Why are people murdered because of their gender expression? And beaten up, derided, and discriminated against? What is it about non-normative gender expression that is so threatening? I research gender because I want to find out more about the ways in which people understand themselves as gendered beings and how that understanding is shaped by the sociocultural contexts in which they find themselves. My hope is that by gaining insights into the ways in which people feel attached—or not—to particular gender identities and expressions, we can also help shine a light on the ways in which change occurs. Together with activists, artists, filmmakers and others, academics can be part of a collective effort to imagine and bring about a future in which gender difference is an exciting, joyful and discrimination-free dimension of life.
In particular, in my research I look at how men enact masculinities. (Anybody can enact masculinities, but so far I have focused on men.) Through my ethnographic research in China (i.e. hanging out with people and talking to them!), I have discovered many different influences on Chinese men’s masculinities, including ‘modern’ notions of caring fatherhood and gender equality that appear in diverse sources from Chinese parenting magazines to Hollywood films, and everyday practices adapted from millennia-old archetypes in Chinese classical literature and philosophy, such as the Confucian gentleman (junzi 君子), the epitome of scholarly masculinity, and the martial hero, often represented in the figure of the general-turned-god Guan Gong 关公.
I use the word ‘adapted’ because historical notions of Chinese masculinity are reworked in different ways in the globalised market economy of 21st-century China. Many Chinese men in the fast-growing middle class (a group I am especially interested in) feel conflicted about the rise of feminism and women’s rights movements in recent years: on the one hand, they often recognise that part of being a ‘modern’ man requires them to respect and promote gender equality in the home and at work; on the other hand, they sometimes feel that their social status, or ‘face’, is compromised if their wife or female colleagues out-achieve them educationally or out-earn them financially. And on top of this, Chinese men feel pressured to compete at a global level in the field of transnational business with established big corporate hitters from the Americas, Europe, and other parts of the Western world.
Faced with the twin pressures of Chinese women’s social gains and the competitive challenge from global business, some middle-class men find a sense of security in masculine models from China’s ancient cultural traditions. Does this inevitably mean that patriarchy, the privileging of men at the expense of women, will continue to survive in a new form? Or will ancient, hierarchical formations of manhood be reconstructed into masculinities that are new, progressive, yet still distinctively Chinese? Perhaps the answer is that both of these possibilities are happening simultaneously right now. Through illuminating such transformations, in our own small way we can hopefully help contribute to the wider struggle to bring about a more gender-equal world.
I’m honoured to be part of your intellectual journey at DeLC. I’m sure we will have many fruitful encounters during your time here, whether through language and culture teaching, research, tutoring, or participating in events. Let’s make the most of it!