Men Can Be Flowers Too: Asian Masculinities in Popular Culture

NIcholas Tse as Hua Wuque, The Proud Twins
Nicholas Tse as Hua Wuque, The Proud Twins

Every time I see articles about young Asian actors leaving behind their “flower boy” roles for more “manly” characters, I feel some kind of way. Such articles act like attractiveness and masculinity cannot go hand it hand. They might if their authors were watching what I watch.

“Flower boys” tend to be portrayed by attractive young Asian male actors. Such roles are frequently placed in contrast with more “manly” roles.   In “9 Korean Actors Who Transformed From Flower Boys Into Manly Men,” DramaFever writer ViVi cites three actors from the popular K-drama Boys Over Flowers and uses language that ascribes more masculinity to the non-flower boy roles. Kim Bum is described this way:  “Our little flower boy has definitely grown up to be a man!”  allkpop similarly focuses on the Hidden Identity role as more manly:    “Known for his flower boy role in Boys Over Flowers, actor Kim Bum showed off his much more manlier charm to the public at a recent event.”

Fellow Boys Over Flowers alums are given the same treatment.  Regarding Lee Minho‘s role in the film Gangnam Blues: “Lee Min Ho still has some of that flower boy vibe going for him in real life, but there was nothing flowery about his look for Gangnam Blues” (Vivi). Lee Hyun Joong‘s performance in the K-drama Inspiring Generation elicits this comment:  “His brawling character in Inspiring Generation doesn’t strike me as the type to wear white suits and play the violin” (Vivi).

Scholarship on Korean masculinity and popular culture tends to do this also.  In Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-pop Idols, Sun Jung argues that such flower boy images are encapsulated by the term kkonminam, which “refers to men who are pretty looking and who have smooth fair skin, silky hair and a feminine manner” (58). Influenced by Japanese bishonen (beautiful boy) and shojo manga (manga targeted to girls), “such images of pretty boys have replaced the previous images of tough and macho South Korean men as characterized by Choi Min-Soo, Jeong Woo-Seong, and Park Sang-Min” (58). These tough guy roles include gangsters and street fighters, and are seen as more manly than the flower boy images. For both popular media and academia, flower boys aren’t manly men, capable of taking charge and engaging in struggle.

However, there is also a mode of Korean masculinity that values things other than brute strength in defining masculinity.  I think these articles forget just how gangster “flower boys” can be. Just re-watch that first episode of Boys Over Flowers! F4 runs that school, lording it over their fellow classmates and looking good in the process.  They use their money and social standing to accomplish things. In their world, this constitutes power. Of course, we aren’t supposed to emulate that behavior, and later they learn to be better men by using those same resources for good. But let’s not pretend that they don’t exhibit the very kinds of characteristics we attribute to “tough guys.”

The beautiful-yet-getting-things-done masculinity  has some historical precedent.  Queen Seondeok depicts the Hwarang, an elite group of warriors as well-educated, military-trained, and yes, attractive.  Wikipedia describes the historical Hwarang as “flowering knights” and “flower boys, ”  “youths that were chosen by the Silla Kingdom became the knights and warriors for the Silla Dynasty within the age of the Three Kingdoms of Korea.” In the K-drama, the Hwarang are portrayed by a number of young, attractive Korean actors. On one hand, the K-drama shows how the Hwarang are knowledgeable about the arts and court manners. At the same time, watch out when the Hwarang paint their faces! Things are about to go down!

Various actors as Hwarang in Queen Seondeok

You might recognize this mode of Asian masculinity if you’ve watched wuxia series where warriors are both beautiful and effective.   In Paper SwordsmenJin Yon and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel, John Christopher Hamm notes that the “wandering knights” that populate wuxia novels “are local strongmen, exercising power outside the purview or at times in direct defiance of established government authority, rendering private justice and offering protection to those who seek their aid” (12). Their value isn’t in their aggressive personalities but in their martial arts ability and nobel actions.  Such swordsmen perform acts often associated with tough guys, but they are also envied for other reasons.

When such wuxia novels are adapted as television series, the protagonists are usually extremely attractive Asian men with slight builds who portray highly effective fighters. In The Proud Twins, 2005 adaptation of Gu Long’s novel Juedai Shuangjiao[Two Peerless Heroes],  one of the protagonists, Hua Wuque, portrayed by Nicholas Tse, is referred to as Flower (I’m not joking!) and his character is described this way by Wikipedia:

[Hua Wuque] looks more effeminately handsome than his brother. He is highly respected by in the jianghu for his formidable prowess in martial arts. He is gentlemanly, graceful and polite.

The television adaptation rings true to this characterization, as the opening image suggests. If you meet Flower, you will lose. (The fact that he’s trained by two female martial arts masters is the subject for another blog post). The point is, Tse is quite attractive, and his character is quite formidable. You don’t see anyone talking smack about Flower and his flowing hair and white robes. Nope.

As someone who consumes a variety of Asian popular culture, I just don’t buy the dichotomy between “flower boys” and “manly” men for Asian characters.


Image: Click image for citation information.

“Actor Kim Bum Gives Off a Manlier Feel After Losing 14kg.” Koreaboo. 4 June 2015. Web. 3 Jul 2015.

Hamm, John Christopher. Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel. Honolulu: U of Hawaii Press, 2005.

“Hwarang.” Wikipedia. N.d. Web. 12 July 2015.

Jung, Sun. Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-pop Idols. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2011.

“The Proud Twins.” Wikipedia. N.d. Web. 12 Jul 2015.

Vivi. “9 Korean Actors Who Transformed From Flower Boys Into Manly Men.” DramaFever. 18 Jun 2015. Web. 3 Jul 2015.

6 thoughts on “Men Can Be Flowers Too: Asian Masculinities in Popular Culture

  1. Loved this article – I’m working my way through Queen Seon Duk right now. Also, now I have a book (Paper Swordsmen) and a series (Proud Twins) to put on my to-do list. I also just finished reading CUHK Series:Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain by Jin Yong and in preparation for watching the drama.

  2. Great blog. I don’t buy the dichotomy either. I have always enjoyed the fact that Asian wuxia gave me an alternative form of masculinity to the ones I saw being paraded in my own culture.

  3. Reblogged this on Dangerous Meredith's Fu Thoughts and commented:
    It’s been so long since I have blogged myself; I have been extraordinarily busy chasing an income and haven’t had the time or creative and intellectual energies. I do miss it, though, and intend to come back to it. Meanwhile, enjoy this blog that Dr. CeeFu has written about masculinity in Asian pop culture.

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