TFBoys (left to right: Wang Yuan, Wang Junkai and Yi Yangqianxi) sing at their sixth anniversary concert in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province on August 10, 2019. (Photo: VCG)
Heated discussion over xiaoxianrou (little fresh meat in Chinese) resurfaced on Chinese social media platforms as a post went viral last week alleging Asian people favoring feminine-looking males was a conspiracy from the US to reduce Asian men's masculinity.
The article titled "Do you know how hard CIA tried to make you adore niangpao (a derogatory term for girlish male)?" went viral on Chinese social media on October 20 after it was posted on a Sina Weibo account called sixianghuoju (the torch of thought), which was allegedly opened by the National Cultural Security and Ideology Research Center under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The article, reportedly first released on a WeChat commentary account wuyaxiaowei (commander raven) claimed that Asian people's admiration of feminized males was a US government conspiracy during the Cold War to reduce Japanese people's sentiment against the US by secretly cooperating with Japanese companies to promote feminine-looking entertainment celebrities and weaken Japanese people's masculinity.
The Global Times could not find the article on the wuyaxiaowei WeChat account on Monday. But according to posts spread widely online, the article described xiaoxianrou as weak and feminine entertainment celebrities who lack real acting or singing skills and only use their good-looking faces to delight audiences.
The article warned that once the admiration for niangpao becomes the main tendency in a nation, the society will lose courage and be bullied in the global community.
Although the "conspiracy" theory failed to convince Chinese netizens as the article provided no evidence and showed dubious logic, it brought back the controversy over xiaoxianrou on Chinese social media.
People not products
Some netizens noted that the term xiaoxianrou to some extent materializes male celebrities as it compares them to products such as meat, which some think may be a result of the increased independence and economic status of women.
Chinese women are more willing to spend money pleasing themselves rather than only for the families. Young and vivacious boys are more likely to stimulate their maternal instinct and protectiveness, analysts said.
But xiaoxianrou cannot be treated as products and they are not equal to niangpao, Yu Qiao, a Beijing-based woman in her twenties told the Global Times on Sunday.
Xiaoxianrou refers to young and good-looking male celebrities while niangpao is a derogatory term for "girlish male," according to Yu.
"Young and good-looking males are not necessarily weak. On the contrary they can be very strong both physically and psychologically," Yu noted.
Yu stressed that she likes the young spirit and vitality that these boys tend to have. "I am definitely not adoring weakness or just good-looking face. By the way, many young male idols actually need to exercise a lot to afford mass performance including popular singer Zhang Yixing and Yi Yangqianxi, they are by no means weak."
Some Chinese netizens pointed out that it is hard to distinguish Western and Eastern aesthetic tendencies through a binary as male celebrities popular for their looks also exist in the West. Another trend is Western audiences' attraction to Asian pop culture and celebrities, especially Kpop stars.
Tough guys, such as actor Eddie Peng Yuyan and Jason Wu Jing, the lead actor in The Wandering Earth and Wolf Warrior, who was crowned the TC Candler 100 most handsome Asian faces of 2018, are popular among Chinese women.
"Xiaoxianrou can also be tough while tough guys can also show a soft side. Labeling and stereotyping idols does not consist with the complexity of the society and humanity," another Beijing-based woman surnamed Zhang told the Global Times.
Zhang was echoed by some Weibo users calling for tolerance, diversification in aesthetics and the definitions of "handsome" and "beauty."
Shaking off the label
Some analysts pointed out that debate over xiaoxianrou is only partly about gender stereotypes, but mostly about disgust with pandering to teenagers' vulgar tastes without upholding positive role models, be they masculine or feminine in form.
Such opinions demonstrate a misunderstanding of young idols, Yu cited his favorite band, South Korean boy band BTS.
Yu insists the vital reason for the band's popularity is their musical ability and creativity, and attention on social issues such as homosexuality, rather than their appearance.
"Their songs strike a chord in my heart and make me care more about different groups in the society," she said.
In wake of backlash, many young Chinese male idols are seeking transition and trying to change the public's impression of them.
Actors Yang Yang and Li Yifeng changed their hairstyles to crew cuts and played in action movies and television shows.
Others, such as TFBoys members Yi Yangqianxi, Wang Junkai and Wang Yuan, actively attend public benefit programs and promote positive energy among youngsters.
Yi's first film was released in the cinema on Friday. Rather than acting in romances or comedies Chinese idols at his age usually choose, Yi acted in Better Days, a film about school bullying, as his debut work, indicating his intention to transition from a young beloved idol to an actor, analysts said.