Why China’s Boys Are Being Left Behind
In 2014, while conducting fieldwork in Shenzhen, I watched as a parent-teacher forum descended into a fierce argument over the gender gap in Chinese education. Throughout the debate, there was one phrase that participants kept coming back to: yinsheng yangshuai, or “the yin (feminine) is flourishing, while the yang (masculine) is receding.” Put more succinctly, they were worried that China’s boys were falling behind — or worse, being left behind — by an education system that has little idea what to do with them.
At one point, a high school teacher stood up and launched into a tirade about how this supposed gap between yin and yang was the inevitable result of China’s exam-oriented education system. Girls are simply better at “rote-memorizing books,” he declared.
The academic struggles of China’s young boys have been a matter of public concern since at least 2010. That year, the controversial book “Save Our Boys” warned: “Twenty years ago, campuses were regarded as the world of boys. Boys had an overwhelming advantage in all aspects, both at universities and in elementary schools,” adding, “However, today’s campuses are not how they used to be. Girls’ grades are improving at a rapid pace, while boys’ grades have increasingly become a cause for concern.” More recently, China’s Ministry of Education in February called for schools to stop drilling “masculine vigor” out of their male students.
But is there any evidence that “yin is flourishing and yang is receding” on Chinese campuses?
It’s certainly true that Chinese girls have pushed their way to the front of the academic pack. In a study conducted by Professor Wei-jun Jean Yeung and myself, we found that in 2010, girls significantly outperformed boys in Chinese language and literature, and their performance in mathematics was roughly even with boys. By 2014, they had surpassed their male counterparts by a wide margin in both subjects.
But this phenomenon is not unique to China. Since the 1990s, female students have been leaving their male peers behind around the globe, according to data from the United Nations. This trend, which first emerged in developed industrial societies, has since been identified in more than 100 countries worldwide.
In the Chinese context, girls’ improved academic performance has been driven not by the exam-oriented education system — a relative constant in Chinese history — but by the ongoing transformation of the Chinese family. Traditionally, Chinese families regarded daughters as “poured-out water,” who would be married off into another household one day. Sons were the key to the family’s future. As a result, boys received the utmost support in their studies, and their education was always prioritized over that of their sisters.
Over the past 40 years, the influence of traditional family structures has receded. In interviews with families affected by this transformation, we found that women from the oldest generation had generally received little in the way of formal schooling. Although they had access to education, many dropped out of school early to help their parents at home, earn money, or raise their younger siblings. Today, their children — who are firmly ensconced in middle age — grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, as China was gradually opening up to the world. The evolution of societal values coupled with the influence of the one-child policy — which prevented many families from having multiple kids in hopes of a son — meant greater access to educational opportunities for women, at least in urban areas. Still, their education was often an afterthought, especially if they had male siblings.
Today, however, the gender gap in educational opportunities has basically been erased. The mothers and grandmothers we interviewed believed that families should support their children's education regardless of gender. In urban families with only daughters, it has become common for a family to invest everything it has into her education — just as they might once have bet it all on a promising son. Even in rural areas, girls now receive positive attention from their elders if they score well on exams, a stark difference from the experiences of their mothers and grandmothers.
In short, educating daughters is now vital to the future of their families, resulting in greater gender parity in Chinese education. If anything, girls are now regarded as a safer bet: Long-term survey data shows that girls are more self-disciplined, spend more time studying outside of school, and are more likely to take on roles as student leaders than their male counterparts. Parents generally agree that girls are naturally more mature, obedient, and academically diligent than boys, an impression many teachers share. This is especially true in rural areas populated by rambunctious and unsupervised “left-behind” children.
Of course, this impression is itself a social construct. It just so happens that in this case, it works to the benefit of girls. If you accept the cumulative advantage-disadvantage theory, whereby the benefits of quality schooling in early childhood exert an ever-increasing impact on a child’s trajectory throughout the rest of their education, the early positive reinforcement girls now receive is vital to their success. It’s also a far more complex explanation than the widespread belief that girls are “innately” better adapted to exam-oriented education.
In other words, what is missed in debates over yin and yang is the way popular stereotypes of boys as inherently mischievous, inattentive, and ill-suited to current educational methods negatively impact the quality of education they receive. Instead, critics have focused their energies on remaking education to better suit and reinforce these and other supposedly “masculine” qualities, such as by mandating more gym classes.
It’s also worth noting that good grades aren’t an unalloyed benefit. In the increasingly competitive Chinese school system, girls who want to maintain their advantage over their male peers must be tireless and maintain strict self-discipline and management. In this sense, girls’ so-called “advantages” may become a psychological burden.
Yet authorities and the public remain preoccupied with gender. Toxic masculinity still dominates the imaginations of policymakers and researchers, blinding them to the ways their actions and preconceptions are exacerbating the very problem they’re trying to fix.
The choice to frame the performance of girls and boys in the classroom through the lens of yin and yang is itself a telling indication of the continued predominance of patriarchal mindsets. In the Chinese tradition, yin is a uniquely feminine quality typically associated with coldness, darkness, sentimentality, and death. Yang, its male counterpart, represents warmth, light, and rationality. In this sense, the concerns over flourishing yin and receding yang can be seen as a stand-in for a more profound fear: the potential destruction of the patriarchal social order.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A student is photographed on the first day of school at a primary school in Weihai, Shandong province, Sept. 1, 2020. People Visual)