion of some uniquely Asian realities.”
Ever since the early 1980s, China’s gradual integration into capitalist glo-
balization has inevitably brought forth cultural pluralism, which questions
and erodes the modernist notions of Chineseness, including Chinese mascu-
linity. At the same time, paradoxically, China’s rise as an economic, politi-
cal, and military power has given rise to an outburst of nationalism among
its population, which touches every aspect of Chinese society. Chinese “cul-
tural nationalism,” as Guo Yingjie terms it, encompasses not only a desire
for the restoration of the country’s past pride and prestige, a struggle for the
position rightfully due the country by dint of its population and size, but
also a search for national identity in the era of globalization (Guo, 2004).
The current study represents an interdisciplinary attempt to analyze the
hybridity and pluralism of contemporary Chinese masculinities in the era of
My reading of male images in TV drama serials is inspired by Andrew
Spicer’s concept of “cultural types.” In his study of the representation of mas-
culinity in popular British cinema, Spicer (2001: 2) notes that “types are over-
lapping and competing constructions which struggle for hegemony, the
version of masculinity that is most desirable or widely acceptable.” Regarding
gender as a “cultural performance” (Butler, 1990), I read several distinguished
types of male images in TV dramas as discursive constructs and examine the
function of popular culture in constructing and articulating different gender
images and the power relations at work.

The Search for Masculinity

in Post-Revolutionary China
The Chinese “crisis of masculinity” in the post-Mao era goes hand in hand
with economic reform and opening up to the outside world, which have swept
away both the Confucian and Maoist models of manhood. As productivist and
consumerist values gradually and unmistakably replaced the Maoist legacy of
class and class struggle in the official ideology, the selfless and asexual Maoist
revolutionary hero lost his audience allure. At the same time, the traditional/
Confucian gentry-class masculinity condemned during the revolutionary
periods (both the Republican “new culture” movement and the Communist
Song 407

revolution) has been further denounced as the cause of the “emasculation” of

the Chinese nation in the media hype about “national character” and the qual-
ity of Chinese men produced since the mid-1980s.
During the years immediately following the Cultural Revolution, the con-
cern over Chinese masculinity first emerged as a preoccupation with male
potency in literary works.5 The emasculation of Chinese men was attributed to
the regimentation and mental “castration,” as it were, imposed by the Com-
munist rule on Chinese men, and particularly on male intellectuals. The rela-
tionship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and intellectuals was
likened to the oppressive father–son relationship in imperial times. At the same
time, in a strong negative reaction against the gender equality of the Maoist era,
it was claimed that women’s liberation in China was premised on the reduction
of men’s economic power, and this reduction had not only diminished men’s
social status but also impaired their manhood by turning them into the obedient
instruments of the authoritarian party-state (Lu Tonglin, 1995: 49–50; Zhong,
2000; Xiaoying Wang, 2003: 148; for discussion of “women’s oppression,” see
Fang, 2004). This view directly led to the discourse of yinsheng yangshuai
(the prosperity of the feminine and the decline of the masculine), a topic
extensively discussed in the 1980s and still influential even today.6 In the
early years of the reform era, therefore, the quest for masculinity was initially
linked with political resistance. It was from this historical and cultural milieu
that Chinese rock music emerged. Beijing’s “Godfather of Rock,” Cui Jian,
can be regarded as an epitome of this type of (search for) masculinity. In Cui
Jian and other rock singers there was a “negation of traditional values like
self-restraint, obedience, suppression of the individual self and his(/her) sex-
ual desires, values that were celebrated under the Confucian order and are
still celebrated in communist China” (Baranovitch, 2003: 119).
With the widening of China’s opening-up in the mid- and late 1980s, how-
ever, the discourse of yinsheng yangshuai soon focused on the disappoint-
ment with Chinese men as compared with Western and Japanese men and
anxiety over the virility of China as a nation in the globalizing world. This
phenomenon was in keeping with the search for national identity and empow-
erment in the post-revolutionary ideology. In the new-era (i.e., since 1979)
literary scene, Chinese men have more often than not been described as
weak, immature, selfish, and impotent, while real masculinity is embodied
by Rambo and Takakura Ken (Zhong, 2000: 41). This cultural trend, known
as the “search for the real man,” can be interpreted from several perspectives.7
To be brief, it echoes both the modernist internalization of Western gender
standards as the universal norm and the rethinking of the Communist gender
ideology. Since the mid-1980s, the Communist imagination of a proletarian
408 Modern China 36(4)

collective masculine identity has been gradually replaced by a nationalist

search for Chinese manhood, partially attributable to an “inferiority complex”
when facing hegemonic Western culture. Xungen (seeking roots) literature,
films such as Red Sorghum (Hong gaoliang), and “northwestern wind” (xibei
feng) pop music, all popular cultural forms before the 1989 crackdown, repre-
sent an inward turn in the cultural politics of “remasculinizing” Chinese cul-
ture in the post-Mao era. The root-seekers describe China’s obsolete feudal
and patriarchal system as impotent and ineffective and advocate a return to the
genuine, virile, masculine Chineseness represented by a rural folk culture that
remains pristine and unaffected by either Confucianism or Western influence.
In the world of cinema, Jiang Wen, the actor who played the bandit hero in
Red Sorghum, can be regarded as an incarnation of this type of masculinity.
In the post-Deng cultural landscape, the coexistence of a variety of com-
peting discourses has taken over the overwhelming pursuit of one particular
type of masculinity. Nimrod Baranovitch (2003) observes that

preferences in the domain of gender shifted more recently, and since at

least the mid-1990s the macho type of manhood has lost much of its
past appeal and there has been a return to the more traditional type of
soft and delicate manhood, which . . . many in both the West and China
today see as a “feminized” type of manhood. (132)

In this regard, the recent popularity of the actor and singer Chen Kun
might be considered an example of the return to the traditional xiaosheng
(young scholar) type of manhood. However, while this “return” to a certain
degree reflects the changes that have taken place in the fashioning of man-
hood after the 1989 crackdown, it would be too simplistic to reduce the com-
plex and profound changes in the discourse of manhood in contemporary
China to a shift from one mode to another. Instead, a diversified transforma-
tion in masculinities has taken place in post-Deng society, characterized by
the following trends.
First, there is a continuation of the criticism and anxiety about the quality
of Chinese men. For instance, an influential essay in Renmin wang (People.
com) claims that the weakening of Chinese men was an important factor
leading to the decline and humiliation of China beginning with the Opium
War, while the modern powers such as the United States, Japan, Germany,
and Russia are all countries that can boast of strong and forceful men
(“Zhongguo nanren zui que shenme?”). In another widely circulated article,
“Zhongguo nanren peibushang Zhongguo nüren” (Chinese men do not deserve
Chinese women), the author disdainfully describes the “lack of manliness”
Song 409

