Chinese Masculinity in Migration Studies

Xiao Ma

Masculine Compromise is an impressive and innovative book on how rural-to-urban migration has changed Chinese family and gender relations, and especially on how migrants have responded to these transformations, with a specific focus on men and masculinity. 

The voices of male migrants in gender and migration studies have been often overlooked, in that men are mostly regarded as more privileged and their migration experiences “do not warrant extensive investigation” (6), particularly in debates on female empowerment or gender (in)equality. This book, by contrast, highlights male migrants in gender and migration studies, by inviting us to look into Chinese patriarchy and its transformation in the context of internal migration in contemporary China. This research involved 192 male migrants who moved from rural areas to three major cities in South China: Dongguan, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Based on rich empirical data the authors, Hong Kong-based sociologists Susanne Y.P. Choi and Yinni Peng, deliver an excellent theoretical analysis, which greatly contributes to the realm of gender and migration studies both in China and in the West.

Changing Chinese Masculinity

There is a “crisis of masculinity” in the post-Mao era in China, according to Song and Hird (Men and Masculinities in Contemporary China, 2014: 8). They suggest that Chinese male dominance and masculine traits advocated in Confucian thought were mostly emasculated in the Republican “new culture” movement at the beginning of the twentieth century and then by women’s liberation in the Maoist era. The anxiety about Chinese men and masculinity was further aggravated by the opening up of China in the 1980s, when Western gender standards increasingly became a symbol of modernization in China. In general, this argument resonates in Choi and Peng’s book Masculine Compromise. However, their work also demonstrates that rural-to-urban migration provides a crucial context in which a more remarkable and dynamic transformation in Chinese masculinity can be seen. As the authors put it, “while female migrant workers may be doubly marginalized in cities, male migrant workers often have to cope with the discrepancy between their dominance in rural China and their marginalization in cities” (11).

This discrepancy is illustrated in chapters 3 through 7, with the renegotiation of male migrants’ roles as lovers, husbands, fathers and sons. For instance, chapter 3 deals with the courtship, sexuality and marriage of young and unmarried male migrants. Most of them perceive a rich dating experience and gift purchasing for girls as a demonstration of masculine charm (51-52). However, in reality this cultural ideal often yields to their relatively low incomes as migrant workers. Tasting urban romance and enjoyment, most of them will eventually still marry a local wife (who is from the same province), usually arranged by their parents (62). In terms of conjugal relations and domestic labor division (chapters 4 and 5), the majority of migrant husbands still strongly believe that a man is supposed to be a breadwinner, whereas a woman is the caretaker in the family. However, they increasingly expect and allow their wives to join them to work in cities, due to their own low monthly incomes and the rising economic pressures of family support (79-80). Given that the official model of Chinese patriarchy did not expect men to engage in any domestic chores at all, most migrant men in this study continue to endorse this principle. However, they engage in housework actively or permissively, strategically and selectively, all depending on the specific situation (93-100). For instance, a man who earns much more than his wife is more likely to avoid doing housework, whereas a man who earns less or whose wife has shift arrangements, might engage more in domestic work.

Like two flip-sides of a coin, the idealistic side and the realistic side of masculinity is addressed in detail throughout the book. Besides this, masculinity in this study is located at the intersection of tradition and modernity. The familial and marital values held in Chinese villages today still retain a great deal of heritage from the patriarchal culture. For instance, “patrilocal residence”, referring to a daughter who has to leave her natal family and live with her husband’s family after marriage, was still widely practiced in rural China in the 1980s and 1990s (68). The male migrants in this study are those who grew up in and soaked up traditional values, and ultimately encounter modernized urban circumstances as a result of migration. As such, they are an ideal group of people for studying the transformation of Chinese masculinity.

Rather than a “crisis”, “masculine compromise” in this study is more likely to be a strategy to strike a balance between idealism and reality, tradition and modernity. Male migrants tactically make concessions in intimate relations, and yet this does not imply a tendency of “gender-equality awakening”, but rather a means to preserve “gender boundary and symbolic dominance” within the family (152). As the authors highlight in their conclusion, “compromises are anchored in ideologies of masculinity” (153).

Gender in migration studies

Feminist ethnographers initially brought gender from the periphery to the core of migration studies around three decades ago (12). However, their work has often been challenged for lacking grand narratives, the generalizability and reliability of data, small-scale theories or analytical frameworks by scholars who employ more quantitative methods (Mahler and Pessar, 2006:31). However, Choi and Peng’s book eschews these critiques, suggesting that we view gender from a “relational and contextualized” perspective (13). They developed an overall analytical framework encompassing institutional, interpersonal and personal levels, to examine gender and migration issues in China. Initially, they point out in chapter 2 that the shifting regime of migrant workers in China made the study of migrant families and gender unprecedentedly significant. The governmental policy on internal migration has gradually transformed from strict confinement mainly based on the urban registration system (hukou), to somewhat looser polices that focus more on the rights and interest protection of migrant workers and their children in the new millennium (31-34). Thus, they predict these shifts will cause more family migration rather than individual migration, as was before.

Choi and Peng also examine the interpersonal relations between male migrants and their lovers, wives, children and parents. They wisely focus on the renegotiation process of relations and roles, instead of regarding them as static and fixed. Moreover, they present male migrants in this study as mobile subjects. These men experienced pain and guilt caused by long-term separation from their children who they left behind, and they developed strategies to deal with their wives, domestic work, as well as parental caring. Unlike many previous studies on migration families or networks, these men represent themselves individually, rather than as a component of a large social unit. Utilizing the above three dimensions, this study provides an overall framework through which to address the ways in which migration has transformed the patriarchal Chinese family, and how migrant men have interpreted and responded to these transformations.

Additionally, Choi and Peng used methods of in-depth interviews and questionnaires, involving a large number of interviewees, and modest numbers of questionnaire participants. The rich empirical data lay a solid foundation for further theoretical analysis. Moreover, the quantitative and qualitative methods wonderfully support and improve each other in this book. For instance, in chapter 4 the questionnaire results pose an interesting discrepancy between the number of respondents who endorsed the traditional norm of “male dominance in marriage” and who actually act as dominant decision makers in their family. Using in-depth interview data, the authors explain this statistical outcome well.

In addition to interviews with males, this study also includes interviews with 74 migrant women and 11 couples, aiming to cross-check the validity of accounts offered by men. Unfortunately, the authors do not display any tension between, or conflicts of the narratives between, male and female interviewees in this book. Aside from this, the book deftly presents theories, empirically rich, and also rather comprehensible to readers. I would strongly recommend it to scholars who engage in gender and migration studies in China and beyond, as well as anyone who is interested in migration, family and gender issues.

Referenced works:
Mahler, S. & P. Pessar. 2006. “Gender Matters: Ethnographers Bring Gender from the Periphery toward the Core of Migration Studies”, The International Migration Review 40(1):27–63.
Song, G. & D. Hird. 2014. Men and Masculinities in Contemporary China. Women and Gender in China Studies, Volume 6. Leiden: Brill.