CNN  — 

For years, Chinese state media has marked International Women’s Day with effusive praise for the country’s women, thanking them for their contribution and sacrifices to their family, society and nation.

But this year, a video asking pointed questions about deep-rooted gender prejudice disembarked from the usual compliments – taking Chinese social media by the storm.

The two-minute clip, which challenges gender stereotypes for both women and men, is surprisingly progressive for a state-run publication. It is all the more remarkable considering some of its lines are a bold contradiction – and seemingly thinly-veiled criticism – of the Chinese government’s recent efforts to entrench certain gender norms, such as promoting often narrowly defined “masculinity.”

The video was a collaboration between Chinese skincare brand Proya and China Women’s Daily, the official publication of the state-run All-China Women’s Association, to mark International Women’s Day on Monday.

As of Monday afternoon, it had been shared tens of thousands of times on Weibo and Wechat, two of China’s most popular social media platforms. A related hashtag – “It is prejudice, not gender, that draws the boundary” – had racked up more than 100 million views on Weibo, China’s heavily-censored version of Twitter.

The huge and mostly positive reaction to the video speaks to the growing dissatisfaction among many Chinese, especially the younger generation, against staid gender stereotypes – even as the government under President Xi Jinping moves to reinforce traditional family values and turns against male role models deemed too effeminate.

What’s in the video?

The video begins with the presenter speaking into the camera and asking a question that is repeated throughout the clip: “Under what circumstances do you judge something based on gender?”

“Seeing a traffic accident, we say: ‘Oh, a female driver.’ We say: ‘You’ve really got a nerve, you’re not like a girl at all.’ We say: ‘You’re so quiet, you’re not manly,’” she says.

The video goes on to highlight a series of gender norms and prejudice against women, from being bad at math to the expectation to “marry well” and focus on family life.

“We ask women: ‘How do you balance your family and career?’ But we never ask men the same question,” the presenter says. “We ask: ‘What does it mean to be an independent woman?’ But nobody ever discusses what it means to be an independent man.”

The video also questions gender norms and roles Chinese men are expected to fulfill. For example, the presenter asks why “a real man” is not supposed to cry, like the color pink or learn ballet.

“Why don’t men have the right to be fragile? Why is it derogatory, not praise, to say ‘you’re like a woman’ to a man? Why are nice qualities such as being gentle, considerate, family-oriented, or neat exclusive to women? Is it true that only men can be independent, courageous, strong and career-focused?” a group of voices – of both women and men – ask toward the end of the clip.

In contrast – and in line with tradition – other state-media outlets marked International Women’s Day by praising Chinese women for their contributions to society.

People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, on Tuesday called for the public to pay tribute to “Her strength.”

“They’re striving in all professions and trades, showing their female demeanor by being selfless and fearless, contributing the female power by shouldering their responsibilities,” it said in a Weibo post.

Make young Chinese men more “manly”?

The challenge to male stereotypes in the China Women’s Daily’s video is out of step with the Chinese government’s recent campaign to “cultivate masculinity” among the country’s young men.

With that stated goal, the Chinese Ministry of Education last month announced a plan to reinforce physical education classes and hire more sports instructors in schools.

The campaign is a response to the suggestion of a delegate to China’s top political advisory body that the country needed to prevent the “feminization” of teenage boys, who he said had become “weak, timid and low in self-esteem.”

The announcement was met with a torrent of criticism on Chinese social media, with many questioning why “feminine” is a derogatory term. Some gender and sexuality experts also called the focus on masculinity discriminatory, and warned that it could have a detrimental impact on society, including increased domestic violence.

The Education Ministry’s call to action is not the first official effort to tackle what state media has called the “masculinity crisis” among young Chinese men.

Under Xi, China’s nationalist leader, the government has turned against male celebrities, from movie stars to boyband members, that are deemed too effeminate. In 2019, China’s major video-streaming platforms began censoring male actors’ earrings, blurring their earlobes.

But in the eyes of the Chinese authorities, the lack of “masculinity” is not only a matter of taste, but a great risk to the country.

In 2018, state-run Xinhua news agency published a widely cited commentary that said: “Whether a country embraces or rejects (effeminate men) is … a grave matter that affects the nation’s future.”

Focusing its ire on wildly popular male idols, the article blasted the “sickly aesthetics” that had propelled “gender-ambiguous, heavily made-up, tall and delicate” young men to stardom on television and online.

“The phenomenon of ‘sissy men’ has caused a public backlash because the impact of such sickly culture on the youth cannot be underestimated,” it said. “When critics say ‘sissy young men turn a nation sissy,’ they may sound somewhat facetious,” it added. “(But) nurturing a new generation that could rejuvenate the nation requires the resistance of erosive unhealthy culture.” 

In response, a growing number of so-called “masculinity programs” aimed at instilling traditional gender roles in boys and young men through outdoor sports and classroom training have become popular in recent years. In 2018, one such club in Beijing attracted attention – and some criticism – for having its students run shirtless in the dead of winter.

On Weibo, many users applauded the video by Proya and China Women’s Daily for speaking out against the trend.

“This is the best promotional material for International Women’s Day I’ve seen in 24 years,” a comment said. Another said: “There’s no ‘what I’m supposed to become.’ I forever have the right to choose my own life.”