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.

Leftover women: struggling warriors against the patriarch or just women looking for love?

Just about every women’s rights activist and scholar outside of China seems to be triggered when dealing with the concept of ‘leftover women’. Feminists can’t see sexism separate from history or culture, while sinologists keep stressing nuance and objectivity. But ever since the term leftover women rose to the surface, the majority of mainstream articles voicing women’s inner thoughts and feelings are suspiciously biased, and, for a lack of better words: ‘Western’.

In 2007, the term “leftover women” Shengnü (剩女) was introduced, referring to Chinese educated women who remain unmarried at the age of 27 or above. It focuses on the unmarriageable status of these women, as they are said to be too fussy, too occupied with their careers and therefore unable to find a potential partner. Since 2007, the term has been reiterated and promoted by Chinese state-run media, making it part of a resurgence of gender inequality, stressing marriage as a woman’s ultimate goal and stigmatizing singlehood.
Progressive and oppressed
Between tradition and modernity
Final thoughts

The “Western” model

Chinese women are said to be equally progressive to many European or American women, as well as independent and they feel enormous pressure having to struggle with the leftover label. All articles seem to point to one specific direction: Chinese leftover women are changing China’s landscape of equality. With the current U.S. political landscape and an upsurge of what is called the third wave of feminism, approaching the concept of leftover women in media from this particular angle is not surprising.

Living in China however, and having met many single women, I felt like these articles were mirroring the West (in particular the U.S.) and not reflecting women’s true voices. Sure, some women may have been influenced by feminist concepts, and some may believe to be stuck in this cultural ideal brought forward by the government, but what about love and relationships? Are we neglecting that women may have this basic longing for companionship? What does a relationship entail for these women? Do they really see themselves as leftover?

To figure this out, I delved into the world of online matchmaking, and created a male alter ego on China’s largest dating website: Jiayuan (佳緣). I wanted to know if women described themselves as leftover, but most importantly, whether they were pursuing a type of progressive ideal or were in search of a more traditional  relationship.

The results were quite surprising.


First of all, it’s important to acknowledge cultural differences in the use of dating apps or websites (or anywhere for that matter). An example of this being marriage. Western dating sites often give the choice of either wanting or not wanting marriage, with some giving the option of “undecided”. On Jiayuan however, since the idea is to instill early marriage as a goal for women, one can only select a time frame within which a woman prefers to get married. As an alternative one can choose “to let nature take its course”, which I suppose you could loosely translate as ‘flexible’.

Progressive and oppressed

In her book Leftover Women, the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, arguably the most discussed literature on leftover women in mediaLeta-Hong Fincher argues that educated women feel that China’s marriage law (among other legal developments) discriminates the female sex . Now here’s where I believe a lot of articles go wrong, stating that women are fighting against marriage and actively seek out ways to protest. Seeing as how many women did not disclose their marital preference on Jiayuan, one could indeed suggest that outcome.

However, in women’s personal descriptions, there was no indication of reluctance to get married. In fact, the ultimate goal was to find marriage, but the overall consensus seemed to be that women were not in a rush. They were merely looking for a soulmate, “the one”. User Duckhead mentions: “I don’t accept a lightning wedding”, and user Carole stresses: “I want to get married (…) but there is no rush. It’s ok if you don’t own a car or a house, we can work towards these goals and invest in them together.”

Another argument Fincher (and many articles) claims, is that women not part of this feminist wave often feel so oppressed, they downplay their successes to find a partner more easily. On Jiayuan, an observation that can be misinterpreted is the fact that many women were looking for a partner with either the same degree level or higher. One could argue that this is a typical example of status hypergamy: the “marrying up” phenomenon, in which case a woman’s sense of security comes from a man of higher status. These women however, had jobs of their own with most of them a considerable income. Arguing that these women were looking for mere compatibility rather than downplaying personal achievements to find a financially stable partner more easily is, to me, equally compelling.

In fact, in looking at these women’s criteria for a partner, idyllic love relationships were often desired. Women had hopes of finding love in their life and believed in fate. Progressiveness is even a more fitting term in this case, as the more established women were, the more open they seemed to be to finding a man with lower financial resources. As user Grains of sand points out: “romance is not achieved by money; it’s achieved by emotion.” Similar sentiments from user GuiGui: “I have a stable job (…), I keep thinking women should be independent, especially economically.”

So yes, marriage was put on hold with the hope of finding the right partner, and financial resources were deemed less important than compatibility; this indicates change and perhaps an underlying need for more equality, but it is definitely an exaggeration to state that women labeled as leftover are all suffragette-like warriors against the patriarch.

In fact, women often described themselves as obedient, a good housewife and a sincere and loyal partner. User Long-lasting Sound of the Zither writes: “Regarding love and marriage; if my parents request me not to do something, I will definitely not do it.” and user Awa! writes directly to her potential significant other: “I hope that you have a mature mind, you’re not too short, you show filial piety to your parents, take care of your friends, love children and that you’re preferably a foodie!”

Between tradition and modernity

Love and romance were presented by women on Jiayuan as a sense of loyalty, which is much more linked to tradition than anything else. The goal was stability, compatibility and companionship. Women seemed aware of being labeled as leftover, but it did not discourage them, nor make them fight against the patriarch.

Roseanne Lake, author of Leftover in China, states my opinions the most accurately: “They [leftover women] are treading this delicate balance of remaining filial, and being dutiful daughters, which many of them want to be, but also carving out lives that are more in tune with their own expectations. And their own potential.” 

