Two months ago, an editorial published by Xinhua News started a debate in China on the country’s so-called “masculinity crisis”. The online forums were ablaze with people arguing whether Chinese boys should shun the androgynous style.
The Xinhua editorial criticised a TV programme, jointly produced by China Central Television and the Ministry of Education, which was compulsory viewing for elementary school students and parents at an annual back-to-school event. The programmed featured male celebrities who many viewers found “effeminate”.
The Xinhua editorial derided these boys in makeup and androgynous clothes as “sissy pants” and “little fresh meats”. It said such role models for young students were hurting China’s national image. “In an open and diverse society, aesthetics can be varied, and people can enjoy what they do,” Xinhua’s editorial said. “However, everything should have a limit. In this case, it’s no longer a matter of aesthetics, but it is an enthusiasm for ugliness and vulgarity,” it said.
The editorial said what a society’s pop culture should embrace, reject and spread is critical to the future of the country. However, another media outlet, People’s Daily, defended androgynous style of these male celebrities, saying diverse masculine styles should be tolerated. Its editorial criticised the derogatory language used to describe the male celebrities in the TV programme.
As China debates its “masculinity crisis”, a school in Beijing, called the Boys’ Club, is training “feminine” boys in manly ways through military-like training. In the six years since it has been established, the Boys’ Club has accepted about 20,000 boys aged from 5 to 12, whose parents pin their hopes on the training to help their children to overcome problems of being lazy, acting cowardly, obesity or crying too frequently, according to Chinese state-run media Global Times.
Tang Haiyan, the founder of the institute, told the Global Times that boys should shoulder responsibilities, harbor the ability to deal with emergencies and have a strong physique. Nowadays, men do not look like men, he said. “Some parents wish to make their boys healthier after training. Some send their children to correct their bad habits. And some want to save their boys from giving up hope,” Tang said.
Zhao, a mother of a 9-year-old child, sent her boy to the institute to play American football and other rugged activities almost every weekend and during every summer or winter holiday since 2016. She told the Global Times that her boy has become more independent and knows how to take good care of himself more than before. “Unless he is sick, he never skips any activities of the training center,” she said.
The boys are imparted military-like training and follow a strict regimen. They adopt the poses of soldiers, make their own beds, sing military songs and attend activities such as wresting, tug of war, martial arts and American football, reports Global Times.
Every morning before training begins, they read a “declaration of manhood”: “A man should safeguard his nation, honor and dreams. A man should be confident, diligent and make efforts to be sincere and kind. A man should control his emotions, language and behavior. A man must have success, applause and glory.”
Fang Gang, an expert on gender and psychological studies at Beijing Forestry University, told Global Times that the existence of male idols who didn’t comply with traditional sexual views was a good thing and showed that Chinese society was becoming more diverse in its perceptions of sexuality. “Saying that they will affect a country’s destiny is too far-fetched,” he said.
China’s rapid economic growth in the past decade has improved living standards and fuelled demand for men’s grooming products. China’s male skincare and cosmetics products market is booming. The male skincare and cosmetics products market of the Chinese mainland is expected to reach 1.9 billion yuan ($276 million) in 2019, and is expected to grow more than twice as fast as the overall global cosmetics market, according to research by the consulting firm Euromonitor International.
“The reason why men use more skincare and cosmetics, for example, is that they now have a higher living standard. Some might say the older generation are too masculine to use skincare products, but really it’s just because they were not economically advantaged enough to care about their appearance,” Ah Qiang (not his real name), a well-known gay rights activist and director of Guangzhou-based NGO Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), told the Global Times.
“After China’s opening-up, more people have been exposed to the beauty standards of Japan, Korea and the West. Gender neutrality has been a global trend in recent years,” he said.
However, many parents are happy with the results shown by Tang’s Boys’ Club. “There is a crisis in boys’ education and I threw myself into practical actions to save them and help them find their lost masculinity,” Tang told South China Morning Post.
For about 10,000 yuan (US$1,400) parents can sign up their sons for 18 sessions of weekend training, reports the Post. There are other, shorter themed activities such as running topless in winter, climbing a mountain in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius in Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province, or trekking for a week across a desert.
“Tong Tong’s father was busy and not around much. I looked after my son and he had been surrounded by women all the time. He was weak and wept whenever there was some difficulty,” Zhang Haiwei, mother of 12-year-old Tong Tong, told the Post. After she heard a lecture by Tang five years ago, she decided to send her son for 14 days to Tang’s boot camp. “It might be that we were too attentive to him and deprived him of the opportunity to be independent. He was not confident and wept at setbacks. He was like a sensitive girl,” she said.
“He could not even take a bath without my help. He did not poop in school because he needed us to wipe his butt after the business. Then [after the course] he would even wash his socks. I was thrilled!” Zhang told the Post.
Tang told the Post that boys were prone to be influenced by the media and they must not be misled. “Men are tough, gentlemen, full of spirit. They speak in a loud, clear voice and they stand firm. They are not shy of public speaking and, more importantly, they are ready to shoulder responsibility. Society still requires grown men to shoulder more obligations and provide the major source of income. We need to prepare boys to take more social responsibility in future,” he said.