Fearing 'masculinity crisis' could harm its global rise, China looks to schools

HONG KONG – Nobody invited Bu Yunhao to be with their group for the annual class trip. The other fifth graders at Shanghai Shangde Experimental School made fun of the 11-year-old and called him “too girlish”.

“I wanted to run right out of the classroom,” said Yunhao, now 13 and a junior high school student in Shanghai, China’s largest city.

Some of Yunhao’s classmates made fun of his high-pitched voice and the way he “screamed” as he tried to maintain discipline among his classmates as a class monitor. Others teased him for spending so much time with girls, saying he acted like he was trying to “go out” with the other boys in the class.

Chinese boys pass a patriotic banner as they walk home from a local elementary school together after class in Beijing, China, September 2020.Kevin Frayer / Getty Images File

The bullying eventually stopped, but a recent government announcement to highlight boys who do not fit traditional Chinese notions of masculinity revived the painful memories. The plan to promote masculinity in male students has sparked a debate about modern gender roles as the Chinese government increasingly emphasizes what many consider to be out of date and harms stereotypes about men and boys.

“Boys don’t need masculinity training,” said Lü Pin, the founder of China’s largest media outlet for feminist advocacy, Feminist Voices, which was banned by Chinese censors in 2018.

“The concept of masculinity forces every man to be harsh, which excludes and harms men with other types of traits,” she said. “It also strengthens men’s hegemony, control and position over women, which goes against gender equality.”

In January, China’s education Ministry published plans “Cultivating Masculinity” in boys from kindergarten through high school. The initiative includes recruiting and training more physical education teachers, testing students more extensively in physical education classes, making health education mandatory, and supporting research into topics such as the “Influence of Internet Celebrity Phenomenon on Adolescent Values”.

The plan follows a warning from one of China’s top political advisors that the nation is experiencing a national “masculinity crisis”.

“Chinese boys were pampered by housewives and teachers,” adviser Si Zefu said in a May policy proposal. Boys would soon become “tender, shy, and feminine” if no action was taken, he said.

Young students practice Sanda fighting skills at high school. Danzhai County, Guizhou Province, China, July 2020.Costfoto / Barcroft Media via the Getty Images file

The solution to the problem is a national security issue, he wrote, warning that the “feminization” of Chinese boys “threatens China’s survival and development.”

Boys in China are traditionally expected to demonstrate strong leadership skills, get good grades in math and science, and excel in school sports. Fang Gang, a sociology professor at Beijing Forestry University, blogged about the proposed changes on Jan. 30.

Girls are traditionally seen as less intellectual and are expected to be less competitive. The gender norms are rooted in traditional philosophy, in which two elements rule the world: women are associated with the softer, more passive element “yin”; Men are represented by the harder, more active element of “Yang”.

However, ideas about gender roles have changed in recent years. As of 2010, have more girls than boys Registered universities, and Girls regularly outperform boys Standardized tests challenge the traditional view that boys are more academic by nature.

The change has resulted in a common saying, “Yin in prosperity and Yang in decline.”

The growing popularity of male Chinese pop stars wearing makeup and androgynous sparkly clothing has also influenced youth culture. China’s young style connoisseurs have drawn inspiration from Confucianism and South Korean pop culture and adopted the “soft style,” a softer form of masculinity that contrasts sharply with the traditional tropes of tough guys and enables more diverse forms of self-expression.

The rising economic status of women and the rise of feminism have also turned traditional notions of masculinity on their head. China has a strong gender imbalance: in a country of 1.4 billion people, there are almost 37 million more men than women. This is a consequence of the preference for sons under China’s one-child policy, which existed from 1979 to 2015. However, women are more able to show competitiveness and leadership skills in the workplace, and they can take more initiative when it comes to dating and marriage.

Still, the Chinese government is more conservative about the behavior of both men and women. Representations of gay relationships are banned from Chinese television under a 2016 law. “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content“And while homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, no law prevents it Discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In September 2018, when a television special shown to students on the first day of school showed male Chinese pop stars, angry editorials in major newspapers cited the stars as a bad influence. The government-run Xinhua News Agency described the performance as “like putting chili in your eyes”.

In 2019, Chinese censors began blurring the earrings and dyed hair of male celebrities who appeared on shows as part of a ban on female representation, and deleted scenes depicting homosexuality from the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

The prospect of same-sex marriage is advancing, however, and the “Star Wars” franchise’s first same-sex kiss made it to Chinese theaters.

A mother holds flowers while walking her son in Hubei Province, China in March 2020. Wuhan,Getty Images file

Chen Yong, 50, from Shanghai, said he was not a fan of the “feminization” of pop culture, but he believed people should be free to choose how to live. However, he was more conservative when it came to his 13-year-old son.

“My son used to be delicate and introverted, so I encouraged him to be more manly by playing basketball and practicing taekwondo,” he said.

Chen said he would accept his son if he stayed “soft” despite exercising. But there were still “certain lines” that he would not allow him to cross, such as raising his little finger in the gesture known in China as the “orchid finger”, which is stereotypically associated with gay men and transgender women.

Experts grapple with such gender stereotypes.

Elementary school students attending a class in Wuhan in the central Chinese province of Hubei on the first day of the new semester.AFP via Getty Images file

“Men are not necessarily aggressive, competitive, and athletic, while women are not necessarily passive, emotional, and soft,” wrote sociologist Fang Gang. “Good qualities are unisex that both girls and boys should learn.”

Geopolitics may be behind government fears that “yang” is declining, said Joshua Eisenman, an associate professor at Notre Dame University’s Keough School of Global Affairs who is a senior fellow on China studies with the American Foreign Policy Council .

China’s preoccupation with the physical abilities of its people began during the “Century of Humiliation,” he said via email, referring to the period from 1839 to 1949, when the country was repeatedly colonized or by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan was beaten in war.

“The narrative that has been taught to all Chinese children remains the one below [Communist] China, the party’s leadership, has strengthened itself to resist and overcome the West, “Eisenman said.” What preoccupies me most about this new policy is the unmistakable attraction to a concept of masculinity defined by the service of the state. “

Singer Jay Chou in Haikou, China.Power Sport Images / Getty Images file

In China, some teachers say that the plan’s key proposal, an overhaul of the physical education curriculum, is unrealistic in light of pressures from the education system.

Guo Biyan, a physical education teacher at an elementary school in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province, said he only leads two physical lessons a week, despite the government mandating four weekly sessions. And even then, other teachers sometimes put pressure on him to limit the extent to which students actually train in his classes so that they can reserve energy for their academic studies, he said.

“Major subject teachers and a lot of parents think it’s okay if [students] Don’t get enough exercise because exercise is only a small part of school exams, “Guo said.

Yunhao, who was shunned by his classmates because he was too feminine, said he was comfortable with who he is now and needn’t try to be more masculine.

“I’m a kind guy. I’m sociable, humble, gentle, and considerate. I’ve made a lot of friends now,” he said. “Saying I’m ‘girly’ is superficial.”Zixu Wang and Xin Chen reported from Hong Kong, Caroline Radnofsky from London.

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