Being Modern in China - Paul Willis - ebook

Being Modern in China ebook

Paul Willis

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This book analyses modernity and tradition in China today and how they combine in striking ways in the Chinese school. Paul Willis - the leading ethnographer and author of Learning to Labour - shows how China has undergone an internal migration not only of masses of workers but also of a mental and ideological kind to new cultural landscapes of meaning, which include worship of the glorified city, devotion to consumerism, and fixation upon the smartphone and the internet. Massive educational expansion has been a precondition for explosive economic growth and technical development, but at the same time the school provides a cultural stage for personal and collective experience. In its closed walls and the inescapability of its 'scores', an astonishing drama plays out between the new and the old, with a tapestry of intricate human meanings woven of small tragedies and triumphs, secret promises and felt betrayals, helping to produce not only exam results but cultural orientations and occupational destinies. By exploring the cultural dimension of everyday experience as it is lived out in the school, this book sheds new light on the enormous transformations that have swept through China and created the kind of society that it is today: a society that is obsessed with the future and at the same time structured by and in continuous dialogue with its past.

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Front Matter


A reading guide


Introduction and Theoretical Groundings

The symbolic order

The rock of education



1 The Chinese Scene


Part I Modernity’s Symbolic Order

2 City Good, Country Bad


3 Consuming Consumerism


4 The Internet: Deus ex Machina?


Part II Education’s Symbolic Order

5 The Gaokao Regime


6 The Three Arrows and Experience

‘When you grow up, where do you want to take me?’

The other city

Counter-school culture Chinese style

City-based migrant youth

The academic literature


7 ‘People is the Fish’

Part III The View from the Saved

8 Passing Gaokao


9 Not Passing Gaokao


Part IV Closing Portraits

10 ‘Chen’

11 My Own Song

My guitar can sing my own songs

12 Tomb Sweeping Day


13 Orders of Experience

The symbolic order meets subjective meaning

Lived culture and the school


End User License Agreement



Table of Contents

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Being Modern in China

A Western Cultural Analysis of Modernity, Tradition and Schooling in China Today

Paul Willis


Copyright © Paul Willis 2020

The right of Paul Willis to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2020 by Polity Press

Polity Press65 Bridge StreetCambridge CB2 1UR, UK

Polity Press101 Station LandingSuite 300Medford, MA 02155, USA

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-3832-4

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataNames: Willis, Paul E., author.Title: Being modern in China : a Western cultural analysis of modernity, tradition and schooling in China today / Paul Willis.Description: Medford, MA, USA : Polity Press, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index. |Identifiers: LCCN 2019002656 (print) | LCCN 2019021595 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509538324 (Epub) | ISBN 9781509538300 | ISBN 9781509538317 (pb)Subjects: LCSH: China--Civilization--21st century. | Consumption (Economics)--Social aspects--China. | Information technology--Social aspects--China. | Education--Social aspects--China. | Educational change--China. | Gaokao (Educational test) | Migration, Internal--Social aspects--China. | Urbanization--China.Classification: LCC DS779.43 (ebook) | LCC DS779.43 .W55 2019 (print) | DDC 951.06/12--dc23LC record available at

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Every effort has been made to trace all copyright holders, but if any have been overlooked the publisher will be pleased to include any necessary credits in any subsequent reprint or edition.

