'Manly Women' Challenging Gender Roles in China

  • December 20, 2013
  • By Li Wei
  • Editor: Amanda Wu
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'Manly Women' Challenging Gender Roles in China
This photo of a woman in a red dress carrying a man through flood waters in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province, has gone viral on the Internet, with netizens hailing her as a nü han zi or 'manly woman'. [Xinhua]
In July this year, a photo went viral on the Chinese Internet, depicting a woman in a red dress carrying a man through flood waters in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province. The petite young woman was hailed as a nü han zi, literally meaning 'manly woman'. The term has been making the rounds online and refers to women who think and act like men, and who have challenged traditional gender roles in China. 

Nü han zi are characterized by their strength, independence and sense of responsibility. They are unafraid of hard work or manual labor and are certainly unfazed by things like cockroaches and mice. Unlike the traditional image of a submissive, gentle and dependent young Chinese lady, nü han zi can take care of themselves. And they never, ever 'act cute'.

The Popularity of Manly Women

Supermodel and TV hostess Li Ai, who introduced a micro-blogging topic called 'the self-improvement of nǚ hàn zi' in May 2013, is regarded as the originator of the term.

A nü han zi group on Douban.com, a Chinese social networking website, defines themselves as "We pay no attention to the minor points of conduct. We are outgoing, straightforward, optimistic and capable of bearing responsibilities. In life, we are not only decent, generous and elegant, but also gentle, considerate, and attentive. At work, we are resolute, calm and well-ordered. We can fight like men and compete with them in every way."

One female netizen said, "Even as a little girl I could not bring myself to 'act cute', even though as a grown-up I've discovered that acting helpless and clingy can sometimes get you what you want. But I just can't do it." 

Nü han zi work equally hard at work and at home. They put in long hours at work and then go home to do the housework and laundry, cook and clean, and even do house repairs. Just as much as they complain of exhaustion, they are also proud of their independence and capability.

A total of 20 qualities for manly women, mostly defined in accordance with the behavior typically attributed to men, have recently surfed online. Women with 10 of the qualities are dubbed 'forceful women' and those who meet all 20 are called 'extremely forceful women'.

For many of today's modern Chinese women, being defined as nü han zi is a great compliment.

The Rise of Nü han zi

Nü han zi are gaining in popularity both on the Internet and in real life.

In the entertainment circle, there is Spring Brother or Brother Chun (春哥), as singer Li Yuchun has come to be known. Li, also known as Chris Lee, achieved fame when she won the nationwide singing contest Super Girl in 2005 and gained international fame in November 2013 when she won the 2013 MTV Europe Music Award for Best Worldwide Act. Actress Fan Bingbing has been dubbed 'Mr Fan (范爷)' for her feminine take on bravery, resoluteness and masculinity.

In fact, so influential was Li on the Super Girl talent show that it spawned a new fashion trend in China mimicking the tomboy styles that Li sported on the show. 

Chinese psychologist Shen Meng attributes the rise of the popularity of nü han zi to the intense competition and high pressure that women now face at the workplace. In an environment where men have always dominated, it only makes sense that women would believe taking on what have always been perceived as 'male characteristics' --- strength, independence, straightforwardness --- is the best way to succeed. 

"This phenomenon is particularly obvious in China because traditional Chinese culture has a very specific definition of manly qualities. Although Chinese do have the saying 'women hold up half the sky', nü han zi emphasize that they are first women," said Xiao Hong'en, a professor in the Department of Sociology in Huazhong Agricultural University based in Wuhan.

Chinese psychologist Li Xinhui says that the increasingly 'masculine' qualities that women seem to be embodying can be attributed to the single-child family structure where a child's needs and wants are often indulged by parents and grandparents. She stressed that being a 'manly woman' was not a negative thing, but that the most important thing was to be true to one's real self.

Shen also agrees that the development of 'masculine' qualities is associated with family education, but she analyzes it from the other side of the single-child family.

"Many parents who have single children who happen to be girls recognize the need for their daughters to be independent, so they start fostering these qualities in the girls from childhood. So it's unsurprising that many of them would grow up to earn equal or higher incomes than men, thus reducing their dependence on men," said Shen. "Many manly women even say that they don't care if they remain single all their lives, since they can support themselves."

The Future of Manly Women

Today's society allows people to develop multi-dimensionally. "The elderly become child-like, children become grown-up, men become feminized and women become manly," said Xiao.

However, Xiao is worried that the increasing popularity of manly women may not be a good thing. "Our society should rethink how to respect and care for women. The social concept that only the manly ones can survive is not an indication of a healthy society," he explained.

Shen also cautioned these 'manly women' to not shut out the possibility of love and relationships because they fear being dependent or mistakenly believe that being in a relationship or married means they must sacrifice their independent spirit.

Experts have suggested that while independence and self-reliance is great, women should be aware of gender differences and above all, be true to themselves.

(Source: Xinhua/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)

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Nv Han Zi 女汉子 (nǚ hàn zi)
Nv han zi is a slang term that literally means 'manly woman'. It refers to Chinese women who think and act like men.
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