In their response to socio-economic transformation, filmic masculinities are capable of evincing the dreams and anxieties of entire generations. In this article, I discuss the ways in which three recent Chinese box office hits portray diverse masculinities against the backdrop of a confident and economically powerful China. The films’ depictions of transnationally mobile, cosmopolitan, yet often intensely patriotic masculinities show the inseparability of masculinity, consumption, nationalism, and cultural identity in China’s post-socialist modernity.
The three films that I discuss are American Dreams in China (Zhongguo hehuoren 中国合伙人, 2013), directed by Peter Chan, Lost in Thailand (Ren zai jiong tu zhi Tai jiong 人再冏途之泰囧, 2012), directed by Xu Zheng, and Wolf Warrior 2 (Zhanlang 2 战狼2, 2017), directed by Wu Jing. The latter is the highest-grossing Chinese film ever, with box-office receipts of 5.7 billion yuan. Lost in Thailand made 1.7 billion yuan, and American Dreams in China over half a billion yuan. All three films illustrate the reworking of historical notions of wen 文 (cultural attainment) and wu 武 (martial prowess) masculinity (the paradigm used by Kam Louie in his work) and address key characteristics of globalising Chinese masculinities: anxiety about the quality of Chinese men vis-à-vis Western men; the interaction of masculinity and nationalism; the role of consumerism; the association of masculine success with money; the turn to men’s needs in society; the pursuit of ‘glocalised’ cosmopolitan identities; and emotionally expressive and caring fatherhood.
American Dreams in China tells the rags-to-riches story of three Chinese men, from their college friendship in the 1980s, to their dreams and knockbacks in their quest to emigrate to America, and their eventual success in establishing a highly profitable English language school in China. The film concludes with the trio in New York outwitting American lawyers pursuing a copyright infringement lawsuit against them, showing that Chinese businessmen can take on and beat Americans at their own game at a global level. This nationalistic tale portrays the global triumph of modern Chinese men, whose commitment to material success often comes at the expense of personal relationships, encapsulated in this somewhat patriarchal line from the film that went ‘viral’: “never play mahjong with your mother-in-law, never sleep with a woman who has more ideas than you do, and never start a business with your best friends.”
The film shows a China in which the old division between esteemed wen scholar-officials (shi 士) and relatively disdained merchants (shang 商) has disappeared. Post-socialist China’s integration with global financial and trading systems has pushed China’s highly educated stratum into the embrace of international capitalism. Yet the film, and qualitative interviews with transnational professional Chinese men that I carried out, suggest that Chinese transnational business masculinities are nonetheless informed by a resurgent Chinese cultural imaginary and, in Sheldon Lu’s words, “rooted in Chinese reality.”
By contrast, Lost in Thailand offers a more cautionary account of China’s harassed middle-class men, covering competition at work, marital breakdown, escapism through foreign travel, celebrity culture (actress Fan Bingbing performs a cameo), and the increasing appeal of (often Tibetan) Buddhism and meditation as an antidote to the frantic pace and stress of everyday life. Two colleagues struggle to impose their conflicting views on developing a new product. A subtle nationalistic narrative manifests in the comic villain’s wish to sell the product formula to a French company, while the main protagonist wants their Chinese company to develop it. The company’s principal investor is meditating in Thailand, and the two race to win his approval. At the same time, the protagonist’s neglect of his family leads his wife to sue for divorce and custody of their daughter. In the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Thailand, the protagonist has an enlightenment, realizing that human relationships are more important than work. He gives up the fight with his colleague.
The film’s depiction of the damage done to friendships and families by workaholic, intense competition in the white-collar world clearly struck a chord with audiences. Its significance lies in its message that contemporary men need emotional expressivity, friendship, and loving family relationships. The emerging figure of the ‘Sensitive New Asian Guy’ was further developed in the hit Chinese rom-com Finding Mr Right (Beijing yushang Xiyatu 北京遇上西雅圖, 2013), directed by Xue Xiaolu, released just three months after Lost in Thailand.
In common with American Dreams in China, Wolf Warrior 2 depicts transnational Chinese masculinity as the agent of China’s increasing power and role on the global stage. Yet here the location is Africa, and the masculinity is one of martial prowess. The ex-military hero defends China’s overseas citizens and interests from local rebels and ruthless American mercenaries—whose leader the hero kills in a display of brute force at the climax of the film. This patriotic adventure forms, as Osnos writes, “a new, muscular iteration of China’s self-narrative, much as Rambo’s heroics expressed the swagger of the Reagan era.”
In the 1970s, Bruce Lee symbolised the colonized world’s resistance to white male dominance. The protagonist in Wolf Warrior 2 is China’s first very own tough guy hero—an overdue conclusion to the 1980s’ quest to replace socialist masculinities with a convincing Chinese nanzihan 男子汉 (‘real man’). Besides killing baddies, the hero also finds time to act as loving godfather to a young African boy. Wolf Warrior 2 thus describes a modern Chinese masculinity that is both physically tough and emotionally tender. Echoes of the sexual self-control of historic wu masculinity are also evident in the hero’s ability to resist the temptations of a pretty, young Eurasian doctor who is clearly in love with him. This has overtones of 1993 hit TV drama series Beijinger in New York (Beijing ren zai Niu Yue 北京人在纽约) and other series since then, in which the Chinese hero defeats his American opponents and is desired by foreign women; meanwhile, Chinese women are eclipsed.
From savvy transnational businessmen to tough patriotic heroes, the films depict new Chinese masculinities building global Chinese power, while exhibiting reworked wen and wu traits as well as tenderness and intimacy. Although the pursuit of materialism and power might seem overwhelming in American Dreams in China and Wolf Warrior 2, films like Lost in Thailand and Finding Mr. Right show Chinese men exploring spiritual and romantic dimensions in their lives. It would be remiss to end this article without pointing out (and referring to the work of Harriet Zurndorfer) that in all three films examined above the male characters possess more power, wealth, status, and agency than any female character. These men have hardships to overcome, but they do so, in film as in real life, from a position of gender privilege.
This article was originally published on WAGIC: Women and Gender in China.
Photo credit: By celinahoran - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0