SHANGHAI -- Zhang Mei Lian is worried about her 16-year-old son. Worried that he’s falling behind his female classmates in school. Worried that he isn’t athletic enough, that he doesn’t know how to repair things, such as computers or a broken light. Worried that, in short, he doesn’t know how to be a man.
“Our current education system is really bad for boys,” Zhang said. “Boys should be strong. Otherwise, they are all turning into some kind of feminized boys. Boys should be acting like boys.”
Zhang isn’t the only one who’s concerned about the masculinity of young Chinese men. Much as in some segments of the United States, where boys’ falling academic achievement has been the subject of a host of studies, China is worried about whether rapid social change is leaving boys behind.
“We tend to describe it as the feminization of men or lack of manliness,” said Li Wendao, the co-author of a book titled “Save the Boys.” “Society is concerned because if the issue is not resolved, its influence will be big on society’s development.”
Just as in the United States, one of the main concerns is that girls are outperforming boys in school. According to “Save the Boys,” Chinese girls outscore boys on college entrance exams, are more likely to go to college and are winning more scholarships. A study in Zhejiang province, near Shanghai, found that 60 percent of primary school boys thought that girls were smarter than they were.
Experts blame the country’s education system, which stresses rote memorization over a more creative, free-thinking pedagogy. Parents and teachers force children here from an early age to memorize a curriculum geared toward helping them pass a number of national exams for high school and college.
Outside the classroom, they’re forced to take numerous private lessons in subjects ranging from English to physics. They study at night, on the weekends and during holidays. Girls, these experts charge, are better able to handle such studying practices. Boys, they argue, need more free time to be rambunctious – more time to do things that boys like to do.
The structured environment leads to behavioral problems in junior and senior high school, caused – some experts think – by a childhood spent being punished by parents for being disobedient or making poor grades.
“There is no question boys here do not know how to act like men,” said Mark Kurban, a physics teacher at a private high school in Shanghai. “Boys tend to be lazier than the girls. They tend to be those who are more distracted in class. They just really want to play basketball the whole time in school, maybe because they did not have a chance to play like boys. The students here are expected to be study machines.”
“Save the Boys” calls China’s exam-based education system the “most ferocious killer in the growing boys crisis.”
Wan Zongyi is a tall, lanky 17-year-old who says he thinks teachers favor girls and that many of his friends have come to resent their female counterparts as well as school.
“When I go to school, I feel that teachers always encourage girls, not boys. Boys are always naughty and noisy,” Wan said. “Boys are always beaten by their parents in their childhood, so they feel angry. When they become teenagers, that anger explodes.”