The Shanghai Dad Club
It’s 9pm on a Tuesday evening and I’m running through 龙之梦 Long Zhi Meng, one of the many over-the-top, multi-story shopping centers that surround my apartment. I’ve just finished a 12-hour working day tutoring back-to-back classes and I’m late for the Shanghai Dad Club – a group of dads I befriended a few weeks ago whilst studying Chinese by myself, and with whom I now meet weekly for a catch up.
The group of dads, their English names being Mike, Robbie and Jason, have known each other for a decade. They live in the same apartment compound and their children have grown up together. For the past 6 years, the Shanghai Dad Club has met weekly to go swimming, drink fruit smoothies, eat carrot cake and chat together. Sometimes they pop out for a cheeky fag (cigarette), too – “because we are men!” they cheer.
The following 66hands story is based on conversations with the Shanghai Dad Club, first-hand observations and independent research from both Chinese and English sources – the Shanghai Dad Club is not representative of fathers in Shanghai, let alone China, where fathers from much less affluent, prosperous and developed areas lead lives easily unrecognizable to those in Shanghai.
The Chinese man; a traditional v. modern 爸爸 baba
The word for father in Chinese is 爸爸 baba, and there are several expressions doting on the role of fathers, one of which is 一日为师，终身为父 yi ri wei shi, zhong shen wei fu (a teacher for a day, a father for life).
The role of the father throughout Chinese history plays a complex and fluctuating role, as influenced by social, cultural, economic and political factors. During the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), behaving 文物 wen wu (warrior and scholar) was characteristic masculinity – the role of the father being to serve the imperial state, whilst the wife was expected to stay at home.
Fast forward to another pocket in Chinese history during the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), whereby socialist transformation deconstructed Confucian family ideologies, ultimately “shattering the economic foundation of the patriarchal kinship system, and socialist mores reconstructed public attitudes towards fatherhood” .
I asked the Shanghai Dad Club what women expected of Chinese men today – they said the ideal partner would be 高富帅 gao fu shuai (tall, rich and handsome). Those unfortunate enough to find themselves sitting along the other end of the spectrum are referred to as 矮穷挫 ai qiong cuo (short, poor and, the closest translation without being cruel, “a loser”).
Beyond these seemingly materialistic requirements, the Shanghai Dad Club stressed 大男子主义 da nan zi zhu yi (translating as “male chauvinism” or a “sexist male attitude”) as an inherent trait still found among some Chinese men, of which the dads felt 特中性 te zhong xing “especially neutral”.
“我理解的大男子主义是：男性对女性一种原始的偏见，认为男性天生优于女性，男性在家庭是扮演重要角色，一切以男性为中心，当然也承担主要义务与责任。就像狮群中的雄狮，保卫领地，享受至高的权力。但生活日常由母狮承担。” “I understand male chauvinism to be (that) men have a primitive prejudice against women. They think that men are better than women and that men play an important role in the family. They are all male-centered, and of course bear the main duties and responsibilities (of a household). It resembles a lion among his pride; the lion defends his territory and enjoys supreme power … but the lioness takes care of daily life.”
Yet this doesn’t seem to have prevailed; modern fathers, men and boys (albeit from what I’ve seen in Shanghai) are shifting towards a more equal, gentle and less-possessive disposition. Whilst this has ensued in a “masculinity crisis” (of which many have renounced as complete bollocks ), the panic to try to salvage China’s diminishing manly men is as intriguing as it is hilarious. Labelled as “soft as sheep”  by one news outlet, a school in Wuhan (located in Hubei province to the east of Shanghai) even established a “male teachers’ workshop”, holding regular “dialogues between men” , although what exactly this entails is unclear.
In reality, and beyond the haze of media and academic reports which can offer contradictory stances on the latter – an entirely new Shanghai baba is emerging. Not only is this visible upon reflection of a highly popular TV show – 爸爸去哪儿 baba qu na’er (Dad, where are we going?) for which the sponsorship rights for the second season sold for 312 million RMB , but by the behaviour of men through what they buy, wear, and post on WeChat (China’s Facebook equivalent).
