Mastery of Words and Swords: Negotiating Intellectual Masculinities in Modern China, 1890s–1930s

Shu Wan

As a significant component of the Orientalist imagination of East Asia and the social norms within the (semi-)colonial hierarchy in China, the perceptions of Chinese men's effeminacy and diminished masculinity have been widely circulated and accepted in the West since the 19th century. Concerned about Chinese male intellectuals and writers' reactions to the stereotypical (mis)representation of themselves, literary scholar Jun Lei's newest book, Mastery Of Words and Swords, reconstructs their efforts to (re)define and defend masculinity in public opinion and the press.

Lei's monograph consists of two parts, which are respectively theoretically moderate with the divergent performances of masculinity in different contexts and texts. The first part begins with an introductory chapter outlining the author's main arguments. The second part delves into how contemporary intellectual trends and traditional Chinese culture intersect with the performance of masculinity in late Qing and Republican China. Concerned with the distinctive definition of Chinese masculinity from their Western/cosmopolitan counterparts, Lei underlines two strategies, "brutalization of scholars" and "(re)appropriation of feminine space." They respectively refer to "an alignment with the putatively natural hyper-masculine trait such as strength, physical aggression, rational self-control" and "a retreat into a gendering real of interiority that accommodates taint often denigrated as effeminate in men, such as physical frailty and emotionality" (p. 28). This chapter ends with Lei's reckoning with the "elsewhere" and "elsewhen" framework for comprehending the performance of masculinity, which underlines the influence of nostalgia for the splendor in the remote Chinese past and the humiliation of China's (semi-)colonial status since the mid-19th century.

After providing an overview of the scenario of masculinity in modern China and outlining the theoretical framework in this book, Lei begins the empirical parts by dissecting masculinity in the revolutionary and reformist ideologies in the late Qing period in Chapter 3. Despite their disagreement on how to deal with the Manchu regime, those intellectuals' discussion of masculinity were all dominated by concern about the severe ethnic, racial, and political crises in Chinese society during the Republican period, the (ethnic) nationalist interpretation of masculinity was substituted by an emerging concern about individuality. As shown in Chapter 4, the younger generation of May Fourth intellectuals treated the "freedom of love" as the primary criterion for assessing masculinity. The replacement of romance with racial nationalism in the performance of masculinity is further developed in the New Sentimentalists' writings. Chapter 5 takes case studies of two New Sentimentalists' writers. Echoing these writers' efforts to employ "surrogate violence" against the proliferation of "New Women" in the urban environment, male editors also posit the male gaze on women's bodies. Chapter 6 focuses on the visual representation of masculine female figures as a menace to masculinity in male-dominated popular culture. Lei's mixture of chronological and thematic examinations of performance and perception of masculinity are directed toward the conclusion.

Situated among the increasing number of academic studies on masculinity in modern Chinese society and culture, Lei contributed to the intersectional perspective by considering those marginalized male writers. As she addresses in the introduction, "in exploring the complexities of male intellectuals and their means of obtaining subjectivity, we cannot neglect some men's vulnerability and marginality in certain historical contexts or specific sociopolitical sites of privilege and opposition" (p. 14). Besides, Lei also contributes insights into the entanglement of modernity and masculinity. Ranging from the reforming intellectuals in the 1890s to the New Sentimentalist writers in the 1930s, all major figures and fractions of intellectuals examined in the book shared concern about masculinity by contrasting the modernization of China with the progressive West.

In accordance with her international and comparative perspective, Lei's examination of the entanglement of eugenics and masculinity inspires me to moderate modernity from an international perspective. As a transnational and global historian, I cannot help but recognize the resemblance between Liang Qichao's argument for associating the weakened masculinity in China with the decline of the Chinese race and his American contemporaries. In the 1900s, Teddy Roosevelt publicized his caution with the ebb of white masculinity and racial suicides. In terms of the concurrent cautions with masculinity in crisis on both sides of the Pacific at the turn of the 20th century, the integration of a comparative approach to the dynamics in the masculinities and its encounters with modernity is necessary for future scholarly writings.

Overall, Lei's masterpiece contributes several insights and extends academic knowledge of the complicated history of masculinity in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.