Guy Fawkes vs. The Prince of Lanling: How a Silly Search for Music Videos Explained Why People Reject Masks (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

According to The Book of Northern Qi, Martial Prince of Lan Ling Changgong (蘭陵武王長恭) had a beautiful appearance and voice, so he wore a mask in battle to scare his enemies. This mask was not shameful; The Book of Northern Qi praises him for being a fierce military commander. Nor does the book shame him for looking ‘soft’ and beautiful (as far as I can tell, I suck at Classical Chinese so I might be missing nuances; the words used to describe him supposedly suggest he has an androgynous look.) So we have someone who is physically beautiful, and this is good, and he covers his beauty with a mask, which is also good. He’s been part of Chinese culture for over a thousand years, and his story also spread to Japan. And possibly other East Asian cultures.

All the connotations of the Prince of Lan Ling wearing a mask are good. He wasn’t hiding anything bad; beautiful faces are good. He also did nothing bad by putting on the mask; scaring the shit out of enemies was also good. Nothing about this cost him respect.

He’s not the only example in East Asian culture of someone who wears a mask because he’s too beautiful for the world. In Return of the Condor Heroes, one of the most popular Chinese novels ever (with zillion adaptations), the protagonist at one point wears a mask to protect young women from his dangerously handsome face. (And what happens after he shows that young woman his face suggests that he was right, exposing his handsomeness to young women is risky.)

Traditionally, attractive young male characters in Chinese opera are played by female performers because displaying handsome young male singers that way was considered a moral hazard. What would happen if young women in the audience were attracted to the handsome male singer? That’s why the lead male character in the most popular Chinese opera movie ever, The Love Eterne, is played by an actress, not actor.

Recently, the People’s Republic of China has cracked down on ‘sissy idols’ and entertainers who are too ‘entertaining.’ Effeminate-looking pretty men have been a thing in Chinese culture for a long time (see Prince of Lanling above). However, the PRC’s crackdown reflects traditional Chinese values by being the latest example of ‘These Guys Are Too Hot We Must Hide Them’ moral panic.

I read a Chinese novel in which the attractive young man wears a mask to protect his identity, not to protect himself from young women’s feelings. It doesn’t work. The mask only deceives characters who believe he’s dead. All the characters who suspect that he faked his death identify him despite the mask. The mask also doesn’t protect him from the passions of young women, which cause plot problems.

In the previous post, I said that most members of 2NE1 don’t mean Korean beauty standards and have been called ‘ugly.’ This is true. However, not all Koreans buy into ‘Korean beauty standards’ and some consider every member of 2NE1 to be beautiful. One interpretation of the “Ugly” music video is that the singers are beautiful and only think of themselves as being ugly because of self-esteem problems. The video has a sign which says in English ‘You Are Beautiful’ and the English lyrics include ‘Don’t lie to my face tellin’ me I’m pretty.’ This translation of the Korean lyrics also suggests that the singers’ appearance isn’t the root problem. In short, the masks in “Ugly” may also be an example of covering up physical beauty.

Masks (specifically nostril-and-mouth coverings) were common in East Asia long before the covid-19 pandemic. Allegedly it because a habit because of previous epidemics/pandemics, including plague, 1918 influenza, and SARS 2003. No doubt those outbreaks helped entrench the habit of wearing masks in East Asia. But those epidemics/pandemics aren’t unique to East Asia. Why did the 1918 influenza pandemic cause Japanese people to wear masks long after the pandemic ended, yet the same effect didn’t happen in the United States or Europe, which the 1918 influenza hit just as hard (or even harder) than Japan? To me, historical epidemics/pandemics aren’t enough to explain why East Asian cultures are so much more mask-friendly than other cultures.

The Prince of Lan Ling, or rather the cultural concepts he represents and communicates, is a better explanation. Or at least, he explains why East Asian cultures are more mouth-covering friendly than other cultures.

My research into niqab (face covering for Muslim women) revealed that a) most Muslims don’t think niqab is mandatory for women and b) many women who wear niqab don’t believe it’s mandatory but wear it anyway and c) most of the reasons for wearing niqab can be summarized as ‘modesty’ or ‘privacy.’ People who care about modesty and/or privacy are unlikely to perform in music videos, which may explain why I could find any music videos uploaded before January 2020 featuring people in niqab (I found one music video uploaded after January 2020). Since most Muslims consider niqab to be optional for women, wearing a niqab makes a certain kind of statement. I’ve read accounts of Musilm women who aren’t devout who wear niqab to make other people overestimate their devoutness, which gives them more freedom to live in a non-devout way (that’s a form of privacy.)

By comparison, wearing a cloth or surgical mask in East Asia, even before the covid-19 pandemic, was common enough that it wasn’t considered a declarative statement in the same way as a Muslim woman who chooses niqab. East Asians who wear masks are also appear much more often in music videos.

Coming up with a list of ten music videos featuring people who cover their nostrils and mouths would have been so much easier if, instead of trying to find music videos from different countries, I had only looked for 2NE1 music videos. Here’s a list of every 2NE1 music video I found in which someone covers their nostrils + mouth:

1. “Follow Me” (Star Wars Stormtrooper helmets)

2. “Go Away” (motorcycle helmets) (content warning: intimate partner violence)

3. “Can’t Nobody” (cloth mask with skull pattern, masks which are so silly I don’t know how to describe)

4. “Ugly”

5. “The Baddest Female” (black bandanas)

6. “Missing You” (full face cloth mask with beads?)

7. “Come Back Home” (black cloth mask)

8. “Crush” (black cloth masks, red bandana)

9. “Gotta Be You” (white bunny masks)

10. “Goodbye” (full head veil)

Did 2NE1’s creative team have a particular fondness for masks? Maybe. I know little about Kpop music videos since most bore me (2NE1 is an exception). However, even with my shallow knowledge of Kpop music, it’s not hard to find more examples of masks, such as this early BTS music video. Meanwhile, I have yet to find a single Latin American music video from before January 2020 which shows someone wearing a mask over their nostrils and mouth, aside from The Masked Singer videos–and that franchise started in South Korea.

According to this article, many Kpop idols wore masks in public so that they could go out without being recognized and not put on full makeup. They probably also wore masks for the same reason other South Koreans wear masks. Then it became increasingly popular among Kpop idols to wear masks often as a fashion statement. And if Kpop idols are wearing masks as a fashion statement, everyone in East Asia is even more likely to wear them.

A psychology study found that partially covered faces are much more attractive than fully visible faces. This may explain the allure of the Prince of Lan Ling and all the other legendary handsome young Chinese men who wear masks. It may also help explain the masking of Kpop idols. The article suggests that it may also explain bridal veils and niqab (though I’m suspicious of the link to niqab given that Muslims say it’s about modesty and privacy, and if it were really about attractiveness, I’d expect it to be much easier to find music videos of people in niqab).

Somehow, East Asian cultures made a link between masks and attractiveness which has endured for over a thousand years and made many East Asians willing to wear masks in public even in the absence of mandates. But this is not the only possible way a culture can interpret masks–and non-East-Asian cultures have much less appealing associations.

To be continued.

1 thought on “Guy Fawkes vs. The Prince of Lanling: How a Silly Search for Music Videos Explained Why People Reject Masks (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Guy Fawkes vs. The Prince of Lanling: How a Silly Search for Music Videos Explained Why People Reject Masks (Part 3) | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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