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I’ve had an odd sort of retirement. I retired from Keele University in 2010, but, instead of getting out the old slippers and housecoat and thinking about ordering some new reading glasses, I left my middling home in the Midlands of middling old England and headed out for foreign pastures. My travels, barely ‘adventures’, though that is how they often seemed to me, were underwritten by invited professorships at Princeton (2010–14) and then at Beijing Normal University (2014–17). Gold-plated backpacking for seniors, you might say, with institutional safety nets. Interest there was aplenty for an ethnographer in the curious ways and gilded towers of Princeton, still Ivyest of the Ivy ‘bubbles’, but when I got to Beijing Normal University four years later there was a colossal and gritty if somewhat surreal reality check in store – fascination and bewilderment too. Necessity determined a steep learning curve, advancing years forgotten. Finding my own way around a smog-bound mega-city was hard enough, but I was also struggling to figure out just what kind of place I had landed in. This was a place of almost unimaginable dimensions which was conducting the world’s largest and most dramatic ever natural experiment in super-fast modernization. Directed by a puissant communist state, there has been high-speed capital investment and an expansion of wage labour that have increased GDP a hundredfold, with massive new cities built and rebuilt to house 600 million internal migrants and counting. These migrants make not only huge geographic journeys but also simultaneous and equally momentous symbolic travels into a modernity of the mind, with an unquenchable optimism that the future will be better; there is a glorification of mega-city life and a devoted use of smartphones accompanied by a ferocious self-devouring consumerism. All this takes place, though, in a still ancient civilization whose traditional culture stretches back through a 5000-year history. Never before has the past been so mixed up with the present and hopes for the future! In all the flux of change, how and why do certain things seem to remain so constant? Given my interest in the topic, most intriguing of all and surprising to me was the constancy of educational standards, attitudes and practices and the undimmed very high respect for scholarly values. My interest was further heightened because of the publication in China in 2013 of my book Learning to Labour, which gives an ethnographic portrait and analysis of school cultures in England and which, fascinatingly for me, now figures in some aspects of the internal scholarly debate over education in China.1 China presents a quite different educational culture and scene from that in England which I knew and had written about. I was very interested in trying to figure out just how things worked in such a very, very different context. Most central to understand about China is that there remains at the core of the education system today an age-old and extreme exam culture, with the fearsome Gaokao (college entrance exam) enshrined as its keystone. Its direct spiritual forebear, the civil service entrance exam, originated 1500 years ago and has provided the foundation and social glue through various epochs. The Gaokao continues the tradition today – through the looking glass by jet travel indeed, both to the future and the past.

Out of the gilt, onto the world’s factory floor. Princeton was interesting enough, but also somehow continuous with my previous life, an exaggeration with symphonic variations on the more modest themes I already knew quite well. Towards the end of my stay I sometimes quite forgot that I was in a foreign country; I fitted in almost too easily, oblivious to differences in accent and origin, with British, American and European friends being interchangeable. Never in China! You are always a foreigner, taken as a foreigner. You always see with foreign eyes, are always taken aback by the strange and the new. All ‘new’ but in a curious way, a bit as if – in a disturbed half-waking dream – you had wandered a couple of blocks away from home into a neighbourhood you never imagined or knew was there but now seems real enough, with a jumbled-up half familiarity, but where you can’t quite sort out the real from the imagined. Curiously old and stately buildings, a bit like Old England but older still and more exotic, jostled against skyscrapers a bit like those in New York but oddly disappearing up into the smog. Headless skyscrapers disappear into the gloom as, on the crowded streets, curious eyes follow you, the lao wai (‘old foreigner’, a term applied to all Caucasians, different nationalities never being distinguished), everywhere, unabashed. Human beings should be familiar, but are not. Pinch yourself, wake up! But nothing changes. They walk and talk, comfort and scold each other in just the same ways, but are still different. Are they really as angry as their intonation makes them seem? Why are they staring? Why the sudden hilarious laughter? What a difference a few degrees make to the same human floor plan. Look more closely and you get more confused. Celebrate humanity, but whose humanity? Modernity? Whose modernity and for what?

I was thrown headlong into trying to figure out a contradiction: in China’s quite special relationship with modernity a future-obsessed society is simultaneously structured by and in continuous dialogue with the past, its forms and grammars, and in particular with its ultra-high-stakes exam system and culture stretching back millennia. Mesmerized modernity meets the Gaokao. Through its provision of highly technically skilled labour power, the Chinese education system certainly can be understood and is usually seen as a precondition and gift to modernization, but it also constitutes very much a contradiction. There is a darker side, with much suffering flowing out of its collisions with modernity, as human meanings and feelings grapple with the sacrifices of passing over the single bridge of the Gaokao as well as with, of course, the meanings of not passing over the single bridge – the fate of most. Passing over or by the narrow bridge of Gaokao became a way of understanding China and its huge cultural shifts in recent times, as well as, in itself, a metaphor for a kind of relentlessness in the Chinese character that has worked through all areas but is active especially in modern times. I was now part and parcel of an education system growing in scope and importance even as it continued unchanged in the essential elements of unbending discipline and super-high-stakes testing. How do the super-traditional school and university meet the ultra-speeding modern in the minds, cultures and understandings of their students? My students were there to learn from me, but I was going to learn from them …

