How should we feel about Shanghai men being great husbands?


A few years ago, I discovered one of the most striking headlines about Asian men as marriage partners: “China surpasses the world in yet another category: Quality husbands/Shanghainese husbands are renowned as the best in China, and maybe the world.”

Yes, Shanghai boasts more than just the Bund and that stop-till-you-drop insanity on Nanjing Road. It’s also supposedly home to outstanding husbands:

1. The versatile ma da sao

Ma da dao is Shanghainese slang meaning, “shop, wash, cook.”…

The exception is when the term is used to describe men in Shanghai — guys who don’t just shop, wash and cook, but famously do so without complaint….

2. The professional ‘bag carrier’…

When shopping with her Shanghainese boyfriend or husband (yes, Shanghai men shop, remember “ma” from point number one?) the Shanghai female doesn’t need to carry any bags, including her own petite purse….

3. Family pride

Chatting with a married Western man, you may need to wait hours before he mentions his wife. Chatting with a married Shanghainese man, you may need to wait hours before he stops talking about his wife….

4. Tolerance

The relationship between mother and daughter-in-law is like an active volcano in the Middle Marriage Kingdom. But the Shanghai husband’s legendary tolerance can single-handedly turn a lava flow into a pile of dead ashes, or a volcano to be enjoyed and admired like Mt. Fuji….

5. Masculinity in disguise…

Shanghainese men simply see it as their responsibility to provide their families with a wealthy life. Their outlook is, “I’ll make all the money and deal with all the ‘bei ju,'” a trendy Internet phrase in China meaning “everything tragic.”…

As much as I’m fascinated by this idea (when was the last time you heard anything positive about Asian men in the world of dating and marriage?) I find myself torn about how to feel about it. After all, the superiority of Shanghai husbands rests on some reasons that come across as potentially emasculating – the last thing any group of Asian men needs in this world.

Being renowned for, say, your prowess in the kitchen and doing housework doesn’t exactly scream “macho man”. While my feminist side loves a man who shares in the chores and kitchen duty – like John – I know it’s not going to boost the image of Asian men around the world. Asian men have been shackled with some of the most degrading racial stereotypes (particularly that one about a man’s, well, you know), casting them as the sexless pariahs of the dating world. As Alex Tizon wrote in his powerful memoir Big Little Man, “In the America that I grew up in, men of Asia placed last in the hierarchy of manhood.” Doesn’t the supposed supremacy of Shanghai men – based on their talents in the home, kitchen, and carrying women’s bags – just make things worse?

Then again, should we measure Shanghai husbands against Western ideals of what makes a man a man? After all, it’s the Chinese who first noted – and praised — the greatness of Shanghainese husbands. I’m reminded of how Alex Tizon wrote about the Chinese ideal of Wen Wu (文武) regarding masculinity in Big Little Man:

For the past two thousand years in China, you could not be merely a tough guy to be considered an ideal man. You also had to be scholarly, poetic, and wise. The manliest of men were philosopher-warriors, and more philosopher than warrior. A cultivated mind was more highly esteemed than big biceps or deft swordsmanship.

Or, in the case of the Shanghai husband, a cultivated man who cares for his wife, family and home in very practical and tangible ways.

I oscillate between both of these sides, never quite satisfied with either – and ultimately, never 100 percent a cheerleader for the superior Shanghai husband.

However, there is one husband whose side I’ll always be on – mine. John is from Hangzhou, not Shanghai. Sure, he does his share of the housework, helps in the kitchen, and always carries my bags when we shop. But he also lifts weights, is really sexy, and has an awesome sense of humor (he tells better jokes than I do, even in English). He defies categorization. And to me, he’ll always be the greatest husband in the world.

What do you think?

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20 Replies to “How should we feel about Shanghai men being great husbands?”

