Boys WON’T BE Boys

Are ed­u­ca­tors and pop idols to blame for China’s al­leged “mas­culin­ity cri­sis?”

The World of Chinese - - Cover Story - - SUN JIAHUI (孙佳慧)

S “ave the chil­dren,” writer Lu Xun fa­mously con­cluded his clas­sic 1917 short story “Di­ary of a Mad­man.” A cen­tury later, some be­lieve that it’s boys, es­pe­cially, who need to be saved.

In 2010, writer and ed­u­ca­tor Sun Yunx­iao pub­lished his best­selling Save the Boys, in which Sun, to­gether with two child psy­chol­o­gists, claimed that the coun­try’s young men are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a “boys’ cri­sis”—not only fall­ing be­hind girls in aca­demic per­for­mance, but also be­com­ing in­creas­ingly emas­cu­lated.

Since na­tional uni­ver­sity en­trance ex­am­i­na­tions ( gaokao) were rein­tro­duced 40 years ago, boys have ac­counted for 56 per­cent of the top scor­ers among China’s 31 prov­inces. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics pub­lished in 2017 by Cuaa.net, that pro­por­tion has de­creased to 47 per­cent over the last decade. Sun says this de­cline is re­flected across the board, from school ex­ams to achieve­ments in uni­ver­sity. In 2012, the Shang­hai Academy of So­cial Sciences pro­duced re­search show­ing that gen­der dis­par­i­ties in aca­demic achieve­ment can emerge as early as the third grade.

Sun in Save the Boys im­putes this to China’s ex­am­i­na­tion-ori­ented ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. “Teach­ers like well-be­haved stu­dents. But boys are re­bel­lious by na­ture, so they are very likely to be re­moved from the list of ‘good stu­dents,’” he writes.

Sun also blames an ig­no­rance about ba­sic bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween boys and girls, claim­ing that their brains de­velop at dif­fer­ent speeds. Al­legedly, pri­mary school boys de­velop ver­bal and writ­ten lan­guage skills more slowly than their fe­male peers, but these abil­i­ties hap­pen to be em­pha­sized more in the cur­rent eval­u­a­tion cri­te­ria. “Our ex­am­i­na­tion-ori­ented ed­u­ca­tion is un­fa­vor­able for both boys and girls,” Sun writes, “but com­pared to girls, boys suf­fer more.”

Sun is far from the first mod­ern ed­u­ca­tor to sound the alarm on be­half of boys, nor the first to sug­gest rig­ging the re­sults in their fa­vor. In 2005, the for­eign lan­guages depart­ment of

Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity re­port­edly ad­mit­ted boys with a lower min­i­mum score, while Jilin Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor Yu Chang­min ad­mit­ted that their Col­lege of For­eign Lan­guages of­ten found ex­cuses to elim­i­nate fe­male ap­pli­cants, be­cause they far out­num­bered male ap­pli­cants.

Sun’s plea still hit a nerve, though. Af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion, the China For­eign Af­fairs Uni­ver­sity told Sohu that they planned to lower ad­mis­sion stan­dards for boys; in 2012, both Ren­min Uni­ver­sity and the Shang­hai In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies Uni­ver­sity low­ered the bar for male en­roll­ment in or­der to main­tain a “rea­son­able” gen­der ra­tio.

By 2016, Zhu Xiao­jin, vice-pres­i­dent of Nan­jing Nor­mal Uni­ver­sity and Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Con­sul­ta­tive Con­fer­ence mem­ber, was propos­ing a na­tional so­lu­tion: al­low­ing boys to de­lay pri­mary school for two years while they “lib­er­ate their na­tures, en­joy play­ing, and sharpen their think­ing abil­ity,” so that “when they en­ter school…they won’t be de­feated at the start­ing line.”

Op­po­nents ar­gue it’s un­fair to pan­der to one gen­der’s lack­lus­ter per­for­mance. “Why can’t girls score higher than boys?” asks Li Yichen, a teacher at the Af­fil­i­ated High School of Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity, who has a mas­ter’s de­gree in gen­der stud­ies. “So many fields are dom­i­nated by men, and no one feels it’s a prob­lem. Now that girls score a lit­tle higher in ex­ams, it be­comes a prob­lem?”

“The logic be­hind [Sun’s book] is, any field in which women out­per­form men is mean­ing­less,” Li adds, “and any sys­tem that al­lows women to have ad­van­tages over men is flawed.”

But ex­am­i­na­tions are not the only cri­te­ria in which boys are not mea­sur­ing up. An al­leged “cri­sis of mas­culin­ity” is also trou­bling some ed­u­ca­tors. “I won­der whether boys or men are less mas­cu­line to­day,” pri­mary school­teacher Feng Lina tells TWOC. In her class­room in Kaiyuan, Liaon­ing prov­ince, she ob­serves that “[boys] are less chival­rous in front of girls, less will­ing to take part in work, and tend to hold back when some­thing hap­pens.”

Feng is not alone in her opin­ions. An in­for­mal TWOC sur­vey of 15 kin­der­garten, pri­mary and mid­dle school teach­ers asked the ques­tion “Do you think boys to­day are less mas­cu­line than be­fore?” Four­teen an­swered “Yes.”

