Gendered Moral Codes in China

This piece is part of an SEAA series on “An Anthropology of Ethics in East Asia. The articles examine how individuals cope with societal changes such as environmental crises, nationalism, economic development, and mobility through lens of everyday ethics. 

Mao Yu was a 91-year-old man who lived in a remote village in the westernmost region of Hunan province in south-central China. As a peasant without children or relatives in his local community, he relied on a group of volunteers who had recognized him as a national hero in 2012, for his service in the National Revolutionary Army in the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945). In September of 2015, Mao suffered a seizure. The volunteers cooperated with the media to publicize his life story and launch a public fundraiser for his medical expenses. When Mao Yu awoke from his surgery, he was surprised to be surrounded by more than 20 journalists and visitors who glorified him as “a modern Guan Gong.”

Guan Gong (an honorific for Guan Yu) is a legendary figure worshipped as a deity in Chinese folk culture, who exemplifies masculinity, righteousness between rulers and ministers, and the respect for patriarchal hierarchy (Louie 2002). How could a peasant who had made a living by farming for over 70 years suddenly become “modern Guan Gong” overnight? To answer that question, it is necessary to understand both Mao Yu’s life story and the historical story of Guan Gong, which is essential to the root metaphor (Ortner 1973) of the authenticity of Mao Yu’s masculinity. The gendered moral code it emphasizes—restraint of sexuality—is key in the construction of an ideal national hero in today’s China.

Image of a Chinese deity called Guan Gong in a temple
The statue in the middle is a typical image of Guan Gong as a general. Guan Gong temple, Luoyang, China. Jacqueline Lin

From 2012 until now, I have been investigating a grassroots hero-making movement self-described as “searching for the authentic national heroes,” which was initiated by civic organizations and local communities in the late 1990s. Major activities of the participants include seeking and assisting local veterans of the Second World War, recording their experiences during and after the war, and publicizing their stories and images as heroes to the public. While the conventional images of national heroes relate to brave fighting with invaders and selfless sacrifices for the country, Mao Yu’s case sheds light on a rarely explored site of national heroics: their sexuality and private life.

A closer look at the publicity and various promotional materials about Mao Yu shows us that the righteousness ascribed to Mao Yu was, to a very large extent, due to his relationship with a woman who resided with him for nearly 70 years. However, their relationship was an unconventional one, because the two were never married nor believed to be sexually intimate.

Mao Yu promised to safeguard the colonel’s family no matter how long it would take, and he kept his promise, even though the colonel never returned to the Mainland until his death in 1988.
In 1938, the 14-year-old Mao Yu was captured by the Nationalist government and forced to join the army. He was assigned to manage the logistics for an elder colonel, whose wife and two sons were living in Hunan. Around 1949, when the Communist Party began to govern, the colonel followed the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) army to Taiwan alone, entrusting his family to Mao Yu. Mao Yu promised to safeguard the colonel’s family no matter how long it would take, and he kept his promise, even though the colonel did not return to mainland China until his death in 1988. His wife, whose picture hung on Mao Yu’s wall, died in 2009. During the six decades that the colonel was absent, Mao Yu kept his promise, caring for the colonel’s wife and raising her two children.

Most of the newspaper headlines for this story were quite similar, such as “Modern Guan Gong: Veteran Guarded His ‘Sister-in-Law’ for 60 Years to Keep his Promise,” (Xinhua News 2015); and “Veteran Never Married and Helped to Take Care of His Comrade’s Wife and Sons for 66 Years” (CNR News 2016). The content generally consisted of three major sections. The first section was his promise to take care of this “sister-in-law” and his two “nephews” for life. The second was about giving his own food to them at the most difficult time of the famine. The third was his remaining a bachelor and not marrying his sister-in-law and thus not betraying the colonel.

In my interaction with the volunteers, the above three points in Mao Yu’s story were the key reasons that moved them to tears and increased their respect for the veteran. In narrating Mao’s story in daily conversation, my informants would elaborate on the second part about Mao fulfilling the promise. They added that during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Yu bore great suffering and was about to be expelled from the province and sent back to his hometown. The colonel’s wife stood up and said that her husband would never return and that Mao Yu was her family member.

