Girlie men in the PRC, part 2

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Why words matter.

Just talking about this strange locution, "niángpào 娘炮" (slang for "sissy; effeminate man"), let us hear what a necessarily anonymous PRC citizen has to say about it:

I think the CCP is widening its dictatorship under the veil of / through its social morality cultivation in various aspects these days, and that it bans "娘炮" from the entertainment industry (“boycotting being overly entertaining”) functions as one of its schemes to instill the antecedent atmosphere.

The word "娘炮" (literally means" girlie guns / cannon" indeed, yet some suggest that "炮" here refers to the male sex organs; moreover, "炮" has been sometimes used as a coarse term for sexual intercourse) is an insulting slang word for effeminate men / feminine-looking men, which is manifestly sexist and vulgar. As a result, it is inconceivably malodorous that the Chinese regulator used this derogatory term in an official directive, cracking down on "sissy men" and encouraging / imposing masculinity on younger generations through a purge of the popular culture industry and the media as a whole. In fact, in the article titled "What 'Male Qualities' Should Men Have Today" ("Shénme shì jīntiān gāi yǒu de ‘nánxìng qìzhí' 什么是今天该有的‘男性气质’") published by the People's Daily 人民日报 in 2018, "娘炮" has already been used by the official media — in this case, the People's Daily, one of the mouthpieces of the CCP. 
In early July, almost all WeChat accounts of LGBT student organizations in China were shut down (including the accounts run by students of Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, and Nanjing University, among others). Many online feminist groups were deleted. Earlier this year, the Chinese education ministry issued a notice, suggesting that Chinese young men are becoming increasingly "feminine", encouraging schoolboys to be more "manly". Except for its gender ideology, the CCP has been imposing stringent curbs recently on the entertainment industry, showbiz, celebrity fandom, teenager's videogames time restrictions, compulsory education, extracurricular training restrictions, etc. The China Writers Association also issued specific guidelines to "strengthen professional ethics and sense of social responsibility among writers" last week. 
I'm afraid a new round of Cultural Revolution, perhaps less obvious, is going on. The CCP's boycott of / clampdown on "sissy men"/ 娘炮 is part of it.

That the official government attacks on "niángpào 娘炮" ("sissy; effeminate man") are part of a larger assault on human rights and even leading pre-Xi political figures is evident from another current catchword, "fēi-Dènghuà 非邓化" ("de-Deng-ization; de-Deng-ification; de-Deng-icization"), referring to the redoubtable Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), who started China on the path of economic reform and opening to the world.  What does this ungodly term signify?

1. Foremost, discarding Deng's limited-tenure rule on top leaders (Victor Mair and Sanping Chen listed this as Deng's major historical contribution in their book, Chinese Lives).

2. Rehabilitation of Mao's image, even to the extent of beautifying the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

3. Foreign policy, reversal of Deng's "keeping a low profile" to wolf warrior diplomacy.

4. Deng de-politicized Chinese social life.  Xi is now imposing Mao-style political campaigns onto everyday life. "Political studies" of the Mao era once again have become a daily requirement. Communist party branches are being established in private businesses. The limited social space allowed under Deng has been drastically reduced

5. Deng let loose Chinese people's inherent "animal spirits"* by encouraging people to get rich. Xi started the guójìnmíntuì 国进民退 ("advancement of the state at the expense of the people" [lit. "state advances people retreat"]) process by promoting state enterprises at the expense of private businesses.

*"Animal spirits" was coined by John Maynard Keynes.  Even today, stock market participants in the US and probably elsewhere too use this term to signify the tug-of-war between "bulls" and "bears" (buyers and sellers).

6. Xi has started the "third redistribution" by suppressing large private businesses and taking / extracting wealth from various rich people, most notably Jack Ma, but there are many others.  I personally know several honorable Chinese citizens of moderate wealth in the PRC who have had their entire wealth stripped from them and were thrown into prison on extremely dubious charges (actually no just charges at all) and who are rotting in prison.

7. In essence, Xi wants to reestablish Mao-style state / party control of every aspect of social life and activity. We all know the economic consequences of this kind of state socialism. 

Incredibly for a leader of such phenomenal importance for the flourishing of the PRC during the last three decades, informants have told me that internet details about Deng are being deleted, he is not shown anymore as the Chairman or the President of China, and he no longer figures in lists of Chinese leaders.

Similar treatment is being accorded to Xi's immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao.  Here again we have another key expression on which to focus.  From a perceptive humanist in Beijing:

Many measures have been taken recently and many policies announced. During Hu Jintao's term, he claimed "bù zhēteng 不折腾"* as his policy and now it's just the reverse. We will wait and see what will happen in the years to come. Considering what is happening in Afghanistan, it is unlikely China could get away from its historical and cultural legacies, especially when its leaders grew up in the 50s and 60s and believe in doctrines they learned in that period.