Since 1896, when the North China Daily News coined the dis­parag­ing term “Sick Man of East Asia,” Chi­nese men have of­ten been con­demned for phys­i­cal weak­ness. Af­ter the one-child pol­icy was in­tro­duced in the 1980s, a pref­er­ence for male heirs gave rise to the nick­name “lit­tle em­per­ors” for pam­pered only chil­dren.

Fawn­ing par­ents were crit­i­cized for rear­ing a gen­er­a­tion of cod­dled male good-for-noth­ings; the term “4-21” syn­drome de­scribed four dot­ing grand­par­ents and two overindul­gent par­ents, all pin­ning their hopes on

GEN­DER DIS­PAR­I­TIES IN ACA­DEMIC ACHIEVE­MENT CAN EMERGE AS EARLY AS THE THIRD GRADE

one child. “We all say to­day’s boys are more pam­pered than be­fore. Many of them are afraid to take risks,” says Wang Peng, a kin­der­garten teacher who works with Feng.

“Their looks and dress­ing style are also be­com­ing ef­fem­i­nate, maybe in­flu­enced by Ja­panese and Korean pop stars,” adds Lü Na, Wang’s co­worker. Save the Boys takes di­rect aim at the aes­thet­ics of del­i­cate male stars, now known as “lit­tle fresh meat” (小鲜肉). Sun had scoffed that “so-called ‘an­drog­yny’ is more about boys be­ing ef­fem­i­nate, which can cause far­reach­ing harm.”

Within the film in­dus­try, screen­writer Wang Hailin ( The As­sas­sins, Mur­der at Hon­ey­moon Ho­tel) ex­pressed sim­i­lar con­cerns. “Male ac­tors rep­re­sent na­tional ide­ol­ogy,” Wang said at a re­cent press con­fer­ence. “If the most pop­u­lar male ac­tors in our coun­try are the most fem­i­nine-look­ing ones, it will threaten our na­tional aes­thet­ics.”

Li strongly ob­jects to such old­fash­ioned stan­dards, “The sub­text is: Mas­cu­line qual­i­ties are good, so it’s fine for a girl to be ‘manly,’ but fem­i­nine qual­i­ties are bad, so men can’t have them.”

Pro­fes­sor Zhang Meimei, who works at Cap­i­tal Nor­mal Uni­ver­sity’s Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment, be­lieves the “cri­sis” is a sign of the times. “To­day’s women are more and more dom­i­nant, which makes men seem shyer and more in­tro­verted,” Zhang said in an in­ter­view with Xin­hua. “The sec­ond rea­son is, the mother usu­ally plays the role of ed­u­ca­tor in the fam­ily, which makes boys more in­flu­enced by fem­i­nin­ity.”

This is com­pounded, Sun be­lieves, by a lack of male role mod­els in the class­room. “Chil­dren need both fe­male and male teach­ers for their de­vel­op­ment,” Sun told me­dia startup Sixth Tone, ex­plain­ing that the short­age of male teach­ers at school has a neg­a­tive in­flu­ence.

While there is no ev­i­dence to sug­gest that male teach­ers are more ben­e­fi­cial for boys, some ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions have al­ready taken ac­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the Bei­jing News, at least five prov­inces— Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Fu­jian, Hu­nan, and Sichuan—now of­fer free teacher-train­ing cour­ses for men to at­tract more males to the pro­fes­sion. In 2016, an ele­men­tary school in Wuhan set up a “male teach­ers’ work­shop,” in which “man-to-man di­a­logues” were reg­u­larly held be­tween boys and male men­tors.

The same year, a Nan­jing mid­dle school es­tab­lished a “boys’ ed­u­ca­tion and ac­tiv­ity class,” pro­vid­ing ex­tra phys­i­cal train­ing for male stu­dents by male teach­ers. An­other “all-boys” class at a Shang­hai mid­dle school even ex­clu­sively in­tro­duced spe­cial “manly” sub­jects, such as mar­tial arts, Chi­nese chess, and rock mu­sic. Lit­tle Men, a text­book pur­port­edly teach­ing pri­mary school boys how to be men, has be­come part of the cur­ricu­lum in many schools.

How­ever, Li feels much of the re­sponse has been in the wrong di­rec­tion. “I think good ed­u­ca­tion should teach that, no mat­ter if you are male or fe­male, you don’t have to fol­low the tra­di­tional dic­tates of your gen­der,” says Li. “Any­thing that you ‘have’ to do, due to the con­di­tions you were born with, is against the uni­ver­sal val­ues of free­dom and equal­ity.”

AN “ALL-BOYS” CLASS AT A SHANG­HAI MID­DLE SCHOOL IN­TRO­DUCED SPE­CIAL “MANLY” SUB­JECTS, SUCH AS MAR­TIAL ARTS, CHI­NESE CHESS, AND ROCK MU­SIC

“ANY­THING THAT YOU ‘HAVE' TO DO, DUE TO THE CON­DI­TIONS YOU WERE BORN WITH, IS AGAINST THE UNI­VER­SAL VAL­UES OF FREE­DOM AND EQUAL­ITY”

A pri­mary school inBei­jing pro­vides ex­tra phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion for boys to “build mas­culin­ity”

A child get­ting picked up from a kin­der­garten in Guangzhou

A fa­ther inHainan car­ry­ing his son on their way home from school

Pop­u­lar Chi­nese boy band “Nine Per­cent” at­tend­ing a fan event

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