Of course I may be in danger of exaggerating my case or taking an overly exotic or orientalist view of China’s specialness and strangeness. Equally there is no point in a determinedly flat-earth view that sees only common denominators of banality and has nothing to say about differences of national character that strike every thoughtful and alert traveller, if not their scrupulous academic counterparts. Every country has its own stories, mythologies and exceptional times to recount and command international attention. Similar strings of miracle economic growth and fast cultural change lie all around East and South-East Asia, with Japan and the Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore) all making Western eyes goggle in their time. But none of these were a continental phenomenon involving a large part of the globe’s population, and none involved worldtilting mass migrations from the interior to the coast. Most notably, none involved the same bizarre interactions of speeding optimism and devotion to the future within a strong traditional culture – in its time the bedrock of the smaller Asian variants – and home to the world’s first modern government bureaucracy, competitive exam systems and separate education system. None involved the same deepening of an all-powerful centralized communist state with a further attenuated civil sphere as economic development flowered – in fact, usually the reverse. Of course there are similarities, but the intertwining of relentless and directed economic development with vivid cultural flux makes China the home of cultural contradiction, the processes more raw and open than elsewhere. Chinese modernization has been earth-tilting outside its own borders as well, rendering new and much darker the meaning of modernity in the West and now providing a self-proclaimed ‘developmental alternative’ for ‘third world’ countries struggling to follow broken Western models and now presented with another kind of passage to economic modernization.

A reading guide

I have written this book for both the generalist and the specialist reader, omitting or removing to endnotes the more ‘academic’ academic arguments. While I intended it to bring pleasure in its reading and to be readily comprehensible, I certainly do not exclude important sociological and educational issues. Indeed, in an academic era – in both East and West – privileging a narrow but often socially irrelevant precision, it may require a generalist and open tone in order to approach at all some of the abandoned ‘big issues’. After a couple of introductory chapters, I start in Part I by providing a general cultural map of influences sweeping through all sections of Chinese society, focusing on three extraordinary and dynamic drivers of cultural change: glorification and worship of the city, the almost supernaturally invested powers of the internet, and a ferocious consumerism. Part II of the book moves on to explore how these major forces are understood and dealt with, as well as contributed to, from below and in experience. Modernity brings new symbolic resources and choices, new grist to the mill of meaning-making, as well as, by force, introducing new necessities to be made sense of. In particular I explore various aspects of how lived cultural change and experience intersect with educational institutions and their age-old structures of ruthless meritocratic testing. My focus is on informal student cultures of the school, and Part III uses the direct words and experiences of my own graduate students to embody and illustrate themes introduced in Part II. Part IV presents ethnographic portraits to be read in light of arguments and positions developed throughout the book. My aim is to link cultural and social action to wider structural processes in China’s immense grappling with modernity in order to show how ‘trivial’ experiences connect to large cores of cultural change.



Learning to Labour

, Columbia University Press ([1977] 2017); Chinese edn pubd by Yilin, 2013. For an account of the interpretation, reception and influence of the book in China, see Scott Moskowitz, Xi She and Xiong Chunwen, ‘

Learning to Labour

in China’,


, 19/4 (2018): 512–30.


: In these notes, but not in the text, I record Chinese authors in the Chinese style, with family name first.


I’m very grateful to the Beijing Normal University and the Sociology Department of its Institute of Educational Theories for enabling my three-year sojourn in Beijing and for providing such excellent support both professionally and personally. I’m also indebted to colleagues, and most especially to my excellent graduate students, for being so forthcoming in opinions, information, ideas and excellent weekly journals prepared for me. Particular thanks to graduate students from whose journals I have quoted extensively in this book, and specifically to ‘Dorothy’ for supplying a whole chapter from her reading diaries. These students have made the book what it is, though they are not, of course, responsible in any way for its analytic content. Thanks also to ‘Martha’ and ‘Wanda’ for pleasurable dinners, support throughout, and agreeing to the inclusion of the ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’ chapter to this volume. Heart-felt thanks, too, to Scott Moskowitz as my ever willing and talented part-time research assistant. He provided very high-quality academic support and research throughout and painstaking as well as truly creative consultative editing for the final manuscript. Deep thanks also to my long-standing friend and colleague Mats Trondman for reading this manuscript so thoroughly and advising me on the concluding chapter.