among urban Chinese men in the way they walk, stand, and sit, as compared
with Western men represented by the “American GIs.” The view that
Chinese men do not deserve Chinese women not only echoes the somewhat
essentialist yinsheng yangshuai discourse but also reveals a deeply rooted
male anxiety over the fact that every year tens of thousands of Chinese
women, mostly young, good-looking, and highly educated, have married
foreigners since China opened its doors to the outside world.8 On the other
hand, as a reaction to the censure of Chinese men, arguments in defense of
Chinese men have also emerged in the media recently, pointing out the
“strong points” of Chinese men, such as their sense of responsibility toward
family and spirit of self-sacrifice (Luo and Ke, 2006).
Second, there is a strong interaction between the construction of mascu-
linity in popular culture and the conspicuous rise of nationalism in mainland
China since the early 1990s. Ever since the TV series A Beijing Man in New
York (Beijingren zai Niuyue) aired in 1993,9 there has been an increase in
anti-Western and anti-Japanese sentiment in televisual imaginations, an
expression of what Suisheng Zhao terms “nativist nationalism” (Zhao, 2005).
In “mainstream” representations, patriotic politics has been a major venue for
accomplishing masculinity. A “good” man is therefore a man who brings
honor to the motherland and safeguards national dignity on the international
stage. This issue will be discussed at length later in the close readings of
particular dramas.
Third, consumerism has significantly influenced the construction of
masculinity and led to diversity in masculine discourse. For one thing,
Baranovitch (2003: 143) attributes the “return” of the more traditional, soft
type of male images to the fact that capitalism has empowered women with
an unprecedented ability to directly influence not only culture but also the
construction of manhood. He points out that “for the first time in Chinese
history, men became a commodity for female consumption.” Another exam-
ple is the growing visibility of homosexual expressions in Chinese media and
popular culture. With the loosening of restrictions on (the representation of)
homosexuality in recent years, gay Web sites, bars, and activities are now
blossoming on the mainland.
Fourth, the men’s movement in the West began to influence Chinese society
over the last decade. Informed by Western theories, men’s movement activ-
ists both in and outside of academia in China have attracted widespread
attention to issues such as masculinity in social roles, men’s liberation, men’s
rights, men’s health, and so on (Fang and Hu, 2006). As a result, gendered
men are becoming more and more visible in today’s China. The appearance
of men’s magazines, men’s fashions, men’s cosmetics, and men’s organiza-
tions attests to this cultural shift.
410 Modern China 36(4)

Finally, as a result of the redistribution of wealth and power and the emer-
gence of the nouveau riche in postsocialist society, masculinity is now pri-
marily defined in terms of wealth. New images of successful businessmen,
the dakuan (literally, “big money”), pervade Chinese popular culture. As a
collective imagination and projection, they express fundamental male anxi-
ety engendered by a profound change of power relations in society, because,
in the words of Michael Kimmel (1994: 125), “the hegemonic definition of
masculinity is a man in power, a man with power, and a man of power.” In
contemporary China, as James Farrer (2002: 16) observes, “given the identi-
fication of masculinity with earnings and career success, men experience tre-
mendous dislocations through the segmentation of the labor market into
high-paying and low-paying sectors.”
Some of the crises and changes outlined above can be interpreted in light
of the findings of recent research on the conceptualization of masculinity in
Chinese history. For example, the “usurpation of the father’s role by the
Communist Party” (Nielsen, 1999: 83) and the emasculation of male intel-
lectuals are consistent with the yin/yang binary in Confucian culture, whereby
the shi (scholar-official) played a submissive yin role in his relations with the
sovereign, parallel with the son and wife in father/son and husband/wife rela-
tions (Song, 2004: 45–50). In addition, blaming the weakening of men for the
decline of the nation and the dispute over the “macho” and “soft” types of
manhood can be traced back to the hoary controversy on the wen/wu mascu-
linities in Chinese history. When gleaning lessons from the downfall of the
Ming dynasty, some Confucian scholars during the early years of the Qing
dynasty attacked the educational curriculum focusing on wen since the Song
dynasty and the consequent feminization of the male elite. The most famous
of such critics was Yan Yuan (1635–1740), a renowned scholar who advo-
cated a radical reform of education and a reversal of the primacy of wen over
wu (Huang, 2004: 396–410). A similar association of the image of physical
weakness with moral degeneracy can also be found in the works of Wen
Tianxiang (1236–1283), a martyr in the Southern Song dynasty and an arche-
type of the masculine heroics associated with loyalism in imperial China
(Davis, 1996: 134–35).

TV Drama and Ideology

To better understand the heterogeneity of discourse in contemporary Chinese
TV dramas, a brief analysis of the ideological features of this cultural form is
in order.
In his study of British popular TV drama, John Tulloch (1990: 36), draw-
ing on the model of television ideology put forward by Philip Elliott et al.,
Song 411

suggests “a contrast between action-adventure series which are ‘tight’ (and

‘closed’ around the official discourse) and soap operas which are ‘loose’ (and
usually contain an ‘open’ mix of official and alternative discourses).”10 In
this sense, most Chinese TV drama series, which are rather like the Latin
American telenovellas in having a fixed number of episodes, are obviously
“tight” and “closed” representations and explicitly a tool of state propaganda.
However, that does not mean they do not offer spaces for alternative stances
politically and/or ideologically.
As all TV stations and channels are state-owned in China, television has
been and still is regarded by the Communist Party as an important tool for
propaganda. Although foreign investors are now allowed to own up to a
49 percent stake in TV production companies, TV programs not in confor-
mity with the ideological expectations of the authorities do not have a chance
to be screened and even overseas satellite TV companies have to kowtow to
the Chinese government in order to obtain permission for landing in China.
Censorship of TV programs, which is operated by the State Administration of
Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) and is directly under the control of the
Propaganda Department of the Communist Party, guarantees that television
as a mass medium is “ethically inspiring and uplifting” and helps maintain an
image of social stability and national harmony. Some sensitive topics such as
June 4 and Falun gong are absolutely taboo. TV production in China is there-
fore never a full-fledged commercial operation.
At the same time, commercialization has put an end to the government
monopoly of TV production. The population of TV viewers in China and the
fascination they have with TV drama serials have made the producing of this
genre one of the most profitable undertakings in today’s China. As there is an
increasing reliance on private investment, the producers’ primary concern is
to woo the audience with the drama’s appeal to popular tastes so that money
can be generated through advertising revenue. But at the same time they have
to be careful not to transgress ideological strictures lest their productions
be banned by the authorities for harming socialist “spiritual civilization,” as
the official discourse has it. As a result, TV drama as a popular entertainment
has been turned into an important site of power negotiation, competition,
and complicity. Negotiating between the popular imagination, which is per-
meated with celebrations of the mercantile spirit and hedonism in today’s
China, and official culture, namely the government’s prescribed values and
mode of living, intellectuals also have brought their own artistic pursuits
and critical thinking about Chinese history and society into popular enter-
tainment. Michael Keane (2002: 120) has related this ideological feature to
the tea-house and opera tradition, or the “little” tradition in Chinese history.
412 Modern China 36(4)

Television in China therefore demonstrates the combined influence of “gov-

ernment, everyday culture, and artistic practice” (121), or, as Yin Hong puts
it, the dynamic interplay among state, market, and intellectuals:

While emerging market forces and the state were the two primary ele-
ments that governed television drama, intellectuals involved in
production acted as representatives of political power and the market.
They were often the gate-keepers (Kanmenren) of televised informa-
tion, endeavouring to draw support from both to express their
intellectual critique of society reality and everyday life. (Yin, 2002: 33)

