China’s annual college entrance examination, the gaokao, took place last month. Although many provincial ministries of education discourage people from drawing attention to the nation’s top scorers, such admonitions cannot completely quash public interest. People are curious about not only the identities of the top scorers, but also gender: Are the girls scoring higher, or the boys?
According to statistics published online, over the last 40 years of gaokao examinations, boys accounted for 56 percent of all top scorers in China’s 31 provinces. At first glance, this would imply that boys generally have the edge over girls. However, if we look at statistics from just the last decade, the proportion of female top scorers jumps to 53 percent, giving them a clear majority.
Why should we be interested in the gender of gaokao top scorers? The answer lies in a recent national discussion about a crisis supposedly affecting China’s young men. In these discussions, the comparatively poor performance of boys on the gaokao is viewed as a crucial piece of evidence.
In China, the term nanhai weiji, or “boys’ crisis,” refers to the fear that boys are not performing as well as girls in a variety of fields. The crisis manifests itself in two ways. First, boys have fallen behind girls in academic performance. This is particularly the case during their compulsory education, although boys have begun to lag behind girls in higher education as well.
Second, it has been claimed that boys are increasingly losing their so-called masculine temperament, or nanxing qizhi, and are becoming more and more effeminate. More conservative Chinese observers believe that boys are supposed to be boisterous, daring, and bold; they should be eager to try new things and shoulder new responsibilities. But now, their detractors say, boys have become fragile and weedy — they are “soft as sheep” and suffer from “muscle weakness.”
The notion of a boys’ crisis has become an increasingly global topic: Such discussions exist in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. Yet whereas most Western commentators decry the fact that underperforming boys turn to petty crime and violence, Chinese voices tend to bemoan their loss of masculinity. This crisis, they say, threatens the future of Chinese society and even China as a nation.
To conservative commentators, manliness is not merely a personal affair. How boys behave is thought to reflect the changing disposition of Chinese people more generally. Confucian concepts inherent in traditional Chinese culture — such as loyalty, fealty, benevolence, and wisdom — supposedly inform the masculine disposition central to the notions of shi, the “noble scholar,” and da zhangfu, the “true man.” As Lin Shaohua, a well-known writer and translator of Japanese, has bemoaned: “A people lacking masculine vigor has no hope; a nation lacking masculine vigor has no future.”
In response, a number of experts and scholars in China have launched a movement aimed at “saving our boys,” which has, in turn, been taken up by local education bureaus and integrated into teaching methods. An elementary school in Wuhan recently set up a “male teachers’ workshop” in which “dialogues between men” are regularly held. Meanwhile, a self-styled “male-oriented” experimental junior high school in Shanghai has set up classes composed entirely of boys, as well as added classes in subjects that are thought to be particularly manly, such as martial arts, Chinese chess, and rock music.
Public discourse is rife with stories about the boys’ crisis, yet people have seemingly forgotten to consider a key question: Does this problem actually exist? To me, the simple answer is no.
First of all, we should examine the main basis for the argument that masculinity in China is endangered: the lackluster academic performance of boys in comparison to their female counterparts. This poor performance can, I believe, be primarily attributed to biological differences: The brains of boys and girls develop at different speeds. Throughout elementary school, boys tend to develop linguistic expression and written language skills more slowly than girls. To a degree, this puts boys at a disadvantage in some assessments and exams.
Meanwhile, we should also consider the content of our education system and the standards by which we evaluate our children. Currently, the Chinese education system is geared toward preparing students for exams. It emphasizes obedience and orderliness, and discourages students from asking questions. Clearly, this notion of being “well-behaved” is at odds with the boisterousness and boldness that are traditionally viewed as essential to being “manly.”
Furthermore, compared with girls, boys’ brains respond more to physical and visual stimuli. They learn better through the use of diagrams, images, and moving objects. On the other hand, they have greater difficulty learning through purely verbal methods. But what does China’s education system emphasize more than anything else? Literacy, math, and foreign languages — subjects taught in sterile, stuffy classrooms by teachers who emphasize rote learning over more holistic activity.
Meanwhile, the system completely overlooks areas in which boys tend to excel, and which they tend to prefer, such as practical assessments, gym classes, and extracurricular excursions. In fact, Chinese boys don’t lag behind girls. Rather, as the renowned Chinese education expert Sun Yunxiao says: “The content and criteria of our education system are completely at odds with boys’ natural talents.”
There’s another basis for the spurious “boys’ crisis” argument: the notion that boys increasingly lack a so-called masculine temperament. This manner of speaking is inherently contemptuous, as it depicts traditionally masculine qualities as inherently superior to traditionally female ones. It also implies that only men, and not women, may possess a such a temperament: After all, if women take on qualities that men have abandoned, there would be no substantive difference between the sexes.
In light of this latter argument, Xu Anqi, a marriage and family researcher, says concerns that men have supposedly become weak and soft-spoken, or that women have become excessively masculine, demonstrate that to this day, “certain scholars, as well as the general public, consider men to be a superior group who embody qualities such as wisdom, self-confidence, independence, and strong will, and who are entitled to dominant roles in academia, the workplace, and society at large.”
In essence, notions of masculine and feminine temperaments are merely the result of long-standing gender stereotypes. Who says that all men must embody the same set of qualities? Who decreed that such traits are exclusive to men? To paraphrase the sociologist R.W. Connell, these rigid images of gender roles are merely social constructions that have become reinforced through repetition. Men who come across as unconventionally gentler in their words and actions are merely making masculinity more diverse. Any culture dictating that only one rigid definition of masculinity is correct, and that any other expression of masculinity is inadequate and needs to be “saved,” is a culture of intolerance.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.