Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

China’s Pop Idols Are Too Soft for the Party

Stars like Kris Wu are huge with fans but sit uncomfortably with macho ambitions.

(Illustration by Penguin Lab for Foreign Policy)
(Illustration by Penguin Lab for Foreign Policy)

This September, a national crisis rocked China’s back-to-school season: The annual First Class for the New Semester gala program, Chinese netizens complained, contained too many “soft boys.”

This September, a national crisis rocked China’s back-to-school season: The annual First Class for the New Semester gala program, Chinese netizens complained, contained too many “soft boys.”

Smooth-skinned, slim-figured, and impeccably coiffed, the young male idols referred to colloquially as xiao xian rou (“little fresh meat”) have come to dominate the Chinese pop cultural landscape over the last decade. In China today, it is hard to walk down the street or watch TV without catching a glimpse of a delicate face belonging to a household-name xiao xian rou, such as Li Yifeng, Yang Yang, or Wu Yifan. With First Class for the New Semester, which is produced jointly by China Central Television and the Chinese Education Ministry and is mandatory viewing for parents and children, some of China’s older generation decided that they had had quite enough of these poreless wonders.

A controversial editorial in Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, derided the xiao xian rou as “sissy boys” (niang pao), bemoaning the youths’ “sick” fixation and warning of adverse influence. “To nurture those who will shoulder the job of helping our nation reach its renaissance,” the pseudonymous author Xin Shiping concluded, “we must shield them from undesirable cultures.”

Connecting national strength with muscular male physiques is hardly new in China. It was an obsession of Chinese nationalists, who saw the Qing dynasty’s decline as a sign of moral and physical weakness and demanded physical training programs. Mao Zedong’s first written contribution to the revolutionary movement in 1917—“A Study of Physical Culture,” published in the radical journal New Youth—took aim at the physical weakness of the Chinese people. “The military spirit has not been encouraged,” he wrote. “The physical condition of the population deteriorates daily. This is an extremely disturbing phenomenon.”

More than 100 years later, Mao’s successors have arrived at much the same conclusion.

As the rising superpower flexes its muscles abroad, nationalistic propaganda films such as Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Mekong pulse with images of burly, steely-eyed men. Military recruitment campaigns are on the rise. But such portrayals of masculinity run against the cultural tide—like it or not, Chinese youth continue to nurse an insatiable appetite for xiao xian rou. And as much as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) loves a good social engineering challenge, aesthetic preferences are hard to instill from the top down. Moreover, xiao xian rou are too entrenched a part of the culture industry. For a country hoping to shift to a consumption-based economy, simply banning these delectable morsels—as the party did with displays of tattoos in the media in the so-called “hip-hop ban,” resulting in heavy makeup for some young actors and musicians—is not a viable option.

Like a lot of things about Chinese pop culture, these national idols are a foreign import. Their provenance can be traced to the classic 2001 Taiwanese drama Meteor Garden, which offered up what are arguably the direct ancestors to today’s xiao xian rou. Telling the story of a clique of four handsome, rich, and arrogant boys called the F4 who terrorize a college campus, and the spunky girl who challenges them, Meteor Garden centered the female gaze in a way no Asian drama had before. From the opening credits—a slow-motion sequence of the four young men frolicking  on the beach, their shaggy surfer cuts fluttering gently in the wind—to endless lingering shots of the impressively toned Daoming Si (Jerry Yan) brooding in his mansion’s hot tub, the drama explicitly catered to the sexual and emotional desires of young women. Sure enough, Meteor Garden was a smash hit all across Asia. In Taiwan, Yan became an overnight sensation and joined up with his co-stars to form the spinoff boy band F4, which released three highly commercially successful albums over the next several years.

By the middle of the decade, however, the short-lived Taiwanese wave unleashed by Meteor Garden was overtaken by Asia’s most influential pop cultural power yet: South Korea. The Korean wave, or hallyu, swept through Asia swiftly and forcefully. A Korean remake of Meteor Garden in 2009, called Boys Over Flowers, proved even more insanely popular than the original. At the same time, a new male idol aesthetic was emerging. Male K-pop and K-drama stars, through cosmetics and sometimes plastic surgery, started to take on the more delicate and polished appearance —some would call it “effeminate”—we associate with xiao xian rou today.

