Mastering the pole and redefining masculinity

Head of the family, a scholar-soldier or in high heels and short pants. Masculinity takes on many forms and continues to change in contemporary China. Between communist values, beauty trends and boy bands, another kind of man is emerging. Twirling around the pole, hovering in mid-air. With pole dancing becoming hot and happening in the country, men are getting their game on.

A male on male construct
The modern communist heros
A history of Chinese pole and men
Strong men in different forms

What do people think of Chinese men pole dancing? Before we can get to that, let’s first look at the history of Chinese masculinity and the ideal male image. In ancient China, the ideal man would combine the scholar, signified by wen and the soldier, signified by wu. Intellect and civility were equal, or sometimes even more important, than physical prowess.

Besides the scholar-soldier definition of masculinity, there’s actually another factor that played a role in creating the Chinese masculinity: homosexuality.

A male on male construct

Perhaps surprisingly, homosexuality and homosexual relations were quite common in ancient China. There was Chinese opera, where men played both male and female roles, as well as a catered sex industry towards elite men. Construction of masculinity was diverse.

Up ’till the 20th century, such relationships and behavior remained widely acceptable and out in the open. Furthermore, there was no specific term used to describe this. The common word for homosexuality, tongxinglian, literally love between the same sex, was only coined at the beginning of the 20th century.

At the same time, this laissez-faire attitude started to change during this war-ridden and humiliating period. As a means to further improve and develop its country, China accepted certain Western values and ideas. Among them was the idea that homosexuality is immoral. Thus, when all Western influences were denounced in the communist era, homosexuality was viewed as ‘Western import’ and also became criminalized.

The modern communist heros

How do these developments and images combine in a male ideal for modern China? Kam Louie and Louise Edwards write in a paper on masculinity and the wen-wu division:

"The wen-wu divide continues today. In the People's Republic of China the wu ideal has achieved increased prominence through the Communist leadership's bid to promote the peasant of working class 'hero' and more recently by images of masculinity from the West. (...) Despite the increasing credibility of wu it is still possible to see that the power of the softer, more refined, intellectual, masculine form lives on in the daily expression of self by Chinese men. Generally speaking, the dynamic tension created between the poles of wen and wu permits the production of a greater number of possible expressions of the secular male self than would be possible in the contemporary West."

In other words, the modern male ideal is that of a heterosexual working class ‘hero’. However, this masculinity is very much a combination of more traditional values (honor, loyalty, and physical toughness), combined with newer, postsocialist values (such as entrepreneurship and chauvinist patriotism).

And, true to Louie’s and Edwards’ statement above, alternatives do exist. Influenced by pop culture, an alternative male ideal emerged. These are nerdy or more sensitive male figures whose intense focus, sensitivity, and honesty may appear admirable and even attractive to women.

So on what end of the spectrum do we find Chinese male pole dancers?

A history of Chinese pole and men

Over the past 7 to 8 years, pole dancing has become very popular in China. It won’t be a surprise that Chinese men who pole dance are linked to femininity and homosexuality. In a Chinese interview, one male pole dancer says strangers will ask him if he’s homosexual. He rebukes this by saying that pole dancing is a difficult sport that requires quite some skill and strength. Thus, especially in Chinese coverage, male pole dancers are keen on emphasizing their heterosexual masculinity and their muscular strength.

Besides the ‘masculinisation’ of the sport through muscular strength, there is also a mental element. News stories describe young, directionless or nerdy men who are stuck at the bottom of the ladder. After being inspired by pole dancing, they garner success, muscle and strength. Although they are initially rejected by their family and friends, after winning big competitions, showing the pride and skill pole dancing requires, as well as how much fame and money it brought them, this changes. It is a trajectory from weak to strong, in body and mind.

Interestingly, one of pole dancing’s forefathers doesn’t have this explicit emphasis on masculinity. When you look into the history of pole dancing, the belief is that the sport was at least partly derived from Chinese pole. This is actually a male-dominated sport, although women do train and perform as well,  heavily based on acrobatic ability and strength. The acrobatic act, although linked to pole dancing historically, doesn’t share its shady image at all. Even though its most popular move, the human flag, takes an insane amount of training and practice, and looks very much like a pole dance move with the same name.

Chinese pole is still performed in the circus, but what’s interesting is that, as far as I have experienced, pole dancing is not linked to this acrobatic feat at all. I haven’t seen it being mentioned in interviews with men pole dancing, nor have I seen it advertised at pole dancing studios. In a country where acrobatics are still practiced and shown very often, I could imagine pole dancing’s image to benefit from this connection a lot.

But if that’s not happening, besides masculinisation, what other images are projected of this sport?

Strong men in different forms

We can also find the other side of the spectrum, a more sensitive male image, in male pole dancers. For example, Leon Yee, a Hong Kong homosexual male pole dancer, explicitly said that he finds pole dancing a feminine sport. In another interview, Yee mentions he would like to project himself as “an antihero, use a style that is neither male nor female to strengthen this image with everyone. Normal people might already be very surprised to see a man pole dancing, if they see a man with long hair doing it, this will even be a bigger reaction. In this way, I can attract much more people’s attention to this sport.”

Furthermore, one of China’s most prolific male pole dancers at the moment, Coco Ke Hong, also thrives on projecting a not-too-masculine image. He lists shopping among his hobbies, started pole dancing because it’s high paid (not specifying in which situation) and says pole dancing is as important to him as his underwear: “I need to have it with me everyday. I cannot live without it.” His Instagram is filled with pictures of him proudly wearing high heals, dress-like clothes and in feminine poses.

So we can see that male pole dancers are a small niche which show different images of Chinese masculinity. And what’s more, these men are accepted and even adores ’till a certain degree. Whether they are just showing of their skill and strength or wearing 15 centimeters high heals, and fancy makeup. It’s a kind of diversity that’s really necessary.

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