Rebel Men: Masculinity and Attitude
in Postsocialist Chinese Literature

By Pamela Hunt

Reviewed by Jun Lei

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February, 2023)

Pamela Hunt, Rebel Men: Masculinity and Attitude in Postsocialist Chinese Literature. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2022, viii + 154 pp. ISBN 978-988-8754-05-2.

The exploration of masculinity presents a fecund field for investigating not only the interactions between individuals in the realm of gender relations, but also the interplay of individual agency and institutionalized power, as gender relations interact with various aspects of society. This is a seemingly inexhaustible field, requiring continuous scholarly investigation. In the 1980s, Anglophone masculinity studies emerged as a subfield in the sociology of gender in Australia, the U.S., and the U.K., mainly to address the limitations of the gender role approach. Today, it has evolved into an interdisciplinary field that attends to power, and to the social, economic, and emotional relations of gender. It complements studies of women and sexual minorities, allowing us to further understand heteropatriarchy’s multilayered effects, mostly regarding the conceptualization of manhood and male gender performances, although there have been limited studies also on female masculinities. Researchers generally agree that masculinities are not innate or universal traits of men; rather, they are a socio-cultural and psychological process actively under construction. Masculinities perceived as “authentic” are in fact difficult to achieve, easy to lose, and must be constantly re-proven.

Although relatively recent in its inception, the study of Chinese masculinities has produced a wealth of incisive scholarly contributions, illuminating their complexities. To mention a few, modern Chinese masculinities show the influence of foreign cultures while retaining their indigenous roots; they emerge from a multitude of hierarchical systems, rather than solely from individual men’s domination over women; they showcase disparities in men’s access to patriarchal privilege depending on their social standing; they have progressed to incorporate more fluid models, though older power-driven models persist. Despite these contributions, little attention has been given to the evolution of Chinese masculinities in the decades around the turn of the twenty-first century, a gap that is addressed by Pamela Hunt in her new monograph, Rebel Men: Masculinity and Attitude in Postsocialist Chinese Literature. The book, while focusing on postsocialist Chinese masculinities, also contributes to feminist criticism through its critique of patrilineal and patriarchal culture and society.

Hunt’s book delves into the critical attitudes and oppositional agency of male writers in Chinese literature from 1989 to the early 2010s. It examines both literary representations of masculinities and the larger social, cultural, and political environments that shaped gender and sexual themes over these two-plus decades. Hunt selects four fiction writers—Zhu Wen 朱文, Feng Tang 冯唐, Xu Zechen 徐则臣, and Han Han 韩寒—because they consciously engage in “doing masculinity” through their deployment of gendered themes. While not unknown within the Chinese wentan 文坛 (literary circle), the four have received rather limited attention from scholars, who tend to focus instead on bigger names such as Wang Shuo 王朔, Mo Yan 莫言, Yu Hua 余华, and others. Hunt describes the writers she studies as “nontraditional” and “marginalized” in varied ways and identifies a common “attitude” among them that combines rebellion and playfulness. They are consistently drawn to “rebels, antiheroes, misfits and mavericks” in literary creations (7–11).

In light of their relative marginalization and their shared attitude, Hunt presents two central arguments concerning how male writers constructed their masculinities in the decades around the turn of the millennium. She contends that male writers’ performance for masculinity is marked by a self-conscious exhibition of marginalization and a rebellious attitude toward mainstream ideologies and values. Additionally, she suggests that these self-consciously marginalized male writers often utilize a narrative of “masculinity in crisis” to position themselves in the center, rather than at the periphery, of Chinese literature and culture. These propositions advanced by Hunt are rooted in and substantiated by a comprehensive analysis of the four writers’ lives and their literary works, which I elaborate below.

Chapter 1, “Introduction,” links contemporary masculinities to the wen 文 (literary masculinity) and wu 武 (martial masculinity) archetypes that Kam Louie theorizes, as well as to their caizi 才子 (talented scholar) and haohan 好汉 (tough guy) premodern manifestations. The chapter highlights the importance of postsocialist changes, such as market reform, urbanization, and globalization, as the backdrop for any discussion of resistance, agency, and gender. Hunt points out in particular the significant influence of the market economy in creating new iterations of hegemonic masculinity, which prioritizes men’s wealth, entrepreneurial spirit, and business acumen. Hunt’s description of hegemonic masculinity explains, to some extent, her framing of male writers as marginalized or self-marginalized figures, even those who have amassed substantial intellectual and cultural capital.