President Hu Jintao's famous "bù zhēteng 不折腾", as explained by Caijing editor, Hu Shuli (胡舒立), in her March 25, 2009 blog entry (has been removed from the web):

Many translations of this term have so far come out among everyone from journalists to Chinese officials, including “don’t make trouble," “don’t do something that will finally prove useless,” “don’t do something that only wastes time,” and even “don’t flip flop,” “don’t get sidetracked,” “don’t sway back and forth” or “no dithering.” There is also the more down-to-earth version “no major changes.” But there has so far been no translation everyone is satisfied with. At a State Council Information Office press briefing on December 30, not long after the term first emerged, a use of the term by [Information Office director] Wang Chen (王晨) [VHM:  link removed from the web] was rendered simply [in pinyin] as “buzheteng."

[VHM:  I might add the following:  "prevaricate; waffle; waver; be evasive; beat about the bush; hedge; fence; shilly-shally; shuffle; dodge (the issue); sidestep (the issue); pussyfoot; equivocate; be noncommittal; parry questions; be vague; vacillate; quibble; cavil".  Whatever it was that Hu Jintao's "bù zhēteng 不折腾" pointed to in the Chinese sociopolitical psyche, it certainly struck a raw nerve.  The whole brouhaha over "bù zhēteng 不折腾" reminds me of one of my favorite Chinese expressions:  "dǎ bùdìng zhǔyì 打不定主意" {"indecisiveness; the 'ism' of being unable to make up one's mind; like an ass between two bundles of hay"}]

See David Bandurski, "Musings on a CCP buzzword that has everyone stumped", China Media Project (3/27/09).

As Barack Obama might have characterized Hu Jintao's prized policy of "bù zhēteng 不折腾", "Don't do stupid sh*t!"

The scorn for Hu's signature policy is evident from the n-grams for "bù zhēteng 不折腾" and "bù zhēteng 不折腾", for which see here and here, where we see a sharp rise from around 2005-2010, then a precipitous drop after 2012, when Xi became President and Chairman.

Taken together, I sense from the takedowns of Deng and Hu that Xi is trying to obliterate their legacies, while completely ignoring Jiang Zemin, his archenemy.

The government offensive against "niángpào 娘炮" ("sissy; effeminate man") may seem like a quaint quirk of the CCP.  Viewed against the backdrop of other ongoing onslaughts, it is obvious that this is a coordinated attack by the government against civil rights and political dissent across the board.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Sanping Chen, Yije Zhang, Tong Wang, Nicholas Tursi, Vito Acosta, Vinayak Bhat, and LL]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 6:24 am

    It just struck me that a part of the government's fixation on "niángpào 娘炮" ("girlie guns / cannons" — and all that that implies regarding masculinity) may be related to the recent obsession with demographic crises, viz., not enough babies. Hence the sudden shift from one-child policy to two-child policy, and now even three-child policy.

  2. Dwight Williams said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 7:38 am

    I would agree with Mr. Mair on this point about linking these policies in this way.

  3. Bathrobe said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 8:20 am

    My take on 不折腾 is that it means "don't fuck people round needlessly".

    Mr Xi appears to want to initiate China's new Golden Age, making his country prosperous, powerful, dominant, in the leading rank of nations. I'm sure that decadence like niangpao is anathema to the man, definitely not something to be encouraged as part of the Chinese Dream.

  4. Phil H said,

    September 8, 2021 @ 11:05 am

    This is a negative comment, so apologies for that. But I think these two points are important.
    (1) Social media is not real life, and having Wechat accounts shut down is not "a thing". It's an irritant, perhaps, but if you're interested in gay rights in China, their social media rights are not where the action is at.
    (2) Reading the tea leaves of Chinese politics is always a mug's game. Xi abolished term limits for presidents. That's not bad because it does or does not relate to Deng Xiaoping. It's bad in absolute terms, because it's obviously not best practice for democracy or even for sustainable dictatorships.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 12:00 am

    In what sense is a lack of term limits not best practice for sustainable dictatorships? That's how dictatorships generally work.

  6. David Marjanović said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 1:20 pm

    In what sense is a lack of term limits not best practice for sustainable dictatorships?

    The one great big advantage of democracy over all alternatives is that if you don't like your government, you can get rid of it without trying to stage a coup or start a war.

    All alternatives, that is, except the late-20th-century PRC: if you don't like your government in that system, wait 10 years, and you'll get another. Sure, 10 years is a long time, and the next government may not be an improvement, but you will get another government.

    Now the CCP has lost this incentive for people not to make a revolution. So far it has found enough others, but the current situation is less sustainable than the previous one. If the PRC falls, historians will point to the abolition of the term limit as one of the points where the downfall started.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 1:45 pm

    Zhu Rongji has been described as "a no-nonsense man". Does that fit "bù zhēteng", too?

    I personally know several honorable Chinese citizens of moderate wealth in the PRC who have had their entire wealth stripped from them and were thrown into prison on extremely dubious charges (actually no just charges at all) and who are rotting in prison.

