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A bus full of boys, members of the Beijing True Boys’ Club, are reciting their “men’s pledge.”
“There are three things we need to protect,” they chant. “Our country, honor, and aspirations.”
The club’s activities emphasize physical strength, agility, and courage, and include expensive military-style boot camps. They’re unusual extracurriculars, in a country where intense exam culture keeps many students studying around the clock. But the concerns that lead parents to entrust their sons to the Boys’ Club and its founder, Tang Haiyan, are common in China today. “Our boys have lost a lot of their inherent qualities – their masculinity, courage, sense of competition, responsibility, and adventurous spirit,” says Mr. Tang. “It’s like a wild tiger is caged in the zoo, and gradually becomes a big cat.”
His hypermasculine vision is certainly contentious. To plenty of observers, his approach seems harmful, or misguided at best.
“They are holding the idea of ignorance [from] hundreds of years ago,” says Professor Fang Gang, an expert on gender studies at Beijing Forestry University.
But many urban parents are anxious about their sons’ masculinity, in a culture where traditional ideas about male and female roles jostle with rapid social, political, and economic change. And the panic over masculinity may say just as much about how women are viewed in China – where about 115 boys are born for every 100 girls.
Teams of preteen boys toting plastic laser-tag assault rifles take up position on their mock battleground, a street strewn with abandoned cars and debris.
“Start!” yells a trainer, unleashing a staccato of laser fire.
Eight-year-old Li Yuanhao, captain of the “Justice” team, takes two boys to hide behind a pile of garbage, directing others to distract the enemy. Ten minutes later, he has survived.
“I feel I learned a lot today,” Yuanhao beams, proud that he shot 10 opponents.
This is the “Beijing True Boys’ Club,” a for-profit group dedicated to training “manly” boys. There aren’t many like it, and plenty of people find its philosophy damaging – but here in China, the concerns that prompted it are common.
Today, the country’s boys are the subject of heated debate. Decades of family-planning restrictions have left China with about 115 boys born for every 100 girls, many of them their parents’ only children, and stereotypes about pampered “little emperors” remain. But urban parents, in particular, are voicing alarm over what they call “sissy” sons: a social panic that spurred this club’s creation six years ago. Today, it has trained an estimated 20,000 boys, ages 7 to 12.
“Our boys have lost a lot of their inherent qualities – their masculinity, courage, sense of competition, responsibility, and adventurous spirit,” says Tang Haiyan, the club’s founder, who blames the problem on a lack of male mentors. “It’s like a wild tiger is caged in the zoo, and gradually becomes a big cat.” He envisions his club as a natural reserve for boys, where they can “play boys’ games, do what boys do, and grow up like men.”
Traditional Chinese expectations around gender are still strong today: from pressures on women to marry young or risk being “leftover,” to men’s own pressure to own an apartment and car before engagement – a difficult feat in China’s most expensive cities. But social realities have shifted dramatically in the seven decades of rapid growth and development since the founding of the People’s Republic. Many children, for example, are enmeshed in a culture of round-the-clock studies, with little time (or space) for the physical activity that grounds some people’s views of masculinity.
And when such dissonances prompt anxiety, parents look to people like Mr. Tang to bridge the gap.
‘Who wants to be a soldier?’
The masculinity debate escalated last fall, when China’s state-run broadcaster aired a back-to-school show that opened with neatly coiffed, slender male celebrity singers.
Children in the audience swooned over their idols. But the act, which was mandatory viewing for elementary students and parents, provoked an outcry.
“This sick culture is having an inestimably adverse impact on teenagers,” wrote the editorial board of state news agency Xinhua, warning that such “weirdo,” “effeminate” role models would weaken the country.
Many images of male celebrities’ ponytails and earrings are now blurred out on Chinese state TV.
“Inviting those celebrities on the CCTV show is definitely wrong,” says Mr. Tang in an interview in his Beijing office. On the wall above him, large characters proclaim his club’s motto: “Cultivating Real Men for China.”
“If everyone is implanted with such ideas, who wants to go to work? Who wants to sacrifice their lives? Who wants to be a soldier?” he asks.
While Mr. Tang may come across as strident, his views are not so far from many Chinese citizens’, some analysts say.
“Most people still hold the traditional idea that men should be responsible, masculine, and be a head of a family, while women should be sweet, soft, and virtuous,” says Ding Yu, an associate professor of sociology and social work at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.
The club attracts mainly urban, well-off parents, many of whom say their boys spend too much time on school and homework while living overprotected lives in high-rise apartments. Though their stories differ, all of them argue Mr. Tang’s tough version of masculinity is indispensable.