In a study of the ideology of Chinese TV dramas (2002), Wang Heite also

identifies three “cultures” interwoven in mainland TV drama serials, namely,
the official “guiding culture” (zhudao wenhua),11 as he terms it, elite culture
(jingying wenhua), and popular culture (dazhong wenhua). According to
Wang, the three are not clearly divided by the genre of texts but coexist in
intertextual or intratextual dialogues. In other words, there is no televisual
text that contains only one culture. Instead, any TV drama is a product of the
dialogical negotiation of two or three cultures. Sometimes one culture is in the
dominant position and other culture(s) function as supplementary participat-
ing discourses. In some other TV texts, however, the three cultures may be
equally influential. Furthermore, Wang points out the difference between
“mainstream melody” (zhuxuanlü) works and the official “guiding culture.”
For him, critical or even subversive elements in tension with the “guiding
culture,” such as skepticism about authority and exposure of negative social
issues, could also be spotted in the dramas aired during China Central Televi-
sion (CCTV) Channel One’s “golden hours” (7–9 p.m.), a time slot reserved
for “mainstream melody” works exclusively (Wang Heite, 2002: 91–93).
A hit TV serial drama broadcast prime-time on CCTV in 2006 presents an
interesting case for the analysis of the pluralization of ideology in TV dra-
mas. The 21-episode serial drama Mother Is a River (Muqin shi tiao he) tells
the story of how a peasant woman in a poverty-stricken area endures all sorts
of hardship in raising her husband’s illegitimate son after the death of her
husband. The boy later goes abroad, earns a doctorate from a top-flight uni-
versity, and becomes an outstanding life scientist. He later returns to China to
cure his ill mother and serve his motherland. The scriptwriter of the serial
drama is the distinguished Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, whose novel Serve
the People was banned by the Party Propaganda Department in 2005 because
of its satiric depiction of sexual revolution inside the People’s Liberation
Army. To a certain extent, Mother Is a River qualifies as a “mainstream
Song 413

melody” work not only because of the allegorical figure of mother-as-nation,

a device repeatedly used in the nationalist discourse in China, but also
because of the clichéd didactic plot of an outstanding Chinese student reject-
ing offers of a high-paying job overseas and returning to China to serve the
motherland. However, a major theme in the serial drama boldly exposes the
poverty of peasants and the serious problem of educational inequality in Chi-
na’s poor areas. The drama caused a sensation by boldly portraying what is
really happening in rural China. The audience may very likely question the
government’s discourse of “harmonious society” when they see the distressed
mother in the play selling her blood to pay her son’s tuition.
In the following pages, I discuss three TV programs: The Big Dye House
(Da ranfang, 2003), Halfway Couples (Banlu fuqi, 2006), and Unsheathing
the Sword (Liangjian, 2005). First, all these dramas enjoyed very high audi-
ence ratings and have generated heated discussions since they were aired
nationwide.12 Second, they represent the three most popular subgenres of
TV drama in recent years, namely, historical drama, family drama, and mili-
tary drama (Lian, 2005). Third, the plots of the three dramas are particularly
revealing when it comes to masculinities and power negotiations in popular

Capitalism and Nationalism: The Big Dye House

As indicated earlier, the rise of Chinese nationalism is one of the most signifi-
cant changes in the post-1989 cultural landscape and has attracted increasing
attention from scholars in the West. In a recent article, Suisheng Zhao (2005)
has identified three types of Chinese nationalism: namely “pragmatic,” “lib-
eral,” and “nativist.” Some observers and political scholars have argued that
while the officially sanctioned “pragmatic” discourse of nationalism helps
legitimize the rule of the Chinese Communist Party in postsocialist society,
the “nativist” and “liberal” nationalist discourses at the nonofficial level con-
stitute a potential threat to both the power of the CCP and the stability of the
region and the world (Gries, 2004; Zhao, 2005).
One of the most important factors behind the emergence of nationalist sen-
timent in post-1989 China, however, has been the impact of globalization on
Chinese society, filtered through the marriage between the Communist regime
and global capitalism. As Liu Kang points out, contemporary China “should
be understood as a hybrid postrevolutionary culture that embodies the funda-
mental tensions and contradictions of globalization” (Liu, 2004: 4). Although
patriotic education has been part and parcel of state propaganda in the PRC
and has been reinforced since the early 1990s, by which time Communist
414 Modern China 36(4)

ideology had become obsolete, the new wave of nationalist sentiment in

urban China cannot be adequately explained merely as a result of state-led
propaganda. Rather, it should be interpreted more as a reaction to oppressive
global capitalism than a deeply felt identification with the nation-state. In the
anti-Japanese demonstrations across China in 2005, for instance, Shanghai,
instead of Beijing, became the center of the movement and young white-
collar employees in private and foreign ventures, instead of college students,
constituted the majority of the protestors. It is fair to say that nationalism and
anti-Westernism have provided urban youth with a legitimate, albeit carni-
valistic outlet for their discontent over their own economic condition. The
“destabilizing factors” in Chinese cities, such as overpriced housing and
the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, are to a certain degree
engendered by China’s rapid integration into global capitalism.13 In this
sense, as Wang Hui (2003: 40) puts it, Chinese nationalism is in fact a
by-product of globalization.
The complex interaction between capitalism and nationalism constitutes
the theme of a 24-episode TV drama serial, The Big Dye House, which
received very high ratings when it was telecast by CCTV in 2003. This drama,
based on a novel of the same title, centers on the life story of a successful
“patriotic” entrepreneur in the Republican period (mainly the 1920s–1930s).
As far as masculinity is concerned, the drama is significant in lauding the self-
made businessman as the hero, in contrast to the models of “workers–
peasants–soldiers” in the Maoist era and the selfless intellectuals in the reform
era. Synthesizing elements from both traditional and Western notions of mas-
culinity, the construction of manhood in the drama serves as a salient example
of the hybridity of masculine discourse in China today. Another program with
a similar theme, The Grand Mansion (Da zhaimen) and its sequel, which are
based on the history of the famous Chinese drugstore Tongren tang in Beijing,
also attracted huge viewing figures in 2003 and has been rerun many times.
The story of The Big Dye House begins in the final years of the Qing
dynasty in a small town in Shandong province. An orphan beggar known as
Chen Six (because he weighed six jin at birth) topples down at the doorstep
of the Zhou family on a cold snowy night. He is saved and adopted by the
kind-hearted family and is named Chen Shouting by his adopted father,
owner of a small dye works in the town. When he comes of age, Shouting
takes over the workshop from his adopted father and soon, because of his
astuteness, bests all the rival dye houses in town. He marries the owner’s
daughter, Cai Qin, who is close to his age. Soon after the marriage, Shouting
leaves town to become the manager of a newly established modern dyeing
factory in Qingdao. His partner, Lu Jiaju, son of the wealthy Squire Lu in a
Song 415

