Rescuing the World with Chinese Masculinity

June 25, 2018


In the summer of 2017, Wolf Warrior 2, a patriotic action blockbuster directed by martial artist Wu Jing, who also co-wrote the film and played the lead role in it, became the highest grossing Chinese film ever and triggered a wave of public discussions in China and beyond. This Hollywood-style action-adventure film, which features a former Chinese special-ops soldier’s rescue operations in a war-torn African country, combines commercial spectacularism with “main melody” propaganda and tells us a lot about cultural imaginaries on the rise of China and its engagement with the world. One interesting and potentially fruitful way to read the film is through the perspective of gender and sexual politics; as undertaken by a publication edited by Petrus Liu and Lisa Rofel, which suggests that China is imagined through reassertion of heroic masculinity. This leitmotif of “Chinese men rescuing the world” has been echoed by other blockbuster films like Operation Red Sea, 2018, directed by Dante Lam. The interconnectedness between manhood and nationhood, however, is nothing new. A wealth of interesting examples can be found in TV programmes in China. With an over one billion-strong domestic audience and growing transnational influence and accessibility, Chinese television has become a new symbol and carrier of China’s soft power and is playing a prominent role in cultural governance within the country. Yet, compared with film, Chinese television began to attract scholarly attention only recently, and such attention remains far from sufficient.


Drama series are a predominantly popular form of storytelling in today’s China. The male images in these series bespeak the ambition and anxiety associated with China’s rise. This is particularly true of male images in transnational settings. As early as 1995, ‘Beijingers in New York’ (Beijingren zai Niuyue, 1995) — the first Chinese TV drama ever shot in a foreign locale — featured a male protagonist, a frustrated new Chinese immigrant in the US, pouring bank bills over the body of a “white, blonde and buxom” prostitute and demanding she shout “I love you” repeatedly. According to Geremie Barmé, this “was an extremely popular scene with mainland audiences, in particular with the Chinese intelligentsia.” In a tongue-in-cheek manner, Barmé summarizes the sentiments in the drama and reactions from its fans as “to screw foreigners is patriotic.” In recent years, transnational romance and marriage has emerged as a popular theme for TV dramas, in which the cultural imaginary of China’s rise is expressed through the desirability of Chinese masculinity. In ‘My Natasha’ (Wode Natasha, 2012), a 41-episode series broadcast in 2012, the Chinese soldier Pang Tiande (played by Zhu Yawen) is constantly fought over by a Russian and a Japanese woman, who both love him and risk their lives to save him during the Anti-Japanese War. Natasha, played by Ukrainian actress Irina Kaptelova, embodies what Rey Chow argues as “White woman as a fetish” and, as the title of the drama suggests, is projected as something to be owned and consumed by Chinese men.


The image of Chinese men as saviors of the world is most egregiously promoted in a recent TV drama entitled ‘The Last Visa’ (Zuihou yizhang qianzheng, 2015). Known as the Chinese version of ‘Schindler's List,’ the 46-episode TV drama, coproduced with a film company in the Czech Republic, is based on a true story in history. Ho Feng Shan (1901–1997), the Chinese consul general in Vienna on the eve of the Second World War, saved thousands of Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust by issuing them “life visas” to Shanghai and was posthumously recognized as a hero. In the drama, however, this figure was split into two characters, Deputy Consul-General Lu Huaishan (played by Chen Baoguo) and Pu Jizhou (played by Wang Lei), a visa officer at the Vienna Consulate General. In terms of masculinity, they embody middle-aged mature masculinity and young laddish masculinity respectively, two of the most popular types of male images on the Chinese TV screen. In addition, a large portion of the drama devotes to fictional triangle relationship among Pu Jizhou, his Chinese wife and a Jewish girl that he saves.


The drama, however, has been severely criticized by Ho Feng Shan’s daughter, Manli Ho, especially in terms of historical authenticity. During an interview by China Daily, Manli Ho, a retired journalist living in the US, did not hide her disdain for this “laughably unrealistic” drama and described it as “an embarrassingly bad soap opera with poor production values, an obvious lack of understanding of both the European and Chinese history of that time, and ridiculous cartoonish characters.” She particularly pointed out that the two male leads conspicuously show a lack of “cultural refinement and strict decorum” that define diplomats of the Nationalist China era and complained that “[b]esides the unbelievable plotline, the details…show plain ignorance.”


The “unbelievable plotline” that she mentioned refers to the fictional plot that Pu risks his life and outwits the SS time and again to deliver Chinese visas to the hands of a handful of Jews on a secret list – a list of scientists and artists that Lu thinks should be given priority to in the rescuing mission. By doing that they are, as saviors instead of helpers, directly fighting with the SS in Vienna, the head of which is an evil character who is pathologically fond of playing games with them. The last name on the list is the Jewish girl that Pu saves. He overcomes many difficulties and in the end successfully delivers the last visa to her, and thus realizes his promise to send her out of Austria – see image.


Gender dynamics provides a fascinating lens to examine the interplay and negotiation between popular imagination and state ideology. In 2018, CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala (chunwan) delivered an ever strong message to the world that China desires to be cosmopolitan. An unprecedented number of non-Chinese faces appear in this annual media event, with Caucasian girls singing patriotic Chinese songs. In a controversial skit performance, an African woman—played by a Chinese actress in blackface—feels so happy when she hears that her daughter will marry a Chinese man and go to China that she shouts enthusiastically on the stage, “I love China!”

Geng Song is Associate Professor in the School of Chinese, University of Hong Kong. He is interested in cross-cultural and interdisciplinary investigations of gender and popular culture in a globalizing China. Among his publications are The Fragile Scholar: Power and Masculinity in Chinese Culture (HKUP, 2004); Men and Masculinities in Contemporary China (co-author, Brill, 2014); Chinese Television in the Twenty-First Century (co-editor, Routledge, 2015); The Sound of Salt Forming: Short Stories by the Post-80s Generation in China (co-editor, Hawaii UP, 2016); as well as a number of articles in such journals as Modern ChinaThe China Journal, and Asian Studies Review. He co-edits a book series on Transnational Asian Masculinities for Hong Kong University Press. He is currently working on a project on gender politics and nationalism in Chinese television. Image credit: Twin Star Film






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