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Chinese boys walk home together hand in hand from a local junior school in Beijing, China. Photo: Getty Images

China’s plans to ‘cultivate masculinity’ with more gym classes and male teachers met with outrage by gender and sexuality experts

  • Ministry of Education plans criticised by groups believing they could have a disastrous impact on society, including increased domestic violence
  • The call to action is a response to a top political adviser’s suggestions that described China’s young men as ‘delicate, cowardly and effeminate’
Phoebe Zhang

Chinese education officials’ call for more physical fitness classes in schools to make the country’s young men more masculine has been met with outrage by critics who say the move could result in increased domestic violence and other social problems.

Local governments and schools will soon be required to increase the number of gym teachers as well as improve teaching methods that “cultivate masculinity”, according to the Ministry of Education’s plan announced on Thursday. The initiatives aim to improve schoolboys’ mental and physical health while the ministry conducted further research, it said.

The call to action is a response to top political adviser Si Zefu’s suggestion that the country needed to combat the increasing “feminisation” of young men who he described as “delicate, cowardly and effeminate”.

In a document, Si said the nation needed to “prevent young men from becoming effeminate”, blaming the women in their families – mothers, grandmothers and female teachers – for spoiling them.

He also called for more male teachers to “combat the issue” while voicing concern over the “threat to the development and survival of our nation”.

Posters of Chinese boy band S.K.Y. as the face of the Hangzhou Marathon were pulled down last year after runners said the boys were “not masculine enough” to represent the event.

The ministry’s backing of the proposal prompted an immediate backlash from gender and sexuality experts who believe the directive could have a devastating effect on society, leading to domestic violence and bullying over sexual identity and gender expression.

“This is pure sickness, is ‘feminine’ a bad word?” one said on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service.

“There’s one way to make the men more masculine: make the fathers raise their children, make them work full-time at home,” another said.

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Gender and sexuality experts in China say the focus on masculinity was discriminatory and would have a detrimental effect on young people’s development.

A staff member at a Guangzhou-based LGBT NGO, who wished to remain anonymous, said the ministry’s proposal put forward the message that “being feminine is bad”.

“Worrying that the boys are not ‘masculine’ enough is discrimination against female gender expression,” he said. “Instead of spending time on appearance and gender expression, why don’t they care more about young people’s personality and mental health? It’s far more meaningful to cultivate integral, compassionate and honest young men instead of masculine ones.”

Domestic violence is a form of trying to sustain that ‘tough guy’ image. These men subconsciously deeply fear ‘not looking like a man’ and try to show their strength through violence
Fang Gang, Beijing-based sexologist

Fang Gang, a Beijing-based sexologist, has been challenging the traditional view of male masculinity for years. He believes the view that male masculinity is an important factor in sexual violence, including domestic violence.

“A dominant male expression demands men to be brave, rough, to overpower women, so when men can’t achieve that through career success or other ways, they’ve been belittled by the patriarchy as ‘not a man’,” he said.

“Domestic violence is a form of trying to sustain that ‘tough guy’ image. These men subconsciously deeply fear ‘not looking like a man’ and try to show their strength through violence.”

Fang said the concept of demanding boys be more masculine was at odds with mainstream gender studies and could harm boys’ health and development.

Students of Hefei Huangshan Road Primary School set up a tent during military-style training in Hefei, Anhui province, China. Photo: VCG via Getty Images

China’s “masculinity crisis” has long been a priority for Chinese authorities who have rolled out a number of initiatives to combat the perceived problem, including aggressively recruiting more male teachers to instil values of masculinity in schools and calling for more male-oriented education.

In 2018, a middle school in the eastern city of Hangzhou launched rock climbing classes, with school principal Jiang Zhiming saying: “The boys are too weak, they need a masculine sport.”

Last year, posters of Chinese boy band S.K.Y. as the face of the Hangzhou Marathon were pulled down after runners said the boys, in casual suits with dyed hair and full facial make-up, were “not masculine enough” to represent the event.