  1. Hey, Shanghai men are just ahead of the curve — the more housework a man does, the sexier he is. Especially if he lifts weights (like John and my Chinese-American guy) and cleans the bathtub shirtless. I fan myself just thinking about it…

  2. Ok, the bag carrying thing (which I see done everywhere in China) may be a bit emasculating, at least to the majority of westerners. But the other stuff, quite frankly, is just being a good partner. I’m not a feminist, I don’t think, but I’m sick of the idea that the modern woman is suppose to “have it all.” It’s impossible to be a hard-working employee, a doting mother, and a good wife all at the same time, especially without a partner who shares in chores and childcare duties.

    Personally, I find intelligence a turn-on. I find men who take care of their own children sexy. A man cooking is hot. Why should Chinese men try to bend to western ideals of what masculinity is? Those ideals are, in my mind, mostly ridiculous anyways.

    1. @ R Zhao – Totally agree with everything you said. I would never ask my husband to carry my bag. And like you said, helping out around the house is just being a good partner. I think most men these days share the responsibilities around the house.

  3. Great post Jocelyn!

    One thing that I really don’t understand is why masculinity can’t come together with sharing house chores, being kind and patient and caring for family.

    For example, think about Northern European men; Northern Europe is well known to be a very progressive and equal society, where men are responsible, autonomous, help with house chores, raise kids, take parental leave and so on. It is well accepted in Northern Europe for a man to be a stay-at- home dad. Would anyone doubt Northern European men’s masculinity? I don’t think so! After all they are tall, athletic and handsome. Why is there such a double standard between Asian men and Western men when it comes about being civilized, responsible and smart husbands/ parents?

    It almost looks like in order to be considered masculine, Asian men have to be chauvinist, entitled and selfish blobs, only caring about their own career and sitting on the couch while the wife takes care of everything. Well, if that is the case I may as well just marry an “effeminate” guy!

  4. @R Zhao – totally agree with you. My husband while cooking is really something. For me he is sexy with his sense of humour as well as common sense. The perfect creature – cause he is the perfect one FOR ME, even if he’s not perfect/athletic/masculine/whatever for other people…

  5. it’s not the bag carrying that’s wrong. It’s the sort of bag that they carry that’s wrong – hand bag vs. shopping bag 😉

  6. I guess half-Shanghainese don’t get the good husband gene, Sing is half Hongkonger and half Shanghainese after Momzilla. He’s not even close to that title haha
    But I have to say looking at ‘full Shanghainese’ guys in the family (two cousins and two uncles) all of them do housework, help the wives, let them manage the money, younger generation carries the purses (Sing was so proud that from all three of them he was the only one not carrying it).

  7. Your comment really irks me, I cannot get it out of my head. It just seems really off.
    Since you are a self-proclaimed feminist, why do you think Shanghainese men should submit themselves to harmful western masculinity, instead of being progressive? Even if they seem to be more on the feminine side, why is that a bad thing? Shouldnt you as a feminist reject chauvinist stereotypes that hurt both men and women?
    Why do men have to be macho and work out and be more “wu” than “wen”?
    I dont think Asian guys in the west will become more desirable by being “swag macho no -homo lads”.
    I find myself to be really attracted to nonchauvinistic nontraditional types of men. Call them “whipped” and emasculated all you want, I call them sexy.

    Just dont understand why a “feminist” would support aggressive masculinity and PUAs on her blog , just because the men in question tend to be Asian.

  8. I don’t get the issue with the bag carrying. What’s so wrong with that? It seems chivalrous to me. My non-Chinese husband always offers to take my purse when I’m driving so it won’t be in my way. I know we’re in a car, but to me it’s the thought of helping me out that is touching. And the same should be credited to Asian men who want to help their wives or girlfriends. I think it’s endearing. As for Shanghai husbands, well, in China and Hong Kong they are known for being successful, cosmopolitan entrepreneurs. I’d say that’s something others would want to emulate.

    1. I agree with you, Susan. It’s not as though the men actually owns the girly bag themselves. (Though, personally, I wouldn’t regard that as an emasculating trait either.)

      I think the problem is that in the West men and women alike have been thoroughly brainwashed with a narrowly-defined concept if what masculinity ought to be that even the most enlightened of them would sneer at the idea of a man hold a purse for his woman.