Hallyu hit mainland China just as the country saw the emergence of a sizable urban middle class, whose adolescent daughters had disposable income. Unlike their predecessors who crushed on Andy Lau or Jerry Yan, Chinese teen girls born after 1990 (or post-’90s as they’re called in China) had cash to spend on their idols. And once soft boys were established as a powerful commercial force, there was no going back: More would be found or made, and the taste for xiao xian rou passed on to future, richer generations.

The K-pop world was keenly aware of this and in the early 2010s made the savvy move of starting to recruit Chinese idol trainees. The move paid off: In 2013, the K-pop craze exploded in China following the debut of the boy band EXO, split into a Korean-singing group and a Mandarin one. In that year, the term xiao xian rou started appearing on the Chinese internet in reference to these intensely groomed sensations, the two most popular of which, EXO members Lu Han (aka Luhan) and Wu Yifan (aka Kris), became the prototypical Chinese “little fresh meat.” Swooning teens across the country spent countless hours parsing the merits of Luhan and Kris and the respective flavors they represented. Did you prefer the angelic androgyny of Luhan, nicknamed “baby deer,” a pun on his surname, or the slightly more edgy handsomeness of Kris, a former high school basketball player whose improbably symmetrical face and impressive stature soon earned him a Burberry ambassadorship?

After both leaving the band in 2014, Kris and Luhan returned to China and became commercial powerhouses in a very narrow celebrity landscape. As leading Chinese xiao xian rou, and with K-pop pedigree to boot, they had their pick of plum endorsements. Kris got McDonald’s, and Luhan got KFC; Kris got Xiaomi and Luhan OPPO; and so on. Soon it became impossible to walk by a bus stop or through a shopping mall without seeing a delicate face on a poster, whether it was Kris, Luhan, or one of a growing roster of young men, including the actor Yang Yang, whose image was selected by China Post in 2016 to appear on a postage stamp.

If the Chinese government felt some compunction about allowing in this tide of delicate young men at the same time it was ramping up macho nationalist rhetoric, it didn’t show it. For the first time, the money from the celebrity industry was coming back into mainland China. Plus, Chinese xiao xian rou could be leveraged to drum up youth enthusiasm for the Chinese state—or so it was thought. After all, the original Maoist youth idol, the 1960s hero and tragic utility pole martyr Lei Feng, was surprisingly unmacho, more devoted to helping little old ladies and writing poetry about the chairman than striking the foe.

The results were awkward, none more so than 2017’s The Founding of an Army, the latest installment in a series of high-budget propaganda films about the history of the CCP, all of them jampacked with stars eager to burnish their political credit. This one starred Luhan, current EXO member Zhang Yixing (aka Lay), and Li Yifeng, among other xiao xian rou, as 1940s-era People’s Liberation Army generals—in real life, a bunch of stocky peasant hardasses with square jawlines and ravaged features. The movie was a critical and box office failure. Reviewers in the Chinese and foreign press wondered if the era of xiao xian rou were winding down.

But no one in China seems to take that prospect seriously yet. This year, in a kind of pop cultural hegemon passing of the torch, mainland China released its own version of Meteor Garden, set in Shanghai. But the new F4, all of whom are rail-thin and immaculately groomed, show few signs of departure from their Korean counterparts. Instead, their performance in First Class for the New Semester provoked September’s backlash against “sissy boys.”

Sooner or later, the CCP is going to have to make a decision. For party elders raised on an ideology of hardness and struggle, the growing influence of xiao xian rou is hard to accept, especially as the military steps up recruitment with increasingly macho propaganda aimed at young men. But while young men are the future of China’s military, young women play an increasingly important role in maintaining the country’s economic might—and soft boys are part of the deal.