A stampede of ‘thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of horses across a single log bridge’

A well-known Chinese saying relating to Gaokao

Introduction and Theoretical Groundings

The symbolic order

I realized quite late on in my career – a bit like discovering that I had been speaking ‘prose’ all along – that, in my long-standing interest in education and everyday ‘lived experience’ and culture, I had actually been talking and writing about forms of ‘modernity’ – call it cultural modernity.1 I had been dealing with how post-Second World War generations from the 1960s on handled successive economic, structural and institutional change at the level of cultural and lived experience. They were utilizing specific symbolic frameworks and resources, themselves subject to change over time, to develop identities, cultural interests, self-understandings and practices in relation to particular historical conditions and current institutional forms and locations. Of course, relatively speaking, change has been fairly slow in the West and taking place over protracted periods For much of the time it can feel as if you are dealing with static situations, and it was only over long periods of time that I could come to see my own work in comparative frame. By complete contrast, in China I could see waves of epochal change breaking before my very eyes.

In Felix Holt, George Eliot remarks that ‘Life is measured by the rapidity of change, the succession of influences that modify the being.’ The measuring and changing of being might be slow in the West, but in China they tumble on top of each other, with the change often outpacing the measuring by considerable degree. Different modes of production, political regimes and profound cultural change have been crunched into single-generation spans. In looking at detailed symbolic and cultural forms in the West, I had not really stopped to think about or spell out the larger frames of meaning that located seemingly unchanging beings. I had just taken for granted a lot of the larger themes relating to urbanism, industrialism and stage of development. I had just assumed important elements of this largest cultural frame, a frame which might for my purposes here be called the locating ‘symbolic order’ for the development of individual and group meanings and subjectivities. What was unchanging became ‘obvious’; what was obvious became invisible. In China this was absolutely not the case, because this larger cultural frame was, first of all, so visible to me as difference and, secondly, was changing all the time in astonishingly complex and contradictory ways. If I wished to understand more about my students and education in China, I had to try to appreciate and articulate something of the ‘obvious’ large cultural worlds, the symbolic orders, which they inhabited, including its contradictions and collisions.

We can think of the ‘symbolic order’ as contrasted with the ‘material order’ of society. I take not a psychoanalytic view but a cultural sociological view of this distinction. The ‘material order’ concerns the basic structural, productive and spatial arrangements of society; the symbolic order is composed of symbols, cultural forms, ideas, and representations and practices related to them. If you like, all the latter provide the symbols, materials and resources which locate, and from which emerge, in Raymond Williams’s terms, 2 contemporary ‘structures of feeling’. The symbolic order supplies the means for the development of the felt and the affective, the actual day-to-day ways of living change which help to colour the whole social fabric and produce categories for how the different social types are viewed and why they should be so viewed. The symbolic order constitutes a wide pool of resources and symbols which provide material and context for local and situated practices of ‘meaning-making’.3 The general resources are creatively taken up in specific and local ways but are themselves somewhat free-floating, which makes them approachable analytically and empirically in a way individual meanings and practices may not be. Many elements of the symbolic order are public, appear in several tangible forms, and hang visibly in social practices, appearances and atmospheres, as well as being the subject of popular and media social commentary. Rapid and continuing social and structural change in the material order has been much commented upon in China, but there has been less focus on systematic understandings of the symbolic order and associated fundamental shifts in the ‘meaning resources’ utilized in common experience by agents in their ordinary lives. The huge internal physical migration in China also has to be seen as a migration into a new symbolic order. The latter breaks up, loosens or rearranges old associations and traditions in a way which demands more than ever a sui generis view of culture. The modern strains free from, contradicts or engages in a kind of semiotic guerrilla war with tradition and what has gone before.

