Chinese Male Intimacy: On Men Holding Hands

Chinese Male Intimacy: On Men Holding Hands
Apr 01, 2012 By Duncan Muir ,

No one can deny that Chinese girls seem to be a lot more touchy-feely than their Western counterparts, you need only take a stroll along a high street or through a shopping mall in any of China's bustling metropolises to see countless young women walking arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand. But platonic closeness isn't just restricted to women; Chinese men can also be closer in their personal relations than most Western males would find comfortable with their friends back home.

In middle schools across the nation it's not uncommon to see teenage boys holding hands in the lunch hall and male students can behave in much the same way at Chinese universities. It isn't just the young who are more physical about their friendships. There are factory workers who sit chatting on their lunch break, holding one another as if they have shaken hands but forgotten to let go. Two old men might saunter home from a night of drinking with their fingers loosely clasped together. But don't misread what's going on here, it doesn't mean that these men holding hands are gay. Outside of Beijing and Shanghai, two grown men holding hands will almost always have nothing to do with homosexuality.

Why men holding hands in Western countries is unacceptable

To a foreigner, at first this candid closeness can seem a little strange. In the majority of Western cultures men can be pretty uptight about physical contact with close friends, particularly in the UK, North America, Australia and New Zealand. In some European countries, it's normal for men to kiss one another on the cheek as a greeting, but men aren't likely to hold hands, unless they're gay. In fact, academics claim that one of the central constituents of the modern notion of masculinity in the west is a fear of femininity and a fear of appearing homosexual. The typical modern Western man feels he must constantly prove his manliness, for any suggestion of femininity may make him appear less virile.

For over one thousand years, ever since Christianity was established as the dominant ideology in Western culture, homosexual behaviour has been viewed as a moral depravity. During this time the church and the state tended to be closely intertwined and the concept of homosexual activity as a sin translated itself not only into law but into culture as a whole. In the last forty years in the West, great efforts have been taken to undo all these years of prejudice, and homosexuality itself is now more widely accepted. But we still have an ingrained awkwardness about male to male platonic affection. When a perspective of discomfort has been dominant for so long, it takes time to get over it.

Why men holding hands in China is acceptable

Anyone will tell you that homosexuality is much less accepted in China than in the West, so why is male intimacy much more commonplace? The truth is that though many older, traditional Chinese people view homosexuality as a Western import; it's homophobia that was imported thanks to British influence following the opium wars. Unlike Judaeo-Christian or Islamic societies, China's traditional culture had no clear definition between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Although Confucianism stressed the importance of marrying and producing children, male-male sexual relations were never viewed in a negative light, nor has Buddhism ever spoken out against nanfeng (男風), or ‘the male fashion', as it was known in Imperial China. Many emperors had male concubines and at certain points in history nanfeng was particularly widespread, especially among upper class men.

Daoism stresses the importance of balance between yin and yang. Yin is feminine, yang masculine, but every man is seen as having some yin in his character. So feminine behaviour is not seen as a negative quality in a man, nor is intimacy among men seen as something which might undermine masculinity. A Chinese man can hold hands with a male friend without having any concerns that such behaviour might in some way weaken him in the eyes of other men. Homophobia has not been present in Chinese culture long enough to undermine this sense of ease.

Doctors say: physical contact is good for mental health

Straight men holding hands isn't just present in China, another nation of male hand holders is India, where men in Kerala probably hold hands more than those in China. Though men don't tend to hold hands in the West, we do shake hands, but a handshake is not the same. A handshake is not devoid of competition; there is a stress on the firmness of the grip, and men with weak handshakes are often criticised behind their back for this very reason, by other men and by women too. But in China and India, male to male hand holding has no focus on strength; the whole point is contact, not competition. It just forms a normal part of male bonding.

Hugs, on the other hand, are more acceptable in the UK, North America, Australia and New Zealand. In fact, in these days of the man hug, the bromance movie and the metrosexual male, perhaps male intimacy in the West is becoming less uptight. There is good reason for men to be more physically comfortable with their friends. Recent research by Sydney University has found that men who hug more often are both healthier and happier. Physical contact with others is important for well-being; hugging can even release a hormone called oxytocin in the brain, making people feel more secure, less stressed and less anxious, and hand holding can do the same.

So perhaps we uptight Western men have something to learn from the Chinese: by holding hands with a friend we wouldn't just improve one friendship, we'd become more social, more connected individuals and more comfortable about who we are as men. Because Chinese masculinity is less defined, less wilfully macho, so too is it less assaulted. The result is a nation of men who are more comfortable with who they are as men…at least as far as holding hands is concerned.  

Related links
Making (and Keeping) Chinese Friends
Top 10 Questions Foreigners Love to Ask Chinese
6 Things Foreigners Often Get Wrong about Chinese People

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Keywords: Chinese male intimacy platonic friendships China Chinese men holding hands holding hands and hugging in China


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Arm-in-arm is more common than hand-in hand in China for young people.

Apr 09, 2012 01:16 Report Abuse



I never see boys (or men) of any age holding hands anywhere in China, but if you really want to hold hands with your friends then go ahead.

Strangest article I've read since I moved to China.

Apr 03, 2012 04:47 Report Abuse



Africa is not a country in Uganda!There are no straight men in "Africa(Uganda)",that is why this is the only place where men can hold hands! Petty wits!

Apr 03, 2012 03:02 Report Abuse



Men who like holding hands like women also gossip like women.Can you guess the country where men sit together with women and happily gossip about other men? Maybe it is a result of less defined masculinity,so they compete for ostentation with women.Most of them even look like women,so at times it is difficult to know who is a man in a group of gossiping heads.

Apr 02, 2012 07:10 Report Abuse