The Chinese language itself lacks an accurate and equivalent term to describe ‘masculinity’ or ‘manhood’. As Song and Hird (2014: 1) record, this led to a senior female Singaporean Chinese researcher sneering before a faculty meeting: ‘Chinese masculinity? Is there such a thing?’ In spite of this linguistic dilemma, relevant ideas are not unfamiliar to Chinese men. Represented by wenren (scholar), haohan (good buddy), nan zi han (macho man) and niang niang qiang (effeminate man), there is actually a range of vocabulary to describe different male images. From historical periods to the current era, ways to be Chinese men have been heterogeneous and inconsistent, but also with a series of continuities. Some male identities have largely withdrawn from the contemporary stage while new forms of mediated and everyday masculinity are constantly emerging. Moreover, there have always been variations of manhood in terms of class disparities, the urban–rural divide, sexuality and ethnicity. This chapter therefore starts with an overview of the literature on Chinese masculinities in order to explicate who the ‘ordinary young men’ in this research are.
While masculinity making is a multifaceted social process, in this book, I mainly focus on embodied masculinities, practices of intimacy and the temporal dimension of men’s identities as constructed and narrated through kinship. Essentially, I chose these three aspects based on the rich data available from my interviews. At the same time, each of these themes provides a distinct angle to investigate how ordinary young men make sense of their masculine selves.
In 1990, disturbing television footage emerged showing the inhumane conditions in which children in Romanian institutions were living. Viewers were shocked that the babies were silent. The so-called ‘Romanian orphans’ became subjects of several international research studies. In parallel, Romania had to reform its child protection system in order to become a member of the European Union.
This book sheds light on the lived experiences of these children, who had become adults by the time the country joined the EU. Uniquely, the book brings together the accounts of those who stayed in institutions, those who grew up in foster care and those who were adopted, both in Romania and internationally. Their narratives challenge stereotypes about these types of care.
I came to this research through my curiosity about young men of my generation and the supposed decline in manliness in contemporary China, and the exploratory process has generated both surprising and anticipated findings. If the crisis-of-masculinity discourse presumes that ‘men are responding in negative and destructive ways to insecurity about their “role” in society’ (Robinson et al, 2011: 32; see also Scourfield and Drakeford, 2002), the young men indicate clear understandings of their male roles. Although there are tensions and confusions, most participants are able to articulate socially appropriate forms of masculine performance. They also demonstrate their active role in constructing gender identities, which is accomplished in everyday practice with reflexivity. Typically, they need to present a controlled, ritualized and relational body, perform you dandang in intimate relations and maintain harmonious kinship ties. Therefore, I argue that the masculinity of ordinary Chinese young men is becoming negotiable and heterogeneous rather than experiencing crisis.
Situating ordinary young men in a wider social background, I have focused on how everyday masculinity making is informed by the interweaving of tradition and modernity, rising individualism, and the cultural legacy of Confucianism. It has been revealed that the majority of ordinary young men show limited evidence of either the detraditionalization or individualization of personal life. Although their lives are certainly becoming more individualized and self-mobilized, these shifts have not amounted to individualism or disembeddedness from existing institutions (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002).
I have always been closer to my maternal relatives than the relatives on the paternal side of my family. I believe it all started in my childhood, during which I spent most of my time with my maternal grandparents while my mother was busy with work. From day to day, my grandfather played all sorts of different games with me; my older cousin and two aunts also visited frequently. As a result of such experiences, I became emotionally attached to them from a young age, and these bonds have endured. For me, kin closeness is animated through quality time together and affective communication. As a result, I feel it is simply ‘natural’ that I do not have equally intimate feelings for my paternal relatives and that there is no need to make any effort to change this. These personal and family memories, I believe, have played an indispensable role in my processes of growth and self-identification.
My mother, however, has always disagreed with me on this point, although she herself has long been distant from her mother-in-law as well as my father’s brother and sister. This was certainly related to my mother’s own personality, as she admitted, but she also told me stories of how my paternal grandmother was a dominant and self-centred woman, refusing to support us on various issues. Probably it was due to this enduring ‘disharmony’ in my family that my mother hoped I could play my part to improve the quality of the kinship bond. For example, she constantly told me I should have felt close to my paternal relatives because of the patrilineal blood tie, or the indisputable importance of relatives and kin relationships to everyone.
I remember that, when I was in primary school, sitting down to dinner in KFC or MacDonald’s was a celebratory event that only happened on the day of the newly imported festival of Christmas Eve. Another unforgettable scene after the big dinner was the extremely crowded but joyful shopping mall, where my mother would buy me new clothes in the sale. Even now, I can clearly recall the excitement and satisfaction of the occasion. This is certainly not only about eating fried chicken or trying on a Snoopy jacket. As Yan (2000) suggests, in the late 1990s, what fascinated Chinese customers about Western fast-food restaurants was not the hamburger but the experience.