  9. oh my goodness. the bag carrying thing is really true. When I went to visit my bf two weekends ago, he said he could carry my bag for me. I told him it’s fine, that I can carry it myself. I smiled after forgetting this is such a custom for him to tell me this.
    oh, and he’s from Shanghai area 😉 so I hope I picked a good one. (even my mother is hoping that he’s the one and I’ve been dating him for almost two months now! A little too ahead of herself now and she hasn’t met him!)

  10. I disagree that these characteristics (with the expectation of the hand-bag carrying) are the preserve of Shanghai men.
    ‘Mr Sorrel’, although not a native English speaker (but European) exhibits these and other traits (with the expectation of the hand-bag carrying), and is no less masculine for it. And he is not unique in this regard.
    but he knows better than to try to carry my hand-bag.
    He is confident no matter what he does: from vacuuming and cooking to engaging in sports.
    I think it is the perceived lack of confidence, be it reticence or lack of willingness to take the initiative, that Chinese men have that undermine their masculinity in the eyes of non-Chinese.
    Carrying the hand-bag just makes them looked whipped.

  11. @D-Maybe – doesn’t happen often, but more often than expected, that I see guys with quite feminine bags here (not the “hello kitty” cute style of bag though). It’s probably something to do with Chinese tastes, hence the degrading “man bag” term. Oddly enough it’s usually more like middle aged pot bellied business men who carry them and think they’re fashionable.

    But I have to admit local fashion tastes are still totally baffling to me. Especially the combination of Korean fashion with the hipster style that was so in fashion the last 2 years with the young people. Wearing a too small hat, too big Buddy Holly glasses and high-water pants in gaudy colors isn’t quite something that makes anyone appear particular masculine, elegant or smart looking… or maybe I’m just getting too old to appreciate the look, which may be more likely, in fact.

    About the rest… I heard that Shanghai men are considered “docile”. They don’t make a fuss, hand over the money and behave. Commendable, but personally it just sounds like the opposite of a male dominated relationship, rather than a partnership. But whatever works, I guess. Or maybe it’s just the sort of stereotype that keeps us Westerners entertained and makes us post things on blogs.

    1. Well, if we’re talking tastes in fashion, yeah, men in Asia often sport a look that would be considered effeminate in the eyes of Westerners. (In fact, Westerners think Asian men look effeminate naturally anyway.) The style(s) Asian men tend to go for suits their more youthful appearances and less robust frames so it makes sense, but more important, the men themselves are comfortable with the style and don’t feel that their masculinity is undermined by it.

  12. I am glad to read that there is something positive written about us Chinese men given the ever ubiquitous bad comments about us out there. But if Shanghai men are so great, then how come I do not hear of a big rush of Western women and/or Chinese women going there to procure themselves one?

  13. Chinese men don’t have to be from Shanghai in order to be great. I know lots of great chinese men here and I’m not talking about myself either 🙂

  14. I like the underlying theme to what women are valuing in the culture of partnership of many Shanghainese men – that they ignore the roles to show care and protection for their ladies. That they like to handle details so they can see beauty unfettered.

    I appreciate the fact that while you don’t buy into generalizations and stereotypes, you are aware that others do. It’s a difficult dynamic to manage, especially since most of society seems to implicitly tie fulfillment of traditional gender roles and behavior to an ideal mate.

  15. Okay, I have to add my interpretation of the issue. The bag-carrying is not, or at least in Asia is not perceived off as, emasculating at all. It is also done in “high-masculinity” cultures like Russia and is just another variation of typical gentlemanly behaviour like opening doors, et cetera (carrying shopping bags just isn’t common in Western countries for whatever reason). Like with a lot of “gendered” behaviour, the implication is that women are not capable of performing the task themselves. So Western-style “make all equal” feminists might consider what they wish for.

    Generally, in China, this kind of gentlemanly behaviour is matched by women leaving important decisions to men and having the main responsibility for caring for the family. It’s not exactly a feminist paradise. I can’t say much about Shanghai men, as I haven’t lived in Shanghai. However, what I do know is that Shanghai men in the rest of China are said to be “niang”, i.e. effeminate. It’s not considered a good thing by most women in China.

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