Cao: Chinese-American men need to create a new paradigm of masculinity


Henry Cao, Columnist

It is time for Chinese-American men to reclaim our masculinity and clear our minds of prevailing Western conceptions of manhood. Western culture has sculpted a monolith of physical and psychological dominance. American men must conform to and shoulder this burden like Atlas carries the sky. Aside from being an unattainable standard for many, Western masculinity elevates the man at the expense of the woman.

Masculinity is more than earning the respect of fellow males and attracting females. It is an entire set of institutions that influence the male psyche. The notion of masculinity is not tangible, but its effects on society are very pervasive. A man’s notion of masculinity is a key determinant in his manner of interpersonal interaction and self identity. Therefore, masculinity is something that we should study very carefully.

What is the Chinese conception of masculinity? Chinese masculinity is a spectrum of personal traits and values. It works in a dualistic system, similar to yin-yang. The two elements are wen and wu. Wen is associated with the gentleman-scholar; wu is associated with the military man. The wen element corresponds with refinement, enlightenment and attractiveness. The wu element comprises brawny disciplines, such as martial arts and warfare.

No man is lacking in either wen or wu. Ideally, the scholarly man is no more and no less masculine than the military man. However, wen has been the dominant ideal in Chinese culture for millennia. In Chinese history, the ruling class had been comprised of civil servants, who were the most intellectual people in the land. The warrior class was beneath them. A common saying in China goes, “those who work with their brains rule, those who work with their brawn are ruled.” Ironically, men who follow Western masculinity, which has been embodied in cultural masterpieces such as the Discobolus, would be given less honor as that conferred to the intellectuals in Chinese society.

Exploring the intricacies of Chinese masculinity does more than recast our self-image as Chinese-American men, it creates another bridge between our modern day existence with our culturally rich and ancient heritage. However, there is a problem that immediately arises when accepting Chinese masculinity outright: We are in the U.S., not China.

Chinese-American men have continuously faced mockery from mainstream American media and culture. Filmmaker Richard Fung once remarked that the Asian man is defined by a “striking absence down there.” This is related to the 19th-century yellow peril stereotype, which depicted Asian males as foreigners who spoke broken English and practiced strange customs. We could forgo our customs and conform with Western masculine norms, but this will not lead us toward acceptance by American society. Our other choice is to embrace traditional Chinese masculinity, but for Chinese men living in the West, this would further perpetuate emasculating myths, since Chinese masculinity has a strong component of scholarship. Neither path is gratifying.

We cannot cling to either contemporary Western or traditional Chinese masculinity. My hope is that the Chinese-American community can have an open discussion about gender identity. There are so many questions that we have to answer. First and foremost, how can we earn the respect of the American community if we cannot recognize our unique identity as Chinese-Americans?

Chinese-American males cannot overcome emasculating stereotypes by subscribing to stereotypical Western masculinity, because you can’t conquer one stereotype by conforming to another. Chinese masculinity gives us the tools necessary to deconstruct our current perspectives of masculinity by letting us celebrate our unique identities. Through perseverance, we can create a cultural space in our society where Chinese-American men can openly and safely celebrate male identity. In a country where we supposedly tolerate differences in culture, it is tragic that Chinese-American men are not afforded the same dignity as their American counterparts.

Henry Cao is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.