The Chinese Merchant as Male Model

June 4, 2018


The class hierarchy of scholar/gentry-peasant-worker-merchant 士农工商 (shinonggongshang) was generally accepted in imperial China after political thinker Guan Zhong (725 – 645BC) proposed it a couple of centuries before Confucius. This ranking has had profound implications on how masculinity was perceived. While there have been some minor variations to the order and make-up of the categories, the convention of having the merchant as the least desirable profession has remained prevalent in almost all periods. Even during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), the acceptable classes were the workers, peasants and soldiers 工农兵 (gongnongbing). Business activities were considered capitalist and attacked. It is thus no surprise that in terms of what constituted “real men,” financial acumen did not feature.


The centuries-long disdain and derision for businessmen are best illustrated in literature. Until Ming-Qing times, the merchant in literature was basically ignored, and when he did appear, he only did so in a secondary role and was rarely favourably portrayed.  In gender terms, perhaps the most notorious merchant character is Ximen Qing, the profligate philanderer who serves as a negative model for real men despite, or because of, his numerous and indiscriminate conquests of women.  My earlier work on Chinese masculinity, in which I use the wen-wu (brain-brawn) paradigm as a means to analyse masculinity ideals, is no exception to this convention. Honouring learning above physical prowess, while at the same time denigrating profit-making activities, is also in keeping with the Confucian ideal of the gentleman 君子 (junzi). Yet, despite the apparent lack of concern for commercial matters displayed by countless men who had pretensions to gentlemanliness, it was clear that money mattered. With the rise of capitalism, monetary concerns mattered a lot, and men who made money also mattered.


I have suggested in some of my recent work that the importance of material consumption by Chinese both in and out of China would entail changes in depictions of Chinese businessmen masculinity. In my book Theorising Chinese Masculinity, I suggested that in the twentieth century, though the image of the scholar as the most moral and gentlemanly still reigned supreme, this was bound to change.  By the time I wrote on Chinese entrepreneurs some 13 years later, I described their image as one of being “wealthy, worldly and worthy”. They were depicted as playing central roles in the profit-generating business world because of their skills in financial dealings. But I must confess I used the descriptor “worthy” ironically, because the tone I adopted to analyse the businessman in question is almost one of mockery of the nouveau riche. In fact, the book finishes with the argument that because the young have now access to wealth as never before, the Chinese male icons are now dictated by the consumerist ethic of the young. And that is unlikely to have wen-wu attributes.


At this point, I would like to add to the above by reflecting on how consumption and globalization have impacted on Chinese masculinity ideals.  I suggest here that instead of accepting the traditional Chinese hierarchies that placed merchants at the bottom of the masculinity scale, Chinese businessmen are much more robust in their self-representation.  More importantly, they are much more aware that they have cultural as well as economic capital, and they therefore do not hesitate to assume a higher status in the social, moral and hence masculinity, pecking order. Furthermore, this reconstructed order is increasingly accepted by society at large.


One can see this in popular television dating shows such as “If You Are the One” 非诚勿扰 (feichangwurao) and “Chinese Dating with the Parents” 中国式相亲 (Zhongguo shi xiangqin) .  The emphasis on wealth was famously illustrated in the former series by the quip “I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle” uttered by a woman contestant in 2010. She was criticised as being a gold digger.  The show purportedly changed its format to rein in the flaunting of financial and sexual endowments of contestants.  But this did not stop contestants emphasising their careers, many of which are directed towards establishing businesses or working for multinational finance companies.  Having good income is considered not just desirable qualities for potential marriage partners, but standard equipment as dates.  Indeed, in the public mind, business success is empowered to such an extent that the business tycoon Li Ka-shing is nicknamed Superman, and co-founder of Alibaba Jack Ma serves as a role model for millions of young men wanting to succeed in the world. Unlike the scholar-gentry of old, these are the new icons to be emulated.


In a recent project I co-chaired for the Australian Council of Learned Academies, I was struck by the self-identity shown by Chinese business entrepreneurs who travel back and forth between China and Western countries. They no longer play the passive or victim role so prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Their unmistakable self-confidence and assertiveness is perhaps best illustrated in their use of the epithet “male, pale and stale” to describe the inevitably white membership of business and professional boards and political and community leaders in Australia (Australia’s Diaspora Advantage). This sexist, racist and ageist articulation is a little resentful but unapologetically compelling. It captures the self-assurance and spirit of the Chinese businessman who can say, “If you do not value me, I will go to a company or country that does. And you will be the loser because your ways are outdated for the 21st century.” It is a confident assertion of their individual worth. And it upends the traditional Confucian conceptions of the unassuming and modest gentleman.


The approbation given to merchants and entrepreneurs is not limited to the popular realm. Politically, the communist rhetoric of the proletarian hero has long surrendered to those who are seen to contribute most to national wellbeing, defined increasingly in financial terms. The likelihood of businessmen continuing to enjoy an upward trajectory in the masculinity stakes is very strong, especially when the One Belt One Road scheme is so heavily promoted. This long-term mega scheme will have massive effects on China. It is linked directly to the activities and self-perceptions of Chinese men who engage in business, particularly business with foreign countries. As long as international trade and cultural interchange continue to flow, the entrepreneurs and businessmen will reap tremendous social esteem and adulation. Wen-wu as a masculinity ideal will no doubt continue to hold sway, but its holier-than-thou orientation and hegemonic power must eventually subside.


Kam Louie was Dean of Faculty of Arts at The University of Hong Kong (2004-2013). He is now Honorary Professor in the School of Chinese at HKU and the School of Humanities and Languages at UNSW. Before joining HKU, Kam Louie was Professor of Chinese Studies at Queensland University and Australian National University. He has 18 books under his name and was chief editor of Asian Studies Review for nine years as well as serving on editorial boards of several scholarly journals. His sole authored publications include: Chinese Masculinities in a Globalizing World (Routledge, 2015); Theorising Chinese Masculinity (Cambridge UP 2002); Inheriting Tradition: Interpretations of the Classical Philosophers in Communist China (Oxford UP 1986) and Critiques of Confucius in Contemporary China (Chinese University Press 1980). Image: Alibaba CEO Jack Ma during an interview in New York City on March 12, 2009. Image courtesy




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