By Nina Huang
As one of the many people who crowded into theaters to watch Wonder Woman this summer, I couldn’t help but notice parallels between the Amazon princess and another, less widely known character: the real-life Chinese Nühanzi woman. Wonder Woman seemed like a breath of cinematic fresh air. She’s simultaneously compassionate and shrewd, sensitive and fearless, loving and independent—both feminine and masculine. But in my culture, the Nühanzi has long been such a female role model.
Nühanzi, written in Chinese as “女汉子,” literally means “masculine woman” or “manly woman.” It originally described Chinese women who weren’t beautiful, demure, or otherwise “feminine” enough. But over the past five years, women have begun using it proudly to empower themselves and other women who are independent, capable, outgoing, and mentally and physically strong.
There’s an emerging online community of women worldwide embracing their Nühanzi identities. On the Instagram @Nuhanzi_life, women of all ethnicities share stories and photos that support rebellion against cultural notions of femininity. You can even buy Nühanzi jewelry and clothes and show off simultaneously feminine and masculine strength.
Nühanzi woman spotted at an all-female “Muay Thai ” gym in Singapore. “Muay Thai” or Thai boxing is known as “the art of eight limbs” because it is characterized by the combined use of fists, elbows, knees and shins, being associated with good physical prep that makes a full contact fighter very efficient” #Nühanzi #nuhanzilife #badass #warrior #nuhanzi #strongwomenunite #strength #nuhanzinecklace 💪🥊
So what does this have to do with Wonder Woman? Like the Nühanzi, Diana has incredibly strong masculine and feminine sides. She’s powerful enough to fight off the god of war yet caring enough to enter no-man’s-land to protect refugees. She’ll coo over a stranger’s baby and also ruthlessly kill an evil German general on a rooftop. Both parts of her contribute equally to her superpowers, and neither make her less of a woman.
The character’s popularity for the better part of a century proves that powerful women resonate with people. That’s why I wish my own culture’s expression of this same archetype got more recognition. After all, the Nühanzi can teach us at least as much as Wonder Woman—maybe more, since these role models exist in real life. Wonder Woman may be inspiring, but she’s not exactly relatable. She has advantages and tools women don’t have in real life: She’s a demigoddess. She has magical weapons. She’s a superhero, but superheroes exist to be admired, not emulated. A Nühanzi, on the other hand, is a mere mortal, a self-made woman who exhibits strength and power without any inherited advantages. She could be Hillary Swank, the actress who has played a lot of badass women on the screen and who has come a long way from living in a trailer home to winning two Oscars. She could be Oprah Winfrey, who fought against sexism and racism and created a community of women who help one another. She could be any one of us who defy the odds and become warriors.
A Nühanzi is such a shrewd fighter that she doesn’t submit herself to the male worldview or internalize sexism to use it to her own benefit—she consciously breaks free from the shackles society seeks to put her in. That’s way more difficult than what Wonder Woman did. Since Wonder Woman was born on an island without men, the character can just ignore gender stereotypes and social constructs. A Nühanzi, on the other hand, knows all too well how her society’s attempting to restrain her, and she withstands fierce backlash while resisting these attempts. Often, to compete in a man’s world where the feminine is not valued, we try to be like men, embracing masculine ideals in order to try to gain respect. On the other end of the spectrum are women who exploit their femininity to get ahead. A Nühanzi is one who is able to act effectively in the world by acting confidently (like a man) but retaining her womanhood.
I met Penelope Jagessar-Chaffer on the Q train yesterday. Since I loved her choice of literature, I had to introduce myself. Penelope, a filmmaker and mother of 2 from Brooklyn says she believes we all spring from the “Wild Woman” and that the woman who is not able to fully tap into her Wild Woman instinct, isn’t able to fully explore herself. I agree. #womenwhorunwiththewolves #clarissapinkolaestes #Nühanzi #nuhanzilife #nuhanzi #badass #wildwoman #staywild @25park
Hillary Clinton, who performed excellently in the dreadful campaign that highlighted misogyny in our society last year, has known all her life that she is expected to let her hair down, smile, and be the woman who stands behind the man. But she was able to be strong and aggressive without giving up what makes her a woman—she listens to and cares about others. She has fought against sexism all her life and made a hole in the glass ceiling.
There’s a running joke in China that lists all the challenges and expectations of being a twenty-first-century woman: To be a woman in China, one needs to be “elegant enough to host guests, diligent enough to make good cuisine, and skilled enough in information technology to kill any computer virus; she must be able to scale a wall, drive a nice car, afford a good apartment, defeat mistresses, and beat up hooligans.” In other words, she’s Wonder Woman. It’s no wonder the Nühanzi movement is growing so rapidly: It’s also what modern society is asking for.
Like Wonder Woman’s record-breaking box office success, the transition of “Nühanzi” from an insult to an empowering identity marks a victory for feminism. According to a 2015 survey conducted by Guangzhou Daily, 80 percent of women in Foshan, China, want to be a Nühanzi. Finally the world is starting to value “masculine” women. In a recent trip to the countryside in China, a female car technician, a mom with three small children, helped me change the tire of my car in her black lace dress. When I shared the amazing encounter with my female friends in Shanghai, their responses are no longer “How poor the woman is that she has to do a man’s job,” but a respectful “She is such a Nühanzi!” It is so encouraging to see women are changing their perceptions of what a respectful woman is.
The popularity of a term and a character that blur the distinction between masculine and feminine shows that these distinctions are blurring in real life too. People of all genders are getting tired of gender roles. Just thinking that today’s young people gravitate toward Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Taraji P. Henson, Ellen DeGeneres, Kristina Wong, and Nora Lum is comforting. It signifies that we’re realizing that stereotypically masculine and feminine traits exist in all of us.
The Nühanzi embodies this coexistence of the masculine and feminine. In that way, she’s really all of us. She’s overthrowing the traditional gender order, which should make her just as influential as Wonder Woman herself.