Traditions can of course be seen as symbolic orders in themselves, so perhaps we should speak today of symbolic orders in the plural, where a dominant or strongly emergent one is in play with still existing residual orders. Some traditional orders remain influential and very long-lasting, such as Confucianism, for instance, which still survives in China today. There have also been waves of modernity or attempted modernizations in China in the past which have seen themselves as about overcoming the limitations of then received traditions. In the country’s ‘modern period’, such attempts followed in reaction to the humiliations of the opium wars in the mid-nineteenth century. These were followed by republican modernizations in the early twentieth century and the mid-century Maoist one of ‘socialist modernization’ predicated on a total war against the ‘four olds’ (old customs, culture, habits and ideas). Caution is required when talking of ‘tradition’. Historians still argue over to what extent these previous eras modified what was inherited and then passed on, especially in local lived culture. A further complication is that, in all eras, including in the present one, elites undertake an ‘official’ rhetorical reconstruction of the past to fit current purpose and legitimate themselves, so to speak updating what is to be updated to put themselves in a good historical light and position to act on their own agendas. All this makes it difficult to name a certain specific thing called ‘tradition’ as if an unchanging concrete entity to be contrasted with the present.

For all the complexity here, though, I argue that the new symbolic order in China today is different, and different in its relations from what has gone before, however the latter is understood and refashioned. Its constitutive symbols operate in different ways from the old ones in whatever configuration tradition is received or imagined. Symbols in the new order are dynamic and kinetic and proliferate rapidly as they are driven by the new forces of electronic communication, digitalization and cultural commodity fetishism. The symbolic order or orders have always been there in one way or another, and past ones persist in various ways, but the current modern, late modern or post-modern one is radically different and more autonomous than what has gone previously. The symbolic order is now self-feeding and much more completely the means though which the new material order is seen, ‘lived’ and understood. In modernity or late modernity, meanings and identities shape ever more in cultural and semi-autonomous forms, overlaying, displacing, compartmentalizing, patch working and reforming for new purpose older social influences and meanings. The new order brings its own problems and diversions as well as complex relations with inherited meanings, but in comparison with what went before the new order very much raises the possibilities for personal remakings and reorderings of signification as everyday practices now to be found far beyond the elites which make for their own dynamics of change within everyday practice and beyond, so amplifying change in ways not seen before.

In Part I of this book I identify three sets of dynamic ‘meaning complexes’ of how change is understood in contemporary China. I call them ‘arrows of modernity’. These are complexes which supply positions and ‘affordances’4 for individuals and social groups to work out local meanings and their desires for the future. They help to shape motivations, pulses and actions for groups and individuals to form new cultural identities in practices of their own informal cultural production,5 which in turn help to extend, reinforce or modify the three arrows. ‘Affordances’ offer possibilities for visceral reorderings of signification, including invited boundary crossings, pre-codings of potential dilemmas, and poignant openings up of contradictions as scopes of action to reveal previously unseen but fateful crossroads where blocked creativity can find new paths. My arrows are worship of the glorified city; devotion to consumerism and the cultural commodity; and fixation with the smartphone and the internet. They can also be understood as embedded contradictions or complexes to be worked on by local actors with somewhat different outcomes for differently placed groups and according to their own work of informal cultural production in relation to them. These cultural contradictions concern country/city contrasts and oppositions; rampant consumerism coming up against material want in a still low- to middle-income country; and physical/virtual contrasts in the late arrived but now encompassing digital and smartphone age. In Part I of the book I try to show how meanings, possibility and promise seem to emanate, unwilled, from these things, challenging, changing and resituating what has gone before and opening up new personal possibilities.

