No, Mr. Xin, We’ve Only Just Begun

If you take me as anything remotely close to a fan of contemporary Chinese popular culture, you would be gravely mistaken. You will find that I concede to our protagonist today on many matters, including the ever-growing materialism and our society’s newfound obsession with vanity and a generational nonchalance to existing social mores. Despite my staggering disinterest in it, however, a distinction must be made when the criticisms that flood toward our youth culture today have shifted to a paternalistic, unsolicited pattern of control mania disguised in the name of “advice” in an attempt to mold the younger generation to a regressive image of modern society.

All in due time, that other shoe dropped (or should I say erupted). The Xinhua News Agency recently featured an article pointedly attacking the “untimely rise” of an effeminate Chinese popular culture. The author of this article is Shiping Xin, an op-ed columnist for the Agency. Like any other political and social propaganda campaign, the article boasts a patriotic facade of “doing what’s best for the country.” In it, Mr. Xin touched on many touchy subjects, including the one worst moral panic in Chinese history, and the surely apocalyptic sign since the beginning of the “higher” civilization: men aren’t men anymore. Circulating in contemporary Chinese society is what Mr. Xin invoked in his article: the dire consequences of an effeminate base of young men utterly lost in their high heels, mascara and cried-red eyes.

The public is looking for its conflicting emotions to be assuaged, and Mr. Xin certainly did not intend to achieve that end today. His hateful remarks only unfortunately instigated further the existing moral panic riding along existing heterosexism and toxic masculinity. For a nation witnessing an unprecedented shift toward modernity, this current panic has implications that extend beyond run-of-the-mill homophobia and misogyny, so I thought I’d write to clarify a few things up.

I believe the proper term for the phenomena observed by Mr. Xin (as seen with his overly excessive use of quotation marks to distance his moral authority away from the filth) is “expressions.” Of course, my fundamental position is that our inherent differences borne out of our individuality must be respected by the principle of liberty. But there are always exceptions, and, in the case of individual liberty, such a privilege is restrained by society when liberty poses a threat of harm to others. This much, I believe, is what Mr. Xin is really getting at — worried sleepless that young people are “stepping out of bounds” to challenge established social mores and gender roles. His concession is one made of sympathy: “well, I suppose you can have different opinions of what’s beautiful and whatnot, but a line is to be drawn here.” That line is drawn at gender expressions.

It is easy to prove why it shouldn’t. Mr. Xin is the victim of rigid gender impressions who regrettably confused “sex” with “gender.” The term “gender” is different from “sex” in its meaning to social standards of expressions, instead of biological ones. I say this with no political charge: it is but a simple fact that gender expressions are much more complicated than we believed it to be twenty years ago. What we are certain about right now is that a person’s biological sex (what one is born with) should not be the determining factor of one’s gender expressions.

By overlooking this fact, what Mr. Xin is suggesting in his attempt to “save the younger generations” is that having a popular culture that portrays men with characteristics associated to femininity and women to masculinity is a sign of social degeneration and that it is pathological. Let me assure Mr. Xin that his worries are absolutely uncalled for. Freedom of expression is not considered a sign of degeneration. If anything, I would attest that the real pathology in our society today is our astonishingly low acceptance to those who are different from us. Us invincible Chinese people are, at the end of the day, still afraid of what we don’t know. Most of us are too scared to even let go of the idea of arranged marriage, so it suffices to say that let us not deceive ourselves into the false pretense of accomplishment that our social attitudes are yet anything less than “proudly ignorant.” What Mr. Xin offers to solve is not a symptom, it is instead social progress. Mr. Xin’s fear can also be quite simply summed up. In his worst nightmare, a man “corrupts” himself to his worst degenerative form — not a criminal, not a perpetrator of sexual assault, not even the face of Satan or corporate greed — but a woman.

The worst thing a man can be regarded as in our society is a woman.

Sure, go kill your wife if she fails to obey you — you’d be a murderer, but you’d still be a man. “Wow,” you say, “that’s quite outrageous. No way is that normal.”

Well, nothing much is. In between the tropes deployed by Mr. Xin in a desperate attempt to invalidate the manifestations of selfs in his essay, one underlying assumption can be made — indeed the same assumption pervasive in a hostile society — that therein exists a “normalcy” in our values and that such “normalcy” is always good and desirable.

What is normalcy? From a historical standpoint, normalcy had been legal white supremacism in the United States up until very recently; normalcy had been the Cultural Revolution and the persecution of intellectuals in China until the late 70s. Normalcy had been the gentle fascism that no one found wrongful in Germany prior to the Second World War, and normalcy was sexism disencumbered by millions of disenfranchised women around the world. Some of these normalcies remained and persevered to this day, others considered a taboo and stigmatized forevermore. One thing is certain, though: we strive to learn from our mistakes in the forms ranging from feeble promises of liberty and the tearful speeches of remorse delivered by world powers, and yet when it comes to the preconceived ideas that we cast aside, we never found the courage to let them go. We are here today because history is throwing us a huge shitload of problems: whether we can see differently about our societal mores in the twenty-first century, or are we to be blinded by our traditional prejudices seeing through no more than our own emotional hardships of accepting. Change is undoubtedly hard–people hate change every minute of their life, and this has become the prominent reason why we all hate each other so deeply around the world. But change is necessary, because normalcy is, and always has been, oppression in the guise of guidance.

It is a blessing granted to those who are able to conceal their deviancy. Deviancy is what normal people call those who are different from them — be it their race, gender, or sexual orientation. It’s an old tale told millions of times, and yet we never learn that it is not O.K. to lash out in a kid’s tantrum at people just because of these differences.

Mr. Xin certainly didn’t. I ask this not because it benefits me (it does benefit me), but because “is this it?” China has been reigned over by it for too long: our obsession with the morbid tradition of virginity-seeking; our emphasis on the exploitation of women’s labors and the systematic oppression over them; our revered sense of male dominance and female submission, and our contempt to the idea that men should pay attention to make themselves look good, as well. At some point, we have to ask ourselves: when does it stop? When will we realize that social progress can only be met with resistance borne out of irrationality and ignorance? Time and again conservative forces had thought they were upright and moral, time and again they were proven wrong. We are only just starting to change minds about traditional ideas that are crumbling out of place in the wave of globalization of the twenty-first century. It takes time to change minds, but it also takes dedication and a uniformed, reasonable expedition from one end to the other. The real enemy-of-the-state right this moment in our history is not those who are passionate enough to effect change. It is those who are cowardly enough to refuse them out of fear.

Bowdoin College ’23. I write.