We may or may not understand Korean, but the fact remains that K-pop has become a global phenomenon. Noted for its quirky inventiveness and ‘kawaii’ coolness, it’s a wave washing over young people’s cultural inclinations. But even as the industry grows, there are still some people that consider it a ‘crisis’. A Chinese dude trying to turn boys into ‘alpha males’ to fight against the rise of K-pop culture, is one of them.
Beijing-based former schoolteacher Tang Haiyan founded the Real Man Training Club to combat what he and many others in China see as a ‘masculinity crisis’. The club, which was founded in 2012, now has over 2,000 young boys training to be “real men”. Not only do the boys wear ‘real man’ emblazoned headbands and tracksuits with slogans like ‘Power Leader’ and ‘Anything is Possible’, but they are also made to shout slogans, beat their chests, and run in extreme temperatures to boost what Haiyan considers to be manly traits. The camp also includes activities like American football, wrestling, boxing, and annual treks through the desert and mountains, and is inspired by Haiyan’s visit to an American football camp in 2006 where he saw boys engaging in rough activities, and concluded that it’s such activities that make them ‘alpha males’.
“If you are promoting these effeminate figures it’s a calamity for our country,” Haiyan told the Los Angeles Times, referring to K-pop stars. The former schoolteacher feels that boys are being stripped of their manly ways because of risk-averse female teachers who encourage “good" girl behaviour and punish “bad” boy behaviour, and wants to use his training camp to change that.
This comes with concerns that China is in the midst of a ‘masculinity crisis'. Under the influence of K-pop idols making it big in Korea, Chinese boy bands and celebrities are adopting their delicate beauty traits by dyeing their hair in similar shades and switching to snazzy haute couture wardrobes. But China’s state-run media condemns such traits and all those following them, even calling them “sissy pants" and “fresh young meat.” Things got worse after a back-to-school TV programme featuring the boy band F4, angered parents against the Education Ministry’s decision to hold up the makeup-wearing young men as role models. Calling it a “sick” and “decadent” culture, the state media thinks that K-pop threatens the future of the nation. They have even indulged in bizarre measures like blurring out men’s earrings on television and streaming platforms to stop the spread of “foreign influences”.
“It’s created the impression that Chinese men are all weak, irresponsible and indifferent,” Chinese screenwriter Wang Hailin told LA Times, saying, “Male actors represent national ideology. We cannot encourage the younger generation to look up to them as role models.”
However, Song Geng of the University of Hong Kong feels this kind of fear reflects deep-seated insecurity about Chinese power. “There’s anxiety about the virility of the nation being harmed by those effeminate male images," he said.
Haiyan holds conservative beliefs about what gender roles should be and thinks that indulging in the K-pop culture makes men "soft crybabies". But he probably missed the memo that “real men” aren’t the ones who don’t cry or like it rough but can be anyone who stands up for what they believe in—whether that’s taking on those who don’t think men should wear makeup or taking on opponents in football.
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