Hunt’s four core chapters each center on one “rebellious” writer and his “protest” works. This format forcefully substantiates Hunt’s overarching argument that “attitude” is a common feature of subversive writings, without neglecting the nuances and varieties of literary themes and motifs among the respective writers.  Chapter 2, “Boring, Useless: Masculinity and Crisis in Zhu Wen’s Fiction,” recounts how Zhu Wen publicly announced his departure from the orthodox wentan (represented by Wenlian 文联, the Chinese Writers’ Association) to become a freelance writer. His fiction, cynical and existentialist, depicts a bleak urban space inhabited by troubled men who live lives of boredom and futility. Feng Tang, the focus of chapter 3, “The Dense Scent of Hormones: Phallic Creativity in Feng Tang’s Beijing Trilogy,” positioned himself as an outlier in the wentan, having studied medicine and then pursued a career in business prior to becoming a full-time writer. He embodies a masculinity of postsocialist caizi with “phallic creativity,” a celebrated capacity for simultaneous rebellion, sexual desire, and literary production. Chapter 4, “Floating Men: Xu Zechen’s Migrants,” shows that Xu Zechen, although holding a solid place in the literary establishment, dwells on drifting male characters who aim to establish masculine authority in their own carved-out space of jianghu 江湖 (the “rivers and lakes” domain of the martial arts), a realm beyond state control. In chapter 5, “The Right Road: The Han Han Phenomenon,” Hunt explores Han Han’s multiple public personalities. Besides writing literary works that defy authoritative figures and mainstream values, Han Han is also involved in filmmaking, blogging, and rally car racing, representing an adventurous and mobile Chinese masculinity that is thoroughly entwined with global cultural flows and markets. In chapter 6, Hunt brings her analysis to a conclusion and reviews a plethora of what she has identified as marginalized masculinities in the previous four chapters.

Overall, Hunt successfully accomplishes two crucial tasks for any book on masculinities. First, she identifies cultural legacies as well as historical specificity within apparently recurring masculine patterns in contemporary Chinese society. Second, she teases out the distinct roles of inter-gender (male-female) relations and intra-gender (male-male) relations in the construction of masculinities. These two points merit some elaboration.

In bringing to light the cultural-historical factors, Hunt astutely forefronts themes and motifs comprising male subjects’ contemporary performance of masculinity in the service of rebellion, demonstrating how longstanding “cultural models of rebellion” continue in the present to “link resistance to masculinity and misogyny,” thereby illuminating intertextual intricacies between postsocialist works and literary works of the recent and distant past (5). Although Hunt does not categorize these themes and motifs, she seems to be chiefly concerned with sexuality and mobility as the two most prominent means of rebellious men’s performance of masculinity. For example, she examines the figure of the lingyu ren 零余人(superfluous man) in Yu Dafu’s 郁达夫 fiction of the 1920s. Characterized by sexual frustration, the lingyu ren finds its contemporary counterpart in the male protagonist in I Love Dollars (我爱美元) by Zhu Wen. Zhu Wen’s characters share lingyu ren’s sense of alienation, anxiety, and emasculation against a backdrop of societal uncertainty, but are more cynical in attitude about money and sex and more intentionally countercultural in flaunting their sexual desire and prowess. Men’s display and pursuit of sexual prowess is arguably best exemplified in Hunt’s analysis of the “liumang plus caizi” model in Feng Tang’s coming-of-age novels. Caizi, one half of the masculine hybrid, can be dated back to ancient Confucian scholars whose literary talents and emotionality functioned as heterosexual appeal. Liumang 流氓 (rogue, drifter), by contrast, connotes a volatile, even threatening male sexuality that Feng Tang employs to add an extra layer of meaning: marginalized men as a socially disruptive force. As Hunt points out, the figure of the liumang existed in Chinese cultural vocabulary for centuries before it took on a new life in the literary trends that rejected asexual Maoist heroic models in the immediate post-Mao era, and was further distilled into the commercially successful stereotype perfected in the works (and persona) of Wang Shuo in the 1980s. Such rebellious spirit is even more visible in representations of men’s capacity for mobility, the other motif used to showcase rebel men’s masculinity performance. Hunt compares Xu Zechen’s and Han Han’s protagonists with heroes celebrated in traditional vernacular fiction such as xiake 侠客 (knight-errant) and haohan (tough guy). Like xiake and haohan, modern drifters roam the margins of society and commit illegal activities as a means of challenging established orders and authorities, defiantly performing their masculinity in the process.

