Chinese girls don't like muscular men

The ideal Chinese man - what does he have to be?

In China, the refined, cultured man is revered as a thousand years before. This puts young Chinese men under pressure - especially from their parents, who are looking for the right woman for them.

Xiaohu is a no-brainer, scolds his mother. She herself is a successful career woman in the financial industry in the southwest Chinese metropolis of Chongqing. The parents, both high-ranking managers, would have enough money to send their son abroad to continue studying after high school or his bachelor's degree. After this gilding, Xiaohu could then join the management of a large bank. In short: if it goes as the parents long for it, Xiaohu will embody the ideal Chinese man as quickly as possible with active family support.

The name Xiaohu means "little tiger". The son, however, is not a tiger, not even a little tiger. The mother noticed this at least since his studies at an insignificant Chongqing university. He looks good and at 1 meter 90 is unusually tall and broad-shouldered for southern China. Still, in the mother's eyes, he is not an ideal man. I know that because I know the family personally. Since they do not want to be recognized, the names of the parents are not mentioned.

The eroticism of the pale scholar

The ideas about what makes the ideal man have changed dramatically over the millennia-old Chinese cultural history. The Song dynasty (960–1126) represented a turning point. Because the in-depth study of the Confucian classics had formed the basis of the official examinations since then, the scholar was elevated to an ideal.

Power no longer manifested itself primarily through the sword, but through the writing brush, because only knowledge of books and the ability to write literary opened the way to a career as an official. The pale scholar embodied a masculinity of spirit that a fragile physicality did not contradict. Rather, the supposed weakness and vulnerability was perceived as an expression of refined sophistication and a special literary talent and thus also as a sign of moral beauty.

This classic, ideal male image was superseded in the second half of the 20th century. In the course of the communist takeover of power by the Soviet model of the robust man with hammer and sickle, he was replaced by a figure-hugging masculinity. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing completely erased the refined traditional image of men by staging martial heroes of the class struggle on the ballet and theater stage. Mao himself, who had no academic education, set himself up as a model by swimming across the Yangzi River near Wuhan. The published photos of it were supposed to prove his fighting spirit and physical strength. That was how a man had to be from now on.

But then it returned again. With Mao's death, traditional learning was also rehabilitated, because now a new Chinese society was to be built.

Young Chinese men should strive after the pale-faced scholar with the benevolent smile.

Xiaohu, my friend's son, was born in the late 1980s, around a decade after the Cultural Revolution. Following the historical model of the Song dynasty, the talented youth (caizi) was already in fashion again. Mental proficiency was more important than physical activity. The reintroduced college entrance examination (gaokao) corresponded to the civil servant examination a thousand years earlier. Young Chinese men should pursue the pale faced scholar whose benevolent, mild smile is like a calling card for his career.

While his knowledge sharpens his mind, his position of influence enables him to forge relationships. These in turn help him to solve problems at work and in his private life. In this way he would be useful to society and the family alike. Such a man speaks little, is inconspicuous and modest.

Mother goes looking for a job for him

Xiaohu, now 30, feels, like many men of his generation, wiped out between different cultural demands. He gets his ideas about men from completely different sources than his parents. He enjoys playing computer games, listening to pop music and watching western films. He finds his male role models primarily in Korean pop, which conveys an androgynous image of men, but he also admires Hollywood stars.

"My parents keep looking back to the time before the Cultural Revolution while I look ahead," says Xiaohu. His mother considers it a fashion that many Chinese women marry foreign men because they appreciate their openness and alleged sense of romance. He, on the other hand, cannot do anything with the types of men his parents rave about.

After Xiaohu had struggled to get through middle school, he went to a second-rate Chongqing college to study economics. The parents are disappointed because the performance is insufficient for studying abroad. He would have missed any scholarship, says his mother. She thinks he lacks the inner sophistication and subtlety of a noble man (junzi).

After all, the mother takes matters into her own hands. After completing his studies, thanks to her connections, she secured him a position in a bank several times, which he gave up again because he was not given a management position and he found the work as an ordinary bank clerk too strenuous. Only after two years was he able to accept that and kept the job.

When Xiaohu turns 25, the mother assumes that her only son will no longer be a gifted boy. He won't find a partner that easily either. His mother thinks he is attractive, but the women do not adore him, he has only had a few casual relationships so far. So she starts looking for the right marriage candidate herself.

Bride should be able to look up to him

The marriage of the child is a life's work for Chinese parents. Nothing is left to chance, regardless of whether the son falls in love with a woman or she is conveyed to him. As the head of the family, a man has a lot of responsibility, although the woman in the house takes on more tasks than he does. He is brotherly and loyal to her. If there is a crisis - illness, infidelity, money problems - he is emphatically paternal. Even if the woman flirtatiously woos his attention, he is more of a father than a lover.

Xiaohu's mother lets her relationships play out with friends who can't wait to get Xiaohu up. The mother is realistic, but at least her son comes from a good family and has a good job. In a comprehensive selection process, the mother chooses three women. After an evening at the cinema, Xiaohu chooses Mei. Although this is not a beauty, she studied at a renowned university. She also comes from a more humble family background, which is important for Xiaohu to feel superior.

However, Xiaohu's mother Mei does not allow a bank office, because there should still be a hierarchy between her son and his future wife.

Xiaohu actually falls in love with Mei, and after a year, their parents speak of marriage. Mei asks Xiaohu to tell his mother that she would also like to work at a bank. She also wants to move into her own apartment with Xiaohu before the wedding ceremony. Xiaohu's parents hesitate at first, then they move out of their attic apartment to give it to their son and his fiancée as a wedding present. However, Xiaohu's mother Mei does not allow a bank office, because there should still be a hierarchy between her son and his future wife. After all, Mei should continue to believe that she has found the ideal man.

Xiaohu's mother says that the parents of a son are the “development bank”, while the daughter's parents are the “investment bank”: As parents of a son, they had to dig deep into their pockets for the wedding, the car and the apartment. On the other hand, raising a girl will prove to be a good investment later in a good match.

When I spoke to Xiaohu on the phone again after the wedding, he said how grateful he was to his parents. His mother, on the other hand, still thinks that it really didn't need her to do anything. If the son had emulated the ideal of the pale scholar, he would have made a career and found a bride without her.

Wei Zhang is from Chongqing, China. She lives as a journalist, lecturer and translator in Würzburg and Zurich. This spring she published the novel “A Mango for Mao” for Salis Verlag in Zurich.