Zhang Huan is a Fox: An Analysis of Sexy Men

Photographs taken from various art publications


I’m doing some writing work related to Chinese contemporary art, and one of the artists I’m writing about is Zhang Huan. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s one of the biggest stars in the art world, whose works have been seen or collected in pretty much every important museum and institution out there. He started off as a performance artist, putting his body through some crazy shit like sitting in a public toilet for hours while smeared with honey to call attention to the disgusting conditions there.


But my favourite of his old performance artworks is To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond. In Zhang Huan’s own words:

I invited about forty participants, recent migrants to the city who had come to work in Beijing from other parts of China. They were construction workers, fishermen and labourers, all from the bottom of society. They stood around in the pond and then I walked in it. At first, they stood in a line in the middle to separate the pond into two parts. Then they all walked freely, until the point of the performance arrived, which was to raise the water level. Then they stood still. In the Chinese tradition, fish is the symbol of sex while water is the source of life. This work expresses, in fact, one kind of understanding and explanation of water. That the water in the pond was raised one metre higher is an action of no avail.


The photographs from this performance art are beautiful, and I especially love this one, called Water Child (sorry for the poor quality):

Zhang Huan has since moved on to other media, and you should check out the sculptures he’s made from incense ash collected from temples. These remind me of the mandalas that Buddhist monks make that eventually get blown away to express impermanence, and being that Zhang Huan is himself Buddhist, I’m guessing that there is something about the eventual disappearance of the artwork that appeals to him.


As you can imagine, there is a ton of literature about Zhang Huan and his works out there. He’s been called controversial, provocative, the “bad boy of the art world”, and so on. I’ve read so much stuff about him that I’ve practically memorized his biography and list of important works. But one thing that no one has actually talked about, which seems like the elephant in the room, is that Zhang Huan is kind of hot. Scratch that: he’s deeply, super, incredibly hot. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this because I’ve asked around and everyone, even straight guys, agree: Zhang Huan is a fox.

It’s hard to quantify exactly what makes Zhang Huan sexy because some people are just full of sexiness. It’s not just a physical attribute because someone can be physically symmetrical and attractive and still not have that THING that true sexiness requires. Henry Golding is kind of an example of how someone looks nice enough but…there’s just no THERE there. Meh.

Zhang Huan’s foxiness isn’t just about his looks even though he too has a conventionally attractive face. It’s a mix of all of his qualities: he has a great voice with just the right amount of roughness, and he is clearly that guy with a great walk (so important); you can tell he has one of those easy, wolfish gaits and doesn’t shuffle around awkwardly or do weird extra stuff with his hands and feet. But most importantly, he embodies that intense guy with a sensitive soul that is a romantic cliche because it is so rare.

Some people are sexy because there’s a hint of danger to them, like they might be hiding something unpredictable and wild. Steven Yeun is an example of this: he looks like a clean-cut kind of guy on the surface, but it feels like there’s darkness lurking underneath, and that’s exciting for a lot of people. The thrill of Steven’s Yeun’s sexiness is figuring out what exactly that darkness entails. I know I’m not the only one who senses this because Lee Chang-dong cast him in Burning as exactly that kind of character.

By the way, as I was looking for pictures of Steven Yeun, I came across a thread about him in a forum where the women more or less unanimously agreed he was a “QT” but also that he needs to quit the whole “lol I’m not handsome, girls don’t like me” schtick because it’s pretty obvious that he can paradoxically cause both thirst and wetness.

With Zhang Huan, the darkness and the wildness are all apparent on the surface, but it’s that hint of gentleness and kindness that makes him really intriguing. He’s the kind of guy that you see coming over and your heart starts pounding because he’s just so cool, the way he carries himself and everything, but then when he gets closer, you realize that there’s a tenderness in his eyes and you start blushing because it’s so unexpected.

I think I’m starting to write fan fiction now, so I’m going to stop. However, I do want to point out that one  big difference between Steven Yeun sexy and Zhang Huan sexy is the kind of dysfunctional people they attract. The Steven Yeuns of the world attract “nice” girls and boys who secretly want drama, and the Zhang Huans of the world attract messy people who are looking to cling to someone.

Some of you may be thinking that those pictures of young Zhang Huan were taken in the late 1990s, and he probably looks different now and maybe less sexy, but YOU ARE MISTAKEN. This kind of sexiness does not age. He is still hot. So hot that he was in British GQ for Gucci not too long ago.

I can see how it’s a little creepy that I’ve just spent about 1000 words talking about the sexiness of a guy I’ve never met, but I do have a point. Despite scientific measurements for attractiveness on symmetry and other evolutionary theories on attractiveness–some of which I feel like will be debunked in a few years–you really can’t quantify sexiness.

Some of us spend a lot of time worrying about how we look and whether we meet certain standards of beauty, which are often based on capitalist and white supremacist principles. When sexiness is reduced to physical traits like body shape or size to make you buy things to make them possible, that’s capitalism. When it’s based on traits that depend on proximity or access to whiteness, that’s white supremacy. This demeans and trivializes true sexiness, which you really can’t buy or get through proximity because sexiness depends on having a complex internal life (or at least appearing to have one).

I really don’t have much else to say now that I’ve fulfilled my Marxist evangelism quota for the day, except that I’m so glad sexy creatures like Zhang Huan (and Steven Yeun) exist.

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