Tuesday, September 20, 2016

More and Better Masculinities!

I just finished reading Masculinities in Chinese History by Bret Hinsch, published in 2013 by Rowman & Littlefield.  I'd previously read Hinsch's Passions of the Cut Sleeve (California, 1990), a breakthrough study of homosexuality in China, so I figured he'd be worth reading on Chinese manhood.  The book is a bit rushed, as you'd expect when someone tries to cover a huge and complex culture over several millennia; I suspect Hinsch was aiming at an undergraduate readership.  As an introductory survey, it's probably good. but then I'd already done a fair amount of reading in the area.

It wasn't until I'd almost reached the end of the book that I noticed a curious omission in Hinsch's coverage.  In writing about the end of Imperial China he mentions the ongoing theme of Chinese "emasculation" at the hands of the West, though it seems that it was the Japanese who came up with the "sick man of Asia" epithet; certainly they seem to have used it most.
Stricken by a sense of national emasculation, intellectuals and activists began to search for ideologies that could put their nation back on its pedestal, thereby restoring collective honor to Chinese men [151].

The radical reign of terror [of the Cultural Revolution], together with a general sense of powerlessness under an arbitrary totalitarian system, had left many men feeling emasculated [156].

Portraits of virile manhood [in TV series] fascinated a society haunted by a widespread sense of emasculation [158].
As China reconnected with other countries and cultures after 1970,
Ironically, even though women [under Mao] had emulated stereotypical male traits, outwardly bolstering the masculine atmosphere of society, men themselves were left feeling insufficiently manly.  Opening to the outside world further exacerbated the problem.  Chinese were once again able to compare the state of their own masculinity with slick images of idealized manhood transmitted by Western and Japanese media -- and found their own men inadequate in comparison [156-7].
Oh, that's always a good idea -- comparing your reality to fantasy images of cowboys and gangsters from other societies, taken out of their contexts so that you miss all the anxiety about manhood that inspired and permeates them.

What virility actually meant, of course, was the exaltation of violence by "bandits" and rebellious peasants, but
Although the novel and film [Red Sorghum] trumpet male strength and sexual potency, they also depict violence, sadism, murder, and domination of women as signs of a rejuvenated manhood.  The new man [same as the old man] was not necessarily someone a woman would want to meet, much less marry [160].
I've seen a lot of handwringing about male anxiety and inadequacy in academic and other writing about Asia, but also of course about the West.  I'm sure that Hinsch is aware of works like Susan Jeffords's The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (Indiana, 1989), about the hit American masculinity took by failing to conquer Vietnam, as worked out in American cinema; and perhaps also Kim Kyung-Hun's The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Duke, 2004), a monument of transnational male anxiety inspired partly by Jeffords.  Germany and Japan went through similar tribulation after their respective defeats in World War II.  Chinese men could hardly have imbibed a message of male confidence from other cultures' media, since those media are also steeped in male tears.

Notice too that although women constitute half the Chinese population, as they do in all societies, the burden and trauma of foreign conquest and social change is always assumed to affect only males, and their fragile little egos.  That women suffer by being subjugated, whether by foreign invaders or by local subjugators, is generally ignored, or explained away as harmless due to their "nature" as women.  Most of what I've read by Asian and Asian-American men about their imperiled manhood pays lip service to feminism, since it emerges from American academia, but once lip service has been paid, male resentment of uppity women always returns to center stage.  Despite their pro forma denunciations of Western / American standards, they don't really reject Western masculinity: they are just indignant that they can't share in it.  Masculinity in almost all its forms is a zero-sum game: if you achieve some humanity (which is equated with manhood) less is left for me.  As a faggot no less than as one influenced by feminism, I feel no great sympathy for this attitude.

But back to the matter of "emasculation."  I suddenly realized as I read this final chapter of Masculinities in Chinese History that Hinsch had never said anything about eunuchs -- literally emasculated men -- in Chinese history, though they played a significant role in the imperial court and in the cultural imaginary.  In Europe and America, castrated men are at most a historical aberration, or an orientalist symbol of the cultural Other, long ago and far away.  In China, however, as in much of the rest of the world, castration was an alternative path a man might take -- or have forced on him -- in order to achieve a limited amount of power and status.  Granted that Hinsch might not have chosen to address this because of limitations of space, it's strange that he never mentions it except as a bugbear for Chinese men in the late nineteenth century and later.  In China, emasculation was not just a bogeyman, a metaphor for loss of masculine power, but something that happened in real life, even possibly to people one knew.

There's another reason why eunuchs would be relevant to Hinsch's survey.   He describes the conflict about the spread of Buddhism in China during the Jin Dynasty of 265-420 CE.  Many traditionalist Chinese objected to the rising influence of a barbarian (that is, foreign) religion, and the Buddhist challenge to normative manhood was a major area of contention.
Judged by these standards, the ideal monk presented a disturbingly flawed picture of aberrant manliness.  He abjured marriage, renounced fatherhood, was ill positioned to care for parents, did not own property, declined public office, deprecated secular learning, mutilated his body (a gift from his parents) by shaving his head, and rejected orthodox manners and rituals for an alien set of rites.  According to the masculine standards of the time, how could such a person even be called a man? [50, emphasis added].
Such behavior, of course, is a rejection of normative masculinity in most societies.  But what interests me here is the reference to shaving one's head as self-mutilation.  Hinsch returns to the point a few pages later:
Filial piety extended to the body, demanding that a man keep his person intact, as he had received it from his parents.  However, Buddhists expressed skepticism regarding the value of a perfect body.  For example, hair was traditionally an important symbol of gender identity, and filial piety demanded that a man keep his hair fairly long.  The society of the time associated hair on both the head and the face with ideal masculinity.  For example, Prince Rencheng of Wei was famous for his valor and manliness, as well as for his magnificent beard.  And in a continuation of Han dynasty judicial practices, medieval officials shaved the heads of convicts as a humiliating punishment.  So for a monk to shave his head and face not only violated gender norms but also disfigured the body that he had received as a precious gift from his parents.  Accordingly, Buddhism's opponents pointed to the monk's cleanly shaven head and chin as proof of the religion's contempt for filial piety [55].
It wasn't until I encountered the complaints about "emasculation" a hundred pages later that I realized how conspicuous was Hinsch's silence about Chinese eunuchs here.  Some sort of aside, at least, about the mutilation involved in castration seems to be in order.  And didn't those opponents of Buddhism accuse monks of making themselves into eunuchs, not only by cutting their hair but by foreswearing marriage and fatherhood?  It's a strange omission.

Chinese men must surely have harbored some anxiety about emasculation, as both a literal and a symbolic assault on manhood, long before the English and French barbarians invaded China in the 1800s.  In keeping with masculinity as a zero-sum game, hierarchical models of masculinity require that men abase themselves before men of higher status -- fathers, older brothers, teachers, military superiors, the Emperor -- so normative manhood is always unstable and endangered.  In order to have Real Men, you have to have Not-Men.  (Just as you must have Bad Women in order to have Good Women.)  And since Real Manhood is achieved, it can also be lost.  I haven't seen enough recognition of this in masculinity studies.