Young Men in China Struggling to Catch Up in Class

Wan Zhongni is a tall, lanky 16-year-old high school student who feels as though something is missing from his upbringing in China.

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He does not feel as if he has the time to do what boys like to do — playing sports or video games, running around outside — because he has to study at least 15 hours a day, almost every day of the week. He and his male friends, who have similar experiences, have grown to resent both school and their female counterparts, who Mr. Wan says are smarter and often favored by teachers.

“When I go to school, I feel that teachers always encourage girls, not boys,” Mr. Wan said. “They say that girls always study harder and have good handwriting and that boys are always naughty and noisy and are troublemakers. I think that boys are suppressed.”

Educators say that the academic rift between boys and girls in China is apparent, and statistics indicate that it is quickly growing wider.

According to “Saving the Boys,” a 2010 book by researchers at the China Youth and Children Research Association, girls outperformed boys on college entrance exams, were more likely to go to college and won more scholarships. Of 50,000 national scholarship winners in 2006-7, 17,458 were male. Among 6,539 high school students surveyed in Chongqing, girls scored higher in Chinese literature, English, politics, math and biology. In 2008 interviews for high school admittance in Beijing, more girls received recommendations than boys; in some instances the ratio was two to one. A study in Zhejiang Province revealed that 60 percent of primary school boys thought girls were smarter than they were.

“When you look at the difference between rural areas and urban areas, in all the urban areas girls are already ahead of boys in educational attainment,” said Gerard A. Postiglione , director of the University of Hong Kong’s Wah Ching Center of Research on Education in China. “Girls in rural areas are still behind, but they are catching up.”

The problem with boys’ performance seems to be linked to an educational system that relies heavily on rote memorization, and deprives boys of their natural inclination to be rambunctious, active and curious. Young boys are expected to sit, concentrate and memorize for hours on end — skills that girls seem to be better at earlier in life.

“In the United States, if boys go out to play, no one will stop them; but in China, parents and teachers will order you to sit down and study like girls,” Mr. Wan said. “I should have used my free time to play sports, to play basketball. I think I lack masculinity. I need to improve.”

“Saving the Boys” also chronicles how an education system that focuses on memorization-based national exams — which are essentially the single largest determining factor for admittance into top middle schools, high schools and universities — is “the most ferocious killer in the growing boys crisis.”

There appears to be a growing awareness that some young Chinese men have concerns about their masculinity and that this is reflected in their academic performance. Next autumn, the public Shanghai No. 8 Senior High School will begin experimental male-only classes, seemingly aimed at promoting masculinity. According to the school’s Web site, subjects include surviving in the wilderness, using tools, repairing electrical appliances and boxing.

More than 200 applicants have applied for 60 available spots. Administrators declined interview requests; however, the school’s Web site says the classes are intended “to build up a training system according to boys’ characteristics in a scientific way.”

“Every educator should be responsible to enhance the education standard for boys,” the Web site said.

“To be blunt, and this is an observation that all of us make: The boys here don’t seem to act like men. They just don’t,” said Mark Kurban, a physics teacher at a private high school in Shanghai. “There is definitely a difference in terms of discipline and focus. Most of my top students are females.”

“Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, because society values boys more, that boys maybe have more expectations on them. But they are spoiled more, so they have more of a princeling attitude, where girls are sometimes made to feel inadequate because they are not boys, so they might be forced to compensate,” he said.

Tang Xianyi, a physics and math teacher at one of Shanghai’s top high schools, said that many boys performed academically better than girls. Yet many boys could not enter the better high schools because they did poorly on the entrance exam, which is taken around age 14. This affects their ability to enter top universities, which, he says, is “a loss to society.”

“Many boys with potential lose their chances,” Mr. Tang said. “But even if they do not graduate from a good university, they can still show their potential later; but that is maybe harder.”