Chinese opera actors apply makeup backstage during the Hungry Ghost Festival in Hong Kong last month. (Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (JEROME FAVRE/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Jerome Favre/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

BEIJING — What makes a man a man? The notion of masculinity is under fierce debate in China after a back-to-school television show, mandatory viewing for returning students, showed men with appearances deemed by some to be too effeminate or “sissy.”

Intense grooming has become a requirement in China’s entertainment industry, following the trend in South Korea for men with perfect skin and impeccable hair. Chinese movies and pop videos are now full of men who have embraced their natural slenderness and have clearly spent a lot of time on their looks.

But Chinese netizens, many of them writing comments with homophobic overtones, think the trend has gone too far and that androgynous men — derided as “little fresh meats” — are “poisoning China’s youth.”

This latest round of chest thumping began earlier this month after the broadcast of a program called “First Class for the New Semester,” jointly produced by China Central Television and the Ministry of Education. Parents and students are required to watch the program together on the Saturday night before the fall semester begins. China has more than 200 million students from elementary grades through high school, according to a 2013 report by the China Youth Research Center.

The show provoked fierce reactions, including from parents objecting that the show’s opening act featured the four-man group New F4, with the male celebrities wearing makeup. The show also included movie star Jackie Chan as well as an entrepreneur, an artist and an aircraft designer.

But detractors seized on the four singers, calling them “pretty girls that cannot have babies,” and asked authorities to take them off the air. One father of a 5-year-old boy, identified as Mr. Feng, told the Communist Party-controlled Global Times that he was worried that the stars would influence his son to behave in a feminine way at school.

Xinhua, the powerful state news agency, lambasted the singers as “sissy pants” and said they were “not men, but not women.”

“They look androgynous and wear makeup. They are slender and weak,” the influential opinion columnist using the pen name Xinshiping wrote. “The impact this sick culture will have on our young generation is immeasurable. The youth are the future of the country. … What a country’s pop culture embraces, refuses and conveys is something that matters to the future of a country.”

With men like these, China will never become the strong and prosperous country it hopes to be, the commentator wrote. “To nurture those who will shoulder the job of helping our nation reach its renaissance,” the article said, according to a translation by the Sixth Tone website, “we must shield them from undesirable cultures.”

The state-run 21st Century newspaper then posted an article called “If a teenager is sissy, then the country is sissy.”

It noted that a WeChat post titled “Let’s get rid of male stars with female appearances” had gone viral. The post blamed overly feminine males for “weakening the spirit of the society” and “swallowing the courage of the nation,” and ignited a raging debate on WeChat, the dominant Chinese social media platform.

Then another state paper, the Beijing Youth Daily, weighed in with a similar view. “Some children are loyal fans of these effeminate idols and they will copy whatever their idols say or do. … If we set no limit to this trend, more people will be proud of this effeminacy and our society and our country’s masculinity will be in crisis,” the paper said, according to the Global Times.

But others have urged tolerance and understanding of different ways of being.

Sun Jiashan, a researcher at Chinese National Academy of Arts, does not think these “feminine” male stars have a negative effect on society.

“They are still far from becoming the mainstream cultural trend in society,” he said, according the 21st Century magazine. “Besides, we should not set male and female aesthetic standards against each other.”

Another popular commentator, Yang Yi, said he didn’t like these men’s styles but that it was wrong to try to get them off the screens. “I’ve stopped watching TV because there are so many men with female appearances on the screen. But I think that is their choice and their right,” he said.

One mother said she would respect her son’s choices.

“It is important to stay true to your heart,” Zhang Yukun, mother of a 4-year-old boy, told the Global Times, adding, “I will give my son all my support as long as he chooses a path he likes.”

Even China’s usually relatively homogeneous state media have offered a wide range of views on the issue.

The China Women’s Daily, the paper of the Communist Party’s Women’s Federation, agreed that people should not be defined by appearances. "No matter what kind of persona style or quality he or she chooses to present, whether it is strong-willed or gentle, that doesn’t stop them from being an excellent person,” the article said, according to a translation by the South China Morning Post.

Elsewhere, commentators said that the emergence of the Chinese “metrosexual” was the result of China’s rapid economic growth and stable social environment.

“Gone are the days of tough guys like Hong Kong martial arts movie stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li as the audience is losing interest in their machismo-laden acts,” wrote Shen Si, a cultural commentator for The Global Times. Instead, audiences — especially female audiences — loved “tender” male stars.

“In the last 30 years, Chinese people have enjoyed a lot material benefits due to the achievements of the reform and opening-up,” he wrote. “Relatively low threat of war and terrorism also bring about peaceful life for citizens. Thus, masculinity becoming less admirable in contemporary China is quite reasonable.”

Social diversity should be respected, he said.

Surprisingly, a military newspaper also defended the stars’ rights to look they way they chose.

A commentary in the People’s Liberation Daily said that it was an “objective fact” that more men were paying more attention to their appearances.

But it said that it wasn’t what was outside that determined the measure of a man. “The masculinity required to nurture the modern society does not lie in appearance,” it wrote in the commentary. “The key is to create a kind of inner character with courage and responsibility.”

Yang Liu contributed to this report.