nearby village, is a handsome young man who has returned from Germany
with a degree in modern printing and dyeing techniques. However, illiterate
as he is, Shouting soon wins Jiaju’s respect and also that of all the workers in
the factory, who treat him like an older brother. With his resourcefulness and
charm, Shouting not only beats the competitors in the industry one by one but
also makes friends with them. However, because of the Japanese military and
economic expansion in China, Shouting is forced to sell the factory to a Japa-
nese businessman, Fujii, who is backed by the Japanese government, and
move to Ji’nan, where he runs a new factory. The latter half of the series
focuses on how Shouting, acting in unison with other Chinese businessmen,
foils Fujii’s attempt to swallow up a chunk of Chinese national industry. In
the end, the Sino-Japanese War breaks out and, as a result of the cowardice
and incompetence of the Guomindang (GMD) troops, Ji’nan, the capital of
Shandong province, falls to the Japanese. Lest the machines fall into the
hands of the enemy, Shouting, in despair, blows up his factory.
Although the image of Chen Shouting deviates from the stereotype of the
weak and wavering “national capitalist” (minzu zichanjieji) in Communist
discourse, the message of the drama is unmistakably in keeping with the
government’s assertions that a country’s development hinges on its overall
strength and that only the Communist Party could save China and develop
China. As the Japanese businessman Fujii says in the drama, “if a man is too
capable and his country too weak, he will suffer a lot.” The tragic ending of
the protagonist has been attributed to the humiliation and weakness of China
during that period. Chen Shouting also sighs that he was born at the wrong
time (sheng bu feng shi), leaving the audience feeling grateful and lucky for
living in a golden age when the country is rapidly developing and they are
accumulating personal wealth. In this sense the drama fits well in the “main-
stream melody” framework and serves the purpose of patriotic education.
However, there are also some elements in the drama that are not so “official.”
The celebration of wealth and the myth of self-made millionaires fits the
popular imagination and mercantile spirit in contemporary Chinese society.
Admiration of the life of the rich and the ethos that money talks are only too
obvious in the series. For example, in Episode 7, Shouting is drinking Chi-
nese liquor in a high-class Western restaurant. The waiters laugh in their
sleeves at him. The purse-proud rich man gets angry and says, “I can earn
three restaurants like this in a day. So don’t get up my nose; otherwise I’ll buy
this restaurant and sack you all.” In striking contrast to the previous hostile or
disdainful depictions of businessmen in Chinese cinema and TV, the drama
eulogizes the heroic traits and accomplishments of entrepreneurs and, as a
consequence, significantly links material success with masculinity. A real
416 Modern China 36(4)

man is a man who is able to change his (and others’) fate by making a fortune
from scratch. In the light of this ethos, Shouting is depicted as an exemplar of
(a new) Chinese masculinity.
The drama highlights Chen Shouting’s illiteracy. As an orphaned beggar,
the only education he receives is from storytelling in the town marketplace,
the repertoires of which contain a large stock of themes from Chinese history,
legends and mythology, and classical novels. His wisdom and stratagems as
a shrewd businessman mainly derive from the stories he heard as a child. His
better educated rivals and partners in business, including returned students
from Europe, a son of a textile tycoon in Shanghai, etc., look down on him at
first but soon come to admire him and indeed become his friends. His success
celebrates the power and potential of Chinese wisdom, embodied by the 36
stratagems and The Romance of Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), which he
repeatedly refers to in the drama. In this sense, the drama echoes the above-
mentioned quest for alternative modernity by the root-seeking school in the
literary and cultural arenas. In fact, after its telecast, the TV drama sparked
heated discussions on traditional Chinese culture as a resource of modern
management techniques (Qi, 2003; Sun, 2004; Xie, 2005).
Like the root-seeking school, The Big Dye House also turns to Chinese
folk culture for real manhood. It is obvious that the characterization of Chen
Shouting exhibits traces of the traditional discourse of masculinity such as
the endurance of pain, the attitudes toward women and brothers, the approval
of masculinity in a homosocial network, and so on. In Episode 2, the Zhou
family’s Tonghe Dye House prospers under Shouting’s able management.
The Zhou family, because of their low prices and good service, gradually
freezes out other dye works in the town. To save his own business, Mr. Wang,
the owner of the neighboring Dachang Dye House, pays a gang of bandits to
kidnap Shouting after attempting, in vain, to buy him off. They threaten to
kill Shouting if he does not raise the price of his products. Shouting pretends
to submit and then, in front of the statue of Lord Guan (Guan Yu), presses a
large bundle of burning incense against his naked chest to show his inflexible
resolution. The bandits are impressed by his manliness and release him. The
plot is reminiscent of the story of Guan Yu, the martial hero par excellence in
the Romance of Three Kingdoms, who once underwent surgery that entailed
cutting open his arm and scraping the bone while talking and playing chess
as if nothing happened. As a matter of fact, Guan Yu repeatedly appears in the
drama as a cultural icon of masculinity. Shouting admires him and learns
from him in many ways, as we see below.
In the drama, the hero’s attitudes toward male associates and women are
two touchstones of his manhood, just like the literary models of warriors and
Song 417

outlaws in traditional vernacular fiction. An illiterate peasant of low birth,

Chen Shouting builds up and expands his business empire mainly with the
help of his friends, partners, and workers. The drama devotes a good deal of
time to delineating the fraternal bond among a group of businessmen around
Shouting; they include Lu Jiaju (his partner in Qingdao and a lifelong
“brother”), the Zhao brothers (his partners and best friends in Ji’nan), Sun
Mingzu (his number one competitor in Qingdao, who later becomes his good
friend and partner after Fujii takes over the Dahua Factory), Lin Xiangrong
(a conceited young entrepreneur in Shanghai, who is rude and insulting to
Shouting at first but later admires him extravagantly after Shouting teaches
him a lesson), and Zhou Taofei and Ding Wendong (the two managers of
Kaibu Dyeing Factory in Tianjin, to whom Shouting entrusts the factory
unreservedly after purchasing it). Some of the men are rivals in business but
in the end they all become good friends, the only exception being Zi Wenhai
and his son, who cooperate with the Japanese and come to a disgraceful end.
The brotherly solidarity of an all-male association is reminiscent of sworn
brotherhood in the Chinese cultural tradition. In fact, almost every man in the
drama addresses Chen Shouting as “the sixth elder brother” and obeys and
respects him. He is so loved by his workers that, when the Dahua Factory is
sold to Fujii, all the workers flee to Ji’nan with Chen, leaving nothing but an
empty factory for the Japanese. Chen works side by side with the workers
and shows concern for them. The homosocial network is not only essential
for the success of his business but also functions as the site for the approval
of his masculinity. Many times in the drama his “brothers” express, either in
his presence or not, how they admire him and miss him if they have not seen
him even for a few days. As the Chinese saying goes, “a hero dotes on other
heroes” (yingxiong xi yingxiong). After having a meeting with Shouting,
Ding Wendong enviously says to Zhou Taofei, “His eyes never left your face.
That is the kind of appreciation of a man by another man.” Toward the end of
the series, Zhou Taofei is killed by Japanese agents and Shouting vomits
blood on hearing the news, yelling out in pain, “Brother Taofei, you have
made your elder brother’s heart ache to death!” The homosocial desire, which
is in the core of masculine discourse in the Chinese tradition, is even more
salient in the other two TV dramas to be discussed below.
The drama also depicts Shouting’s faithfulness to his wife and his immu-
nity to the temptation of female charms. His wife, Cai Qin, is an illiterate
rural woman who grows up together with him. When he comes to Qingdao to
run the factory, Cai Qin remains in the village to look after their parents and
son. The couple remains faithful to each other all through. As the plot has it,
Shouting once saves a drowning girl at the beach of Qingdao. The girl is a
418 Modern China 36(4)

