An emerging feminine identity is blurring the line between the stubborn urban-rural class divide in China. This group, who call themselves nu hanzi — “masculine women” — style themselves as women who are independent, outgoing, strong, and capable. The emergence of the term has challenged widely-used online labels that reinforce distinctions along lines of class and wealth, such as “phoenix women” (fenghuang nu) and “peacock women” (kongque nu).
Phoenix women were born in rural areas and have found success in the country’s big cities by virtue of their educational achievements. A traditional idiom, “a golden phoenix flying out of a chicken coop,” has long been used to describe women who have climbed the social ladder despite being born into more modest rural circumstances, and praises a hardworking rural woman’s talents and achievements.
Now, however, the term is used mainly to remind people of their humble origins. The implication is that an urban lifestyle is inherently at odds with the backgrounds of people born in the countryside. This contrasts with peacock women, who were born and raised in the city to begin with.
As only children, peacock women commonly enjoy a pampered upbringing, which manifests itself in a tendency toward materialism. Their penchants for conspicuous consumption and showing off luxury goods has been portrayed as imitative of the colorful plumage of a peacock.
The yawning wealth gap between China’s cities and countryside has meant that many urbanites commonly take a dim view of life in rural areas. The labels are both a product of this divide and a means by which such discrimination is sustained. “Masculine women,” on the other hand, have nothing to do with class and wealth. In fact, many self-described masculine women find that their hardworking, self-reliant personalities are precisely the traits that many rural women have traditionally exhibited in spades.
Lately, the term has appeared in a large number of online articles. The term was recently applied to actor Sun Li, who was observed pushing her own luggage cart at the airport. Pop star Zhang Hanyun, who was previously billed as a submissive, “girl-next-door” type, now pledges allegiance to the term. While we may dismiss its use by celebrities as a cheap way of pandering to their fan bases, this appropriation also shows that the qualities of masculine women are broadly seen in a positive light.
More meaningfully, however, the nu hanzi ideal has not remained confined to urbanites, but is commonly applied approvingly to rural women as well. A news report in February detailed the story of a 62-year-old mother from the countryside near Shijiazhuang, in northern China’s Hebei province. The piece, which told of her tenacity and perseverance in learning new skills despite chronic liver complaints, carried the term “masculine woman” in its headline. Other articles go on to laud rural women who actively join the workforce and embody the qualities of leadership and entrepreneurship.
Reality TV helps to popularize the term as well. For example, in the show “She’s My Family,” Shanghainese actor Huang Shengyi traveled to a village in southwestern Yunnan province to stay with a rural woman as her “daughter-in-law.” Despite Huang having youth on her side, she was no match for the strength and hardiness of the women around her. “I don’t think modern women are any less capable than men,” one impressed user commented on the online forum tianya.cn. “But even between masculine women there are still differences. I think every woman in the countryside is a masculine woman!”
It is, of course, problematic that the term “masculine woman” is so commonly applied in such contexts, as it suggests that a key means of female empowerment inevitably stems from adopting the assumed traits of men. However, if we look past this issue, we can see that the emergence of masculine women is progressive in two major ways.
First, it sheds a positive light on women who demonstrate characteristics traditionally thought to be the preserve of men, such as physical strength, mental tenacity, and leadership. In this sense, it challenges society more broadly to empower women and celebrate their accomplishments on equal terms.
Second, the term is blind to urban-rural class divisions, as it applies to women of all backgrounds, regardless of wealth or birthplace. In doing so, it demands that those who identify as masculine women be viewed equally without regard to their origin.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: The term “masculine women” is not going to resolve the divide between city and countryside in China. In my view, however, the fact that urban women seem more willing to be categorized on equal footing with their rural counterparts can only be a net positive for gender equality in the country. By ignoring class backgrounds, masculine women are able to present a more united front in their advocacy of independence, hard work, and strong personality. This, in turn, may help to empower more women moving forward.
(Header image: A woman gazes outside in a village in Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou province, Nov. 6, 2015. Zhang Qi/VCG)