Anyone who has been on the Internet may have noticed an emerging aesthetic among celebrity East Asian men in the past few decades. Popularized by the Hallyu Wave, what is known as the Korean “flower boy” look has not only been well-received by its mostly female audiences but has also been recently coveted and idolized at a global scale.
In China, this aesthetic is referred to as 小鲜肉 (xiǎo xiān ròu) or little fresh meat, typically referring to well-groomed young male idols or actors who have pale glass-like skin, somewhat androgynous appearances, and stylish slender figures. This appearance of “softer” masculinity has been speculated to have gained ground in China during the early 2010s after the successful debut of Korean idol group EXO, known locally particularly for its Chinese-membered sub-unit EXO-M. Attention was especially shown when members of said sub-unit returned to the mainland to pursue independent entertainment careers not long after.
Members of Chinese sub-unit EXO-M.
In recent years, China’s own entertainment agencies have presented their own little fresh meat stars (e.g. TFBoys, Yang Yang, Lu Han, Xiao Zhan), who have dominated the local pop culture scene to the point where they are commonly sighted on billboards and subway advertisements all across the country. In a generation constantly connected to the Internet, the cultural reach of these celebrities has become so influential that commercial and luxury brands have partnered with the most popular of them, recognizing their ability to boost performance to the extent that products are being sold out in mere minutes.
The reason why male idols have been so lucrative in modern Chinese society may be explained not only due to the rapid propagation of entertainment-related content online but also due to the increasing consumer power of young women—their target market.
Dr. Song Geng, a University of Hong Kong associate professor who has written about how modern Chinese men are depicted in pop culture, offered his observation on the phenomenon: “Traditionally, women were the object of desire; but these pretty boys have now become symbols of an implied heterosexual desire on the male body from a female perspective.”
Framed in this manner, it may be perceived that little fresh meat is a result of pandering to a femininely influenced form of masculinity— the exact kind that the state denounces.
Xinhua, known as a controversial state-controlled news agency, has expressed contempt for the image that little fresh meat have projected, calling them 娘炮 (niáng pào), a slang derogatory term for “sissy” or effeminate men. “[E]verything should have a limit … in this case, it’s no longer a matter of aesthetics, but it is an enthusiasm for ugliness and vulgarity,” explained the editorial. 
“The reason why the sissy pants phenomenon arouses public antipathy is that we cannot underestimate the negative impact of this sickly culture on teenagers, who are the future of the country.”
Because the state still steadily holds old-fashioned notions of femininity equating to subservience and masculinity equating to strength and dominance, little fresh meat celebrities, who have been observed to be potential role model figures for the youth, are now being scrutinized and criticized by state media.
In response to their surging popularity, increasing efforts to discourage male femininity and foster “traditional” values have come into fruition, resulting in censorship of material (e.g. male idols wearing earrings) and the promotion of state-approved media, such as the box-office record movie Wolf Warrior 2.
As a film that detailed a Chinese soldier fighting against Western mercenaries in an African warzone to save hundreds of lives, Wolf Warrior 2 not only expressed the national sentiment of wanting China to appear strong on the global stage but also forwarded the traditional masculine image that the state endorses, which is essentially the muscled macho man. The film’s director, Wu Jing, has mentioned in interviews that the goal of the film was “to inspire men to be real men.”
Wolf Warrior 2 movie poster.
It can be said that the censorship and promotion of propaganda may have met some of their intended purposes when schools have started to revise their curriculums and clubs have been formed to train young boys to be alpha males in response to the negative state-forwarded perception of little fresh meat personalities
However, despite these efforts, reality still shows increasing positive attention towards the aesthetic. The older generations may be worried about how their younger counterparts may fare in the future, thinking them to be weak and indecisive, but the truth is that the youth are already fighting stubbornly.
Reflected by record-breaking sales, social media trends, and the growing visibility of the Chinese entertainment industry at the global stage, the little fresh meat have not only united local communities under the name of fandom but have also paved the way for another avenue of strong self-expression and self-identity for the Chinese youth.
 Ruan, Lotus. “6 Male Luxury Brand Ambassadors in China You Need to Know.” Jing Daily. https://jingdaily.com/6-male-brand-ambassadors-in-china-you-need-to-know/
 Zheng, Ruonan. “How China’s ‘Little Fresh Meat’ Give Luxury Brands a Big Boost.” Jing Daily. https://jingdaily.com/chinas-little-fresh-meat-boost-brands/
 Ngai, Dominic. “China is Obsessed with ‘Little Fresh Meat’. Here’s Why.” That’s Mags. https://www.thatsmags.com/shanghai/post/21303/china-is-obsessed-with-little-fresh-meat-here-s-why
 “辛识平：“娘炮”之风当休矣。” Xinhua. http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2018-09/06/c_1123391309.htm
 Li, Yuan. “No Earrings, Tattoos, or Cleavage: Inside China’s War on Fun.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/27/business/china-war-on-fun-earrings-tattoos.html
 Gao, Helen. “‘Little Fresh Meat’ and the Changing Face of Masculinity in China.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/12/opinion/little-fresh-meat-china.html
 Dixon, Robyn. “To fight K-pop’s influence in China, a club teaches young boys to be alpha males.” The Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-china-masculinity-pop-idols-backlash-20190426-story.html