pretty college student who has come from the Northeast to look for her
fiancé. Shouting sends her to a hotel and lends money to her, without even
the slightest evil thought of taking advantage of the woman. He even refuses
to take the same rickshaw with her, preferring to walk by himself. His hon-
esty and virtue as a real man win the girl’s respect and she later rewards him
by becoming his “adopted sister” and helping him with his business. By con-
trast, his business partner Lu Jiaju is a womanizer. Although he has a wife in
his home village, he marries a young female student on arriving in Qingdao
and thus gets into a lot of trouble. Their rival in Qingdao, Sun Mingzu, preys
on his weakness and sets a sex trap for him. He is cheated by Sun’s mistress,
a tall and sexy woman, and is forced to hand over Shouting’s secret recipe for
dyeing to her. But Shouting outwits Sun with a trick of his own. In the end
the false recipe surrendered by Lu makes Sun lose a large sum of money. In
a word, the narrative differs significantly from, say, the 007 series in terms of
the proportion and functions of women and men in the life of the hero, evi-
dence of the influence of the male bonding culture in traditional China.14
The representation of masculinity in the drama also registers a tension of
locality difference and confrontation in Chinese culture. The actor who plays
the role of Chen Shouting in the drama, Hou Yong, is a famous People’s
Liberation Army (PLA) actor known for portraying tough men on the screen.
He is also regarded as an epitome of the northern hanzi (macho man) type of
manhood. While Chen Shouting and his “brothers” are mainly from Shan-
dong province and the Northeast, southern men, represented by the dandified
Shanghainese businessman Lin Xiangrong and his subordinates who all
speak with a Shanghainese accent, are ridiculed in the play as less masculine.
One of the most amusing scenes in the serial is when Shouting’s muscular
bodyguard beats Lin’s sales manager. The ugly Shanghainese man appears
arrogant and insulting at first but soon cowardly begs for mercy on his knees
after getting a dozen slaps in the face.
As in many films and teleplays in recent years, The Big Dye House proj-
ects a strong sense of wounded national pride and anti-Japanese resentment.
The conflict between Chen Shouting and the Japanese businessman Fujii can
be read as an allegory of Sino-Japanese relations. Fujii is depicted as a cun-
ning and evil schemer who casts greedy eyes on Chinese industry. The mas-
culinity of Chen Shouting lies primarily in his righteousness and loyalty to
the nation when facing the Japanese enemy. In the end he consigns the fac-
tory that embodies his painstaking efforts of many years to flames in order to
save it from Japanese occupation.15
As Cynthia Enloe (1990: 4) observes in Bananas, Beaches, and Bases,
“nationalism has typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized
Song 419

humiliation, and masculinized hope.” The interlocking relationship between

nationhood and manhood is by no means unique to Chinese culture. Joane
Nagel (1998: 252), for instance, in her study on manliness and nationalism in
American culture, argues that “the ‘microculture’ of masculinity in everyday
life articulates very well with the demands of nationalism, particularly its
militaristic side.” Nevertheless, the representations of this theme in Chinese
popular culture may have something to do with the Confucian legacy of
accomplishing manhood in political action and personal sacrifice (Song,
2004: 88–97). The patriotic men on screen are also replacements for the self-
sacrificing revolutionary heroes in the Communist discourse.

“Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen”: Halfway Couples

Divorce has become a hot theme in TV dramas in recent years. A couple of
programs on this topic have achieved very high ratings and become extremely
popular especially among young people: these include Ten Years of Marriage
(Jiehun shinian, 2003), Chinese-Style Divorce (Zhongguo shi lihun, 2004),
The New Age of Marriage (Xin jiehun shidai, 2006), and Halfway Couples
(Banlu fuqi, 2006).
The story of Halfway Couples would have been completely unthinkable
on the Chinese screen even ten years ago: a community policewoman, known
as pianjing in Chinese, divorces her husband, who is also a good policeman,
and falls in love with and marries a released convict whom she is supposed
to supervise and “help.” The program achieved a high rating of 12.7 percent
when shown in Shanghai (Gan, 2006a) and demonstrates a significant value
shift in choosing a husband and rating men in Chinese society.
The basic storyline of this 28-episode TV drama serial goes like this:
Guan Jun (played by Sun Honglei) runs a company with his friend, Taozi.
When the company is sued for tax evasion, Guan Jun accepts all the blame
out of loyalty to his friend, though it is Taozi who commits the crime. He
does not expect that, after spending five years in prison, his company will be
taken over by Taozi and he will have nothing he can call his own, since not
only does he lose his company but his wife divorces him and takes away their
daughter and house. The warm-hearted community policewoman, Hu Xiaoling
(Chen Xiaoyi), who arrested him five years earlier, offers her help at his most
difficult time. Hu’s own marriage has just ended in divorce. Her ex-husband,
Jiang Jianping (Zhang Jiaze) is an honest and upright policeman. Though
they grew up together and share the same profession, they find that they have
“no feeling” toward each other and are more like a brother and a sister, so
they sensibly chose to divorce. Hu allows the homeless released convict to
420 Modern China 36(4)

live in her mother’s house and lends all her money to him as the capital to
restart his business. With her help, Guan Jun becomes a successful business-
man. They fall in love with each other and finally get married despite a
mountain of obstructions and opposition. The “halfway couple,” together
with Guan’s daughter and Hu’s son, who are both teenagers, form a new fam-
ily. At the same time, Jiang Jianping has also found his own “halfway” wife,
a woman who flees to this city to evade domestic violence.
The image of Guan Jun by no means resembles the “good man” in official
culture, not even a “positive character” in the socialist canon. Instead, he is
more like a rascal in the eyes of the audience, who have got used to the con-
ventional type of manhood, typified by a countenance with big eyes and
bushy eyebrows. Guan is tall and of strong build, but has small eyes, and
looks unrestrained, aggressive, and sexy. His image, a combination of a mus-
cular athleticism and a rebellious sensuality, has been hailed as irresistibly
manly by many a blogger on the Internet.16 The aesthetic and moral tendency
in the construction of this image as the ideal man can probably be explained
by a widely discussed saying in contemporary China, “If a man is not bad
enough, a woman will not love him” (Nanren bu huai, nüren bu ai), the
meaning of which is close to the English proverb “Treat ’em mean, keep ’em
keen.” The championing of the “bad man” is not only a reaction to the didac-
ticism of political propaganda but also embodies the repressed desires and
transgressive pleasures that official culture has denied. Compared with the
conventionally “good” man, Jiang Jianping, Guan’s attractiveness lies in his
“badness,” including his experience in prison, his sense of humor and his
flirting with women, his personal loyalty (yiqi) to his brothers, and his male
chauvinism. When he chases after the policewoman, he is very good at ingra-
tiating himself with her. But after they marry, when Hu’s identity as a police-
woman clashes with his loyalty to his former fellow inmate in prison, he is
sometimes cruel to her. What is more important, his manliness comes from
his ability to earn money and thus to bring happiness to his woman. Hu’s col-
leagues cast jealous eyes on her when he picks her up from the police station
with a luxurious car and their grand wedding is also something way beyond
the means of her ex-husband, the policeman. In a word, it is money that ulti-
mately vindicates his masculinity.
The friendship that Hu Xiaoling’s two husbands, Guan Jun and Jiang Jian-
ping, develop is also fascinating. Through their “common woman,” they
become “brothers” and trust each other as real men. Jiang is at first very
much opposed to Hu’s dating an ex-con, but after talking with Guan, he is
convinced that Guan is a reliable man and tells Hu that she can marry him
without qualms. The triangular relationship between the men and the woman
Song 421

is reminiscent of Eve Sedgwick’s theory of the bond of cuckoldry: “the men’s

heterosexual relationships in the play have as their raison d’être an ultimate
bonding between men; and that this bonding, if successfully achieved, is not
detrimental to ‘masculinity’ but definitive of it” (Sedgwick, 1985, 50).
This sort of two-men-and-one-woman triangle can be found in many a
Chinese TV program. Another example is a recent TV series Men from Guan-
zhong (Guanzhong nanren, 2007), which depicts the Damon-and-Pythias
loyalty between Wang Chang’an and Xie Dalong, both of whom fall in love
with the same woman but become faithful brothers in the course of defending
their homeland against the Japanese invasion.

