Prove your humanity

Mermaiding: More than just a gaudy performance, this one’s a physically and mentally taxing art form. In China, mermaiding has become very popular among younger generations since 2019, but in terms of popularity, male partakers remain somewhat under the surface compared with their female peers. Though their tenacious tail-flapping might be shifting the tide… Time to dive in a little deeper.

A male mermaid, or merman in the West, by the name of Ake Mermaid shows off his under water dance moves on Chinese lifestyle platform 小红书 ( xiǎohóngshū| Little Red Book in Chinese). Image: screenshot taken by the author

Poise and Prowess

In the last few years, mermaiding has become officially standardized around the world, with related schools popping up everywhere from Singapore to the United States. The sport slash hobby with a splash of performance art has taken off in China like wildfire since 2019–give or take a year.

Being a mermaid, or mermaiding, is apparently a cross between free diving and synchronized swimming–with your feet strapped together. It requires training–and a certificate. #nowyouknow

In May 2021, 100 PADI Mermaids set the official Guinness World Record for the world’s largest underwater mermaid show at the Ambassador Lagoon at Atlantis Sanya, an ocean-themed hotel and resort on south China’s tropical Hainan Island. The PADI Mermaids flapped their colorful tails underwater in complete synchronization and solidified that the mermaid movement had finally arrived in China. Yan Lou, PADI’s Greater China President on the occasion said mermaiding had taken off in China “like wildfire.”

Following that record-breaking stint, PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors aka the world’s largest ocean exploration and diver organization, operating in 186 countries and territories, in 2021 launched four mermaid diving courses at Atlantis, all of which immediately registered huge domestic demand in China. Within just four months after the official launch, mermaid courses accounted for 30% of local certificates in China.

Mermaid performances are an increasingly popular form of entertainment in China, particularly among young people. Videos of mermaid performers in aquariums all over the nation often gain tremendous social media traction, with countless netizens oohing and aahing over the divers’ beautiful poise and athletic prowess.


On an Unsolicited Educational Note
Researchers in 2022 declared the Dugong dugon (儒艮| rú gèn in Chinese), aka the roly-poly marine mammal that once inspired sailors’ fanciful tales of mythical mermaids, to have gone extinct in China, according to online sci-tech mag LiveScience. For hundreds of years, these gentle giants, commonly known as sea cows, had roamed Chinese waters, ripping up seagrasses on the ocean bottom with a flexible upper lip.

But with no sea cow sightings confirmed in the region for more than two decades, an international team of scientists in 2021-2022 undertook an in-depth investigation, surveying local fishing communities across four Chinese provinces and searching for evidence of the missing mammals.  Historical records of the Dugong dugon peaked around 1960 and then decreased rapidly from 1975 onward. No verified sightings by fishers, for instance, had been recorded after 2008 and scientists in China hadn’t spotted a Dugong dugon in the wild since 2000, the researchers reported on August 24, 2022 in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

Let’s Hear It For the Boys

And today, defying gender stereotypes, male mermaids (referred to as mermen in the West) are coming tot he surface of Chinese social media, according to online magazine Sixth Tone.

While female mermaid performances are widely accepted in China, male mermaids are few and far between; the most recent PADI estimates hold that men make up less than 30% of the industry’s performers, the magazine reported. On Chinese lifestyle platform 小红书 ( xiǎohóngshū| Little Red Book in Chinese) and Douyin, China’s TikTok, where mermaid diving videos have garnered hundreds of millions of views, female mermaids still rake in the highest viewer numbers and likes. To give you some concrete numbers:

On Little Red Book, one of China’s most popular social media platforms anno 2023, hashtag 美人魚 (měirényú or mermaid) had raked in 825k notes as of June 4; by comparison, hashtag 男美人鱼 (nán měirényú  or male mermaid)  had merely 11k notes as of the same date.

male mermaids

A male mermaid pod, or team, dive deep into the waters of an aquarium somewhere in China–we know what “somewhere in China” sounds like but there was no specific location, ‘mkay. Image: Little Red Book screenshot taken by the author

In the past two years, male mermaids and their visuals on Chinese social media used to receive generally negative comments about their gender, sexuality and appearance. Mermaids are supposed to be female, this art form is too feminine for a dude, glamming up is also not the masculine thing to do, and so on.

But over the past five or so years, China’s new male youth, especially Gen Z, have embraced a new sense of experimentation, challenging views of what constitutes “masculine.” And despite official pushback, including a plan issued in 2021 to counter the “feminization” of the country’s men, the rigid reins of gender continue to loosen in contempo China. Androgynous looks, a more feminine aesthetic appeal, “gentle yet manly,” “innocent but sexy” make up the common narrative now invoked in the Middle Kingdom’s construction of masculinity. And we dare say the concept of male mermaids fits right in.

Scrolling through the comments from Little Red Book users (both male and female) under posts tagged 男美人鱼 in early June, the majority read things like “I want to wear this next time I go swimming,” “Look at that physique; how do I get it!”  “WOW, this male mermaids thing is just too beautiful!” or “This looks like a great workout” followed by emojis of joy, admiration and/or praise. Of course, yours truly did spot the occasional “Merfolk are supposed to be women,” but such remarks certainly did not represent the broader narrative.

Male mermaid pods, or teams, incorporating local culture into their routines also prove a hit with netizens and show visitors alike. So who knows… Their tenacious tail-flapping might be shifting the prejudiced tide. Sixth Tone gives you all the deets on the men making a splash today right here.

On Another Unsolicited Educational Note
In 2016, a goofy comedy about mermaids drowned the domestic box office competition  to become China’s then-highest-grossing movie ever made. Directed by Hong Kong’s Stephen Chow, The Mermaid raked in 2.47 billion RMB (379 million USD at the time) over just 12 days at the box office, official Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported. The success of the film, which tells the story of a mermaid who falls in love with a businessman she is sent to assassinate, was considered a sign of China’s growing might at the box office at that point, according to a 2016 CNN report.

By comparison… In the West, the beauty of mermaiding lies in how it’s more than just a gaudy performance. It’s considered an inclusive, welcoming and body-positive endeavor for women, queer folks and other marginalized groups. While its popularity may have recently spiked, mermaiding in fact has a proud history. It’s been a key part of cosplay culture for decades, and as far back as 1983, Coney Island, famous for its amusement parks, in New York’s Brooklyn  has hosted an annual artists’ gathering dubbed the Mermaid Parade, where members of the LGBTQIA+ community dress up as glitter-bombed mermaids. Mermaid conventions like MerMagic Con, which happens annually in Washington, D.C. and competitions like the World Mermaid Championship have acted as hubs for the geographically dispersed community. And while mermaiding’s real-life tail-print may seem modest, it’s another story entirely online: the TikTok hashtag #mermaiding had over 79 million views as of June 4.

So, to all you male mermaids in China:

Always remember what a wise man called Confucius (551-49 B.C.) allegedly once said…

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” 



















Elsbeth van Paridon
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