Given that China now has one of the highest rates of female employment in the world , a preference for men who are willing to share the jo(b/y) of raising children is on the rise. By effect, I’d argue it’s even become trendy. For example, 大小爱玩Da Xiao Ai Wan, an online WeChat magazine which encourages more play time (and therefore less study time) attracted over 10,000 subscribers within its first 5 months .
In a globalized, capital (albeit with Chinese characteristics) market, and a societal structure that sees parent-child relationships shift away from a former patriarchal institution that centered around the respect and dominance of elders, towards one that dotes on a single, only child – fathering norms in contemporary China are altering significantly.
Shifting parenting styles – 虎妈 hu ma (tiger mum), 猫爸 mao ba (pussy dad) and 狼爸 lang ba (wolf dad)
Three distinctive parenting styles are never far from public obsession in China today. These are 虎妈 hu ma (tiger mother), 猫爸 mao ba (cat dad – which I have renamed pussy dad, as it sounds better), and lastly 狼爸 lang ba (wolf dad) – each has an abundance of case studies where we see parents boasting of their Harvard, Cambridge or Peking University graduate children.
The infamous tiger mother attracted global scrutiny upon the release of Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”  in which she depicts the relentless study schedules she imposed on her two young daughters. (From my own experience tutoring in Shanghai, the tiger mother is not someone you mess with. I once set a weekly homework of 10 past papers, 140 new words, 5 essays and pages worth of grammar exercises for a 9-year-old, only to be told it wasn’t enough). This article  shows the outcome of one of Chua’s daughters.
A noted rival of Chua is Chang Zhitao, a father from Shanghai who clashed with said tiger mother’s parenting techniques, one of which included threatening to burn her daughter’s toys unless she had learnt a piano composition. In fact, both have daughters at Harvard, yet Chang Zhitao sets an example for the pussy dad, taking a stance that is more “emotionally sensitive, gentle and relaxed about rules and discipline” .
Perhaps the most bewildering parenting style emerging from China today is the wolf dad, epitomized by Xiao Baiyou, whose book 三天一顿打，孩子进北大 san tian yi dun da, haizi jin beida (For three days hit them, and they will go to Peking University – dubbed China’s Harvard). The businessman and father of 4 beat his children with a stick if they failed to meet his standards – one of which was being able to recite Chinese poetry … whilst they were still at preschool .
The Shanghai Dad Club had mixed views on these parenting styles. “我不太喜欢狼爸。另外，我们身边虎妈更多一些，狼爸更少一些” “I don’t really like the wolf dad (parenting style). Besides, there are more tiger mums than wolf dads”.
The reality; why one child is enough. 望子成龙 wang zi cheng long (to have great hopes for one’s offspring).
What the aforementioned parenting styles show is a unanimous propulsion to attain an elite education – the strive for which seems to be occurring regardless of income, talent or parenting styles. On the One Child Policy, the Shanghai Dad Club were very much in favour due to two overarching factors: an absence of space and an abundance of competition.
And it is not only the men that are reluctant to bring more children into the world; a Chinese survey from 2016 collating data from 14,000 working women, found that 60% declared one child to be enough . Hence, for those with the financial capabilities, raising more than one child is seen to be a new “status symbol”, one that would identify the family as China’s new urban elite .
To sum up
Scientific evidence shows that fathers (regardless of ethnicity or nationality) who are more involved in their children’s upbringing tend to raise these little people to be more “advanced linguistically and better adjusted psychologically” .
Where both parents work full-time, a household in which one parent shoulders all responsibility is at last being recognized as impractical and irrational. Whilst the pressures to educate one’s child at the best institutions in the world is ubiquitous in China (and in spite of the extreme examples given), in reality the average Chinese parent is not as brutal as one might imagine (or as is depicted in Western media).
Aided by the growing trend of a hands-on father, Shanghai babas should be exemplified as model father figures who shrug off traditional expectations of what it means to be a “manly man” and take a more genuine and active interest in their child’s upbringing.
This 66hands story is dedicated to my own baba who, (despite the fact I may never understand his jokes), is a daily source of inspiration, love and support – thank you baba.
 Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” https://www.amazon.co.uk/Battle-Hymn-Tiger-Mother-Chua/dp/1408822075
*No copyright infringement is intended
**The subjects’ permission was granted in electronic format on 7/1/2019 for the publication of this article on 66hands.com