BEIJING — It is 14 degrees the morning two dozen boys gather at a Beijing park to be transformed into alpha males. A reluctant winter sun casts silver light between cold shadows. The wind bites, worsening nerves as the boys — the youngest 7 - prepare to strip to their waists for a run.
One of the watching mothers is worried. She wants her son to grow into amacho male, but it's so cold. She tells him that he can keep his shirt on, or perhaps skip the run through Olympic Forest Park.
This is the kind of "feminine" parenting that coach Tang Haiyan fears can ruin boys. Tang, a former schoolteacher, founded the Real Man Training Club to combat what he and others in China see as a masculinity crisis — part of a backlash against the makeup and earring-wearing male TV, film and pop idols who have gained immense popularity here.
"If you are promoting these effeminate figures," Tang said, "it's a calamity for our country."
In a nation where men dominate political and business leadership and campaigns for gender equality have gained little traction, the debate over what is "effeminate" has become a popular pastime among older conservative residents.
Influenced by K-pop idols in Korea, China's boy bands and celebrities — with their delicate beauty, dyed hair and haute couture wardrobes — have a massive following among women here. But China's state-run media condemn the young idols, calling them "sissy pants."
The backlash deepened after a back-to-school TV program featured the boy band F4. Angry parents attacked the Education Ministry's decision to hold up the cosmetics-wearing young men as role models; state media warned that a "sick" and "decadent" culture threatened the future of the nation. This year, a Chinese video streaming website started blurring earrings worn by men.
"The gender stereotyping is not just about gender identity itself," said an author and researcher on Chinese masculinity. "It's about the reproduction of the nation and how to properly cultivate the next generation."
Song Geng of the University of Hong Kong said the fear partly reflects deep-seated insecurity about Chinese power, after historical humiliations such as the Opium Wars and the domination of Chinese rulers by foreign imperial powers.
"They're worrying that if Chinese men are so effeminate ... then we will become a weak country in future and we cannot compete with our rivals," he said. "There's anxiety about the virility of the nation being harmed by those effeminate male images."
Screenwriter WangHailin said the young men resemble male prostitutes sought after by some affluent older women. He has berated fellow screenwriters, saying that they portray men as "wimps, cowards, losers and idiots."
Chinese military leaders seem to share the fears about the nation's men, with the army newspaper People's Liberation Army Daily complaining that 20 percent of recruits couldn't pass the fitness test for admission because they were overweight, watched too many cellphone videos or drank too much.
But researcher Zheng Jiawen from Nanjing University's School of Journalism and Communications contends that "China's real crisis of masculinity isn't 'sissy pants.' '' "It's a generation of men anxious and insecure about their declining social status and their desperation to cling to power," Zheng wrote on the Shanghai-based website Sixth Tone.
"We must all learn to accept the fact that a delicate face does not mean a weak heart, slender shoulders do not reveal a fragile soul, and a 'betrayal' of outdated masculine stereotypes is not a betrayal of the nation."
Meanwhile, on the cold morning in Bejing, Tang likens his club to a "reserve for alpha males." He and other male mentors lead the boys in chest beating and slogan shouting.
The boys form into two military-style lines and run around the park in lockstep with their coaches:
"One, two, three! "Who's the best? "We are! "Who are we? "We are real men!"