Through their narratives, the volunteers drew a parallel between Mao Yu’s life history and Guan Gong’s legendary stories. Most frequently represented with an image of a red face and wielding a weapon called the Green Dragon Crescent Falchion, the historical character of Guan Yu lived in the Three Kingdom Period (AD 220–228). He was a military general serving under Liu Bei, the King of Shu. His fictionalized and popularized life stories were mainly found in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which portrayed his loyalty. After his death, Guan Yu became a religious figure and was often reverently called Emperor Guan or Guan Gong. His acclaim was so great that he has been revered as a saint in Chinese culture. In his work on Chinese masculinity, Louie (2002) highlighted wu (martial valor) masculinity in the Chinese context and Guan Gong was considered the wu masculinity incarnate. Guan Gong’s chivalry and his model masculinity has inspired several key operas and metaphors. In Louie’s analysis, Guan Gong was first a sexualized general, and his red face is a symbol of yang, referring to masculine power. “Beautiful-beard man” referred to the masculine appeal of men with long beards (Louie 2002:28).

Guan Gong’s masculinity was also shaped by his relations with women (Louie 2002:47). When escorting the two wives of Liu Bei (Guan Gong’s ritual brother and the king), Guan Gong had a terrible dream that he had killed Liu Bei and committed incest with his two sisters-in-law, and he awoke in a cold sweat from fear (Louie 2002:49). Then, when many possible occasions to have sexual relations with his two sisters-in-law occurred, Guan Gong tried hard to restrain himself, and this restraint became a widespread story.

Therefore, Mao Yu, presented as a modern Guan Gong, won praise for his controlled masculinity and heroic image. The war experience and the 70 sexless years of living with a woman corresponded to Guan Gong’s restraint toward his sisters-in-law. Resistance to illicit sexual relationships was the source of Mao Yu’s masculine authenticity.

The qualities of grandpa Mao reflect what we cannot find among our youth any longer: valiance, loyalty to the faith, and discipline in private life. Young men today are lost in money-centered and hedonist lives. That’s why people love my story.
The head of the hero-making movement in Hunan province, Hui, is a media expert in his late 50s. He works in the most influential provincial television station in mainland China known for its entertaining programs. For a fundraising campaign in 2015, he designed the “Guan Gong and his ‘sister-in-law’” theme, which was very successful. During an interview, Hui stated proudly to a reporter, “The qualities of grandpa Mao reflect what we cannot find among our youth any longer: valiance, loyalty to the faith, and discipline in private life. Young men today are lost in money-centered and hedonist lives. That’s why people love my story.”

Hui’s observation reflects the desire for contemporary Chinese to promote “missing” moral values related to masculinity and sexuality in post-socialist China. Contrary to scholarship on  “the desiring China” (Rofel 2007) that emphasizes an ethos of sexual freedom, individualism and neoliberalism (Kleinman, Yan, Jun, et al. 2011), this case study sheds light on voices of the urban middle class who continue to value sexual constraint, the sacrifice of individual pleasure for the collective unit, and loyalty to authority. The legacy of collectivism and communism has been revived in the construction of a modern Guan Gong, a hero who embodies socially-desired moral codes and concepts of masculinity. From the volunteers’ points of view, what made Mao Yu, this elderly peasant, a moral exemplar was his service in the war and his sexual discipline in his post-war life with a woman “left by” and “belonging to” a senior in a patriarchal power relation. By presenting Mao Yu as a model of loyalty and restraint and linking him to the legendary Guan Gong of the Three Kingdom Era, not only is a forgotten veteran remembered, but so, too, is a legendary past.

Jacqueline Zhenru Lin is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. Her dissertation sheds light on a historical-redress movement aiming at re-evaluating the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945) in contemporary China. Through an anthropological lens, her work examines the relationships between memory and heroism, civic engagement and volunteerism, and charity and activism.

Cite as: Lin, Jacqueline Zhenru. 2019. “Gendered Moral Codes in China.” Anthropology News website, December 23, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1334

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