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Rock Li: The body builder challenging Chinese notions of masculinity

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Rock Li doesn't fit the traditional body builder stereotype. When he competes in Australian body building competitions he's often the only Chinese contestant.

He spoke to Australia Plus about what inspired him to become a body builder, and how through the sport he's challenging traditional Chinese notions of masculinity and body image.

Standing in the kitchen at the gym where he works as a fitness trainer, Rock is preparing a meal. It's his third big meal of the day and it's only mid-afternoon.

He prides himself on taking the time to make sure he eats good meals every day and ensuring he gets enough protein to support his body building training schedule, which means he rarely cuts corners.

Close up of a white plate with fish and a lemon on it.
Unmarinated fish and vegies constitute a meal for body builder Rock.

ABC: Kai Feng

"A protein shake would be the last resort," says Rock, while he preps the unmarinated barramundi and broccoli.

He pre-weighs all his food to make sure that he's getting enough nutrients, but doesn't put on any unwanted weight.

"You can't add anything," he emphasises.

Not even salt?

"Maybe a tiny splash after it's done," he says, as he shovels the fish into the oven.

The road to body building

Rock grew up in Shandong province in eastern China, and now calls Melbourne home.

He started on his journey towards body building when, at the age of six, he saw Jet Li in the film Shaolin Temple.

He longed to be a "true man" like his idol and begged his grandfather to take him to the local barber.

"Just shave me like a monk in Shaolin Temple," he recalls telling the barber.

Later Rock took studied martials arts and undertook professional wrestling training, to fulfil his desire to move and fight "like a real man".

Close up shot of body builder.
Rock Li wants to have a strong physique like his heroes.

Supplied: Rock Li

Then through working as a trainer at a gym frequented by expats in Shanghai, he got introduced to the world of body building and met lots of body building enthusiasts from around the world.

It was also this group of people that told Rock about the body building scene in Australia.

Finding a home in Australia

Rock fell in love with Australia on his first visit here in 2008, when he noticed the number of people exercising in public.

"I was really impressed because you could hardly see people like me in China jogging with a backpack wearing a pair of runners, but you see Australians like that everywhere," Rock says.

"I realised this is the place for me to live and stay [in]."

Rock's training regime gets particularly stringent when he's in training mode for an upcoming competition.

Man weighing himself.
Rock strictly monitors his weight when he's preparing for a competition.

ABC: Kai Feng

He follows a strict routine which involves getting up at four in the morning and eating every three hours.

He says his body fat is at all-time low, which is particularly impressive given where he grew up.

"Being a person from Shandong we love 'mianshi' [a high-carb wheat-based diet]," says Rock.

Adopting a low-carb diet has been hellish at times.

What does the 'perfect' man look like?

Rock's years of training and sculpting his body have led him to challenge traditional Chinese masculine ideals.

A 'perfect' man in Chinese culture looks quite different from a 'perfect' man in the West.

"Traditionally for Chinese men to be considered good-looking, they have to be intellectuals. They wear long robes, hats and carry fans. That is called handsome," says Rock.

This is a preference of 'wen' (the skill of using a pen) over 'wu' (the skill of using a sword) in Chinese philosophy.

As Western pop culture started to infiltrate China in the 1980s, people began to be exposed to more Western aesthetics and ways of appreciating beauty.

Rock recalls seeing photos of male models in imported fitness magazines: "All of a sudden, you see the very muscular, naked torso, it was initially thought of as 'ugly'. It has taken time for Chinese people to accept."

But Western culture is now having a big influence on ideals of beauty in modern China.

"Lots of young people have stopped looking up to those long-robe-wearing intellectuals," Rock says.

"[Imagine] if you are exposed to [Arnold ]Schwarzenegger every day, you will start to think Schwarzenegger means beauty.

"It is all about what's in fashion. If you could find a way to get intellectual men in robes to build muscles, that itself could become a new trend."

Man holding trophies and medals
Rock with body building trophies he has won.

Supplied: Rock Li

Having lived in Australia since 2010 and being exposed to Australian culture and training methods, Rock's take on fitness and body image has evolved.

"Being heathy, well-proportioned, having a functional body with a good posture - these are my key definitions of fitness [today]," he says.

"It doesn't matter how much weight you can lift, the question is whether it is good for you."

This article is also available in Chinese.

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