China wants teenage boys to man up, but public fears toxic masculinity

Society & Culture

While traditional gender roles — and the social pressures on boys to conform to traditional masculine ideas — are on the way out in many parts of the world, Chinese officials appear to believe that there’s a decline of manliness among the nation’s over-protected schoolboys.

chinese teenage boys

While traditional gender roles — and the social pressures on boys to conform to traditional masculine ideas — are on the way out in many parts of the world, Chinese officials appear to believe that there’s a decline of manliness among the nation’s over-protected schoolboys.

In their latest attempt to address what’s being called a “crisis of masculinity,” the country’s education authorities issued a plan that contains four fitness- and health-related measures to enhance teenage boys’ “masculine energy,” including strengthening physical education at schools and funding more research projects about teenagers’ mental health.

The document (in Chinese), released by the National Ministry of Education on January 28, was a response to a proposal by Sī Zéfū 斯泽夫, a delegate of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top political advisory body. In his proposal, submitted in May last year, Si raised concerns about what he called the “feminization of teenage boys in China,” saying that their “unmasculine qualities” — such as weakness, timidness, and low self-esteem — would lead to social problems and even jeopardize “the development and survival” of China if left untreated. 

The crisis, as Si argued, was partly a result of the massive popularity of “fresh young meat” (小鲜肉 xiǎoxiānròu), a slang term for young male celebrities with slender figures and feminine characteristics. In the past few years, while such soft-faced male artists have earned a considerable amount of praise for changing traditional stereotypes of male beauty, a coalition of critics, led by the award-winning director Féng Xiǎogāng 冯小刚, has berated them for diminishing masculinity of Chinese youth.

In its reply to Si’s proposal, the ministry concurred that Chinese teenage boys have become increasingly feminine, lacking physical strength and willpower to overcome adversities. It called on schools to provide more gym classes and recruit better specially trained instructors by giving them free education in the field of fitness.

While most social media users who commented on the news agreed that getting teenagers to exercise regularly is beneficial — regardless of gender, the ministry’s response unleashed a torrent of backlash from critics who lambasted it for reinforcing rigid gender norms and adding the pressure of masculinity on adolescent boys.

“The ministry should offer support and guidance to boys who are confronting outdated notions of masculinity, rather than shaming them and asking them to behave in certain ways that it wants them to,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese), while another one commented (in Chinese), “I can’t believe that it’s 2021 and we’re still living in a world where the feminine is seen as inferior to the masculine. It’s time to let boys be girly.”

As Sixth Tone pointed out, Chinese authorities have long been obsessed with the idea that there’s a crisis of masculinity among adolescent boys and young men in China. Over the years, the government has proposed a variety of solutions to this perceived problem, including distributing textbooks purporting to teach schoolboys how to act manly and encouraging schools to hire more male teachers.