Chinese men using make-up a logical response to being judged on looks, bloggers say
- All the men in Gen Z student and blogger Vincent Liu’s college class wear make-up, he says. Chen Yueqiang says his beauty tips help boost men’s confidence
- Between them the pair have two million online followers
Chen Yueqiang, better known among his fans as KK the king of make-up transformation, remembers the first make-up product he ever bought – a two-yuan eyeliner so shoddy that the pencil irritated his eye.
He was emulating the look of his idol at the time, Japanese artist Miyavi, who epitomises the “visual kei” movement that emerged from the underground scene in Japan in the 1980s. Characterised by flamboyant costumes, heavy make-up and outlandish hairstyles, the sub-genre bears a resemblance to the glam rock look that originated in the United Kingdom in the 1970s.
Chen was a high school student in Shanghai in the early noughties, and his heavily lined eyes earned him stares, teases and taunts from his peers. Fast forward to today, and young men and teenagers wearing make-up are a common sight.
Vincent Liu Pan-meng, a second-year student at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, spends each morning putting on make-up before heading to school.
His regular routine consists of facial cleansing, applying sunscreen, foundation, eyeliner and coloured contacts, and a bit of contouring to enhance his features. How many of his male classmates also wear make-up? “10 out of 10,” came his reply.
Liu’s cosmetic habit arose out of a need to conceal his acne while he was a teenager three years ago, and he was certainly not the only one. “My peers, both male and female, are starting to pay attention to the way they look. Even if they don’t wear make-up, they would use tools such as blotting paper or a bit of face powder to keep their face matte,” says Liu.
Some point to the flower boys of South Korea and “little fresh meat” of China as major influences. Both phrases refer to celebrity men with flawless skin and feminine features.
But good-looking famous men are hardly a new phenomenon. Liu and Chen believe the men’s make-up trend has gone mainstream in China not because of changes to the masculine aesthetic promoted by the entertainment industry, but because Chinese society increasingly values personal appearance. While appearance might always have been a concern for women, men are now under the same pressure to polish themselves up.
“It builds your confidence. I have fans who tell me they could not find a girlfriend and ask for advice on how to improve their image,” says Chen, who spent nearly a decade as a salesman at beauty counters and acquired certification as a professional make-up artist before going it alone and becoming an influencer.
Through make-up, he transforms himself to look like male celebrities such as Chinese artists Lu Han and Kris Wu, Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, and comic characters. A 15-second clip can take up to eight hours to film and edit.
Apart from these theatrics, intended to attract eyeballs, he also posts useful tutorials for men – on how to draw manly brows, how to contour your face and how to build your skincare routine.
In the space of less than a year, Chen has gained 989,000 fans on the Chinese social media platform TikTok – a figure that is telling of the growing interest in such information.
As well as fans, Chen has attracted haters who make vitriolic comments about him, calling him a dandy, sissy and sometimes even a faggot, wrongly assuming that because he wears make-up, he must be gay.
He was initially taken aback and felt wounded by such hurtful comments. “I even tried replying to them one by one, reasoning with them,” he says. But now he leaves the task to his legions of fans, who rush to defend him.
The backlash comes not only from people online, but the Chinese authorities. “If we set no limit to this trend,” read a commentary in the Beij ing Youth Daily, referring to Chinese male idols that challenge rigid definitions of masculinity, “more people will be proud of this effeminacy and our society and our country's masculinity will be in crisis.”
The official Xinhua News Agency lambasted men in make-up in a commentary last month that said: “They look androgynous and wear make-up; they are slender and weak. The impact this sick culture will have on our young generation is immeasurable.”
Chen disagrees, saying: “Just as our maturity is not determined by our physical appearance, I do not think that our masculinity should be defined by how we look.”
As for Liu, he belongs to Generation Z, and his peers have so readily embraced make-up and a more diverse gender expression that he does not understand what the problem is. “I don’t interact much with the older generation, so I don’t really know what they think,” he admits.
And even if he did know, he would not care. How he expresses himself and his personality are none of anyone’s business, he figures, and he has over a million followers on Weibo – China’s answer to Twitter – cheering him on. He has learned to use the controversy to his advantage. After all, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
“I don’t mind the opinions that are against me. The more commotion they cause, the more exposure I get,” says Liu.
Chen advises the men in his audience to keep their eyeliner subtle by only filling in the inner rims, not to wear foundation too light for their skin tone and not to go overboard with their make-up. For Liu as a fashion blogger, the make-up he wears is part of his creative expression as much as his outfits are. So there are no rules or boundaries.
For a recent photo shoot under cherry blossoms, he matched his pink hair with rose lipstick and eye shadow. At a comic conference, he complemented his glittery blouse with tangerine smoky eyes.
Not everyone defies norms like Liu does, but the younger generation in China is being liberated from traditional gender roles. Could the pendulum swing to the other extreme, to one where men have to confront unrealistic expectations to look pretty?
Chen, who turns 30 this year, is already feeling the pressure. He has had a nose job and injected natural fillers several months ago to keep up his youthful appearance.
Despite earning a decent income from advertisements and sponsors, Liu plans to go from the front line to behind the scenes.
“In this industry, you are basically making a living by selling your youth,” says Liu. “You will grow old one day or your face is no longer the trending look and people won’t like you any more.”