05/03/2008 11:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Mind of Chinese Men: the Anxiety of Disorientation

The Chinese character for "man" (男) depicts "power in the field." Angular and bold, the pictogram celebrates testosterone-fueled masculinity; it also suggests that men, while ruling the roost, are fully responsible for the material well being of the clan. Confucianism, the Middle Kingdom's cultural blueprint, is rooted in double-edged patriarchy; men boast power but are constrained by the yoke of duty, both today and in the past.

Chinese Men's Cultural Roots

Within the household, the markers of legitimacy have always been crystal clear. Men must wu shi you wu er zhi yu xue ("set your heart on learning by fifteen"), san shi er li ("be successful by thirty"), si shi bu huo ("have no doubt about yourself by fourty"), wu shi er zhi tian ming ("know the mandate of heaven by fifty"), liu shi er er shun ("hear only the mandate of heaven by sixty"), qi shi er cong xing suo bu yu ju ("follow your heart's desire BUT without transgressing the norms") and, from birth to death, guan zong yao zu ("honor and bring glory to ancestors"). Professionally, the "hierarchy of success" has always been extremely narrow and inflexible. Prior to Mao, merchants - i.e., money collectors -- were scorned. Farmers were (barely) respected. Scholars were worshiped (in both the here and now and afterlife).

In dynastic times, the burden was heavy but, fortunately, the path to success was meticulously laid out, ultimately within the control of the individual, at least theoretically. Historically, a sharp mind was a man's greatest asset in his quest for greatness. An oft-quoted adage dictates: "Those who excel in scholarship become officials; those who work with their minds rule; those who work with strength are ruled." A pithier one, xue er tong bu, states a golden rule: study is advancement. By mastering a finite body of Confucian scripture, an ambitious man could take the "palace exams" (supposedly in the presence of the emperor), enter the lofty ranks of the scholar-officials, and enjoy power, prestige, and wealth. (The civil servant exams were actually a series of increasingly taxing tests that weeded out anyone with any inclination to question Confucian convention. In ascending order of selectivity, they included: district exams for "Government Students", provincial exams for "Employable Men," metropolitan exams for "Presentable Scholars", and, finally, the palace exams for "Advanced Scholars.") Passing the test (or even taking it) was no cakewalk but still within the realm of theoretical possibility. True, not everyone is endowed with equal intellectual gifts but the ability to hone one's mind is, in large part, divorced from external variables - e.g., bad crops, stock market crashes, and airline delays. Furthermore, financial investment in decades of pre-exam education - in terms of both cash outlay and the opportunity cost of one less hand in the field - did preclude most from even dreaming of a better day job. Nonetheless, Chinese lore is replete with scholars-nee-peasants, local heroes who succeeded via academics. The path to success was conveniently, if restrictively, defined.

The 1949 revolution upset that apple cart. Scholars were dirt; books were burned. Merchants weren't scorned; they were shot. Success was singularly defined as a party career. One thing, however, remained the same; advancement in society hinged on "mastery," this time not of Confucian code but Marxist-Leninist-Maoist dogma. Creative thinking and "new" ideas had no adaptive value.

A New World Arises. Then things changed radically. When Deng Xiao Ping embarked on his 1992 Southern Tour, he proclaimed, "To get rich is glorious," imperially pronouncing the acquisition of wealth as a man's newest and most worthy pursuit. The definition of success, always divorced from Western (self-driven) individualism, was as narrow and societally mandated as in dynastic China. With the exception of athletic superstars Liu Xiang and Yao Ming (see below), today's heroes are all entrepreneurs such as Alibaba's Jack Ma who have hit the jackpot and made it really, really big. A man's responsibility to his family was as absolute as ever. But the means of grabbing the brass ring - chuan ye jing shen, or an entrepreneurial, pioneering spirit - fractured, driven as much by serendipity as internal drive. Education, traditionally focused on "meticulous expertise," was no longer a nonrefundable ticket to greatness. In the brave new world, "high risk, high return" supplanted "no pain, no gain" as the guiding maxim. During the late '80s, legions of CCP cadres - modern day Horatio Algers - embarked on business careers to find fame and fortune. However, for the first time, there were no signposts. There was no prescribed formula for advancement, no syllabus to memorize. The phrase xia hai says it all. Translated, more or less, as "out to sea," it refers to cadres who leave state jobs for the uncharted shoals of capitalism. More than ten years on, men, both inside the party and out, remain as disoriented as ever.

The concoction of prescriptive standards and diffused means of fulfilling them is a bitter brew. Contemporary Chinese men are filled with lingering anxiety and a nebulous loss of control. Marketers have an opportunity to touch their hearts by developing products and communications that dull the need to "cross the river by feeling the stones." They know where they want to go, but they are not sure of the right way to get there. This conflict between a penchant for order and an entrepreneurial imperative is profound.

Insight Application

Project Status
The Chinese man is not confident of the road ahead. Status, therefore, is a crutch, a means of demonstrating (both to others and himself) the capacity to forge a successful future. Yanger apparel, a mid-priced brand, presents the "Yanger Man" as a savvy bidder at an upscale auction. Virgin Airlines positions its aromatherapy frill as the quintessence of personalization, effectively transforming a plane seat into a throne. Hai Wang Jin Zun tonic even draws a parallel between the strength of the drinker and the power of an emperor. Every communication should - preferably with a bit of grace -- reinforce an individual's perception of himself as a high-potential stallion.