Now fried chicken and burgers are certainly not restricted to a festival dinner. In fact, I am offered far more choices – ordering a delivery from my sofa or visiting a fine restaurant that serves burgers made with Australian Wagyu beef. And the changes go way beyond this. Every time I go back to my hometown of Shenyang, which I left more than ten years ago, or stroll around downtown areas to enjoy a relaxing afternoon in Shanghai, I am often astonished by the ever-evolving urban landscape and changing lifestyles. More broadly, present-day Chinese society continues to experience deep transformations in the very fabric of social life. National gross domestic product may have decreased, but people continue to modify their world views and living experiences. Meanwhile, although enormous social changes induce anxieties and uncertainties, individuals seize on certain constant resources to cope with emerging risks.
The body has long been a serious matter for Chinese people. Traditionally, a typical way of greeting is asking each other: ‘How’s your eating going?’ (chi le ma). Despite being gradually abandoned among the masses, in a sense this greeting highlights the central importance of eating practices and associated bodily functions for ordinary people in China. Some researchers have gone further to argue that Chinese culture is characterized by its ‘somatization’ of many aspects of social life (Brownell, 1995; Sun, 2004 ). Moreover, the social construction of ideal manhood has long been manifested in and through bodily presence and performance throughout different historical periods. In light of these cultural discourses around the body, in this chapter I explore how young men construct and live with their bodies in everyday life, what masculinities are formulated in myriad embodied experiences, and how young men’s perceptions and practices are informed by, and also contribute to, shared aesthetics1 of the male body and packages of cultural particularities (or commonalities) compared with other societies.
This chapter is located in a Chinese cultural, philosophical and sociological framework of shenti (body-self) while engaging with Western theorizations of embodiment, self and gender. My analysis was structured in this way due to the consideration that the Chinese language itself has a rich set of expressions related to shen2 and shenti. For example, a general search in the original transcriptions of interviews showed the young men’s frequent adoption of shen-related terms to describe diverse aspects of their personal lives.
During the Christmas holiday of 2016, when I went back to Shenyang, my parents were busy with matchmaking for several single adult children of their colleagues and friends. While they sometimes joked that “Luckily we don’t need to worry about you”, both of them were still drawn into the ‘parental matchmaking system’ in their personal networks. Taking my parents as an example, the system operates as follows: each parent is either seeking a potential partner for their own child, or holds the personal details of other young adults from their close contacts, whom they usually know very well. Subsequently, parents within the system frequently exchange such information as well as broadcasting whose daughter or son is looking for matchmaking. The system therefore gradually evolves to become wider and more diverse, which means that sometimes my parents may introduce a young woman they have never met to a colleague’s son. One day, my mother showed me a new message from one of her friends introducing a female newcomer: BA from Luxun Academy of Fine Arts and MA from Australia; currently working as an art teacher in a high school in Shenyang; height 1.65 metres; fairly well-off family background. My mother immediately sent a message back: How old is she? Does she hold institutional staff status (shiye bianzhi) in her danwei1? My mother introduced the young woman to a friend whose 30-year-old son was a single dentist. Later, she updated me on the result of this matchmaking: the man’s family was not satisfied because the woman turned out to be a contracted teacher in the school without permanent institutional staff status.
This chapter first elaborates on the research project informing this book. Next, based on descriptive analyses, the chapter situates the research samples in the broader social worlds from which they were drawn. The analyses provide early evidence in this book for the mediating effect of socioeconomic class on role of other axes of inequality in paid domestic work.
This chapter lays the foundations of the book by first defining the work that the book intends to interrogate and unpacking the angst around it in some quarters of Western society, focusing on the feminist literature where such concerns are evident. Next, the chapter highlights theoretical contradictions and tensions in the literature and the assumptions underlying them, for instance, the work is a problem primarily between women. By drawing attention to some gaps and silences in the invaluable contribution made byprior research tounderstandings of the historically and socially constructed complexities of exploitation in paid domestic work, the chapterargues that the prevailing Western theories of this work are limited by their restricted focus on gender and race as the primary analytical categories.A more inclusive and globally relevant feminist approach would have an equivalent focus on class (and caste).
The final chapterreflects on the situatedness of the knowledge presented in this book and its relevance to the existing literature and the angst around outsourced cleaning. The implications of the book’s argument for an inclusive, cross-cultural feminist theory of paid domestic work are summed up. The chapter then concludes that the unease around paid domestic work and the gaps in the research prevent recognition of the fact that the exploitation in this work is not fixed and stable, but contingent on certain societal assumptions of ourselves, others and work. The issue of concern for a scholar of gender and sociology is not just that some women are doing the demeaning work of/for other women but is also the classed and casteised evolution of the very meanings of work across cultural contexts.