Couple at Chinese Uni

Be a Man… Or, What China Taught Me About Gender

They are some of those strange observations the foreigner makes in China:

Guy and girl sit next to each other in the park. They coddle each other, obviously very much in love.
Same people, same place, half an hour later: she has her back turned to him, sullenly plucks on some leaves, obviously irritated. He stands there, dumbfounded, obviously not quite knowing what to do.

Guy and girl walk down the road. She suddenly stops, pouts, “huhn”-s at him; he has to scramble for words to convince her that she’s the best and prettiest, and worth everything and anything, before she even takes another step.

Oftentimes, many such behaviors found widely among East Asian girls, along with a deep-seated fondness for everything cute and girly (not least in clothes and accessories), make their foreign observer incredulous.

Western men who like that kind of woman seem to have come down with a bad case of “yellow fever,” unable to handle an emancipated woman who holds her own; the women just seem to be putting themselves into a position of powerlessness that can easily make the emancipated Westerner – whether female or male – foam at their mouths.

What kind of relationship – other than the overly traditional, male-dominated – should ever be built on such a foundation?

Being the one half of an intercultural, Asian female-white male, relationship doesn’t figure as prominently now, in Austria, as it did when we were living in China; and my conclusion – that it’s most important we realize we are talking to and living with an individual person, not a culture – remains unchanged.

There are ways in which I am coming back to the issue, though, because it is strangely pertinent to our understanding of ourselves and others, a theme of this blog.

Gender East and West

It is true that we are socialized into gender roles – as Simone de Beauvoir famously remarked, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” In the West, we have only too many attempts at taking this to mean that there should be no differences, that everyone can be anything – and in result, neither women nor (especially) men quite know how to be anymore.

Being a woman, at least, is increasingly seen as good. “The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male” and “men and markets [increasingly prove to be] on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and levelheaded,” as The Atlantic reports in “The End of Men.”
Men, on the other hand, suffered from the loss of “male” jobs and roles, and are wrong both when they think too much about their roles and emotions, and when they don’t.

The image of gender in China, on the other hand, is still, in spite of all the admonishments that “women hold up half the sky,” one assuming very strong and natural differences. As feminine as Asian men can appear, as boyish as girls are often raised, there is a very strong concern among parents that boys should be and act masculine, and girls feminine. Both roles become expressed in very strong, very traditional, ways.

Of course, there are ways this acceptance of gender differences gets perverted when men see it as their role to have a mistress if they can afford her, or to entertain business partners with KTV girls, all because “boys will be boys,” whereas wives cannot get divorces because of the social stigma associated with it, no matter if they are being beaten. (This has been changing, but the idea is still around.)
These are not the ones seen as good men, though.

Couple at Chinese Uni

Co-Dependent Relationships?

When they work, the attitude informing Chinese relationships seems to be one of mutual dependence in a partnership.

The man will seek to earn a good income and (increasingly, anyways) take good care of his wife in the ways he best can, regardless of income, with all his (both emotional and physical) strength. He will cook or do the dishes or otherwise care for her, not least when she has her days and may not feel too well. He will show his strength and dependability by showing fewer emotions, and offering a strong shoulder.

The woman will care for her partner by making sure he takes good care of himself and dresses well, be a good partner giving her husband face, and (admittedly, in a very quaint way of thinking) bear him a child.
She will also test his devotion and support, though, to make quite sure he is a good man. (That’s where many of the “strange” behaviors in dating seem to come from, as the common warning is that the men will be on their best behavior only until they have lured in the woman…)

This way, the man is the man, the woman the woman – and both still hold power. Even by making herself the seemingly weaker part, she assumes power. This may not chime with ‘Western’ notions of equality – but there is no absolute equality, anyways.

Balance is when both play their parts…

Nowadays, they will typically both have earnings, they will both contribute – and she will still expect that he gives her presents and showers her with attention to support her beauty and well-being. These, in turn, contribute to his own standing. A good(-looking) woman is a man’s greatest beautification, after all – and a happy woman more likely to be in the mood…
He, in turn, is allowed his indulgences – as long as he keeps being a strong man by her side, able and willing to carry her (maybe literally), which is one good foundation for a woman’s happiness, after all. (No, not the only one.)

“Women may fall when there’s no strength in men.” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

This way, a couple does not lead two separate lives trying to be full and just happening to be with a partner – and increasingly, finding that it’s easier without “the jerk” – but one relationship that is full only because both contribute to it. She has a man by her side; he found himself a wife.


The two complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses, still have a lot of leeway in how exactly it all plays out, but still have their “natural” roles giving the relationship – and indeed, life – some structure to hold on to.

Of course, relationships are difficult and diverse, anyways. It’s only too easy for one to just give in, and the other to just have his/her way, to blame any problems on the other person alone, and so on. – The perspective that is more accepting of “natural differences” while (or when) not entirely deterministic, and sees relationships as a necessity, is one to consider, though… It does have its advantages over the total flexibility that (also) all too often devolves into caricatures of the desired roles.

Be a Man – and, Be a Woman

After all, what we are seeing all too often is that men either attempt to be as feminine as was apparently demanded of them – and end up being needy, insecure, softies who do not make good partners (or even very functional men).
Or, they overemphasize their masculinity and turn themselves into (sometimes, truly dysfunctional) misogynist machos who treat women as toys, may even have some “success” with it – and only fit with those women who do not even expect good male partners anymore.

Women have at least been winning “the battle of the sexes” – and losing out by it. There is still enough gender discrimination and sexual violence, you are still neither supposed to be too aggressive, nor too feminine… but the Chinese attitude can actually accept both better. Holding the men to too high, too traditional a standard (expecting him to be of higher status, etc.) while not expecting anything much of men anymore, too, (so far, at least) works out  better with the Chinese attitude towards relationships as well…

Isn’t it, just maybe, better to show masculinity by being a good – strong and caring – man by a woman’s side, and to show femininity by emphasizing the respective look and need to be cared for, all the while being strong where it counts…?


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