Manly matters

Updated: 2013-02-18 14:23

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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Manly matters

Manly matters

When male bonding turns suspiciously intimate, people turn on the spigot of gossip. Little do they realize that human relationships may not fit into neat categories and, in most cases, it is none of their business if a twosome becomes soul mates or bedfellows.

CCTV's Spring Festival gala is no ordinary variety show. It's watched by a billion people and every number is rehearsed to death. Though a live show, a performer who launches into improvisation will be preempted by a pre-recording of the same number. Yet, Louis Liu, the de-facto resident magician of the gala, ad-libbed a line during this year's illusion by making pianist Yundi Li, his collaborator, disappear and appear. When Li assumed the look of searching for something, Liu blurted out: "Looking for Leehom?"

That turned into what many in the audience say was the "funniest moment in the show". It was not a joke per se, but rather, an allusion to the supposed romance between Leehom Wang and Yundi Li that had not long ago intrigued a nation of tabloid news fanatics.

For those not attuned to China's entertainment scene, both Wang and Li are superstar musicians. Wang is a pop singer and occasional movie star, raised in the US and based in Taiwan; Li, a Chongqing native, is a pianist with a lyricism perfect for Chopin whose career is among the most illustrious in China.

Their paths crossed on the stage and developed into a friendship. One would visit the other during holidays, and they would go out to a movie together. Sometime last year, the rumor mill kicked into high gear and catalogued numerous clues that presumably point to a deeper relationship than mere friendship. Suddenly, Wang greeting his fans in Chongqing dialect while performing in that city, and Li playing a few notes from Wang's song, became evidence of a secret love affair, as if they were flirtations between two semi-closeted gay celebrities.

Did I mention they are both guys?

After a long silence, Wang stated in his microblog that both of them are straight and like girls.

The magician's reference to this unconventional love story did not rile pianist Li. But the next day CCTV posted a statement on its blog that the line was improvised by Louis Liu and was hence removed from the repeat broadcast. Liu, in his defense, emphasized that everything he said and did on the show was pre-approved. Maybe there was a lapse in communication, but most in the online community felt what Liu did was harmless and should be treated as a joke.

Then someone claimed that Wang, who was also on the show but in a separate number, punched Liu in the face after the show. This was so obvious a fabrication - by someone who is too into melodrama - that one could only laugh at its lack of sophistication.

The brouhaha over the Wang and Li connection would be another manifestation of showbiz triviality had it not been for the sensitive element in the story. In a jocular way, it acts as a zeitgeist antenna that receives the changing frequencies of public attitudes toward homosexuality.

By no means does it imply the sexual orientation of the two musicians in question, though. Let me state unequivocally: gay or straight, friends or lovers, it is a private matter between two adults, which does not concern public interest at all. They have the right not to divulge it to the public, including their hordes of adoring fans, and people should learn to respect that.

What's surprising is that the public mood has been more playful than serious, and that applies to even before Wang denied the amorous link. One does not detect a whiff of lament that such gifted artists are not "normal", which I suspect would be the case if it had happened a decade ago. People, especially the young, are more tolerant of homosexuality as a lifestyle.

But does it mean we Chinese are not into discrimination against gays? Not necessarily. If the two leads in this real-life saga were not good-looking young men, public sentiment might not have been so agreeable. This is borne out by countless online remarks to the effect that they are more okay with gays who look good.

Beyond that, what the Wang-Li story encapsulates is a social phenomenon called "bromance" - men who are buddies to the extent that arouses speculation about their sexual orientation. Bromance is a new word in English, but in China the relationship can be traced back thousands of years. The Chinese expression for people in such a situation is "sworn brothers".

In the mythical China of ancient literature and folklore, men forge friendships so strong they override everything else, including family connections. A classical case is the one for the trio Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei in the Three Kingdoms tale. Three military officers, all man's men, swear to be brothers and watch over one another. They place the welfare of the others above themselves. They do not seem to have a regular love or family life. Yet, the whole thing is not redolent of anything sexual.

In Outlaws on the Marsh, the rebels deep in the mountains are mostly male and bond with each other with total abandon. The leader, Song Jiang, has killed his unfaithful wife; another hero, Lin Chong, is driven to insurgence partly because his wife is killed by evil officials. There are a few female rebels, but the only sex in the massive tome is between a pair of antagonists who symbolize lust. The male bond that dominates this band of brothers is asexual or even anti-sexual, and modern revisionists with gay sensibilities may have a field day uncovering gay undertones in every little detail.

When I was in high school, in the late 1970s, boys and girls did not talk to each other. There was this invisible chasm nobody would cross - not because we did not have sexual desire, vague as it was, but because the prevailing urge was to fight it, not go along with it. As a result, boys would hang out with other boys. There would be fooling around that youngsters of the current generation would never imagine doing.

When a US newspaper carried a photo of two young men, circa 1980, walking with hands around each other's shoulder, to illustrate China's gay liberation, I instantly realized that they had got it wrong. I could guarantee that the couple in the photo were not gay. Why? Because at that time a real gay couple would rather be caught dead than have such a public display of their relationship.

This may go against logic, but it is very much in the Chinese genes. I once went on an assignment with an expatriate colleague of mine, and he spotted a man and a woman flirting aggressively at a dinner party thrown for us. He whispered to me that they must be having an extramarital affair, but I said, "Definitely not". After days with them, the Englishman told me I was right. You guessed it: If there were something fishy going on, they would keep a respectful distance in public, not banter like crazy.

This reminds me of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who are lifelong pals. At the beginning of their career, reporters would ask loaded questions about their love life, and Affleck would say he planned to marry Damon. This essentially turned the tables on the reporter, and the actors came out ahead by showing abundant buffoonery and self-deprecation. Maybe Wang and Li could take a lesson from that.

Of course, young people are much more freethinking and straightforward nowadays. They have less to lose if they declare love for each other and disdain for traditions. Across the country, there are occasional reports of gay couples tying the knot even though no authority or law would recognize the matrimony.

However liberal the environment turns, the line between male bond and homosexuality can be blurry in the eye of the beholder. Unless you are a close relative or someone who intends to date one of them, it is not really in your best interests to sift through the clues and get to the bottom of the conundrum. Whatever way of life one prefers, as long as it does not infringe on others, we should learn to respect it. Live and let live, as they say.

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(China Daily 02/16/2013 page11)