Rewriting the Red Myth: Unsheathing the Sword

For over five decades, the construction of a revolutionary history of how
China was rescued by the ever-victorious army led by the Communist Party
has been at the core of the ideological education that aims to legitimize Com-
munist rule. More than one generation of Chinese grew up with the literary
and cinematic images of heroes martyring themselves with no regret but only
hope and triumph in their eyes. War-themed film and TV continued into the
new millennium, especially in the context of the recent anti-Japanese nation-
alist fervor. However, new images of the revolutionary hero and new types of
masculinity emerged in this process of “rewriting” revolutionary history, or,
to borrow Xiaoying Wang’s words, “the projection of postcommunist values
onto the communist past” (Xiaoying Wang, 2003: 134).
Rewriting the red myth and reconfiguring the masculine hero have become
very trendy on the TV screen in recent years. Programs such as The Years of
Burning Passion (Jiqing ranshao de suiyue, 2002), The Sky of History (Lishi de
tiankong, 2004), and Unsheathing the Sword (Liangjian, 2005)—all generally
referred to as “military dramas”—enjoyed widespread popularity. There is a
structural semblance among the three in terms of the plot, characterization, and
story line. We will concentrate on Unsheathing the Sword in this article.
Like many other “military dramas,” Unsheathing the Sword is the product
of the collaboration between a PLA production unit and a private TV com-
pany. With an average 10.02 percent, it achieved the highest ratings for TV
series broadcast by CCTV in 2005 and has been rerun more than twenty times
nationwide since then (Gan, 2006b; Li Yangyang, 2007). The 30-episode
series, based on a homonymous novel by an ex-PLA officer named Du Liang,
tells the story of a fictional high-ranking general in the PLA during the Anti-
Japanese War and the Civil War. It is reported that the producers of the
series aimed at producing a “Chinese Band of Brothers.”17 As an indicator of
422 Modern China 36(4)

its popularity and influence, “the spirit of unsheathing the sword” (liangjian
jingshen) became a buzzword in China soon after the airing of the drama.
The most prominent feature about this program is that the characteriza-
tion of the hero, Li Yunlong (Li Youbin), conspicuously deviates from the
stereotyped formula of “revolutionary heroism” and has thus aroused a great
deal of controversy. The positive comments applaud the “more realistic” and
individualistic depiction of the hero as a welcome reaction to the all-perfect
“model” hero. For instance, Xu Fangming (2006), when talking about this
drama on CCTV’s “Lecture Room” (Baijia jiangtan) program, calls the pro-
tagonist an “off-beat” hero. On the other hand, however, critics have charged
that Li Yunlong is more like a bandit (feiqi) than a Communist warrior. An
anonymous Web-essay reveals the lack of clichéd Communist discourses in
the drama:

The appearance of Unsheathing the Sword is by no means an acciden-

tal phenomenon. Similar works include The Sky of History, The Years
of Burning Passion and so on. In these works, we are not able to find
the principle that the Party directs the gun, nor the function of ideologi-
cal and political work, nor ideals and faith, nor class consciousness, nor
[Mao’s] “Ten Military Principles,” nor “the Three Major Rules of Dis-
cipline and the Eight Points for Attention [of the People’s Liberation
Army],” nor democracy in military affairs, nor the unity between offi-
cers and soldiers, nor the fish-and-water relations between the army
and the people, nor ideological remoulding and ideological struggle,
nor the spirit of standing up for what is right, nor wisdom and strategies
. . . Instead, our army’s commanders and fighters are depicted as uned-
ucated simpletons who talk dirty, pick quarrels, always contend with
each other for fame and fortune and seek to put others down. They
typify individualistic heroism; most of the time they fight blindly.
Emotionally, they are colorless and bland. These images are completely
different from those in revolutionary films such as Fighting North and
South, Scouting across the Yangzi, Guerrillas on the Plain, Dong
Cunrui and so on. They also do not correspond with the old comrades
around us. (“Liangjian zhi jian xiang shei liang?”)

For one thing, instead of revolutionary discourse, the title allegedly derives
from the spirit of ancient swordsmen. As said by Li Yunlong in the play,
“when facing a mighty opponent, unsheathe your sword undeterred, though
you know well that you are not his match. If you fall, become a mountain on
the earth.” The core of heroism and masculinity here is the courage to face
Song 423

the enemy and accept challenges. This spirit, which is constructed as the
(new) soul of the PLA, is lauded as a stimulation of true masculinity in a
society that desperately lacks it (Chen and Gan, 2005). The call for unsheath-
ing the “sword” echoes the rise of popular nationalism and the call for tougher
foreign policies and policies toward Taiwan, as represented by books such as
China Can Say No. “The spirit of unsheathing the sword” has now become a
vogue word and is widely used to refer to a variety of activities such as com-
mercial competition (Xing, 2005). A search of the phrase in “China’s core
newspaper database” indicates that it has appeared 983 times in China’s
major newspapers since 2005.
In addition, the protagonist is distinguished from the Maoist heroes in
that he talks more like a calculating merchant than a selfless Communist.
The heart-stirring language of revolution has given way to business talk.
Many critics have spotted the “slyness of a Chinese peasant” in Li Yunlong
(Li Yun, 2005). He regards weapons and soldiers as his own property and is
said to never trade at a loss. For instance, he trades five machine guns for a
cavalry commander with another regiment. Instead of revolutionary slo-
gans, he is prone to utter sentences such as “I’ve made a fortune this time!”
A link has thus been constructed between revolutionary memory and the
ubiquitous mercantile spirit.
According to a Chinese critic, the novel on which the TV drama is based
is “a heroic novel full of the spirit of masculinity; it is a novel written by a
man, about men, and for men” (Li Yun, 2005). The slogan “Be a man like Li
Yunlong!” is often repeated by bloggers on the internet (Li Yangyang, 2007).
However, the masculinity represented in the drama is, as we have pointed
out, a far cry from that exemplified by Maoist heroes. Instead, it reflects a
revival of the outlaw and tough guy (haohan) culture in premodern China.18
Li Yunlong is depicted as a crude man with a bad temper and a foul mouth.
He often wears his hat askew and calls himself laozi (a coarse term referring
to oneself, literally meaning “your father”) when talking. He is so fond of
drinking that anybody who wants to befriend him has to drink with him first.
More importantly, he is undisciplined and defies his superiors’ orders and
often acts presumptuously. Like the knight-errant in history, he prefers indi-
vidualistic one-to-one combat. Although he is a shrewd commander and
often defeats the enemy by surprise tactics, he is promoted slowly because
he is equally capable of violating discipline. He also resembles an outlaw in
that he never hesitates to take revenge. His most serious breaches of disci-
pline are the two acts of vengeance in the play (one for the death of his
first wife and the other for his favorite solider, Monk Wei). Despite being
victorious in battle, he is punished by his superiors for acting without prior
424 Modern China 36(4)

consent. All these “hyper masculine” traits, nonetheless, make him a hero, at
least in eyes of his second wife, Tian Yu (Tong Lei), a nurse who marries Li
after caring for him in a field hospital. She explains to her mother the rea-
sons why she fell in love with Li:

