China's image of the 'ideal man'
2019-11-08 12:36

This feature is part of a wider CNN Style series on how culture in China is evolving in the Xi Jinping era.


Musk Ming paints Chinese men in suggestive poses. Delicate ink-formed faces stare longingly from the paper, their lean bodies dressed in green caps with red stars. Some wear white and navy sailor hats with ribbons. Others are cloaked in olive coats with brown faux fur collars. The men may not be wearing much, but the accoutrements of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) are unmistakable.


For Ming, born and raised in China but living in Berlin since 2005, the risqué motif of homoerotic PLA soldiers came naturally.


"Expectation" by Musk Ming.

"Expectation" by Musk Ming.


Credit: Musk Ming


"I paint what interests me -- and from personal experience," said the 40-year-old gay artist, who uses "Musk Ming" as a pseudonym. He grew up in a military compound in northern China and attended a Chinese naval academy before moving to Germany. "The soldiers I saw were the ideal men: young, innocent ... and beautiful."


That's hardly how China's strictly controlled state media described uniformed men in its recent exhaustive coverage of the country's grand military parade, which marked the 70th anniversary of Communist rule.


On October 1, millions of Chinese viewers watched an all-powerful President Xi Jinping approvingly inspect 15,000 PLA troops -- mostly young male soldiers with chiseled faces and fierce looks -- as they goose-stepped through the center of Beijing, followed by columns of tanks, missiles and drones.


Chinese soldiers shout as they march in formation during a parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Chinese soldiers shout as they march in formation during a parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.


Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

图片来源:Kevin Frayer /盖蒂图片社

Underscoring the soldiers' physical and mental toughness, adulatory news reports detailed every aspect of their selection and training for the grandiose display of Chinese military might.


The vast chasm between Ming's work and the images shown in state media perfectly illustrates a heated debate in China about what constitutes the image of the "ideal man."


It's a conversation unfolding as the ruling Communist Party's cultural czars tighten their grip over the country's creative sector by, among much else, regulating the on-air appearances of male celebrities, from movie stars to boyband members.


Depicting masculinity in art


In discussions about masculinity in China's heavily censored cyberspace, a consensus often emerges on the gold standard of an ideal Chinese man: the PLA soldier.


It's a sentiment that experts say has been reflected in art throughout the history of the People's Republic, which was founded in 1949 by Mao Zedong following the Communists' triumph in a bloody civil war.


From vintage propaganda posters to slick new music videos, images of PLA troops have long shaped modern Chinese perceptions of masculinity. The soldiers' strong bodies and minds are touted as the ultimate male virtues, along with their fierce loyalty to the party -- qualities that some say Xi eagerly wants to promote as he vows to lead China into a great "national rejuvenation."


Propaganda poster decpits a People's Liberation Army soldier holding Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book."

Propaganda poster decpits a People's Liberation Army soldier holding Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book."


Credit: GraphicaArtis/Archive Photos/Getty Images

图片来源:图形艺术/存档照片/ 盖蒂图片社

For the first three decades of Communist rule, artistic depictions of Chinese men were dominated by heroic portrayals of PLA soldiers and, to a lesser degree, farmers and industrial workers -- two pillars of the proletariat class.


Although some of the genre's works were created with ink, in a traditional Chinese style, the majority comprised neoclassical oil paintings or watercolors by artists who either studied overseas or were influenced by Western trends, according to You Yang, deputy director of the Beijing-based UCCA Center for Contemporary Art.


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