What Does It Mean to Be a Man in China?

Matthew Sommer, Stanford University

Bret Hinsch, Masculinities in Chinese History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. 208 pp. $81 (cloth), $31 (paper), $30 (e-book). 

Geng Song and Derek Hird, Men and Masculinities in Contemporary China. Leiden: Brill, 2013. 296 pp. $149 (cloth/ebook).

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What does it mean to be a man in China? The two studies under review here, both valuable contributions, approach this question in different ways. Bret Hinsch offers a dynasty-by-dynasty overview of the broad sweep of Chinese history, whereas Geng Song and Derek Hird zero in on the contemporary urban scene. But the books have much in common. Both privilege “ideals of manhood,” as Hinsch puts it (10), over lived experience and focus on elites to the exclusion of the vast majority of Chinese men. Both titles employ the plural “masculinities” to emphasize the multiple and sometimes contradictory expressions of manhood found in Chinese culture. Despite that emphatic pluralism, however, the reader is startled to find that the working poor, the peasantry, imbalanced sex ratios, and same-sex desire are all more or less invisible in these accounts...