Since China’s unofficial ban last year on popular South Korean cultural imports, Chinese promoters have tried to satisfy pop music fans with homegrown talent. There are slick boy bands and foxy girl groups, but Acrush aims for a growing segment of Chinese youth culture: androgynous urban trendsetters who reject traditional gender norms.
“People have been really curious,” said Peng Xichen, 21, the newest member of Acrush. “They’re used to seeing either cutesy or sexy girl groups, or boy bands. But I guess they’re not really used to seeing a totally androgynous girl band.”
The group was formed late last year after a nationwide search for members for a new girl band. During auditions, promoters found “many very natural, very handsome girls,” said Wang Tianhai, the chief executive of Zhejiang Huati, which is based in Hangzhou.
These “handsome girls” represent a new marketing gambit for Mr. Wang to break into a previously unclaimed sliver of the increasingly diversified Chinese audience.
“There are so many androgynous-looking girls these days, we thought they would be more relatable,” Mr. Wang said.
For the members of Acrush, which released its first video last month, the band is a chance for them to express themselves and pursue dreams of stardom in a society that has long stressed conformity over individuality.
‘How Could I Be a Celebrity?’
An Junxi’s father really wanted a son. “But I was born a girl, so my dad just thought, ‘Well, she’s young, so we’ll just dress her up like a boy,’” Ms. An said, straddling a lounge chair — full manspread — during a break in rehearsal outside the studio.
“I’ve dressed like this ever since I was young,” she explained. Wearing dresses “just felt weird.”
Like many Chinese of her generation, Ms. An, 22, became enamored with K-pop music imported from South Korea, especially that of the rapper G-Dragon.
After she graduated from college, she moved from her small hometown in the northeast near Shenyang across the country to the city of Chengdu, where she was discovered rapping in a friend’s bar by her agent, Zhou Xiaobai.
“I thought she was a total scammer,” Ms. An said of her agent, who manages Acrush. “I wasn’t a trained singer, I was singing other people’s songs and I had studied classical Chinese dancing — how could I be a celebrity?”
‘My Parents Wanted Me to Be a Stock Trader’
Growing up in the southern city of Nanjing, Lu Keran was a tomboy. She played sports, and even went to a special athletic academy to be a competitive fencer.
Keeping her hair long, she said, was annoying, so at age 10 she cut it short, and people would often confuse her for a boy. “It was really awkward,” she recalled, but her closely cropped coif suited her and felt like an early act of rebellion against the traditional expectations of her parents, both engineers.
“They think girls are supposed to work in an office and then go home,” Ms. Lu, 21, said. “My parents wanted me to be a stock trader.”
Her youthful acts of rebellion started to grow: a small geometric tattoo on her right ankle went unnoticed, then a sprawling image of a dragon’s head on her right forearm.
When her parents discovered her tattoos, Ms. Lu said, her mother refused to speak to her for days.
“They thought getting a tattoo was something that bad kids did,” she said. “But you see a lot of kids in my generation getting tattoos now. I guess that’s the generation gap.”
Though she studied economics in college in Nanjing to appease her parents, Ms. Lu had her own ambitions.
“I do what I want to do,” she said defiantly. “Whatever makes me happy, I do.”
‘I’m Still a Typical Girl’
Min Junqian, 24, had always dreamed of becoming a star. In 2012, she left the musical performance program at a university near her hometown in the eastern province of Shandong to jump-start her entertainment career in Beijing.
She performed on several variety shows, including an online series called “Let Go of That Piece of Clothing,” before she was invited to join Acrush in September.
Ms. Min is the band’s most macho member. On Sina Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, she recently posted a photo of herself dressed in a black tank top to show off her biceps.
The band’s management forbids members to talk openly about their sexual orientation, and Ms. Min plays it coy: “What do you think I am? You can’t really tell, right?”
Ms. Min confesses a fan-girl crush on Wang Leehom, the Taiwanese-American pop idol. “Wang Leehom is so handsome and talented. So handsome! I want to marry him!”
She added: “I’m still a typical girl.”
‘My Life Is My Own Life’
Tall and lanky, Lin Fan, 18, is the youngest member of the group and has yet to find her rock-star mojo.
At a recent photo shoot, the other members of the group struck power poses while Ms. Lin stood awkwardly, arms hanging limply by her sides. She admits that she is not the strongest dancer.
“I’m pretty clumsy,” she said. “But I’ve always dreamed of doing this, so I’m very happy.”
Ms. Lin is the most feminine of the five bandmates and cast by image makers as the ingénue — the small-town girl finding her place in the world. Though female fans refer to the other members of the band as “husband” — as in the sort of boy a girl would want to marry — they affectionately refer to Ms. Lin as “wife” or “little sister.”
“My family has always thought that girls should look and act like girls,” she said. “But for my generation, we think: My life is my own life.”
‘Male Dancing Is More Powerful, More Handsome’
Peng Xichen, 21, is a pop-music veteran. Before she joined Acrush in January, she was in another girl group — a “cute band” — in which each member played a stereotypical female role.
“We had to dance these kind of cute, sexy routines,” she said. “I could do it, but it wasn’t the image I wanted to show. I didn’t feel like it was me.”
Ms. Peng had studied dance at a special school since she was 12, and trained in different styles, including Latin dance. But it was not until she joined Acrush, she said, that she felt as if she could express her true self.
“Male dancing is more powerful, more handsome,” she said.
It remains to be seen if audiences will embrace Acrush’s gender-bending style, Ms. Peng said. “I’m really scared that what we’ve prepared isn’t what everyone wants.”