Honesty, lofty sentiments, scholarly bearing, acute judgement . . . all

these are fine. But these merits are too neutral; they can be found in
men and women alike. What I like are virtues that are exclusive to men.
A real man should be an awe-inspiring, courageous, and upright hero,
with a firm and inflexible character. Only such a man can give women
a sense of security and make a contrast to the feminine beauty of

The director of the series, Zhang Qian, reportedly said that this is a TV
drama shot by men for men (Chen and Gan, 2005). As a popular entertain-
ment, it is unusual in that there is basically no woman in the first two thirds
of the series, except for the brief appearance of Li’s first wife, a guerrilla who
is captured by the Japanese on the night of their wedding and is killed in front
of Li when he besieges the town to rescue her. In other words, the world of
the “sword” is a world of men and the masculinity (yanggang zhi qi) in the
play that has been praised by critics and audience is depicted through the
comradeship, brotherhood, and opposition among men. This is in keeping
with the haohan tradition in Chinese literature and is reminiscent of what
Sedgwick (1985: 89) describes as men being interested in men:

The fact that what goes on at football games, in fraternities, at the

Bohemian Grove, and at climactic moments in war novels can look,
with only a slight shift of optic, quite startlingly “homosexual,” is not
most importantly an expression of the psychic origin of these institu-
tions in a repressed or sublimated homosexual genitality. Instead, it is
the coming to visibility of the nominally implicit terms of a coercive
double bind . . . For a man to be a man’s man is separated only by an
invisible, carefully-blurred, always-already crossed line from being
“interested in men.”

In fact, homosociality is a key to the study of premodern Chinese mascu-

linity, because the male–male relationship played a more important role in the
construction of masculinity than did the male–female relationship. Susan
Mann (2000: para. 10) maintains that “late imperial China was a society
where the dominant channels of social mobility ensured that men would
Song 425

spend the better part of their social life interacting exclusively with other men.
This was a culture where we could expect homosocial bonding to reach the
state of a very high art.”
In Unsheathing the Sword, two men’s relations with Li Yunlong merit
particular attention. The men are Li’s partner, the political commissar Zhao
Gang (played by He Zhengjun), and Li’s friend but also opponent, the
Guomindang officer Chu Yunfei (Zhang Guangbei). Zhao Gang represents
the wen type of manhood in terms of the wen/wu matrix, which complements
Li’s macho wu masculinity. He is a “progressive student” in Yenching Uni-
versity and is sent to Li’s regiment as a “political cadre” after receiving train-
ing in Yan’an. At first Li thinks Zhao is a “white-face scholar” and treats him
lightly, but Li begins to respect him when Zhao learns from him how to drink
and to speak dirty words, and especially when he finds out that Zhao is brave
in battle and is a good marksman. They become bosom comrades who, in
their words, “would block bullets for each other with their own bodies.”
When Zhao Gang is transferred from the regiment, Li tries every means to
keep him and explicitly expresses how he misses him when Zhao finally
leaves. The same deep brotherly emotions can also be found between Li and
his bodyguard, “Monk Wei.”
What is more interesting is the love–hate relationship between Li and Chu
Yunfei, which is obviously intended as an allegory of the struggle between
the CCP and the Guomindang. Chu is a well-educated Guomindang general
who has graduated from the elite Whampoa Military Academy. He is a mili-
tary man with scholarly bearing. As patriotic officers, he and Li have a com-
mon enemy during the anti-Japanese war and Chu deeply admires Li for his
bravery and skill as a commander. Li also regards Chu as a true hero. When
Chu visits Li’s regiment, he presents Li with a Browning pistol. According to
him, there is only a pair of pistols of this model in the world, one male (xiong)
and the other female (ci); he keeps the male one and gives the female one to
Li as a gift. But Li refuses and insists on having the male pistol. In the end,
Li gets the male one and Chu keeps the female one, which can be symboli-
cally read as a masculinization of the legitimacy of the CCP in rewriting
history. In return, Li presents Chu with a Japanese sword seized from the
enemy. They help each other and support each other in fighting the Japanese.
In Episode 11, for instance, the two rush into the birthday banquet of a Japa-
nese officer in the county seat and, alone, kill all the Japanese. At the same
time, they also treat each other with reserve as they are aware that a confron-
tation between the two forces will be unavoidable. As expected, during the
ensuing Civil War they become opponents and come upon each other on the
battlefield. The duel between the two “brothers” results in serious wounds to
both. At the end of the war, the defeated Chu flees to Taiwan with a jar of the
426 Modern China 36(4)

soil of the mainland and deep regrets. The drama ends in 1955 when Li is
promoted to the rank of major-general. However, in the novel and allegedly
in an uncut version of the TV drama, the rivalry between the two men contin-
ues into the 1950s and 1960s, as they happen to be stationed on two neigh-
boring strategic islands in the Taiwan Strait. When Li Yunlong dies during
the Cultural Revolution, Chu sends his obituary tribute from the other side of
the strait via a loudspeaker. The rivalry functions as an emotional bond
between the two men, who understand each other and enjoy the combat with
each other as a truly masculine game of competition.

Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, in their study of Chinese cinema (2006:
138–39), identify “filiality, brotherhood and loyalty” as the male codes that
“have mythic status within modern and contemporary Chinese cultures.” As
we can see from the above readings of TV dramas, these codes are also con-
spicuous in recent TV productions as a cultural nationalist attempt to restore
“tradition.” As such, they invite analysis from theoretically informed per-
spectives such as that of homosocial desire.
In this article, since space is limited, we have concentrated on the plot
points and paid scant attention to camera, lighting, and the other elements
that make television more than just literature with pictures. Furthermore, as
noted above, this article has far from exhausted the wealth and diversity of
masculinities that have been produced in contemporary China. There are
racial, class, and sexuality differences in masculinity constructions that need
to be addressed in a comprehensive manner—a project for the future. At the
very least, however, TV drama is a promising place to begin to address the
important issue of masculinities in Chinese popular culture.
By extracting some common features in the construction of masculinities
in these TV dramas, I have isolated the importance of nationalism, homoso-
ciality, and commercialization in understanding contemporary Chinese mas-
culinities. The male images in these dramas are a product of social changes
that have challenged socialist norms and are tied in with new formations of
power. Forms of masculinity are becoming increasingly hybrid in a global-
izing China and have been influenced by the nationalist quest for Chinese-
ness and a stronger China as well as the commercialization of mass media
and the dominance of consumerist values in society.

