Zhou Peng, 26, was recently found dead in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province in an apparent suicide.
Shortly before his body was found, he reportedly posted a letter online in which he acknowledged that he had been harassed for being “too effeminate.”
“Guys are supposed to be naughty, fight and swear. Guys who are too quiet and polite are effeminate and called sissies,” he wrote.
“I may have looked a bit like a girl when I was younger, but I dressed ‘normally’ and didn’t try to imitate girls,” wrote the young photographer, who also went by the pseudonym Ludaosen.
“However, I was bullied at school, verbally abused, ostracized, threatened … and all kinds of insults were yelled at me,” the letter reads.
His death has caused a commotion in the Asian country, where the government has promoted a campaign to make young people “more manly”
Chinese police did not give details about the death, only saying that they had ruled out the homicide.
But for the hundreds of thousands of social media users who shared the 5,000 word letter on the microblogging site Weibo it was a suicide case.
As well as sparking heated debates about mental health and bullying, the letter also raised questions about how a Chinese man should look or behave.
“He had a delicate appearance and a seemingly gentle personality. These are all good points and yet he was bullied just because he was not in line with traditional male ideals,” commented one Weibo user.
“How many other boys have laughed at his soft gaze and delicate voice? Who are we to dictate what is acceptable or not? They have done nothing wrong,” he added.
Another wrote about how the case brought up “embarrassing” memories of when he and his classmates incessantly teased a boy they thought was “effeminate” during his school years.
“Thinking back, I’m so embarrassed. We were just kidding, but it could have caused real trauma,” he wrote.
Data on bullying in China are scant, but a document from the Children and Youth Services Review The 2019 survey, which sent questionnaires to more than 3,000 youth, found that more than 35% of respondents identified themselves as victims of traditional bullying.
Meanwhile, more than 31% said they had been a victim of cyberbullying.
Research indicated that being a man, attending boarding school, poor academic performance and a poor relationship with parents are among the top factors for being bullied.
The intolerance of supposedly “effeminate” men is not unique to Chinese culture, but the Beijing government openly supports the position, even actively promotes it.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education called on schools to reform their physical education offer, in a notice with a title that left no doubts about its ultimate goal: “Proposal to prevent the feminization of male adolescents.”
The text advised hiring retired athletes and people with sports backgrounds to help develop the sport with a view to “cultivate masculinity in students“.
The call came months after China’s top political adviser, Si Zefu, expressed concern that there was a trend among young Chinese men toward “feminization,” which would “inevitably jeopardize the nation’s survival and development. China “unless the situation was” effectively managed “.
Then in September, China’s broadcasting regulator issued a ban on the appearance of “effeminate” men on TV channels and streaming videos, even using a derogatory Chinese term.
The programs, according to the document, should not present “men ladybugs and other abnormal aesthetics,” it said in an ad, which used the term niangpao, an insult to “effeminate” men.
Dr Wang Shuaishuai, an expert on digital culture at the University of Amsterdam, told the BBC that he was “shocked” when he saw the term written in an official communication.
“Now, young people are going to think that it is okay to use this gender insult to attack others,” he says.
“Because if the government approves of this type of language, who else can say that it is wrong to use it in school?”
It is no coincidence that China’s drive for masculinity is running parallel to President Xi Jinping’s aggressive form of international diplomacy, experts told the BBC.
“Creating a feeling of ‘us against the world’, getting into fights with countries around the world, posing aggressively and promoting policies for ‘self-reliance’ are attitudes that do not match the softness of metrosexuality,” says Dr. Jonathan Sullivan, director of China programs at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute in England.
In a shift from former leader Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of keeping a low profile, China has in recent years embraced what observers have called the “warrior wolf diplomacy“.
Taking its name from the homonymous movies in the style of RamboIn which China’s elite special forces confront US-led mercenaries, the strategy is characterized by Chinese diplomats using confrontational rhetoric, sometimes even abusive.
This approach culminated in a defiant speech in July, when Xi warned that China would not be “intimidated” or “oppressed” by foreign powers.
“Xi’s demand for a strong national stance and an emphasis on a tougher expression of masculinity are connected,” says Sullivan.
At the same time, the attack on “effeminate” men on television comes amid a broader crackdown on celebrities and big tech, which have an incredible influence on China’s youth.
Once again, observers say, this has to do with Xi’s broader agenda of shaping his version of the new China, one that is “socialist with Chinese characteristics,” with no room for seemingly unsavory foreign influences.
“Many of China’s biggest young stars in recent years have challenged traditional male ideals, thanks in large part to the influence of Korean pop,” says Wang.
“They can wear earrings or makeup, and the young fans adored them for that. But Chinese society is still very conservative in general, and the government wants to maintain that.”
Celebrities and ordinary citizens
Young male celebrities like the group TF Boys and singer-actor Lu Han, celebrated for their dainty and fresh features, have millions of fans who go to extremes to show their love for them.
And since many of these popular “effeminate” celebrities appear on video streaming sites owned by Big Tech, unlike state television, they become “obvious targets,” says Wang.
“In this case, it can also be seen as another part of China’s ongoing campaign against Big Tech, which the government sees as a threat to its ability to control its citizens.”
But while celebrities will have to rethink their image for now, Wang’s greatest fear is the safety of the common citizen.
“Gender-based violence, harassment and intimidation are likely to increase, because the government has essentially made them look good,” he says.
“It’s terribly sad.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.