Between the “real man” bootcamps, earring censorship, and linkage to a CIA plot to effeminize Asian men, China’s “little fresh meat” have gotten a lot of flak.
Over the past few years, these young male stars have drawn disdain largely for dancing around traditional beauty standards. At odds with the standard ideal — patriarchal and patriotic — little fresh meat (or xiaoxianrou) are typically characterized by their perfectly coiffed hair, delicate features and androgynous fashion choices. But the problem is more than aesthetics; according to state-run media, these boys promote a “sissy” and “decadent” culture that has thrown the country into a masculinity crisis.
Despite the pushback, little fresh meat remain China’s most valuable celebrities. And, thanks to a growing appetite for Asian entertainment across the globe, more are gaining recognition abroad — breaking records, claiming firsts and, a tad ironically, becoming the face of China’s commercial power.
From breakout stars to tenured talent, take a look at the fresh faces who made waves in the industry this year.
Now 18 years old, the youngest TFBoys member has begun to shed his teen idol identity for that of serious actor. Jackson holds his own alongside established actress Zhou Dongyu in the film Better Days, playing a small-time criminal who becomes embroiled in a murder trial. With its brutal, yet realistic depiction of school bullying, Better Days was actually yanked from screening on two occasions this year, only to make a surprise comeback a few weeks ago. And good thing it did, as the movie was met with an 85 million USD opening weekend and rave reviews.
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A man of many talents, Jackson also starred in the hit web series, The Longest Day in Chang’an, and resumed his role as celebrity judge on season 2 of Street Dance of China this year. When not on screen, he was probably working on his music — he recently performed at the 11/11 Singles Day Gala — or advocating for youth as a special envoy for the World Health Organization.
Dubbed the “lead sheep of China,” Lay Zhang (Zhang Yixing) has been grazing on some green pastures in 2019. Not only was the 28-year-old the only Chinese celebrity invited to the Grammys red carpet, but he also got to serve sweet looks at the Met Gala as Valentino’s ambassador.
Another product of the K-pop industry (he’s an EXO member), Lay created a steady drumbeat of solo content in 2019: in February, he collaborated with Jason Derulo and NCT 127 on a Michael Jackson tribute song, and in June he dropped a new EP, Honey, which sold 1.87 million copies in just three minutes. On the small screen, he returned as the strict yet caring head coach on the highly anticipated season 2 of Idol Producer and starred in iQiYi’s fantasy drama, The Golden Eyes.
More recently, however, Lay has made headlines more for his politics than his pop music, from warning Calvin Klein to respect the “one China” policy to defending Hong Kong police after protests rocked the SAR.
While Li Xian is by no means new to the entertainment industry, he’s only just getting on people’s radars. After playing the romantic lead in iQIYI’s hit summer drama Go Go Squid!, the platform’s second most popular show after last year’s Story of Yanxi Palace, the actor skyrocketed to fame. Since its release, he’s scored brand deals, roles in several upcoming films, a spot on Forbes China’s 30 Under 30 Asia list, and the GQ Popular Actor of the Year Award.
Unlike the xiaoxianrou above, Li Xian isn’t an idol and has a more traditionally “manly” appearance. But given the country’s supposed masculinity crisis, this may actually be helping set him apart in the oversaturated fresh meat market.
Xiao Zhan got his start as a member of male idol group X Nine (not to be confused for Nine Percent), but has only recently blown up thanks to his breakout role in the costume drama The Untamed. Co-starring fellow heartthrob Wang Yibo, the bromantic murder mystery adventure has made millions from concerts, live streaming, album sales and merchandise.
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This, plus his role in the Mid-Autumn blockbuster Jade Dynasty, has earned him a spot on Forbes China’s 30 Under 30 Asia and propelled him to the No. 1 position on the global marketing consultancy R3’s celebrity index.
Like Yee, 25-year-old Hong Kong-born Jackson Wang is best known for being a boyband member. But unlike the younger Jackson, Wang still actively promotes with his K-pop group GOT7, completing a world tour with them this summer. At the same time, he has built an impressive solo career, starting with EP releases two years ago — remember “Papillon”? — and culminating in his first album, Mirror, which became the highest-charting debut album by a Chinese artist in the US ever when it reached No. 32 on the Billboard 200 chart last month.
And as if that wasn’t enough, he also lent his vocals on 88Rising’s second crew album, Head in the Clouds II, solidifying his status as an international superstar.
2019 started off rocky for the 21-year-old artist when his appointment as the NBA’s first Chinese New Year Celebrating Brand Ambassador incited backlash, largely due to Cai’s “feminine” appearance and lack of basketball prowess. Controversies continued to follow: in February, he was caught faking his online popularity by China’s state media CCTV; later in the summer, he was digitally dethroned from Weibo’s list of “super topics” after his fans — collectively known as iKun — dragged him into a rivalry with Jay Chou fans.
Despite the drama, the leader of former boy group Nine Percent has also had some major wins, from being named China and Jamaica’s Goodwill Ambassador, to selling out his first solo tour overseas, to a slew of commercial opportunities.
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