Xu Hao, a working mom in Beijing whose 14-year-old son joined the club five years ago, says boys lack activities and are overprotected at school because parents are so serious about safety, since having one child is the norm.
Others fear that today’s young men have a lack of close male role models. Because her husband frequently works out of town, Zhang Haiwei says, she wondered how to “nurture my son’s masculinity without his father’s company.” After five years of classes, she says her son has more friends, and takes more responsibility for chores around the house.
Costly boot camps
Back on the bus full of boys, the day of the laser-tag game, Boys’ Club trainer Zheng Rongyu gives out instructions.
Mr. Zheng, a former flag-bearer with the People’s Liberation Army honor guard, asks an experienced boy to lead the group in reciting the club’s “men’s pledge.”
“There are three things we need to protect: our country, honor, and aspirations.... There are three things we need to control: emotion, language, and behavior.... There are three things we will have: flowers, applause, and brilliant [future]!”
Mr. Zheng, who has taken part in hundreds of official flag ceremonies, looks on approvingly. He joined the club in 2017 as a trainer, seeking to pass on his “positive energy” to the boys as a role model.
“Boys always have a dream, which is to pick up the gun,” Zheng tells the boys on the bus. But “we don’t need to talk about protecting and guarding our country now, because you are all young.”
The club also organizes military-style boot camps during holidays at locations ranging from desert and grasslands to the seaside. They’re not cheap: Camps cost around 6,000 yuan ($870), in a country where the per capita disposable income of urban households in 2017 was 36,396 yuan (around $5,250). Eighteen sessions at the weekend schools cost 10,000 yuan ($1,400).
When Mr. Tang was growing up in the village of Qiqihar, a city in China’s far northeast, he and his friends would go into the wilds to catch cockroaches, birds, and fish. They wrestled in mud. A popular game was “human cockfighting”: jumping around on one leg, colliding into each other.
Mr. Tang says those games, which he now views in the context of “the male animal’s conquest of another,” had a great influence on his later life and career. So did his father, though he hit him twice – which Mr. Tang argues set him on the right path. Physical punishment has a role in discipline, he adds, “when male animals are unruly.”
To plenty of observers, his approach seems harmful, or misguided at best. Physically punishing children always hurts their development, says Fang Gang, director of the Institute of Sexualities and Gender Studies in Beijing Forestry University. But he also critiques the club’s underlying ideas of masculinity, saying people who advocate it are out of step with mainstream international values.
“They are holding the idea of ignorance [from] hundreds of years ago. The world is cultivating multiple masculinities,” Professor Fang says. Gender is diverse and fluid, he adds, not starkly divided into stereotypical ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ ideals.
Feng Yuan, the co-founder of Equality, a Beijing-based NGO that focuses on women’s rights, also emphasizes that rigid concepts of gender are harmful for children. The qualities the club purports to develop – decisiveness, strength, bravery, and responsibility – are ones that everyone should have. “Everyone should be able to develop himself/herself according to his/her own interests and availabilities,” she says.
Some point out that panic over supposedly effeminate boys says just as much about how China views its girls. When people discuss the boys’ “crisis,” there’s an assumption that men are supposed to be superior to women, Professor Ding says – such as in academics, especially STEM subjects. Forty years ago, just 23 percent of Chinese university students were female. In recent years, that number has more than doubled, to about 52 percent.
Mr. Tang credits the book “Saving Boys,” first published in 2010, with inspiring him to create the True Boys’ Club in 2012. At the time, he was making a name for himself as one of China’s top coaches for schools’ American football programs. He learned to play as a student at Beijing Sport University, just as the sport was introduced in Chinese schools. Being constantly knocked down, and picking themselves up again, makes players mentally and physically strong, he says.
But when he picked up “Saving Boys,” he recognized concerns he’d had about his players. The book describes four crises in the lives of Chinese boys: physical, social, educational, and psychological. “The boys’ crisis is something that has never been seen in human history,” concludes author Sun Yunxiao, a researcher at the government-funded China Youth & Children Research Center. “Our future largely depends on the success of rescuing our boys.”
The book argues the exam-oriented education system is to blame, because boys easily get bored of sitting in the classroom and focusing on textbooks. Lagging behind girls in academics contributes to boys’ psychological problems, like low self-esteem, the book argues.
There are other signs of backlash against women’s achievements – most infamously, perhaps, “virtue schools” and women’s classes whose main theme is telling women to be obedient, and focus on home and family duties.
“Men’s masculinity and women’s virtues are of the same discussion,” says Professor Ding. “Essentially, they are strengthening the traditional gender temperament: what men and women should be, what they should learn, and how they should behave.”
Tang, for his part, brushes aside criticism.
“We are training men for China. As for other people’s views on sissies, it’s their business,” he says.