In addressing the second task—teasing out inter- and intra-gender relations in the construction of masculinities—Hunt meticulously analyzes each writer’s treatment of male and female characters in literary works to shed light on the gender and sexual politics that bolster male agency. Male protagonists generally develop over the course of the narrative as what Hunt calls “able-responsible” men through interactions with other men, primarily fathers and male friends. Male-male bonding experiences in novels are abundant, ranging from father-son filiality rooted in China’s patrilineal culture to the loyalty between male friends in overcoming loneliness in uncaring urban environments. In contrast, female characters are frequently portrayed in stereotypical roles, either as objects of sexual desire or as passive domestic figures. Hunt astutely underscores the gendered power dynamics in the representation of mobility and space in literary narratives by drawing attention to dichotomous depictions of female characters, who are associated with rural, domestic, static, and marginalized positions, whereas male characters are associated with urban, adventurous, mobile, and central positions.

Hunt’s analysis of both inter-gender and intra-gender relationships draws on Raewyn Connell’s well-known theory of hegemonic masculinity. This theory posits that even those who embody non-hegemonic forms of masculinity nonetheless conform to hegemonic masculinity by endorsing heterosexual virility and machismo to demonstrate their authenticity as “real” men and to reap the benefits of a patriarchal system. Connell’s theory supports Hunt’s comments about the use of marginalized masculinity as a male gender politics. As Hunt explains, men assert “gendered positions of power” to compensate for “their vulnerable position as rebel outsiders” because their resistances “still rely heavily on heteronormative and patriarchal values” (28). Hunt highlights gendered power being leveraged by both male writers and the male characters they craft: through sexual and marital relationship with women, male characters who are marginalized in other ways are able to reclaim their dominance; male writers, complicit in upholding these gendered structures, also reinforce heteronormative and patriarchal values to counterbalance their precarious status as rebels.

While Hunt forcefully argues that male writers’ narratives of “masculinity in crisis” are strategic ploys to reassert their centrality, her analysis sometimes gives the impression that the characters are mere vessels for the writers’ opinions. Since the views of writers and characters may differ, it would have been more convincing—for this reader at least—to present the writers’ perspectives on misogyny, heteronormativity, and gender equality, and to analyze instances where the writers themselves have betrayed such views, rather than conflating the identity of male authors with that of their male characters. This is especially crucial given the noted playfulness that is central to their writing style and “attitude,” which could arguably be interpreted as a strategy of maintaining ironic distance between the writer and the characters and events depicted.

Given the exploratory scope of this book and the intricacy of gender relations and politics in postsocialist China, some issues do not receive adequate attention. This imbalance is the source of some weaknesses in the book’s otherwise convincing conceptualization of marginalized masculinities. On the one hand, the case studies of Chinese male writers effectively complicate any simplistic opposition between hegemonic and non-hegemonic masculinities. The book boldly proposes to study writers and characters “in terms of hegemonic, marginalized, and protest masculinities” (32, emphasis added). At first blush, this statement may seem dubious, as hegemonic masculinity is often associated with privilege and domination, marginalized masculinity with oppression and resistance. But after considering Hunt’s perusal of male writers’ adherence to patriarchal and heteronormative standards despite their marginalized and “nonconformist” images, readers will appreciate the effort to challenge the dominant/resistant dichotomy. On the other hand, as briefly mentioned earlier, some readers may not be fully convinced by the book’s conflation of writers’ and their protagonists’ identities, or its generalized characterization of both as marginalized rebels. Hunt states that “writers and their characters are marginalized in a number of ways, be it in terms of their status as writers, their position on the world stage, or their identity as freethinkers in a postsocialist society” (32). Although Hunt does demonstrate these male writers’ deviations from the values, thoughts, and behaviors prescribed by authoritarian morality, none of them challenges the party line to a degree that would render them politically or ideologically marginalized. Furthermore, despite a lack of attention from Western scholars, within the PRC, Hunt’s writers achieved literary recognition and some even enjoyed commercial success because of their literary talents. As Hunt acknowledges, “all four authors might quite safely be considered part of the social and economic ‘center’ of the PRC, in that they are either highly educated, highly wealthy, or both” (11). This raises doubts about their marginalized status and what, if anything, they would be resisting.

