By Xu Wei

Strong, independent women known as Nühanzi have become more common in China’s major cities and the entertainment industry has been quick to depict such characters on screens both big and small, writes Xu Wei.

For hundreds of years, women, according to traditional Chinese criteria, have been expected to be soft, tender, fair and virtuous.

But in modern society, more women in China are willing to call themselves Nühanzi (女汉子), literally “female man,” a popular term referring to members of the fairer sex who are independent, candid and strong.

The term refers to how a woman thinks and acts, and is not just a reflection of her appearance and fashion sense.

Some Nühanzi love to dress neutral style while others appear elegant and feminine. But all of them behave in ways seen as masculine.

Nühanzi is rising in popularity among those in their 20s and 30s, many of whom think it changes the stereotype of Chinese women and reflects the elevated social status of the fairer sex.

It has also started a pop-culture fad. More TV shows, films and stage productions are based on strong women instead of “flower vase” characters who offer nothing more than a pretty face and sexy figure.

“Angel Warriors,” the latest movie offering by director Fu Huayang, revolves around the jungle adventures of a group of Nühanzi. They are charming and have marvelous fighting skills.

Though such characters are common in Hollywood productions — think Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill,” Angelina Jolie in “Tomb Raider” and Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu in “Charlie’s Angels” — they are still rare in Chinese movies. Film and TV drama heroines are most often depicted as tender, elegant and largely dependent on men.

“My film mainly targets white-collar women from 25 to 35 years old who live in big cities,” Fu says. “Most of them are well-educated, independent, competent and tough.

They may love rock music, backpack traveling and boxing matches, and they are genuine Nühanzi. I think movies portraying their lives and emotions can be a popular genre in China’s film industry.”

Earlier this year, a light-hearted romance TV series “Mop Lady’s Spring” also stirred a heated discussion among the public.

Different from many female characters, the heroine is an automobile mechanic who is straight-forward and not interested in material possessions.

In the show she usually wears loose pants, keeps her hair short and never puts on make-up. She speaks loudly and gets on well with her male colleagues.

The heroine drinks and helps needy people. When she is dumped, she quickly moves on without making too much drama of it and without shedding tears.

Her attitude mirrors that of Nancy Sinatra in the 1966 hit song “These Boots Are Made for Walking.

Zhen Huan, the heroine of the Chinese imperial palace drama “Legend of Zhen Huan” is thought to be a different type of Nühanzi because she is tender and feminine, but with a strong heart.

Zhen begins as an innocent 17-year-old girl who survives the political intrigue and assassination of the wicked empress and other concubines. While doing so she learns to be strong and tough.

Actress Sun Li has recently been nominated for best actress in the 41st International Emmy Awards for her depiction of Zhen. The awards ceremony will be held on November 25 in New York.

Veteran psychologist Lin Yizhen says Nühanzi will emerge in more developed and open societies. In big cities like Shanghai, men and women enjoy equal rights. The mounting work and life pressures have also blurred gender boundaries.

“Women face as much pressure and responsibility for helping the family succeed today,” Lin says. “They are capable of doing many things physically, emotionally, within relationships and in their career. The role of men is substituted by women on many occasions.”

In her opinion, the rise of Nühanzi is a spontaneous consequence of the weakness of some men.

“Some men these days act like ‘fake ladies’,” Lin adds. “The emergence of Nühanzi can achieve a new kind of gender balance when men are not that masculine, competent and responsible.”

Jasmine Xu, a company worker, thinks the popularity of Nühanzi, both on screen and in real life, is a sign of an advancing society. She notes people are more open-minded. This frees women from the traditional “fair lady” stereotype. It is a victory for women, she says.

Xu adds: “As a woman in my 40s who has been told to behave like a ‘lady’ since childhood, I don’t like to be labeled a Nühanzi, but I see many younger women enjoy that label, and even feel flattered by it.

“It has become a buzzword now. The popularity indicates society is becoming more accepting of women in different roles.”

Karen Lu, a 30-something local public relations manager, likes being called a Nühanzi by her friends as it shows she is different and cool.

“I think strong women are more likely to have a successful career along with a delightful personality, honesty, courage and decisive charm,” Lu says. “But it doesn’t mean a woman should give up her feminine side and appearance. It is not a paradox.”

Netizens have listed 20 characteristics to describe those who can be called Nühanzi. This includes changing water cooler jugs, seldom wearing makeup and running in high-heel shoes to catch a bus.

Experts also note strong women have existed in China for thousands of years. There are numerous powerful and notable historical figures who can be called Nühanzi, including China’s only female emperor Wu Zetian, female general Hua Mulan and empress dowager Cixi.

Professor Gu Xiaoming, a sociologist from Fudan University, considers the rise of Nühanzi a good thing, but adds the term has been abused somewhat.

“A lot of fake Nühanzi have also emerged around us,” Gu explains. “Some film and TV productions put these characters on screen just to satisfy people’s desire for something new.

“The truth is women are still a vulnerable group. As to the real Nühanzi, they also need to be very careful about their family and sexual relationships.”

Are you a Nühanzi?

These are the 20 characteristics listed on the Internet to describe a Nühanzi woman. Those who meet 10 criteria are almost Nühanzi, those who tick off at least 15 are genuine Nühanzi, while those who do all 20 can be called “brother.”

1. Open their own soda bottles.

2. Walk around the house naked when it is hot outside.

3. Frequently say “it is annoying to be a woman.”

4. Pour a package of potato chips into mouth.

5. Pay the bills sometimes while eating with men.

6. Willing to eat hot-pot at a restaurant with no air conditioning in summer.

7. Change water cooler bottles by oneself.

8. Enjoy cyber games such as “World of Warcraft” and “League of Legends.”

9. Go to bed without taking a bath if it is too late.

10. Seldom put on makeup or posting self portraits online.

11. Get along well with men.

12. Love to cross or shake their legs when dining out.

13. Find shopping troublesome.

14. Seldom go to the hairdresser’s or beauty shop.

15. Hardly peel their apples before eating them.

16. Seldom wash one’s face and hair at home.

17. Carry her own luggage.

18. Can not bear to see a woman purposely playing up her feminine character to allure men.

19. Run after buses while wearing high-heeled shoes.

20. Order large portions while dining with men.

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