By Gwynne Dyer
It seemed innocent enough at the start: just a surge in the number of boys coming to school with notes from doctors saying they were excused from playing contact sports. But pretty soon high schools all over China were having trouble finding enough willing young men to make up a football team.
It was around the same time that attendance at the compulsory classes in Marxist-Leninist-Xi-Jinping-Thought crashed. Even when boys started talking about their feelings and trying to look like K-Pop stars, people tried to laugh it all off and dubbed them ‘little fresh meats’ – but some far-sighted people understood that the nation’s soul was at stake here.
As early as last June Si Zefu, member of the Standing Committee of the 13th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference’s National Committee and chairman of Harbin Electric Corporation, was warning that many of China’s young males had become “weak, timid, and self-abasing”.
From not playing football to not wanting to be an ‘army hero’ is a short, slippery slope. This ‘feminisation’, Si harrumphed, “would inevitably endanger the survival and development of the Chinese nation unless effectively managed.” And even as he spoke, limp-wristed young men with flowers in their hair were spotted lolling about in the street outside.
Just as Oscar Wilde heralded the fall of the British empire and hippie ‘peace and love’ caused the United States to lose the Vietnam War and start its long decline, so too young Chinese men wearing make-up….Stop! Are you sure that the Party wants you to go down this particular rhetorical road?
Well, okay, maybe not exactly those examples, but what would the veterans of the Long March say about these effeminate young girly-men? You can’t turn them into proper soldiers. China will be easy meat for the first manly country that comes along. Harrumph!
China has a very big bureaucracy, so it takes a while for an issue to come to the top of the pile, but by early this year it had arrived. It’s not clear if President-for-Life Xi Jinping took a personal interest in the issue, but his enthusiasm for football as a symbol of national strength and manliness is well-known, so the policy-makers knew they were on a safe track.
The education ministry took the lead, with the publication of a policy document last week entitled ‘Proposal to Prevent the Feminisation of Male Adolescents’. No, really, I swear I’m not making this up. Check it out online.
The document claims that China needs to hire more male teachers to serve as role models (at present four out of five teachers in urban areas are women), and “vigorously develop” sports like football to “cultivate the students’ masculinity.”
The official Chinese news agency Xinhua instantly took up the cause, condemning “androgynous” young men as “slender but weak as willows,” and there was a suspiciously instant chorus of support on social media for the notion that traditional forms of masculinity are the foundation of national military strength.
It probably sounds fresh to an adult generation of Chinese who don’t even know their own country’s real history. To people elsewhere, it sounds like a bunch of early 20th-century Englishmen in wing collars declaring that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” (No, it wasn’t. It was won when Blücher’s Prussian army joined the battle in the afternoon after a forced march.)
It sounds like a bunch of late imperial claptrap, because that’s what it is. Playing football sometimes makes you better at playing football. It does not make you better at dominating foreigners or fighting wars – and why do you want to do that anyway?
It’s therefore pleasing to report that the response in Chinese official and social media was far from unanimously enthusiastic. “Is feminisation now a derogatory term?” one Weibo user asked, and received over 200,000 likes. The People’s Daily, no less, published an opinion piece arguing that diversity and tolerance should be encouraged among feminine and masculine men alike.
There is probably no country on Earth where the generational divergence of opinions, especially among the male half, is greater than it is in China. From an almost entirely hierarchical society as late as the 1980s (Confucianism reinforced by the ‘democratic centralism’ of Communism) to a younger generation that is egalitarian and gender-fluid (at least in the big cities) is one hell of a leap.
It will eventually be resolved, as these things usually are, by the magic of generational turnover. The young will outlive the old, and become the majority. And here is the authentic voice of the young, summed up in a single tweet:
“There are 70 million more men than women in this country. No country in the world has such a deformed sex ratio. Isn’t that masculine enough?”
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.