Final thoughts

If anything, what I want readers to take away from this, is that it’s easy to use one’s own cultural lens to project ideas onto different societies, especially if you’re passionate about something like women’s rights. Not to sound too postmodernist, but there is a sense of truth in all of the aforementioned articles, as well as in women’s descriptions on Jiayuan. We need to attempt to put aside our own personal struggles with an issue, and use the context within which an event takes place to form a more balanced opinion.

One concept most of us can understand, is that the majority of these women are simply looking for a loving and stable relationship. That idea doesn’t need too much analyzing and is, perhaps, something we can all relate to.

All opinions are my own.
Jiayuan is a public space. Whether or not achievements were downplayed is therefore complicated to assess, but as stated previously, I think there’s a sense of truth in these personal statements regardless.
‘Western’ is a very ambiguous term, but within this context I mainly refer to the U.S.

Same, same but different – What makes one city better than another?

Recently, I moved from Beijing to Shanghai. An inevitable question almost everyone asks is: Which city do you like better?

Capital or not
Trade and tourism, change or continuity
A never ending story

The rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai is quite real. Of course, this is not limited to China. Worldwide many cities compete within a country to be ‘the best’, whatever that might mean. But where do these comparisons come from?

This blog is a short quest to see what I can find out about the orgins of these city rivalries. Coming from the Netherlands, my first thought is to compare the competition between Beijing and Shanghai, to the one between Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Let’s look at some aspects of these cities to find an answer.

Capital or not

Type in “Beijing vs Shanghai” in Google and you get 179 million hits. Many articles talk about the best sightseeing spots in both places, differences in food and varying characters of their citizens. But something that I’m more interested in, is what we can find in their history.

Beijing became China’s capital during the Yuan dynasty, in the 13th century. The Yuan dynasty was one of China’s foreign dynasties, in this case established by the Mongols. Ever since, Beijing has been the capital or one of the capitals.

Being the capital of a country, is of course an important element of a city’s identity. BBC reported earlier this year that “the capital needs to be protected, but also able to exert control and project unity. For that reason many capitals are built in the center of countries – they need to be seen as representative and accessible.”

Since the capital is often also the place where the government resides, that adds another element to the mix. A research paper from the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) mentions that “Beijing has benefited from efforts by the Chinese government and Beijing’s municipal government to elevate the city’s international reputation, and from Beijing’s legacy and position as China’s political and cultural center.”

Shanghai, on the other hand, has never been China’s capital. It has, however, been the backdrop for important historical events, especially in the 20th century. When the first Opium War ended and foreign powers started to enter China, Shanghai was named a treaty port by the British. With foreign powers such as Great Britain, France and the United States entering the city, it became the center for art, architecture and business.

After several wars, it resumed its position as being a prime spot for business, fashion and finance. It’s currently China’s largest city and its regional economy is growing faster than Beijing’s, with its Gross Domestic Product hitting 3 trillion RMB last year.

Thus, it’s no wonder that these tensions arise between both cities. Are the reasons the same on the other side of the ocean?

Trade and tourism, change or continuity

Amsterdam and Rotterdam are quite antagonistic. Luckily, most people don’t hate each other as much as the soccer fans do, but there’s definitely competition. However, in this case the different images of the cities are even clearer. Amsterdam is the capital city, with a rich history and well-known among international tourists. Whether it’s the canals, tulips or weed, Amsterdam is sure to be most people’s first association with the Netherlands.

On the other hand, although it’s winning popularity as a touristic hotspot, Rotterdam is first and foremost a trade city. With its huge port, it attracts many international businesses. Due to the bombing of its city center during the Second World War, the buildings and environment are literally newer. Compared to Amsterdam’s more traditional, historic city center, Rotterdam has a more modern, creative vibe.

Reportedly, rivalry between Amsterdam and Rotterdam can be traced back as early as the 17th century. This Golden Age period brought about unparalleled wealth and riches to a large part of the Northern Netherlands. This was of course earned by the lucrative slave trade and rich colonies, which were heavily exploited.

But the two cities not only competed in trade, they also did so in infrastructure. However, even with being heavily bombed, Rotterdam managed to revive quicker from this blowback than Amsterdam and prospered after this period.

In Dutch newspaper NRC, cultural history researcher Patricia van Ulzen thinks part of this rivalry is fueled strongly because both cities have always been the largest in the country, and are thus compared to each other all the time. She adds: “Amsterdam has a glorious history and benefits the most by keeping the status quo. (…) However, Rotterdam as the second city has had to prove itself all the time and is thus better off with continuous changes.”

A never ending story

Looking from a historical perspective, we can see that there are clear differences between the Chinese and Dutch cities. Shanghai and Beijing were of a very different size up until the middle of the 20th century.

Moreover, in the Chinese case there’s an emphasis on geography. Beijing and other former capital cities like Xi’an were partly chosen because of their strategic location. Shanghai is of course near the sea and thus much more vulnerable in that sense.

On the other hand, Amsterdam and Rotterdam have a similar size but also a very different character. The rivalry between these two seems to stem from a difference in values and city images. Amsterdam emphasizes its rich history with its canals and well-preserved heritage. Rotterdam focuses on trade and exuding its modern vibes with innovative architecture.

For all the differences and (friendly) rivalry between these cities, it does seem that there’s no real position being challenged. And perhaps that’s what lies at the bottom of it all. It’s a way to make cities’ characteristics clearer by juxtaposing them to each other. Comparing a large metropole to another one, can elevate its position and legitimize its importance. And in this day and age, city marketing also takes a smart approach in nurturing a city’s image.

So, just to add some fuel to the fire I’ll say it on the record: Beijing wins in my book.