I was born in Tiantai County in 1982, in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. Both of my parents were peasants and my two brothers were each a decade older than me. Enforcement of the country’s one-child policy was not particularly strict in my village, and after two sons my parents were aiming for a daughter. My birth failed to meet their hopes, but that didn’t stop my mother from bringing me in line with her expectations of a daughter’s responsibilities.
Both of my brothers left home at a young age for work. My mother was up to her neck with chores around the house, and she hoped that I would relieve some of the burden. The responsibilities she laid on me served to make me more mature and better behaved than other boys my age.
Many of our female neighbors began remarking on how I was “as diligent as a girl” when it came to the housework. I began to understand how exhausting the everyday life of females in China’s villages was. However, I hardly ever received compliments from my male relatives — they most likely thought that only girls were supposed to cook and do laundry, and that these weren’t thing boys should boast about.
Ironically, although I was often parented like a girl, I was still expected to maintain a manly image, and so I was frequently chastised for not fitting a macho stereotype.
One time in junior middle school I began crying while being told off by my teacher. Appalled, she said: “You are a man, what are you crying for? Men are not supposed to cry!” Since then, I have always worked to control my tears, but not without regret. In being forced to hold back tears, my right to show weakness was taken away from me, and this made me instead pursue a strategy of running away or numbing myself. Males can be violent toward one another, but showing tears is unforgivable.
I also have strong opinions on drinking — a pastime that in China is often equated with manliness. I think alcohol can be fun in moderation, but being forced to drink in the name of manhood is the worst. A drunk man, his ears red and nostrils flared, will never turn down a challenge: “Be a man and drink this!” Sometimes affirming one’s gender requires a person to sacrifice his health.
When Michael Kaufman, founder of the White Ribbon Campaign — a global society dedicated to gender equality — was accused of acting “like a woman” once, he calmly replied that this was the best compliment he could receive. Once when I was called out for drinking like a woman after not being able to finish a glass of red wine in one go, I responded with Kaufman’s words. The male professor who had made the comment didn’t know how to respond.
Growing up in a society dominated by the patriarchy, I have repeatedly witnessed the stigmatization of women and their lower position in society. These notions of men being superior to women lead to males being stigmatized for exhibiting female characteristics. Terms such as “sissy” may appear to be attacking men on the surface, but they actually propagate sexism and the persistence of an anti-women culture.
In the fall of 2007, I began a master’s degree in literature at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, where I was introduced to feminist theory by my tutor. I came to learn about Western feminist movements, especially second-wave feminism.
Through feminism I have come to better understand myself. When I was young I often felt ashamed, since I considered household chores to be below me. But after growing up and reading books about feminism, I have come to value women and the importance of the role they play in traditional family structures. One thing that my experiences have taught me is that it is impossible to completely be a stereotypical man or woman. We are both male and female, and sometimes neither.
Reflecting on my childhood and my own social gender identity, I think about how I became the person I am today. I feel a need to promote male liberation in China — it’s what I’ve decided to dedicate my life to. In early 2012, I founded the Gender and Psychological Development Salon with my tutor, where we host frequent reading groups and panel discussions on social gender and psychological development.
Feminism is my glasses and my hearing aid. After donning them, I have come to experience a world I never knew before. Many of my childhood questions have been answered, and I am increasingly aware that feminism can serve as a tool for social liberation not only for women, but for men too.
(A Chinese version of this article first appeared on The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication.)
(Header image: Stuart Gregory/Photodisc/VCG)