SHANGHAI — Zhang Mei Lian is worried about her 16-year-old son. Worried that he’s falling behind his female classmates in school. Worried that he isn’t athletic enough, that he doesn’t know how to repair things, such as computers or a broken light. Worried that, in short, he doesn’t know how to be a man.
“Our current education system is really bad for boys,” Zhang said. “Boys should be strong. Otherwise, they are all turning into some kind of feminized boys. Boys should be acting like boys.”
Zhang isn’t the only one who’s concerned about the masculinity of young Chinese men. Much as in some segments of the United States, where boys’ falling academic achievement has been the subject of a host of studies, China is worried about whether rapid social change is leaving boys behind.
“We tend to describe it as the feminization of men or lack of manliness,” said Li Wendao, the co-author of a book titled “Save the Boys.” “Society is concerned because if the issue is not resolved, its influence will be big on society’s development.”
Just as in the United States, one of the main concerns is that girls are outperforming boys in school. According to “Save the Boys,” Chinese girls outscore boys on college entrance exams, are more likely to go to college and are winning more scholarships. A study in Zhejiang province, near Shanghai, found that 60 percent of primary school boys thought that girls were smarter than they were.
Experts blame the country’s education system, which stresses rote memorization over a more creative, free-thinking pedagogy. Parents and teachers force children here from an early age to memorize a curriculum geared toward helping them pass a number of national exams for high school and college.
Outside the classroom, they’re forced to take numerous private lessons in subjects ranging from English to physics. They study at night, on the weekends and during holidays. Girls, these experts charge, are better able to handle such studying practices. Boys, they argue, need more free time to be rambunctious – more time to do things that boys like to do.
The structured environment leads to behavioral problems in junior and senior high school, caused – some experts think – by a childhood spent being punished by parents for being disobedient or making poor grades.
“There is no question boys here do not know how to act like men,” said Mark Kurban, a physics teacher at a private high school in Shanghai. “Boys tend to be lazier than the girls. They tend to be those who are more distracted in class. They just really want to play basketball the whole time in school, maybe because they did not have a chance to play like boys. The students here are expected to be study machines.”
“Save the Boys” calls China’s exam-based education system the “most ferocious killer in the growing boys crisis.”
Wan Zongyi is a tall, lanky 17-year-old who says he thinks teachers favor girls and that many of his friends have come to resent their female counterparts as well as school.
“When I go to school, I feel that teachers always encourage girls, not boys. Boys are always naughty and noisy,” Wan said. “Boys are always beaten by their parents in their childhood, so they feel angry. When they become teenagers, that anger explodes.”
“I should have used my free time to play sports,” he said. “Not just sit and learn knowledge that I will never use later in life.”
One high school in Shanghai is trying to address the problem. Last fall, the public Shanghai No. 8 Senior High School began offering experimental boys-only classes, which include wilderness training, using tools, boxing and repairing electrical appliances. During the summer, students were required to take part in a military boot camp, in which they had to scale walls and jump out of windows.
Lu Qisheng, the headmaster of the school, said another challenge facing Chinese boys stemmed from the country’s one-child policy, which was put in place more than three decades ago to control the population.
Boy babies were favored over girls, and families with male children tended to be incredibly overprotective, coddling and spoiling their single male children so much that society now refers to these children as “little emperors.” This, combined with the fact that most boys are raised only by their mothers because their fathers are out working and rarely home, has resulted in males who expect special treatment, lack a sense of responsibility and don’t know how to manage emotions, particularly anger, when things don’t go as they desire, the theory goes.
“This has weakened their ability to live independently,” Lu said. “And also weakened their ability to make choices themselves. Their capabilities are weakened by their families.”
A substantial overlay of cultural conflict colors the concerns. Some people here blame the popularity of television shows and movies from South Korea that portray men as skinny with beautifully delicate features for changing notions of masculinity.
These experts also single out an online literary genre of romance stories about gay men that’s popular among some women, arguing that it adds to mixed messages for boys.
“I think Chinese women, especially young women in cities, some of them share this kind of preference,” said Song Geng, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who’s the author of the forthcoming book “Men and Masculinities in Contemporary China.” “This gives rise to feminized male pop stars and similar images on TV.”
The male grooming industry is exploding in China, with more men buying beauty products, even makeup. Some young men say they consider it a compliment to be mistaken as gay.
“Now on campus, the boys who look more girly are more popular,” said Wan, the student. “I think it is a trend.”
There are historical roots for this conflict. In plays from China’s dynastic period, gentle male scholars – instead of warriors – were the ones who won women’s hearts. “The sword-wielding guy never does,” said Kam Louie, the author of “Theorizing Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China.”
For most of the dynastic period, being gay “was quite normal,” Louie said. “In Chinese tradition, men were more sensitive, less rough.”
This notion of the sensitive male disappeared after the last dynasty fell in the early part of the 20th century, however. Men were forced to cut their long hair, and when the communists came to power in 1949, soldiers – or strong men – who could defend their country became the Communist Party’s primary depiction of the ideal male. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, millions of members of China’s educated elite were forced to work in the countryside. Any remnants of the soft scholar as an ideal were largely erased from official culture.
Now, however, Louis said, the pendulum is swinging back toward a broader definition of what makes a man a man. “There is a traditional background in the Chinese case, which makes the revival easier,” he said. “It is not seen as being a sissy.”
But it still engenders conflict, something that some scholars say has become more controversial than it should be.
“China is still a patriarchal society,” said Li Yinhe, one of China’s pre-eminent gender-study scholars. “Women traditionally should not be leaders,” she said, describing the culture. “In the family, women’s role is to assist men. The Chinese saying is that the man leads and the woman follows.”
Farrar is a McClatchy special correspondent.