The rock of education

China is fascinating from the point of view of modernity because it is changing so fast and embracing change and globalization like nowhere else, but at the same time it maintains a complex relationship with important elements of the past and its traditions. The situation is complex. ‘Tradition’ is a slippery concept which is rhetorically redefined and selectively drawn upon in every new epoch by the prevailing powers. This complicates attempts to understand the situation on the ground. Parts of ‘tradition’, especially as ‘lived’ practice, ritual and superstitious belief ingrained in everyday life, are fading or have disappeared. This is so especially among the educated and city-based and youth more generally. Replacing this is another kind of commercially mediated ‘tradition’ growing apace as the shells and external forms which have lost their inner life are given new commodity and institutional life and resurrection through economic enterprises and tourist attractions now taking a prominent place in the huge expansion of the service industries. At the same time a renewed focus on its ‘5000-year history’ serves its part in China’s great push for ‘rejuvenation’ and hopes for a successful projection of a soft power to match its undoubted economic power. Concurrent with these rather artificial developments, though, it is also very much the case that large areas of social life and social relations continue to be governed by what we might think of as inherited traditional general social schemas. Rather than being narrow rituals, these are general patterns of human association taken from the past which find new living contents and contemporary relevance, so renewing the basic schemas. Guanxi, for instance, still holds considerable power. This is a system of personal relations between immediate and extended family members, extending to school and work friends, which individuals still look to and utilize when making important decisions or seeking advancement. Guanxi can hold more power than formal institutional relationships.6 Filial piety still holds strongly too and may have been deepened and channelled more specifically by the long-lasting ‘one-child policy’ (only recently converted to a two-child policy). Guanxi and filial piety still help to shape social relationships but have generally been adapted to new structural, commercial and organizational imperatives.

The one huge institutional arena inherited from the past which is perhaps uniquely preserved essentially unchanged – intact in its own structures, internal symbolic order and ritualistic relationships – is that of education. It maintains powerful and growing influence for, in and of itself. Of all institutional structures it is the freest, both in reality and in popular belief, from corruption and the influence of Guanxi. At its heart is the ferocious testing regime, with the Gaokao (college entrance exam taken at age eighteen) as its key element. Educational institutions and respect for scholarly values and achievement are far more unchanging and rooted in history than they are in the West and continue to be quite central in their meanings and influence throughout all social space. Quite apart from my particular interest in this realm, the colossal institution of education and the powerful ways in which it directs and encompasses personal meanings has to be understood if China is to be understood. It is the main and massive institutional presence of the past in a rapidly modernizing society structured elsewhere, but much more loosely throughout, by traditional values. The Chinese education system is much more all-encompassing, strict and disciplinarian than in the West and operates in a civil society that is either much thinner or non-existent. It massively shapes personal meanings as well as life trajectories. In China you cannot avoid the school in proceeding through and making sense of life; Gaokao is the bridge which must be passed over, even though, of course, most people do not – itself a powerful if negative structuring force.

A millennium and more ago in the implementation of the civil service entrance exam, the Chinese pioneered the first open and non-discriminatory selection system that was to spread around the world many, many centuries later. The historical legacy remains utterly central in China today, including the potent cultural figure or myth of the super-bright peasant child raising themselves far, far beyond their inherited station through sheer hard work and success in endless examinations. However unlikely the actual realization of this scenario for any particular peasant, given the absolute requirement for expensive and intense tutoring and the cultural specificity of the tests, this image and its associated meanings have helped to shape a society which right up until today really does seem to value highly and absolutely respect, if not always practise, scholarly learning and discipline. This seems to be true at all levels, most surprisingly at the bottom, and continues to shape the whole status system profoundly, with many sections of the elite still importantly distinguished from lower orders by educational standing and experience as well as by money and birth. Severe selection and ruthless competition are fundamental and widely accepted not only in education but as a bedrock of the social order. Though without a direct institutional connection, from the original seeds of the civil service exam has grown a massive education apparatus built around a centralized exam system selectively funnelling the ‘exam achievers’ through various sieves in a very steep-sided educational pyramid. Exam success regulates entry from the primary school to key junior highs, from there to key senior highs, and then through the infamous and much feared Gaokao to the universities, themselves ranked in vertiginous order, with Peking and Tsinghua universities in Beijing at the very top. The Gaokao still determines the life course for a wide section of Chinese society today. It is the pivot around which the whole system is organized; all of education is shaped by its requirements, with constant testing for its preparation structuring the entire school career and the prestige of university entrance resting on surviving its rigours and applying similar aptitudes and skills in higher education. All progress is made to the rhythm of constant testing and examination. All is moulded in the image of the test.

