President Xi Jinping addresses a Chinese Lunar New Year reception at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Feb 10 / Xinhua

China is celebrating the Year of the Ox. In a message for Chinese New Year, President Xi Jinping said: “In Chinese culture, the ox is a symbol of diligence, dedication, endeavor and strength … We must promote the spirit of the ox in serving the people, driving innovative development and working tirelessly.”

What an excellent idea! If only boys in the Middle Kingdom were listening.

China’s Education Ministry complains that the new generation has lost its “spirit of yang”, their masculinity. Others label them as “noodles”, soft as dough, “sheep”, and physically weak. There is a widespread belief that the one-child policy has resulted in a generation of pampered children

The New York Times reports that “Government officials in China believe that boys are getting more effeminate and want to toughen them up”. Hashtags decrying a crisis in boys’ education have generated billions of views on Weibo.

High ranking education officials speak of effeminacy. There is public derision of “little fresh meats”, of the willowy, sallow stereotype of a male pop star. One Weibo comment asks whether effeminate men can “defend their country when an outside invasion looms”. But this seems rather unhelpful. Effeminacy invites a thousand voices in shrill condemnation of patriarchy, albeit in a Communist variant.

Fortitude is the real issue. We live in world that yearns to be pampered. This is as much a crisis in the West as in China. Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, and Carol Dweck’s Mindset focus on this very issue.

Aristotle’s benchmark for fortitude in his treatise The Nicomachean Ethics was a readiness to give one’s life for a good reason. Who now thinks this way?

Behind a street sign where I live in Melbourne, an unobtrusive sticker asks passers-by: “What would you die for?” It’s a provocative question: we are further removed from death than at any time in the history of mankind. Children of the baby boomer generation knew that their fathers had risked everything in the tragedy of the Second World War. But most of us have not seen our fathers in such a predicament.

Maternal mortality is another litmus test: Australian women now suffer five deaths per 100,000 births. Death in childbirth is perhaps 50 to 60 times less likely for a mother in Australia now than in 1900, almost 1,500 times less likely than in 2020 Sierra Leone, when figures are adjusted for average births in the life of a woman. China’s maternal mortality dropped from 80 per 100,000 live births in 1991 to 18.3 per 100,000 live births in 2018.

Despite the ever-present possibility of accident or illness, people in developed countries no longer fear an early death. Life expectancy at birth of males in Australia in 1900 was 38.9; now it is 83.5. The equivalent figures for China are about 32 and 77.

I focus on war and maternal mortality because soldiers and mothers a century ago had an appreciation of the risks undertaken — yet soldiers still signed up, mothers still chose to bear children. Two of Jane Austen’s sisters in law died in childbirth. Life choices nowadays seldom involve such deadly outcomes. Dying for others has become a metaphor.

There is a danger that we adults may give such an enfeebled example to children that our greatest sacrifice may be no more life-threatening than to set our alarm earlier or talk calmly to a difficult client.

China and the West do not have a crisis of fortitude because we don’t have world wars, nor because women are safer, but because we have forgotten the meaning of fortitude. The essence of this virtue is not just physical endurance, but doing difficult things for a good reason, in being prepared to live for others. No amount of time in boxing ring, or in a trench, or in a labour ward can build fortitude in this complete sense. The motive is crucial.

The famous mediaeval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas listed fortitude as one of the four sine qua nons of character, along with the habits of temperance, justice and prudence.

By the first two we manage our emotional lives. Every modern psychology text stresses that avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure are the two basic appetites forming the motivational system. Fortitude is the habit of avoiding pain to the extent that this is good for us. If need be, we grit out teeth and face up to it, manfully or womanfully. Temperance is the habit of seeking pleasure only to the extent that it is good for us. When we develop these habits we are empowered to live enriched by emotion, feeling, and appetites, but without allowing them to dominate us.

Intellect and will also need their appropriate perfecting habits. Prudence, the “chariot driver of the virtues”, is the habit of the intellect of setting the right goals for our actions so that we actually exercise fortitude and temperance rather than self-indulgence. And justice is the habit of consistently choosing the path that best accommodates our duties to others.

Fortitude empowers us to focus on the needs of others and on idealistic causes, and away from self-indulgence. A child without fortitude will inevitably face life selfishly and let others down.

And what are the causes?

A street decorated with ox-themed statues for the Chinese Lunar New Year in Shenyang, northeast China’s Liaoning Province. (Xinhua/Yang Qing)

Chinese officials mention the feminisation of the teaching service, but the truth lies closer to home.

Aristotle insisted that parents should help children to endure whatever can be endured. At first that may sound heartless — but remember, we are raising children to run their own lives, and childhood is the time par excellence of “conditioning” our appetites and emotions. “A child who can obey his parents will obey his own reason when he is older,” writes Aristotle.

A strategy to build fortitude must include developing a habit of doing things that are physically demanding. Family bike rides and hiking excursions may help; responsibility for daily jobs and timetables certainly do. One parent wisely told me the rule in his household: “If he is old enough to walk, he is old enough to vacuum.”

Children learn from instructions but fundamentally from example. This brings us back to the current Chinese concern about their boys. Chinese fathers are not in the game. Chinese boys suffer as alarming a father hunger as has been documented in studies such as David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America, first published 25 years ago.

According to a survey by the China Youth Research Centre, when asked “Who can understand and comfort you best when you are in a bad mood?” only 10% of the children chose their father, ranking 4th; “In your free time who do you spend the longest time with?” only 6.9% of children chose fathers ranking fifth; when asked, “Who respects you the most and makes you feel confident?” only 15.5% of the children chose the father, ranking 4th; and “When asked the secret of your heart, who do you want to tell the most?” only 8.5% of the children chose their father, ranking 4th.

Rather than challenge young people with the question “What would you die for?” let’s ask “What will you use your fortitude for?”

Will you use it, in tragic self-indulgence, to pursue pleasure, power or possessions? Or will you place your fortitude at the service of ideals beyond yourself? You will only do this if you have the habit of justice. Only if you realise that every one of our actions touches others in some way and so every choice we make must be underpinned by a deep love for our fellow human beings. Without the example of dedicated fathers (and of mothers, especially for daughters), where can children learn this?

Children born in the year of the Ox, we are told, will be “stable and reliable and know how to work hard”. It’s a good year for the Chinese Education Ministry to rethink its advice to parents.

Andy Mullins

Dr Andy Mullins teaches formation of character in a Masters program at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His doctorate investigated the intersection of neuroscience and moral behaviour. He is the...