As the lines of gender blur and China becomes more culturally progressive, the idea of experimenting with style, image and art is symbolic of an open(ing) society. Whether it be through makeup, jewelry or the latest fashion fad, the notion of “masculinity,” too, is in the throws of this grand makeover. Androchine, a Temper original, in the Roaring Twenties 2.0
As the reigns loosen on male makeup, please find the OG Aspinall take above, the younger Chinese generations open their arms to putting it all out there, yet the elders and powers that be hold onto centuries worth of reservation.
Artists, popstars and KOLs alike are all finding new ways of expressing masculinity through their style, paintings and social-posts to help spread the message that there is, in fact, enough space in the Chinese market for several, unique portrayals of “being a man.”
High Temper Time to take a large leap into the minefield that is masculinity in contemporary China.
Scent of a Man
Our first stop on the journey of gender is the bold and brash paintings of Musk Ming (麝眀 in Chinese), a Berlin-based Chinese artist who is breaking down barriers by expressing male sexuality through his creative body of work. A global artist, his detailed paintings have been exhibited in galleries internationally, from Europe to Asia. Ming’s website describes him as “an artist who has carved out his own way of combining traditional Chinese art with contemporary techniques and Western aesthetics.”
Ming takes us into a world of delicately painted homoerotic soldiers, amidst the setting of traditional Chinese elements. Some of his subjects dressed in nothing but caps and coats, sometimes alone or with other men, Ming claims his militaristic upbringing in China was the inspiration for his paintings.
His Maoist series includes portraits of various subjects, from soldiers and concubines, to Mao Zedong himself, the majority of which are semi-nude, displaying their muscular, slender, hairless bodies. Though his subjects never reveal their genitals, they are sexually suggestive in through their poses and body language.
Tradition Meets Homoerotic
The men in Ming’s paintings may leave little to the imagination, but the common link in his work is the green People’s Liberation Army hat the men frequently wear. The unmistakable red star of China shines from the center of the cap, the military uniform, a sign of communism, is contrasted alongside Ming’s own ideal of masculine beauty.
During China’s decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao ensured that artwork, including propaganda posters, were institutionalized, as he put a stop to creative output and freedom from artists.
This resulted in a politicized masculinity, military men were seen as hero’s, muscular and powerful, aligned with the communist party ideals of the time that men should be strong leaders, poised to defeat the enemy. Ming presents soldiers in a quite different way, with his risqué sexualized paintings that hint towards the unexpressed sexual yearning of many men (particularly those in the military), living in a communist country.
Another characteristic of Ming’s artwork is the use of traditional Chinese elements to form the background of his paintings, like calligraphy, dragons, and Chinese gardens. His work reflects a longing for a China where sexual diversity and liberation is celebrated. In 2008, Ming’s painting “Go West” was selected for display at the official Olympic Fine Arts exhibition, yet, shortly before the Chinese authorities decided to remove the paintings due to its “unsuitability.”
The authorities’ choice not to display Ming’s artwork, suggestive of their constant concern of damaging their national image – as a country interested in trying to flex its military muscles for the world to see.
A sign, perhaps, that the Middle Kingdom was not quite ready for such ‘bold’ ideas about male identity and sexuality.
Innocent, but Oh So Sexy
China is never short of a buzzword or two and the one on everyone’s lips now is “Innocent but Sexy” (又纯又 in Chinese) — a new term used to describe and define attractiveness in Chinese men. Like the term “Little Fresh Meat “(小鲜肉 in Chinese), an expression also coined by netizens referring to handsome, young males, known for their more effeminate look.
These phrases are at the center of a constantly evolving debate about masculinity in China. Many of these men, examples of which include celebrities such as singers slash rappers Kris Wu (吴亦凡 in Chinese), Cai Xukun (蔡徐坤) and Fan Chengcheng (范丞丞), are often seen wearing jewelry, makeup and styling edgy fashion.
With millions of followers on social media and doting fans around the world, these stars are shaping new ideas of male beauty, in contrast to the previously dominating “macho” stereotype.
Chinese singer-songwriter Cai Xukun (aka just KUN) poses for Vogue with glossy lips, a chunky silver necklace, and red fluffy shoulder pads. Similarly, he features on the cover of Grazia Magazine in an embroidered floral jacket, hoop earring and porcelain looking face.
Whether its wearing lipstick, or gender-fluid items of clothing, for Chinese millennials looking for fashion inspo, these “Little Fresh Meaties” are their first port of call.
While celebrating androgyny is embraced by some, it’s also still feared by many. This fear tends to stem particularly from the older generations in China, who were raised with an institutionalized idea of “masculinity.”
China’s state-run media Xinhua in 2018, for example, criticized this new portrayal of manhood claiming the young idols are “sissy pants.” They also warned that showing men wearing cosmetics on TV was “sick” and “decadent” and is something which threatens the future of the nation.
Nonetheless, in such a huge country, there is more than enough space and demand for varying portrayals of masculinity. With a mammoth image-conscious market for Chinese men, the male cosmetic and skincare market tell a vastly different story to the state, as they are predicted to exceed 2 billion RMB by the end of 2020.
Papa’s got a brand new bag, alright.
FEATURED IMAGE: Musk Ming, “Tiger Mountain”
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