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Heroes, Hooligans, and Knights-Errant: Masculinities and Popular Media in the Early People’s Republic of China

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This article is an exploration of media and gender in urban and peri-urban China during the 1950s and early 1960s – specifically, the persistent trope of the “hooligan,” or liumang. Since at least the late imperial period, Chinese authorities had feared unmarried, impoverished, rootless men as the main source of crime, disorder, and outright rebellion. Yet such figures were simultaneously celebrated as knights-errant for their violent heroism in cultural works of enormous popularity across regions and classes. As the ruling Chinese Communist Party attempted to reshape society and culture after 1949, it condemned knight-errant tales and made hooliganism a crime. At the same time, the state tried to promote a new pantheon of vigilante-like men in the guise of revolutionary heroes. But the state’s control over deeply rooted cultural markets and their products was incomplete. Moreover, the same potent tools that had empowered the Party, in particular its rhetoric of revolutionary subjectivity and its harnessing of modern media technologies, were open as never before to being adopted by the very targets of its efforts at control and censure. Marginal masculinity in the early PRC, though in many ways continuous with that in China during the previous decades and centuries, marked a new epoch: men and boys deemed hooligans were able to speak out and defend themselves as heroes.

Affiliations: 1: University of Toronto


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