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A Fiery Debate Over 'Sissies' Vs. Macho Men In China's Social Media

What's the greater threat to Chinese society: "Sissies" or "straight-man cancer"?

Chinese social media has seen heated debate this month over what masculinity is supposed to look like.

It all started with the state-owned Chinese Central Television's annual back-to-school special, which aired on Sept. 1. The show prominently featured a popular boy band called New F4.

Watching the program, "The First Class of School," is mandatory for more than 100 million Chinese primary and middle school students as well as their parents. Children are expected to share thoughts or write essays about it. This year's themes are "dream, endeavor, exploration and future."

"I was asked to write down my thoughts after, but I didn't expect New F4 would be in it!" commented one student on Chinese social media. Another said "Wang Hedi [a member of the band] is so cute!"

While some Chinese kids were thrilled to see their favorite group, not all parents were impressed.

"Four sissies opened the program with singing and dancing. Can't you find masculine boys? If the youth are effeminate, the country will be weak. The director of the program should be fired," wrote an angry parent on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

Another commented, "I can't believe the ministries of education and propaganda are promoting sissy culture .... They let a bunch of sissies wearing lipstick, ear studs, dyed hair, groomed brows and bracelets represent Chinese youths!"

An op-ed from Xinhua, China's state-run media outlet, bashed "fresh little meat" — internet slang for young, feminine-looking male celebrities who have porcelain skin and tiny waists.

"The kind of pop culture a society embraces, rejects or promote relates to the country's future. In order to cultivate new talent who will be bearing the responsibility of rejuvenating the nation, we need to boycott harmful culture and be nurtured in good culture," the op-ed's author wrote.

Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily was on the other side of the discussion, calling for respect of diverse aesthetic standards and an appreciation of inner beauty.

Influenced by Japanese and Korean pop culture, China has developed a growing appetite for "fresh little meat"-type stars. Lu Han, a former member of Korean boyband EXO, has 52 million fans on Weibo and is seen in numerous commercials and on billboards in China. When Wang Junkai of TFBoys posted a note to fans on his 15th birthday in 2014, it was shared more than 355 million times, setting a Guinness record for most-shared Weibo post.

Beautiful, gentle men have existed throughout Chinese history, too. Traditional Confucian values appreciate intellectuals with polished looks, refined manners and pure morals.

After the Cultural Revolution, actor Tang Guoqiang won hearts with his fair skin, pretty face and sweet nature in Chinese movies, earning the nickname "Cream Boy." In the 1990s, other "cream boys" in film and music continued this trend. Singer Mao Ning's love songs were sung over and over in karaoke booths. The early 2000s saw the term "flower men," exemplified by Taiwanese boy band Flower Four.

So why are some crying out for masculinity now?

Despite a patriarchal society in which men outnumber women, Chinese women's self-awareness and status is improving. Chinese women's workforce participation rate is 63.4 percent, higher than any other country in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a 2017 Deloitte report. Some 62 percent of women value career and family equally, and most Chinese mothers have jobs, the Deloitte report said.

The stereotypical "masculine" Chinese man believes a woman's place is in the home, producing offspring. These men don't value women with a college degree; they always pick up the check after a meal. Some want to marry virgins even though they're not virgins themselves.

Such men are considered to have "straight man cancer," a Chinese expression to describe conservative, entitled male chauvinists.

Some Weibo users attribute the viral debate to male insecurity and China's gender imbalance.

"Why can't effeminate men be respected?" argued a Weibo user. "It shows aesthetic diversity, a sign of our progressing society .... Those who criticize 'sissies' are not open-minded!"

"Those who think we're facing a masculinity crisis are living under the shadow of patriarchal mechanism. It only shows the country's gender inequality," commented another.

Said another, "I'd rather date a sophisticated sissy rather than a sloppy man with 'straight-man cancer.'"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.