For hundreds of years, women, according to traditional Chinese criteria, have been expected to be soft, tender, fair and virtuous.
But in modern society, more women in China are willing to call themselves nu hanzi (女汉子), literally “female man,” a popular term referring to members of the fairer sex who are independent, candid and strong.
The term refers to how a woman thinks and acts, and is not just a reflection of her appearance and fashion sense.
Some nu hanzi love to dress neutral style while others appear elegant and feminine. But all of them behave in ways seen as masculine.
Nu hanzi is rising in popularity among those in their 20s and 30s, many of whom think it changes the stereotype of Chinese women and reflects the elevated social status of the fairer sex.
It has also started a pop-culture fad. More TV shows, films and stage productions are based on strong women instead of “flower vase” characters who offer nothing more than a pretty face and sexy figure.
“Angel Warriors,” the latest movie offering by director Fu Huayang, revolves around the jungle adventures of a group of nu hanzi. They are charming and have marvelous fighting skills.
Though such characters are common in Hollywood productions — think Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill,” Angelina Jolie in “Tomb Raider” and Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu in “Charlie’s Angels” — they are still rare in Chinese movies. Film and TV drama heroines are most often depicted as tender, elegant and largely dependent on men.
“My film mainly targets white-collar women from 25 to 35 years old who live in big cities,” Fu says. “Most of them are well-educated, independent, competent and tough.
They may love rock music, backpack traveling and boxing matches, and they are genuine nu hanzi. I think movies portraying their lives and emotions can be a popular genre in China’s film industry.”
Earlier this year, a light-hearted romance TV series “Mop Lady’s Spring” also stirred a heated discussion among the public.
Different from many female characters, the heroine is an automobile mechanic who is straight-forward and not interested in material possessions.
In the show she usually wears loose pants, keeps her hair short and never puts on make-up. She speaks loudly and gets on well with her male colleagues.
The heroine drinks and helps needy people. When she is dumped, she quickly moves on without making too much drama of it and without shedding tears.
Her attitude mirrors that of Nancy Sinatra in the 1966 hit song “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”
Road to Emmy Awards
Zhen Huan, the heroine of the Chinese imperial palace drama “Legend of Zhen Huan” is thought to be a different type of nu hanzi because she is tender and feminine, but with a strong heart.
Zhen begins as an innocent 17-year-old girl who survives the political intrigue and assassination of the wicked empress and other concubines. While doing so she learns to be strong and tough.
Actress Sun Li has recently been nominated for best actress in the 41st International Emmy Awards for her depiction of Zhen. The awards ceremony will be held on November 25 in New York.
Veteran psychologist Lin Yizhen says nu hanzi will emerge in more developed and open societies. In big cities like Shanghai, men and women enjoy equal rights. The mounting work and life pressures have also blurred gender boundaries.
“Women face as much pressure and responsibility for helping the family succeed today,” Lin says. “They are capable of doing many things physically, emotionally, within relationships and in their career. The role of men is substituted by women on many occasions.”
In her opinion, the rise of nu hanzi is a spontaneous consequence of the weakness of some men.
“Some men these days act like ‘fake ladies’,” Lin adds. “The emergence of nu hanzi can achieve a new kind of gender balance when men are not that masculine, competent and responsible.”
More tolerant society
Jasmine Xu, a company worker, thinks the popularity of nu hanzi, both on screen and in real life, is a sign of an advancing society. She notes people are more open-minded. This frees women from the traditional “fair lady” stereotype. It is a victory for women, she says.
Xu adds: “As a woman in my 40s who has been told to behave like a ‘lady’ since childhood, I don’t like to be labeled a nu hanzi, but I see many younger women enjoy that label, and even feel flattered by it.
“It has become a buzzword now. The popularity indicates society is becoming more accepting of women in different roles.”
Karen Lu, a 30-something local public relations manager, likes being called a nu hanzi by her friends as it shows she is different and cool.
“I think strong women are more likely to have a successful career along with a delightful personality, honesty, courage and decisive charm,” Lu says. “But it doesn’t mean a woman should give up her feminine side and appearance. It is not a paradox.”
Netizens have listed 20 characteristics to describe those who can be called nu hanzi. This includes changing water cooler jugs, seldom wearing makeup and running in high-heel shoes to catch a bus.
Fake nu hanzi
Experts also note strong women have existed in China for thousands of years. There are numerous powerful and notable historical figures who can be called nu hanzi, including China’s only female emperor Wu Zetian, female general Hua Mulan and empress dowager Cixi.
Professor Gu Xiaoming, a sociologist from Fudan University, considers the rise of nu hanzi a good thing, but adds the term has been abused somewhat.
“A lot of fake nu hanzi have also emerged around us,” Gu explains. “Some film and TV productions put these characters on screen just to satisfy people’s desire for something new.
“The truth is women are still a vulnerable group. As to the real nu hanzi, they also need to be very careful about their family and sexual relationships.”