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2021-08-31 11:36:09

Last week, Feng Xiaoyi turned on his camera to talk about peaches.

“Eat peach, peach. So, so cold,” he said, speaking to thousands of followers on Douyin — China’s version of TikTok.

Feng’s signature porcelain skin, pearl-like eyes, and pink lips enunciating every character softly as he speaks are unmistakable. The slurping and the chewing, while he speaks in a child-like voice, could pass off as an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) content.

You can listen to an audio version of this article via “China Stories,” a SupChina-produced podcast sharing the best writing on China.

Some social media users, however, weren’t impressed by his appearance or the tone of his voice. They called him a “sissy” and reported his video to the platform. Then, last week, Douyin suspended his 600,000-follower account for “grandstanding through gaudy content.”

“Finally, his account got blocked! After watching his video of eating peaches, I want to change to another pair of eyes,” one user commented on microblogging platform Weibo. “What happened to boys nowadays?”

A GIF shows Feng Xiaoyi eating peaches, 2021. From Weibo

A GIF shows Feng Xiaoyi eating peaches, 2021. From Weibo

To answer that question, nothing much. It may simply be that boys and men are becoming more comfortable expressing themselves and challenging narrow views of what it means to be masculine. And that’s dragging a lot of people, mostly conservatives, into uncomfortable territory.

The narrative around “sissy pants” or “feminine men” is being discussed in the same breath as the country’s demographic crisis, with the volume of voices claiming China is facing a “masculinity crisis” growing louder both from the public and the state. As early as 2017, authorities have said that physical activities could be one of the first steps to avert the “feminization” of young men.

Such stances were soon endorsed by some leading public figures, too. Wu Jing, famous actor and star of the nationalistic blockbuster “Wolf Warrior” franchise, said in an interview that if his son was a sissy, he would “slap him in the face.”

“I feel numb to such news,” said Cui Le, a PhD student at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work, who researches queer issues in China’s education system. “It’s just another example of Chinese authorities reinforcing a traditional gender ideology, emphasizing men should be so-called ‘masculine’ and devaluing them for being feminine.”

Actor Wu Jing in his 2017 film “Wolf Warriors 2.” From Douban

Actor Wu Jing in his 2017 film “Wolf Warriors 2.” From Douban

In China, the historical view of masculinity consists of wen and wu — the literary and the martial, respectively — and an ideal man possesses both qualities. However, times have changed, and with that, notions of manliness have too.

Over the years, “little fresh meat” celebrities and male beauty bloggers have disrupted the traditional image of what it is to be a man. With handsome faces and sculpted bodies — as well as vices — they have emboldened their fans to rebel against the stereotypical male paradigm.

Men are now seen sporting accessories such as earrings — though frowned upon by some and blurred on television — and don’t hesitate to use makeup and lipstick. Many see these seemingly innocuous actions as a threat.

Tiffany Yu, a postdoctoral fellow researching gender and the media in China at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told Sixth Tone the country’s obsession with masculinity is a reflection of the anxiety that the future generation won’t be able to protect it. She added that a common conspiracy theory is that the softening of masculine values is a way for “foreign forces” to weaken the country’s defenses.

“In the West, young kids aspire to be superheroes. China is afraid that if boys’ idols are sissy men or little fresh meat, they will not be able to defend the country,” Yu said.

Actors Zhou Dongyu (right) and Du Jiang at a forum led by China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, in Beijing, Aug. 24, 2021. From @中国艺术报 on Weibo

Actors Zhou Dongyu (right) and Du Jiang at a forum led by China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, in Beijing, Aug. 24, 2021. From @中国艺术报 on Weibo

Just as Feng’s peach video and his Douyin account was scrubbed off the internet last week, Guangming Daily newspaper criticized the country’s entertainment industry for “creating social problems.” The article — titled “The Deformed Aesthetics of ‘Sissy Men’ Must Be Curbed” — complained that many male celebrities “wear heavy makeup, sexy clothes, and it is difficult to tell whether they are men or women.”

A video of two of the country’s top actors, Zhou Dongyu and Du Jiang, reciting the ethics of being an artist at a forum led by party-backed China Federation of Literary and Art Circles was widely circulated in the media last week. In it, the duo read paragraphs mentioning “the image of sissy men,” arguing that “the deformed aesthetic is bad.”

But why do sections of Chinese society and officialdom want to confine men to the traditional definition of masculinity?

Cui from the University of Auckland believes it’s related to associations with nationalism. At a time when China is at loggerheads with several countries, he said that many think the idea of gender diversity is “increasingly being shaped into a Western ideology,” which authorities believe requires both vigilance and resistance.

“The discourse of traditional masculinity is connected with nationalism,” Cui said. “Ironically, the official image of masculinity is actually in line with hegemonic masculinity and unequal gender relations.”

Meanwhile, trolls are targeting men like Feng, and their online presence is being suppressed at the behest of anonymous complaints, hiding them from public view.

Douyin, meanwhile, said their suspension of Feng’s account had nothing to do with his appearance or his speech on peaches. His gender expression, the company said, was unrelated.

“Douyin suspended the account after receiving multiple reports against the creator, which involved encouraging users, some of them teenagers, to send virtual gifts during his livestreams,” a company spokesperson told Sixth Tone.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Screenshots from Feng Xiaoyi’s social media account. From Douyin)