    A new arrival in the Gulag is being processed.
    "How much did you get?"
    "Five years."
    "And for what?"
    "For nothing."
    "LIAR!!! What you get for nothing is TEN years!!!"

  8. Mark said,

    September 9, 2021 @ 4:51 pm

    Nice discussion of "fēi-Dènghuà 非邓化" ("de-Deng-ization") and removal of reference to Hu Jintao's "bù zhēteng 不折腾", and Jiang Zemin. That, along with all of the crackdowns, looks like Cultural-Revolution-style intra-party infighting before the next party Congress.
    As for the niángpào 娘炮 crackdown, the background to this is the popularity of 耽美 dān měi. 'indulging beauty', or 男男CP "boy-boy CP" tales of "romantic relationships between male characters…typically created by, and targeted towards a heterosexual female audience." ( In particular, 山河令 Shānhé lìng 'Word of Honor' ( has been a recent huge succes, with I'm told, woman of all ages infatuated with the 2 male leads, one of whom has also been scrubbed from Chinese media/internet, along with the show.

  9. Dzoldzaya said,

    September 10, 2021 @ 2:21 am

    I don't want to be a CCP mouthpiece, and I'm not saying central government directives are the best way of doing this, but China really needs to find a way of defeminizing its culture, its media culture in particular.

    With so many 娘炮 wanabee Korean guys, and grown women with the aesthetic taste of 8 year olds who fancy them dominating the media, you can't blame the government for comparing China's current most popular male actors with those from Hollywood (or Bollywood) and despairing a bit for the state of Chinese masculinity.

    I don't know why Han Chinese/ Korean culture is becoming increasingly feminized, to be honest. Many of my Chinese friends really dislike this trend, and wish Chinese men could man up a bit, or the media should at least give more of a platform for positive masculine role models. Ten years ago when I first went to China, all the adverts were Jackie Chan, Jet Li etc., now the metro is filled with a bunch of androgynous Koreans.

    Uighurs, Mongolians and Tibetans generally don't have the same issue with their masculinity; perhaps the Han could learn from them.

  10. Dwight Williams said,

    September 10, 2021 @ 8:18 am


    I have my doubts as to that definition of "decadence". We've seen such definitions insisted upon in western nations' governments over this past century, and it is a symptom of a very particular problem.

    "Dzoldzaya" and "Bathrobe" seem to be exhibiting the same kind of rhetoric, and I wonder where their own issues are leading them.

  11. Brad Wesley said,

    September 10, 2021 @ 10:28 am

    China is a serious country. They are untied and growing their culture and economy by leaps and bounds, and their students learn serious disciplines for the betterment of the country.

    Our country sits around glorifying freaks who learn useless joke majors in college.

  12. John said,

    September 10, 2021 @ 12:55 pm

    This is rather inane and unserious analysis that puts its conclusions first and the grasps at every possible threads to try and support it. It’s true that Chinese liberals have suffered basically complete defeat, but this has much more to do with popular backlash to their reactions to recent major events and their intellectual tradition of naïve reverence of the United States which they have been unable or unwilling to jettison. Note not “the West”. The United States.

  13. Michael Watts said,

    September 10, 2021 @ 1:10 pm

    Tangentially, I perceive that English speakers are drawing an unprompted distinction between the diminutive suffix /i/ and the adjective-deriving suffix /i/; it appears to me that people prefer to spell the diminutive suffix with -ie and the adjectival suffix with -y. This despite the fact that "established" diminutives are often spelled with -y.

    Since it is so frequently observed that people consistently fail to draw spelling distinctions where the orthographic standard calls for them, it seems interesting that in this case people are drawing a distinction where the standard doesn't call for it.

  14. V.W. said,

    September 11, 2021 @ 11:43 am

    There are good examples of Zhe Teng in US, such as Vietnam War, Iraq war, and Afghan war. Green new deal will be another one most certainly.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    September 11, 2021 @ 2:33 pm

    With so many 娘炮 wanabee Korean guys, and grown women with the aesthetic taste of 8 year olds who fancy them dominating the media, you can't blame the government for comparing China's current most popular male actors with those from Hollywood (or Bollywood) and despairing a bit for the state of Chinese masculinity.

    But why does the government care?

    Why does it perceive any harm at all where, rather obviously, there isn't any?

    What are they afraid of?

    Green new deal will be another one most certainly.

    Welp, in that case, start evacuating Bangladesh.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 5:17 am

    "Xi Jinping’s crackdown on everything is remaking Chinese society"

    The Washington Post – By Lily Kuo


    On August 28, the China Internet Information Center, a state-run web portal, published photos of popular male celebrities in an article titled "We Must Stop the Niang Pao Culture." The term "niang pao" comes from a 2007 Taiwan drama in which it was used to describe a male character considered "weak and emotional like a woman."


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