(Re)masculinizing “Suzhi Jiaoyu” (Education for Quality): Aspirational Values of Modernity in Neoliberal China

By Xiaodong Lin and Mairtin Mac an Ghaill

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In December 2016, China published a gender specific textbook for boys, aiming to help male pupils understand their gender roles in society. It emphasizes the issue of masculinity and addresses the question of effeminate boys and the feminization of schooling. The text for boys is a product of an ongoing debate on boys’ schooling and a crisis of masculinity for boys in China with which that our chapter on ‘(Re)masculinizing “Suzhi Jiaoyu” (Education for Quality): Aspirational Values of Modernity in Neoliberal China’ critically engages. We argue that the media-generated discourse of failing boys’ and the suggested accompanying feminization of schooling as a threat to the nation can be read as a strategic move to (re)masculinize suzhi education to prepare boys (and girls) for a future neoliberal-based economy and nation. This contemporary move draws upon a historical understanding of gender by attempting to promote and modernize, through notions of aspiration and competition, the wu (military and physical) aspect of Chinese masculinity (Louie 2002), alongside a wider Confucian traditional patriarchal order, in the contemporary educational system.

With the globalization of education, policy borrowing is a common social practice. For example, Madsen (2006) found that the education ministries of Eritrea, Nepal, and Denmark were embracing a northern hemisphere notion of cultivating academic skills to ensure economic and social development. Blackmore (2000) identifies that this policy borrowing has a major impact on the development of gender equality, as one of the features of neoliberalism is that it is an individualizing process. This neoliberal individualizing process, which draws upon a narrow definition of aspiration (Stahl 2012), also erases social and cultural explanations that address the impact of material, symbolic, and psychic dimensions of wider historical, socio-economic, and institutional forces. Within a Western context, this is often particularly significant in relation to working-class and minority ethnic communities, while in a Chinese context, questions of differential access to schooling, cultural capital, student performativity, inequality, and social justice are particularly significant in relation to students from rural communities, working-class students in the context of an emerging new urban middle class, and the children of internal migrants.  Meanwhile, public discourse has created a major anxiety focusing on a boy crisis:

The fall behind and failure of boy’s education will have a major impact on the individual and the society….The quality of boys’ health has not only created a shadow in the future for themselves, but also planted a risk for the quality of future citizens and directly affect the nation’s security and competitiveness. (“Boy Crisis” 2012)

Examples such as the above narratives illustrate that suzhi education is imagined as a key (re)masculinizing process, in which embodied gendered (boy) subjects must be disciplined in developing their current and future entrepreneurial selves, while girls’ and young women’s selves are erased. The disconnection of the media-led “boy discourse” from wider gender relations serves to mask this erasure. An important critique of these media scripts is that implicitly they are involved in making a series of reductive moves, including: writing out Chinese historical understandings of masculinity; erasing current Chinese educational research on the intersections of multiple social inequalities; underplaying complex subject positions inhabited by young people as students; and disconnecting the concept of masculinity from gender relations. Perhaps one of the most pernicious effects of these moves is the media’s allocation of a minor role to female students, who are dismissed on the basis of an ascribed over-aspirational schooling performance in competitive examinations (too much masculinity), within a major media narrative that focuses on underperforming male students (too little masculinity). We have found that it is necessary to open up space for discussions on educating boys and girls within a context of nuanced understandings of reconfiguring gender relations, as they are played out between the local and global tensions of future shifting geo-political domains. Of particular significance for future research in Chinese schools will be a critical examination of how the curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment can be understood as institutional structures that enable spaces for the formation of masculine and feminine subjectivities, placing students at the center of education.

Adapted from:

Lin, X. and Mac an Ghaill, M, (2017) ‘(Re)masculinizing “Suzhi Jiaoyu” (Education for Quality): Aspirational Values of Modernity in Neoliberal China’ In Stahl, G., Nelson, D., & Wallace, D. (Eds.), Masculinity and Aspiration in an Era of Neoliberal Education: International Perspectives. Routledge, New York.

Xiaodong Lin is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of York. Twitter: @wesxlin

Mairtin Mac an Ghaill is a Professor Multi-professional Education at Newman University.

Categories: Sociology of Education

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