I would like to thank Chris Berry and Sally Sargeson for reading an earlier version of
this article and offering helpful comments and suggestions.
Song 427

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship and/or
publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this

  1. Michael Keane (2005: 83) argues that Chinese TV drama production has pro-
gressed through three periods: industrial (1958–1989), market (1990–2002), and
most recently, interpersonal (2003 onward): “the first period connotes mass pro-
duction and social engineering; the second, increasing autonomy for producers
and more choice for viewers; while the third demonstrates greater awareness of
differentiated market segments—notably female consumption of drama.” While
this historical segmentation may be arguable, most observers generally agree
that the period since 2002–2003 has seen a proliferation of commercialized
TV drama production and an increasingly keen competition in the market (Bai,
2007: 122–24). The time frame for the sources of this study is therefore roughly
2003 to 2007.
  2. In English-language scholarship, there are a handful of journal articles and book
chapters on the evolution and overall situation of TV drama in China (Lull, 1991;
Keane, 2001; Yin, 2002; Keane, 2005; Zhu, 2005). A panel entitled “Understand-
ing Chinese Prime-Time Television Drama: Narrative Forms and Social Agen-
cies” was organized by Shuyu Kong at the Association for Asian Studies 2006
annual meeting. Abstracts of papers in this panel can be viewed at www.aasianst.
org/absts/2006abst/China/C-16.htm. An anthology edited by Ying Zhu, Michael
Keane, and Ruoyun Bai entitled TV Drama in China was published by Hong
Kong University Press in 2009. For a pioneering and thought-provoking study
of the representation of transnational romances and the construction of Chinese
masculinity through foreign women in Chinese “soap operas” of the 1990s, see
Sheldon H. Lu (2000).
  3. Xueping Zhong’s Masculinity Besieged? (2000)—which focuses on Chinese lit-
erature and films produced during the 1980s—is a pioneering inquiry into male
subjectivities in post-Mao China. Zhong’s approach is primarily psychoanalytic,
making use of Kaja Silverman’s concept of “marginality complex.” A more re-
cent addition to the literature is Nimrod Baranovitch’s book on popular music in
post-Mao China. Though mainly focusing on the popular musical expression of
gender, Baranovitch provides an insightful overview of the changing masculine
428 Modern China 36(4)

discourse in contemporary China, with reference to some interesting issues, such

as the “crisis of masculinity” in post-Mao China, the link between Chinese rock-
n-roll and (Western) masculinity and modernity, the so-called “neotraditional
mode of manhood” in the 1990s and the empowerment of women by commer-
cialization (Baranovitch, 2003: 114–44).
  4. The plurality of masculinity should also include expressions of manhood gener-
ated by alternative sexualities. A critical reading of Chinese popular culture will
entail important but little explored topics such as homophobia, gay identities and
visibility, and, in particular, the implicit homosexual subtext under a “homoso-
cial overcoat,” as Travis Kong (2005) puts it. However, due to the limitations
of space, this article focuses on the diverse meanings of masculinity for hetero-
sexual adult males only.
  5. A commonly cited and extensively studied text is Zhang Xianliang’s novel Half
of Man Is Woman (Nanren de yiban shi nüren), the first work in post-Mao China
to openly address issues of male anxiety, sexual repression, impotency, and man-
hood (see Zhong, 2000; Baranovitch, 2003: 114; Fang, 2004).
  6. As for the political implications of yinsheng yangshuai, Xueping Zhong (2000:
50­–51) argues that yinsheng “is problematic because of its perceived close link
with the CCP’s gender-equality policies (hence with the CCP regime and its
ideology). [ . . . ] Meanwhile, yangshuai turns out to be the ‘real’ issue at stake:
it comes to signify ‘the repressed,’ and, somewhere in the process, becomes
  7. “Search for the real man” (Xunzhao nanzihan) is the title of a play by the Shang-
hai playwright Sha Yexin. The expression has been used to refer to literature of
this kind. The play, which was staged in Shanghai for six months in a row in
1986, tells the story of how a girl, in search of an ideal man, is disappointed with
all the men she encounters. See also Sha Yexin’s recent Web-essay “How Many
Real Men Under Heaven?” in which he defines nanzihan (real man) as a quality
of political adherence that is not exclusive to men, an echo of Mencius’s political
and moral definition of da zhangfu (Sha, 2007).
  8. There is an old and widely circulated doggerel which can be roughly translated as

First class girls marry American soldiers [white men];

Second class girls marry Japanese soldiers [Japanese and Korean men];
Third class girls marry fake foreign soldiers [overseas Chinese men];
Fourth class girls marry Guomindang soldiers [Hong Kong and Taiwan men];
Fifth class girls marry Communist soldiers [Mainland men].

The satiric tone pokes fun at the official discourse on revolutionary history.
Song 429

  9. For a discussion on nationalism in A Beijing Man in New York, see Barmé (1996).
10. Philip Elloitt et al. (1983) have distinguished between “tight” and “loose” formats
of popular drama serials:

A “tight” format is one in which the evidence and argument is organized to

converge upon a single preferred interpretation and to close off other possible
readings. A “loose” format, in contrast, is one where the ambiguities, contra-
dictions and loose ends are not fully resolved within the programme, leaving
the audience with a choice of available interpretations. (161)

11. Wang Heite (2002: 93) also argues that the official “guiding culture” since the
early 1990s is not monolithic but demonstrates the dynamic interplay between
the “mainstream” in official ideology, which is premised on the rationality of
the party’s current policies and an optimistic view of China’s future, and a “non-
mainstream subculture” in official ideology, which is characterized by an obses-
sion with the legacy of Mao’s revolutionary culture and an anxious skepticism
about the current situation and future of China.
12. All the ratings information in this article is provided by CSM Media Research,
the major company conducting television audience surveys in China. For a TV
drama program shown in mainland China, a rating over 5 percent is normally
regarded as very high. See Liu Yannan (2006) for a comprehensive study of the
rating system in China.
13. See Song (2006: 7) for the carnivalistic features of anti-Japanese and anti-Western
protests in contemporary China. See Jing Wang (2001) for a detailed study of the
“political, cultural, and economic capital in post-1992 China as interchangeable
terms of value.”
14. For discussions of male bonding and friendship in Chinese culture, see a group
of articles in the “AHR Forum: Gender and Manhood in Chinese History,”
American Historical Review 105, 5 (Dec. 2000), in particular, Mann (2000).
See also Lee (2007: 209) for a discussion of homosocial desire in traditional
Chinese society.
15. A similar ending appears in another TV drama serial, Broken Jade (Yu sui,
2006), the title of which derives from the Chinese saying “Better a broken
jade, than to live a life of clay.” The owner of an antique shop breaks a price-
less jade work of art to pieces before the face of the greedy Japanese, who want
to seize it.
16. See, for instance,
(accessed on Sept. 15, 2007).
17. See (accessed on Sept.
10, 2007).
430 Modern China 36(4)

18. In an original, uncut version of the drama, a special reconnaissance unit of 108
soldiers with the name “the Liangshan team” is organized and trained by Li Yunlong
in the 1950s to scout around on an island off the shore of Taiwan. The plot clearly
shows the influence of Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan).

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Geng Song is a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the Australian National Univer-
sity. He has published five books, including The Fragile Scholar: Power and
Masculinity in Chinese Culture (2004), and is currently working on a project on mas-
culinities and popular culture in contemporary China.