Give Him Tools
Capitalistic success is, in large part, determined by external variables. So an individual must seize fluid opportunities. Every product should be an enabler, a tool to extend his reach. Technology is not only a productivity enhancer but also a weapon, a means of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. China Unicom's CDMA network is more about "closing the deal" than "anytime, anywhere internet access." Motorola's business phones are "the choice of winning CEOs." Even Rejoice shampoo, a brand built around "the confidence that flows from soft and shiny hair," artfully connects "no dandruff" with "impressing the boss," one whose endorsement can be wielded on the business battlefield.

Either explicitly or implicitly, practically every auto on the road is positioned as an indispensable enabler, a pass key to a golden new era: Ford Fiesta ("dare to be bold" ), Ford Mondeo ("smart moves to the top"), Buick Sail ("creating sparkle in your life"), Buick Excelle ("pursue success with your full heart and mind"), Buick Sedan ("calmness, wisdom, the will to go the distance"), Kia Accent ("reflect your inner heart, ambition and substance"), Honda ("the power of dreams"), BMW 7 Series ("reflect your leadership spirit"), Ford Maverick ("defeat ordinary challengers"), Lincoln Navigator ("drive presidential respect"), and Cadillac ("dare to be the first").

Release His Aggression
Confucianism is anti-individualistic. So, too, is its modern incarnation, Chinese communism. Regimented benchmarks of achievement imposed by a rigid social structure do not foster self-actualization. Instead, they breed repression. Consequently, a man relishes the release of pent up frustration. Victory should be larger than life. Challenge should be heroic. ADSL (internet access) advertising compares the surfer's "unleashed power" to a gladiator's superhuman strength. Cigarettes and beer, categories dominated by local brands because they are powerful identity surrogates, are badges of masculine pride and vehicles for displaced aggression. "Eagle's Victory" cigarettes "V for Victory" campaign, all booming drums and staccato base lines, is a veritable testosterone eruption.

Gentle patriotism can quickly morph into bold, ego-affirming nationalism, a projective conduit that compensates for some men's fragile identity. (This partially explains the virulent reaction again countries perceived as unfriendly to China in the lead up to the Beijing Olympic Games - look down on China, look down on "me.") Six years ago, Coca-Cola's World Cup advertising featured Li Tie, a new generation soccer star who spreads China's glory around the world. Today, the most power Olympic advertising - e.g., Anta shoes' "No One Can Extinguish the Flame" and Adidas' "One Nation" campaigns - link a man's "pride" to national victory. Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets player, is an iconic figure, as is sprinter Liu Xiang, because they represent Chinese (masculine) greatness transplanted onto an international playing field. Both athletes represent at least eight local brands because they are timeless. They transcend the limits of everyday masculine power.

Help Him Pass the Girl Test
Confucius said a man must provide for the family, and strong-will Chinese women never fail to remind him of his sacred duty. To have a shot with a girl, he needs to demonstrate his ability to bring home the bacon. "Modern" Chinese guys marry relatively late, around twenty-eight or thirty. Before then, most can't afford to buy an apartment; sadly, a mortgage is the only way to demonstrate future dependability.

An ordinary guy struggles under the weight of responsibility; his wife or girlfriend rarely cedes an opportunity to remind him of his lot, sometimes to the point of emasculation. (According to locals, Shanghai husbands suffer particularly vigorous hen-pecking.) So, put him back on top. (Commercial sex - i.e., submission by the hour - is institutionalized and ritualized. To quote a short-lived McDonald's tagline: "What you want is what you get.") Eroticize the world outside his home. Vis-à-vis the fairer sex, make him feel in charge. The Schick man doesn't just "win" the girl; he "conquers" her. The China Southern flight attendant, unlike her American counterpart, gives the passenger an impression that his personal comfort, not his safety, comes first. Siemens has built its youth franchise on the premise of "being clever enough to catch her off guard." (Demonstration of intelligence is a huge turn on. One of McDonald's most popular TVC shows a young man who pops the question by putting a diamond ring in a box of chicken wings. His girlfriend is amused, even charmed, but she still wants to know if she'll get her food.)

Leverage Friendship

It's a tough world out there. The disoriented modern man craves retreat; friendship is the ultimate sanctuary. Bonds that have stood the test of time - ideally dating back to childhood or, at least, high school -- fuel the warmth of many alcohol campaigns (e.g., Rheineck beer, He Jiu liquor). Sedrin lager, Fujian province's leading brand, tackles friendship from another angle. It recognizes most "newer" friendships (i.e., of "wine and meat") are, at the end of the day, about building a functional business network. Both are "trust enablers," transforming skittish acquaintance into robust (and practical) camaraderie.

Make Him an Expert

Finally, if he feels anxious about his ability to learn the professional ropes, help him compensate by becoming a pro outside the office. From the lady-killer who has the body of Brad Pitt (e.g., Big Impression weight loss tea) to the sailor who has tamed the sea (e.g., Suntory beer), local and international brands forge loyalty by paying tribute to the well-rounded, multidimensional man. From the chef to the golf whiz, from the literature aficionado to the racquetball champ, salute the man with more on his mind than the pettiness of corporate political intrigue.

In conclusion, Chinese men are caught between narrowly defined (monetary and professional) success and a broadly individualistic path to get there. The clash between means and ends leads to a diffused anxiety. To be successful in China, marketers must find a way of becoming a man's partner on the bumpy journey to greatness.