China proposes to teach boys about masculinity as state alarmed by changing gender roles

HONG KONG – No one invited Bu Yunhao to join his group for the annual school trip. The other fifth graders at the Shanghai Shangde Experimental School mocked the 11-year-old, calling him “too girly.”

“I wanted to run away, right out of class,” said Yunhao, now 13 and a first-year college student in Shanghai, Chinathe largest city in.

Some of Yunhao’s classmates laughed at his high pitched voice and the way he “screamed” when trying to maintain discipline among his fellow students as a class monitor. Others teased him for spending so much time with girls and said he acted like he was “trying to date” with the other boys in the class.

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

The bullying eventually stopped, but a recent government announcement singling out boys who don’t fit traditional Chinese ideas of masculinity rekindled the painful memories. Plan to ‘encourage masculinity’ in male college students has ignited a debate over modern gender roles as the Chinese government increasingly emphasizes what many see as outdated and prejudicial stereotypes for men and the boys.

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

“The concept of masculinity forces every man to be tough, which excludes and hurts men with other types of characteristics,” she said. “It also strengthens the hegemony, control and position of men over women, which runs counter to gender equality.”

In January, China’s education Ministry published plans “Cultivating masculinity” in boys from kindergarten to high school. The initiative involves hiring and training more gym teachers, testing students more comprehensively in physical education, making health education compulsory, and supporting research on issues such as “l influence of the Internet celebrity phenomenon on adolescent values.

The plan follows a warning from one of China’s top political advisers that the country is going through a national “masculinity crisis.”

“Chinese boys have been spoiled by housewives and teachers,” adviser Si Zefu said in a policy proposal in May. Boys would soon become “delicate, shy and effeminate” unless action is taken, he said.

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

Addressing the issue is a matter of national security, he wrote, warning that the “feminization” of Chinese boys “threatens the survival and development of China.”

Boys in China are traditionally expected to demonstrate strong leadership skills, achieve good grades in math and science, and excel in school sports, Fang Gang, professor of sociology at Peking Forestry University, wrote in an article. blog post on the proposed changes on January 30.

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

However, ideas about gender roles have started to change in recent years. Since 2010, more girls than boys have entered universities, and girls regularly outperform boys in standardized tests, challenging the traditional view that boys are naturally more academic.

The change led to a common saying: “Yin in prosperity and yang in decline.”

The growing popularity of male Chinese pop stars wearing androgynous and shiny makeup and clothing has also influenced youth culture. Drawing inspiration from Confucianism and South Korean pop culture, young Chinese style connoisseurs adopted the “soft style” look, a softer form of masculinity that contrasts sharply with traditional badass tropes, allowing for shapes. more diverse self-expression.

The growing economic status of women and growing feminism have also overturned traditional ideas of masculinity. China has a glaring gender imbalance – in a country of 1.4 billion people, there are nearly 37 million more men than women, a consequence of the preference for sons under the Chinese one-child policy, which was in place from 1979 to 2015. Today, however, women are more able to demonstrate competitiveness and leadership in the workplace, and they are able to take more responsibility. ‘dating and marriage initiatives.

Yet the Chinese government maintains a more conservative view of how men and women should behave. Representations of same-sex relationships are banned on Chinese television under a 2016 law prohibiting “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content. “And while homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, no law prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In September 2018, when a special TV show presented to students on the first day of school featured Chinese pop stars, angry editorials in major newspapers called the stars a bad influence. The state-run Xinhua News Agency described the show as “like putting spice in your eyes.”

In 2019, Chinese censors began scrambling earrings and colored hair on male celebrities appearing on shows as part of a ban on female portrayals, and they deleted scenes depicting homosexuality from the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

The prospect of same sex marriage is making headway, however, and the first gay kiss in the “Star Wars” franchise has entered Chinese theaters.

A mother holds flowers during a walk with her son in March 2020 in Hubei province, China. Wuhan,Getty Images file

Chen Yong, 50, from Shanghai, said he was not a fan of the “feminization” of pop culture, but believed that people should have the freedom to choose their way of life. He was, however, more conservative when it came to his 13-year-old son.

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

Chen said he would accept his son if he remained “gentle” despite playing more sports. But there were still “certain lines” that he wouldn’t let him cross, such as lifting his little finger in the gesture known in China as the “orchid finger,” which is stereotypically associated with gay men and women. transgender.

Experts challenge these gender stereotypes.

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

“Men are not necessarily aggressive, competitive and athletic, while women are not necessarily passive, emotional and gentle,” wrote sociologist Fang Gang. “The good characteristics are unisex, which both girls and boys should learn.”

Geopolitics may be at the root of government fears that “yang” is in decline, said Joshua Eisenman, associate professor at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame and senior researcher in Chinese studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.

China’s concern for the physical prowess 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 colonized. or repeatedly defeated by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan.

“The story taught to all Chinese children remains only under the [Communist] party leadership, China has strengthened itself to resist and defeat the West, ”Eisenman said. “What worries me most about this new policy is its distinctive appeal to a concept of masculinity that is defined by state service.

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

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

Guo Biyan, a gym teacher at an elementary school in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province, said he only runs two physical education classes a week, even though the government requires four weekly sessions. . And even then, other teachers sometimes pressure him to limit the extent to which students actually exercise in his classes so that they can reserve energy for their college studies, he said. he declares.

“The main subject teachers and many parents think it is good if [students] don’t exercise enough because physical education is only a small part of school exams, ”Guo said.

Yunhao, who was rejected by his classmates for being too feminine, said he was comfortable with who he is now and didn’t need to try to be more masculine.

“I’m a nice guy. I’m outgoing, modest, sweet and caring. I’ve made a lot of friends now,” he said. “To say I’m ‘girly’ is superficial.”Zixu Wang and Xin Chen reported from Hong Kong, Caroline Radnofsky reported from London.

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