Additionally, the core chapters (on the four authors) arguably should have undertaken a more critical examination of each writer’s possible modes of “distancing,” psychological and other, from his fictional characters by delving deeper into the “playful” aspect of their narratives. The focus on the strategic manipulation of marginalization deployed by these heteropatriarchal, masculinist male authors could have been more thoroughly contextualized with some mention, at least in the introduction or the conclusion, of writers who face genuine marginalization due to socioeconomic conditions, political views, or gender identity and sexual preference, such as migrant worker writers, dissent writers, and LGBTQ writers. Likewise, the book would have benefitted from a clearer and more comprehensive discussion on the mainstream postsocialist institutions and values that form the foundation of Hunts’ claims about marginality, rebellion, and resistance. It is unclear what exactly “postsocialist mainstream” culture refers to and who promulgates it: ordinary authority figures such as parents, teachers, and police offers?; the orthodox Chinese literary establishment and its leading figures who rejected commercialization and upheld literary sanctity?; the party state and the “socialist” values and morality it safeguarded?; or the market economy and increasingly consumerist society that shaped new morality and tastes? Hunt quotes Xudong Zhang’s observation that writers had “highly ambivalent or even contradictory” views on the market economy and commercialization (8) but offers no systematic analysis of the key postsocialist forces and institutions that have co-constituted “mainstream” values. Nor does she mention how said values evolved during the decades in question. These are, admittedly, complex issues and addressing them would have necessitated considerable additional content to this otherwise slim and eminently readable monograph; nevertheless, more attention to these questions would have enhanced the originality of the book.

Finally—and this is just a personal preference—the book could have been strengthened with the inclusion of a more comprehensive theoretical framework. It certainly covers a range of contemporary attributes of masculinities, such as wealth and entrepreneurship for hegemonic masculinity, and mobility, sexual prowess, and a rebellious attitude for marginalized masculinity. However, pertinent observations are dispersed throughout the book and not cohesive enough to clearly map the socially empowering traits that are dictated by hegemonic masculinity and endorsed by marginalized and other subordinate masculinities. A comprehensive framework would require a more rigorous and integrated approach, mapping key masculine attributes and how they change in response to various social, economic, and cultural factors; this could perhaps have been integrated into chapter 1, where Louie’s theory of literary and martial masculinities is mentioned. Such a framework would have lent more coherence to Hunt’s approach, especially with regards to the connection between the introduction and the empirical chapters, and contributed to the elaboration of a theory of postsocialist masculinities. Additionally, such a framework would shed light on why variants of literary masculinities being discussed display attributes traditionally associated with martial masculinities.

Although I have elaborated on a handful of critical points above, these are minor in comparison to Pamela Hunt’s contributions in Rebel Men: Masculinity and Attitude in Postsocialist Chinese Literature. I recommend Hunt’s book for its probing analysis and perceptive evaluation of male writers’ construction of masculinities in postsocialist China. The complex subject is explored in depth through a synthetic approach that combines historical analysis and literary case studies. The book is destined to be a crucial resource for scholars and students in Chinese literary studies and gender studies, as well as for those interested in the interplay of structural power, individual agency, and social or cultural resistance. While its primary contribution is to the field of masculinity studies, it also provides valuable insights for anyone seeking to grasp the intricate dynamics of historical and cultural forces shaping identities and the ways in which these identities are constructed, reinforced, and challenged.

Jun Lei
Texas A&M University