By Jasmin Sun
When Li Yuchun took the first place title of the 2005 Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl’s Voice, China’s answer to American Idol, she may as well have taken a sledgehammer to the country’s years of strictly maintained traditional gender perceptions.
Li’s uneven voice has been likened at once to both that of American pop singer Cher and the average prepubescent boy — one judge even deemed her the worst singer of the show’s six finalists. Li’s musical talents may have fallen short with some viewers, but what earned her the most audience votes week after week was her propensity to dress like Rolling Stones rocker Mick Jagger, affecting an unabashed androgyny that defied Chinese norms.
“Super Girl’s and Li Yuchun are landmarks,” explains Lan Linyou, an anthropology professor at Beijing’s Minzu University. It’s not like such people didn’t exist before, but when looking at post-1979 China with its social and economic reforms, Lan said, “it was after this particular show with that particular winner when you started seeing a lot more of what is called the zhong xing style.”
The term zhong xing refers to the Chinese trend of dressing and acting in a gender-ambivalent manner. The phrase literally means “middle sex,” and while it can apply to a male or a female, it is typically the Chinese girl who chooses to be zhong xing.
According to Shanghai-based Asia youth market research organization enovate, the trademark “handsome girl” wears her hair short and spiked and prefers baggy pants or shorts. Even though a zhong xing’s mannerisms and way of dress might be gender-bending, she identifies with the average heterosexual female in terms of her sexuality.
While women who have chosen to participate in the androgynous trend post-Li Yuchun mostly do so as a fashion statement, they join others who have grown up wearing loose shirts and baggy jeans by reason of their tomboyish natures.
Nanjing Radio Station weather reporter Huang Shuang says she partially owes her family’s recent acceptance of the way she dresses and acts to the gender-neutral movement.
“I started dressing more like a boy when I was around eight,” she says. “In the beginning my friends and family would criticize me constantly for it, but in recent years they don’t do much more than joke about it. Sometimes, they even think I look cool.”