Part I of the book deals with the astonishing side of China, its quite baffling speed of change. The remaining three parts look at the other side of the country, the unchanging constancy of Chinese culture and society, especially in its educational arrangements and the absolutely central importance of the Gaokao. Using my students’ journals and other data sources, I explore the school-based symbolic order and student experience of passing Gaokao. I also consider how my three arrows run along parallel lines and interact or cause tension with traditional school logics and try to chart their implications for the differential cultural experiences and paths, and potential paths, of those who pass or fail the all-important Gaokao. Passing Gaokao in new times.


In my official capacity I made several team visits with other professors to schools in around Beijing and beyond, but language problems and formalities prevented any real contact with students. Seeking much less mediated contact, and utilizing friends and informal acquaintances, I made three ethnographic forays: into a Beijing ‘border town’ (reported in the chapter entitled ‘My Own Song’); a Beijing migrant school (‘People is the Fish’); and a mountainous countryside town far from Beijing (‘A Country Visit’). For other data sources I pay close attention to the social media and English-language Chinese news outlets, print and broadcast. Of course the latter are owned and controlled by the state, but it is often possible to read their stories and accounts of common experiences ‘against the grain’ in revealing ways. Copious leisure time also provided many data-collecting opportunities, as I spent a great deal of time hanging around Beijing and its environs, in markets, shopping centres, historical sites, parks, bars, clubs and restaurants, travelling between them, often in crowded buses and the metro, as well as in Beijing’s infamous taxis.

My single most important data source was an unexpected one. I’d been parachuted into Beijing Normal University to teach a graduate seminar course in English on Western approaches to ethnography. My invitation had been prompted by the recent successful Chinese-language publication of my book Learning to Labour with a selection of my related follow-up writings.7 I organized my seminars as close reading, study and discussion of selected key Western classical works as well as prominent contemporary texts in the ethnography of work and education. I started off requiring mandatory ‘summaries’ of texts under study in advance of their seminar discussion. While these were originally intended as a disciplining and diagnostic tool to make sure students were doing the reading and to give me an indication of their levels of understanding, many soon began to take on a strange life of their own. For some students, summaries morphed into interesting and often poignant accounts of personal and family experience, virtually ‘retro-ethnographies’ stimulated by the examples of the ethnographic texts under study. I took the cue and changed this course requirement from prior summaries to ‘reading diaries’, inviting all students to write not only of their experiences of the Western texts but also of the Chinese experiences they invoked. My students were very successful products of the elite education track, with many of their personal meanings and habits formed powerfully in line with passing Gaokao. Their accounts show the inside of this experience, the personal logic of ‘consent’, its costs and sacrifices, as well as the cracks, uncertainties and contradictions which were highly interesting and perhaps indicative of future and larger social tensions. Students in my seminar were very frequently, even usually, from peasant and rural backgrounds – a hallmark of BNU is its very high proportion of such students compared with other elite universities in China – and know very well, and write about, the full stretch and measure of passing Goakao from peasant or small-town origins to arrival at a ‘first-tier’ city and elite university. They also write not only of the achievers but also of the majority of students, often in their own and extended families (the one-child policy held much less firmly in the countryside), who fail or fall out of education, giving often vivid insights into the experiences and student cultural forms associated with not passing Gaokao.

With their permission, and with their names changed, I quote from my students’ journals throughout Part II of the book to give some grounding in personal histories and experience of how passing Gaokao endures and goes on. They are not of course in any way responsible for the analysis I make. Part III presents much longer, less mediated and selected extracts from their journals, which stand really on their own feet as in-depth retro-ethnographic resources that readers can utilize in their own confirmation, extension or critique of my arguments and analyses in Part II. Of course I take sole and entire responsibility for all arguments made in the book and analyses of quoted material.



To be more exact, I came to understand my work in the light of


of modernity, in which modernity was experienced differently according to class and structural position. My focus was not on dominant leading waves of economic and artistic change and their agents but on ‘subordinate modernity’ designating the ways in which subaltern and working-class groups reacted to and lived out change, with clear and often unintended consequences for the social whole but involving quite different and sometimes oppositional paths, forms and meanings from the ones planned or laid out for them. See especially ‘Foot soldiers of modernity: the dialectics of cultural consumption and the 21st-century school’,

Harvard Educational Review

, 73/3 (2003): 390–415.


