Misery (25): No, no, no, never […] These will never be part of my definition of a man.
JJ (29): No. I have no idea about that.
S (30): No, no.
‘Rose lips, sparkling white teeth, jasper-like face’—the slender scholars used to lead as a dominant force of embodied male aesthetics in Chinese history. During some periods, it even became a fashion among upper-class men to wear make-up or pay meticulous attention to clothes. But apparently such a trend is no longer popular with contemporary Chinese men. As can be seen from above, a single ‘no’ was not even enough for my participants to express their resistance towards skincare products. Another participant TMB (30) replied ‘no’ without any hesitance and then burst into laughter, as if I had asked an extremely ridiculous question. Although the media in today’s China is flooded with beautiful, ‘flower-like’ male celebrities who do not hide their interests in crafting their bodies, or urban elites in TV series cheerfully investing in beautification products and services, conversations with Chinese men in reality seem to present a curiously opposite picture.
My fieldwork was mainly conducted in 2015 in Shanghai and Shenyang, during which I talked with 30 men aged from 22 to 32 through semi-structured in-depth interviews. All of them were self-defined as heterosexual. My decision to interview young men in Shanghai (a Southeastern coastal city) and Shenyang (a North-eastern industrial city) was based on my personal familiarity with both places in addition to the long-lasting geographical distinctiveness of Chinese manhood. Furthermore, Northeastern China remained a region that received less attention compare to Shanghai as a relatively ‘popular’ site of research. This project seeks to explore how ordinary and ‘mainstream’ men—in contrast with those ‘new rich’ or migrant workers who have been foregrounded in existing sociological studies—employ varying strategies to negotiate and rework the notion of being ‘good’ Chinese men and their personal ways of everyday living. For this article, I will focus on how these men talked about skincare products and furthermore, understood and constructed embodied masculinities in their mundane lives.
Universally, men either immediately disclaimed using any cosmetics, sometimes scoffing at my question ‘Do you use skincare products or cosmetics?’, or listed particular reasons to justify such behaviour. With only one exception—Lee (27) who frankly told me that he had used Dior and Estee Lauder—the majority of men named instrumental products like moisturizers and cleansers as being used by them. Even so, some of them still appeared embarrassed or reluctant to answer this question. The boundary drawn by these men in using cosmetics is simple and clear: ‘real’ men do not use these products unless there involved irresistible material factors—for example, as a reaction to coldness, sunshine, or professional requirements. They can only be legitimately applied for the sake of keeping the skin healthy instead of improving one’s appearance. In addition to sunscreen cream, hand cream, cleanser, acne care or shaving-related products were also included as acceptable cosmetics. In line with their common attitudes towards the male body, most men felt uneasy in admitting to an aesthetic evaluation of their skin, but instead stressed pragmatic considerations.
Meanwhile, a number of participants commented that they were only compelled to use skincare products due to the pressure from their female partners. For instance, Jim (25) complained:
Never, I never use any. Like my girlfriend using all different stuff, I tell her that you spend that much money, but your skin only looks a little bit better than me […] But I need to please my girlfriend if she bought something for me, just using a little bit. But I really don’t want to use those. I just do it in a token way.
In addition to Jim who offered such a paradoxical account, a number of other participants, after firmly replying ‘no’ to me, similarly described how they were asked to care more about their skin by female partners. In fact, this stance was not restricted to men’s talking about skincare products. When being posed the question about shopping and fashion, many participants seemed proud to claim that they did not pay attention to their clothing style; rather, they only dressed as their girlfriends or wives wished. Thus, both an aesthetic gaze upon the male body or investment for improving men’s bodily appearance are framed as women’s interests and overall, women’s labour. Although the Chinese market is forcefully embracing or even celebrating conspicuous male consumers in the beauty and fashion market, men’s real-life experience showed an evident disjuncture. Nonetheless, it is clear that heterosexual men’s intimate relationships can be seen to have further implications for their health and emotional wellbeing.
