Fass Talks: The Production of New Masculinities and Femininities in Contemporary Chinese Literature

Tuesday afternoon,  12 April: Dr Eileen Vickery, an IAPS visiting fellow, delivered a talk entitled, ‘Entrepreneurial Masculinity and the New Misogyny: The Production of New Masculinities and Femininities in Contemporary Chinese Literature.’ Despite the long title, the event was a brief one-hour long talk.

 

Dr Vickery described the culture of entrepreneurial masculinity in contemporary China’s male-dominated economy, noting the practices of yingchou (business entertaining) and goudui (thickening) by private entrepreneurs to cultivate good relations with state officials, usually by relying on female sex workers to entertain, flatter and provide sexual services.

Before coming to Malaysia, Dr Vickery had taught Chinese Literature and Gender Studies at  at Beijing Foreign Studies University, and holds a PhD in Chinese Literature and Languages. She is also a prestigious recipient of the Esterline Prize at the Asian Studies Pacific Coast Conference.

Stemming from her teachings in Beijing, her research analyzes three contemporary Chinese novels: Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls (2004), Yu Hua’s Brothers (2005/6), and Murong Xuecun’s Chengdu, Please Forget Me Tonight (2008). She argued that all three novels feature representations of sexualised male and female identities, which are linked to China’s national identity.

 

Image source: Amazon

In Yu Hua’s satirical novel, notions of Chinese masculinity are secured to entrepreneurial success, while women are depicted as mere accessories of this identity. The novel contains an epic tale of two half-brothers spanning over four decades, beginning from the Cultural Revolution into the early 2000s.

Using male heterosexual desires, the author illustrates the crippling state and the emasculation of its citizens. One of the brothers, Song Gang is literally and physically feminised as he undergoes a breast implantation in order to boost the credibility of the shoddy breast cream he is selling, reflecting the state of confusion over what is ‘real’ and ‘fake’ in China and how the consumers are often tricked and  bamboozled.

The author also utilises virility and impotency to describe modern China’s economic situation, under the use of national allegory, comparing the brother’s sexual virility to that of China’s national strength, economic development and future. For instance, Baldy Li’s sexual prowess is bound with economic mastery and dexterity: limitless, unbound and insatiable.

He held up two fingers, saying that during the day he raked in the money, while at night he raked in the women.

In the novel, women are peripheral, nameless and significant only in numbers. Their value lies only in the purity of their hymen, which symbolises a woman’s chastity and purity. With satirical flair, the novel features  a ‘National Virgin Competition’, which Baldy Li hosts to find a woman with a ‘real’ hymen. Yu Hua instead used hymens as a cultural critique of contemporary morality; hymen restoration surgeries and artificial hymens are commonplace in a culture where the proof of virginity is an important component of a woman’s marriageability .

 

Image source: ChinaDaily.com

The second novel,  Murong Xuecun’s Chengdu, Leave Me Alone Tonight, depicted the darker side of Chinese life, in regards to corruption and the process of business negotiations.

The novel revolves around the lives of the narrator Chen Zhong and his friends from university: Li Liang; a stock trader and drug addict, and Big Head Wang; a corrupt police officer. The predominant theme and tone used by the narrator is disillusionment and alienation. The novel examines contemporary masculinity via the intersection of corruption, sex, excessive drinking, drugs, betrayal, nostalgia, naïve idealism in an university setting, and a competitive  business environment.

While Yu Hua relied on the tropes pf hyper-virility and impotency to present a national allegory of China’s economic transformation, Murong disrupts and complicates this predictable use of national allegory in relation to the emasculation of Chinese male identity.

Unlike Baldy Li and Song Gang, Chen Zhong’s sexual prowess does not contribute to his political powers or entrepreneurial success. Instead, demonstrations of sexual conquest become a necessary business practice for  a new class of entrepreneurs and government officials . His settings focus on conventionally male dominated spaces and locales: karaoke bars, KTVs and massage parlours (which are all infamous for shady dealings).

The  role of women in the novel are simply to be objects of desire: to be used and consumed. Not only were women objectified in these male-oriented spaces, they also served  as proxies to spur male competitiveness. Dr Vickery also pointed out the association between entrepreneurial culture and sexual performativity in these spaces: male businessmen need to demonstrate their sexual ability in order to foster good relations with their clientele

This sense of masculinity is not in relation to females, even though they are the ignitions, but it is performative, and performative for other men within this environment. It is almost homosocial, the way these male characters are interacting and performing for each other rather than the female hostesses in the scene.

 

Image from: Amazon.com

Dissimilar to Yu Hua’s use of social satire, Sheng Keyi uses magical realism and symbolism. The gendered element of migrant labour and economic development (the two cornerstones of China’s economic growth) is demonstrated explicitly in the novel, with the title beimei (Northern Girls) being a pejorative term used to describe the northern migrant girls coming to Shenzhen for job opportunities.

Furthermore, the gendered exploitation in China’s rapid economic development is elucidated through the lives of migrant women. Sheng Keyi reveals the double burden bored by women. In addition to the struggles of seeking employment and improving their lives, their sex and sexual appeal are also regarded as their only ‘real’ assets.

Through magical realism, the main character, Xiao Hong, possesses an alluring pair of breasts which are initially widely praised. However, as the breasts continue to enlarge and engorge over time, they swiftly lose their appeal and worth. Prostitution, forced sterilisation, forced abortion, surrogacy, deflowering virgins and rape all become accepted costs and norms of these women in order to seek a better life.

The double edged sword is clear: female virginity, female reproductive capabilities, sex, all become valuable currency in Shenzhen. But such value is fleeting and depreciating rapidly as these young teenage girls age.

The novel anatomically charts a woman’s body; whether it be finding jobs because of their intact virginity or earning money via surrogacy. It evaluates the value placed upon a woman’s virginity, regarded as their ‘natural resource’ in China in order to achieve economic progression. This is made clear in the novel as even before being granted access to the city, the girls must be willing to sacrifice their virginity. Each part of the woman’s body is designated a price, a number, a value. If this were not depressive enough, the stories in Northern Girls are devoid of satire, presenting only the cold harsh realities faced by women in certain rural parts of China.

 

 

Some interesting questions were brought up during the follow up Q&A session. One of the questions raised was, “With regards to how women are being stuck to the bottom floor, does that entail issues of sexual harassment being part of the job?”

Dr Vickery responded in affirmation, stating it was a common phenomenon faced by Chinese women at their work places, to which she also brought up a common sexist joke which loosely translates as the following:

If women wanted to climb the ladders, they need to learn how to climb the boss’s leg first.

Dr Vickery noted that these elements of misogyny are commonly accepted in Chinese pop culture and society, citing examples of her students readily acknowledging that the issues described in these novels are are a good primer to Chinese society.

Another particularly interesting question raised was in regards to the respective author’s popularity and whether they were using their public stature for effective activism or legal reforms. Dr Vickery responded by stating that the fear of emasculation and the desire to maintain the status quo in China were effective obstacles against progress.

The session concluded with a final question regarding the possibility of the change of intended meanings during the process of translation from Mandarin to English. Dr Vickery noted that this was a difficult question to answer, since the changes in meaning could also be a result of the translator’s conscious choices.

 

 

By Tan Xiang Min

 

"They say that great minds think alike, but also fools seldom differ"

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