Tradition, modernity, and Chinese masculinity: The multimodal construction of ideal manhood in a reality dating show

Dezheng (William) Feng and Mandy Hoi Man Yu


This article examines the multimodal construction of ideal manhood in male participants’ self-introduction videos in a Chinese reality dating show. A framework is developed to model identity as evaluative attributes and to explicate how they are constructed through linguistic and visual resources. Analysis of 91 videos shows two versions of idealized Chinese masculinity, namely, modern masculinity (mainly embodied by participants who have won a date), and traditional masculinity (mainly embodied by participants who have not won a date). Modern masculinity highlights career-oriented qualities, socio-economic status, and luxurious lifestyles, while traditional masculinity highlights family values, skills in Chinese cultural heritage, and class mobility. The findings provide new understandings of the complexity of Chinese masculinity in the dating show context, which reflects the influence of capitalist globalization on the one hand, and the government’s attempt to govern public conduct and morality on the other.

Publication history
Table of contents

Chinese society has been in a state of flux in recent decades, changing from an isolated country to the present relatively modernized (and in many aspects Westernized) one after forty years of reform and opening up. Such transformation has had significant impact on Chinese masculinity. As Louie (2015, 5) observes, “Chinese masculinity ideals have undergone more fundamental changes in the last 30 years than at any other time in the last 3,000”. In his seminal research on Chinese masculinity, Louie (2002) conceptualizes Chinese masculinity in terms of the wen/wu dyad, which refers to two forms of masculine ideals in Chinese history. Wen, which literally means scholarship in letters or literature, refers to qualities associated with the scholastic learning of men. Wu, which literally means martial arts, refers to “physical strength and military prowess”, as well as “the wisdom to know when and when not to deploy it” (ibid, 14). Wen was central in this dyad, as throughout most of Chinese history, government officials were selected based on scholarship in classic literature (especially writings of Confucius), and being an official was virtually the only form of career success for a man in an agricultural society. Louie (2015) argues that the paradigm also applies to contemporary Chinese masculinity, but its nature has changed with the increasing globalization of China. The emphasis on economic development in the 20th century under the influence of the Western world, particularly since the reform and opening up in 1978, “has changed the notion of wen itself to include business management skills and monetary power” (Louie 2015, 1). Wen has evolved to include not just talent in literature, but also the new offshoot of talent in business. The latter aspect has become dominant in today’s commercialized Chinese society as career success for men is increasingly being defined by monetary power, similar to the discourse of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ in the West (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005, 850; Song and Hird 2014, 12).

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