Interestingly, a few men attempted to further ‘save’ their manliness from the threat of skincare products by using ambiguous vocabularies, or emphasizing the cheap brands, such as Jim’s subsequent description: ‘That sort of wet and moist stuff you use after washing face’, Rocky (27): ‘My wife bought me a brand called Bio…Biotherm or something like that’, or DX (25): ‘Those stuff you girls like, such and such cream, such and such lotion, I never use any.’ This suggests that there is a latent indication here that using skincare products equates to not being manly enough. As a result, men find it particularly important to draw an appropriate line in order to maintain legitimate masculinity. If the body can be read as a dynamic site to display personal aesthetics and social values, participants’ unanimous rejection of skincare products can be seen, therefore, as a manifestation of unspoken regulations on the male body. This is clearly at odds with pursuit of physical beauty despite contrasting media representations in contemporary China.
But men’s strong repudiation of cosmetics did not designate a devaluation of their public image. Indeed, their attitudes towards men’s bodily appearance is finely nuanced. One of the answers I repetitively heard from participants was ‘This is now a society judges you, by your face.’ On the one hand, this popular saying reflects the growing exposure and consumption of the male body. It is true that in today’s China men are advocated to be more attentive about their appearance and under various forms of public scrutiny. On the other hand, the core message delivered by the expression I refer to above is the social function of beautifying men’s body surfaces.
Embodying appropriate forms of masculinity is considered to uphold men’s performance in the wider social domain, predominantly the workplace. As Simon (27) stressed: ‘During company meetings, things like whether your hair is tidy, whether your face is clean, or whether you had a shower and the smell. These are not only responsible for yourself, but also a respect for others.’ This statement directly resonates with the concept of ‘aesthetic labour’ as ‘a supply of embodied capacities and attributes’ in the world of interactive service work (Warhurst et al., 2000: 4). However, here it is performed by ordinary Chinese men as self-improvement and self-regulation within a non-service occupational environment. In this sense, what truly motivates men to select from different cleaners or facial cream, is by displaying a’ fresh’ image in the public instead of a perceived self-indulgence.
The way Chinese men talked about skincare products is an epitome of their general attitudes towards the male body. The body, termed as shen or shenti in Chinese, has long been imperative for Chinese people. As the old saying goes, a typical Chinese 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 prominent importance of eating practices and the associated bodily functions for ordinary people. Moreover, the body denotes the meaning of an entire person in classical Chinese philosophy and serves as the essential carrier of Confucian values. Shenti related discourse is the foundation of Confucianism that continues to be influential, albeit often being taken-for-granted, in today’s China.
For instance, men’s common narrative strategy to ‘draw an appropriate line’ when talking about skincare products, has its root in traditional cultural aesthetics of du (proportion, degree, density)—a unique tool for measuring balance and appropriateness of all ranges of things. Confucius emphasised the importance of managing a moderate sense of du as ‘pleasure not carried to the point of debauch; grief not carried to the point of self-injury’ (Analects, 3.20). This further leads to Chinese medicine viewing excess in almost everything as negative to shenti: excess in thinking may be harmful to one’s heart and spleen, while excess in eating and drinking hurts one’s spleen and stomach systems (Zhang, 2007: 47). While the way men discussed skincare products certainly echoed their Western counterparts who are cautious about the extent to which they can talk about, or work on the body, it also carries distinct symbolic values in the Chinese cultural system.
It needs to be noted that Chinese young men are not passively reproducing conventional values attached with the body, but are actually re-inventing them in a creative way. While interviewees did appear to inherit certain patriarchal definitions of embodied masculinity, they also select and reinterpret these identity elements, as well as absorbing Western concepts of men and the ideal male body. Chinese men move between these traditional and modern masculine traits that are sometimes not easy to navigate. But fundamentally, most men adhere to core notions of Confucianism informed shenti, which is relational, situational and an ongoing process of becoming; it is also ‘responsible, feeling, intuiting, acting, and has its role in society’ (Tung, 1994: 488). This is clearly manifested in the paramount value given to ‘looking good to others’ rather than ‘looking good to oneself’ among participants. In this sense, focusing on shenti offers us an alternative lens to explore how individual Chinese young men construct masculinities, and bargain with a myriad of masculinity discourses in contemporary society.
Siyang Cao is a PhD candidate at the University of York, UK. Her research looks at the masculinities of young men in contemporary China with a focus on the body, intimacy and transition within men’s everyday experience. Located in the continuing tension between tradition and modernity in contemporary China, her work explores how the intersections of class, gender, nationality and other axes of identity have informed the changing patterns of masculinity. Besides this, Siyang’s broader research interests include gender, identity formations and East Asian popular culture in general.