China Tells Effeminate Male Celebrities to Man Up

Macho men are in and effeminate male performers are out as Beijing expands its crackdown on China’s entertainment industry, blaming the rise of unmanly men on U.S. influence in Japan. 

Male celebrities, even top moneymakers, are changing their images seemingly overnight now that China’s National Radio and TV Administration and other government agencies have made it clear that men who can be described as “niang pao,” a derogatory term for effeminate men, are no longer suitable role models.

New government controls call for broadcasters to enforce a “correct beauty standard” and to stop booking male celebrities who fail to meet the manly criteria. 

Huang Zitao once belonged to the South Korean boy band Exo, which performs in Korean, Mandarin and Japanese. Now without eye makeup and earrings, the Chinese singer has posted shirtless “gym rat” selfies, showing off his muscles on social media.

And as for heartthrob Wang Yibo? Gone are his bleached blond locks, replaced by black hair. 

Jonathan Sullivan, a political science professor and director of China Programs at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute, called the latest development “sad.” 

“Personal style was one of the few areas that politics had retreated from, and Chinese young people were free to find individual expression,” he told VOA Mandarin in an email message. “If that freedom is also subject to circumscriptions from the state, I think that is quite a sad development.”

Ma, a Chinese cultural commentator who asked VOA Mandarin to use only his first name for his safety, said the latest campaign aims to ensure China has warriors ready for any future military action. 

“Promoting more gentle male characters has nothing to do with politics, but if a country is getting ready for a military conflict, enough manpower is key,” he said. “The one-child policy greatly reduced China’s combat readiness, so the authorities are attacking the sissy men culture now to make sure they have enough manly soldiers to prepare for possible wars in the future.” 

Sullivan said the outcry around the “crisis of masculinity” has been growing for several years.  

“To me, the focus on the way male celebrities dress and conduct themselves is a red herring. Another instance of ‘social engineering’ overreach, like football players being told to cover their tattoos,” he said. “I wouldn’t interpret this as wanting to increase the ‘readiness for conflict’ of Chinese men, but it is certainly in keeping with the ‘robust posture’ of the Xi era.” [[ ]] 

Since ascending to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has stressed that the Chinese Communist Party must lead all people — a position that extends its control, and his, over all aspects of life. The country’s powerful tech industry and the influential entertainment sector are his latest targets.  

Protecting youth 

China’s Cyberspace Administration launched a “qing lang” or “clear and bright campaign” in May with the goal of eliminating “harmful online problems damaging young people’s mental

On August 28, the China Internet Information Center, a state-run web portal, published photos of popular male celebrities in an article titled “We Must Stop the Niang Pao Culture.” The term “niang pao” comes from a 2007 Taiwan drama in which it was used to describe a male character considered “weak and emotional like a woman.”  

China’s netizens responded quickly to the article. “Don’t judge others’ beauty standards. Don’t force others to agree with your beauty standard,” said one.  

Another posted: “All forms of beauty should be respected. Girls don’t have to be feminine, and boys don’t have to be masculine.”  

On September 2, China’s TV regulator published new rules banning effeminate male celebrities. Broadcasters must “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics” to “vigorously promote excellent Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture and advanced socialist culture.” 

This week, Chinese state media renewed their promotion of an idea first presented in 2019: The U.S. has pushed an effeminate image upon Japanese men to curtail aggression in the island nation it defeated in World War II.

China’s state media Global Times on Wednesday published an article, “Japan’s ‘Niang Pao’ Culture: A Big Chess Game by the U.S.?” It suggested that by influencing Japan’s postwar entertainment industry, the U.S. was behind Tokyo’s contemporary pop culture, which spread the ideal of male effeminacy to other East Asian countries. 

Shifting standards 

Most people in China’s entertainment industry believe that the effeminate male ideal originated in neighboring Japan and South Korea.

The trend began when Japanese superstar Takuya Kimura, then of SMAP, one of Asia’s best-selling boy bands, appeared in a 1996 TV commercial for Kanebo lipsticks. He emerged from a romantic tangle with colored lips and the tagline ”Attack me with super lips.” Kanebo sold more than 3 million lipsticks in two months.

In 2018, under the headline “Love Me, Love My Lipstick,” the China Daily, a state-controlled news outlet, wrote, “Of course you can’t have (Kimura), yet having a lipstick he used might just bring him a little closer to you.” 

The story referenced a lipstick campaign from the French company Guerlain, which featured Chinese actor Yang Yang, and cited many other male entertainers as the “faces” of Western cosmetic companies. 

Wang Hailin, the screenwriter vice president of China’s National Film Literature Association, has been a longtime critic of effeminate male celebrities.

“If the most popular actors in our country are those who look gender neutral, it will pose a threat to beauty standards in our country,” he said during a 2018 talk show appearance. 

In February, the Ministry of Education began promoting sports in Chinese schools by issuing The Proposal to Prevent the Feminization of Male Adolescents, a set of guidelines calling for “vigorously developing” activities, such as football, for “cultivating students’ masculinity.” 

Wang blasted boy bands earlier this month, saying, “If a man pays too much attention to his outfits and his makeup, it means that he is trying to avoid responsibility and our society is going backward. …If we have more sporty and manly men, it means that our society is moving forward and improving.” 

Ma, the cultural commentator, said the entertainment industry should discuss the government’s latest standard for male looks before enforcing them too strictly.

“Some like femininity and some like masculinity. We should allow different beauty standards to coexist and reach a balance point,” he said. “When the authorities intervene, it’s hard to reach a real balance.”  

VOA Mandarin Service reporter Lin Yang contributed to this report. 


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