In China, a School Trains Boys to Be ‘Real Men’

Tang Haiyan runs his school with a clear mission in mind: He will train boys to be men.

Mr. Tang founded the Real Boys Club, which stands at the forefront of a deep conversation in China about what it means to be a man. It’s a debate that has been stirred by worries about military effectiveness, an embrace of traditional culture and roles, disappointing academic performance among boys and echoes of the defunct one-child policy.

On one recent Sunday afternoon, 17 boys from the Real Boys Club blocked, sprinted and tackled one another as they learned about American football. Wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, Mr. Tang led the boys in a call-and-response chant.

But China’s preoccupation with strong men has taken on a political dimension, feeding concerns about whether young Chinese males are in trouble. State media has said video games, masturbation, and a lack of exercise have made many young men ill-suited for the military. “Erasing the gender characteristics of a man who is not afraid of death and hardship,” Peng Xiaohui, a sexology professor at Central China Normal University, said, is tantamount to “a country’s suicide.”

Mr. Tang was also inspired by a 2006 trip to Oakland, Calif., where he saw American parents teach their boys “to overcome challenges and dangers” through physical training.

“He used to like to cry, but now I think he has a much sunnier disposition,” she said. “I feel his tolerance ability has improved, and he now knows how to deal with failure and frustration.”

Some in China blame boys’ lacking behavior on a lack of male role models. Fathers are rarely involved in their sons’ upbringing, according to government research. Even pop culture figures have sparked complaints: A number of parents were outraged when China’s state broadcaster, China Central Television, in September featured a boy band whose members wore makeup. The parents complained that these pop idols could cause their sons to “behave in a feminine way.”

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