This is a concept creatively combining a notion of objective structure with the felt and experienced at certain historical conjunctures. It was developed by Raymond Williams throughout his work but most extensively in

The Long Revolution

(1961), where he uses literary sources to reconstruct such experiences in the world’s first industrial revolution in the UK.


I mean by this the various ways in which social agents make sense of and understand in practice their material and institutional conditions of existence, relationships to each other, and future possibilities in local and situated ways. There are a number of broadly overlapping approaches in sociology to this as a micro-realm of study, including among others Weberian


, American symbolic interactionism, and phenomenology. These and similar approaches are often brought together under the general umbrella of cultural sociology. I share in much or most of this, but my schooling was from a literature basis in early British cultural studies which laid a particular emphasis on historical and shaping structural forces, as well as a textual interest in a wide range of symbolic forms, literary and media-based, through which meaning and experience were formed. Relevant methodologies are ethnography and interpretative cultural analysis of texts and symbols. My own approach is presented in detail in my book

The Ethnographic Imagination

(Cambridge: Polity, 2000).


This is a term used in several academic disciplines, but I am specifically referring here to its use in psychology, where James Gibson, for instance, saw ‘affordances’ as ‘action possibilities’ latent in the environment independent of any individual’s ability to recognize them. I am borrowing the concept here and understanding the ‘environment’ as consisting of cultural forms and symbolic structures which offer ‘action possibilities’. See James Gibson, ‘The theory of affordances’, in

Perceiving, Acting and Knowing

, ed. Robert Shaw and John Bransford (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1977).


Informal ‘cultural production’ is a category and form of understanding which I have developed and used throughout my previous work. I do not mobilize it explicitly in the main text of this book, but it orients how I sought to frame and follow up my curiosities in China and lies just beneath the surface of what I write. By cultural production, I refer to an ordinary practical activity of local meaning-making as dealt with in note 3 above, but seen as a historically located and culturally contexted process with ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’, including social representations which are productive of social identity, especially important during adolescence and early adulthood. Inputs involve traditional and inherited categories of classification and identity as well as new texts or discourses, cultural commodities, new media, and the materials of popular culture. Outputs involve finding satisfactions, orientation and parameters of self-identity which are at least partly ‘creative’ – taken to mean going beyond received materials or rearranging them in new ways. Basically I always look for how social agents ‘go on’ in their ordinary lives and respond ‘creatively’ and often unpredictably to their conditions of existence. Though they are influenced by traditional and received views, I do not see them as simply internalizing such views, ideological and official, of who and what they are. The latter may continue to be important but they may also be refused, reshuffled or reshaped in light of experienced historical circumstance and the inputs and disruptions of new materials at hand. I have been interested in how social agents respond to new situations, dilemmas and contradictions at least in part with their own or recomposed meanings. They develop their own social representations of themselves and others. This is at least in part to do with problem-solving for the experienced pressures, contradictions and problems of the world as it faces them. This ‘solving’ is often collective rather than individualistic and through the use of symbols and rituals and attribution of meanings to artefacts and expressive forms rather than a matter of cognitive or abstract thought or instrumental expression. The ‘solving’ is local and without a ‘helicopter’ view of the issues and is also both limited and enabled in particular ways by locally available resources. It involves some of the same complexity and creativity in the use of symbols, objects and meanings that formal art and artists display, but, as Raymond Williams declared long ago, it is ‘ordinary’ and everyday and part of what we call ‘lived culture’. We should try to take the same care in analysis of ‘lived culture’ as does the symbol-conscious literary critic with the poem. For examples and explanation, see my

Learning to Labour


The Ethnographic Imagination



In a text that is still influential, Fei Xiaotong argues in

From the Soil

(1949; Eng. trans. University of California Press, 1992) that social relations which originally grew out of an agricultural mode of production and village life continue to have great influence in how Chinese people relate to each other. He pictures each individual as a stone thrown into the water with concentric circles of influence rippling outwards, strong near the centre, weak at the periphery. All circles interrelate at different times and places, forming complex social networks. Favours and influence must be reciprocated, too obvious and insulting if in an immediate time frame but leading to loss of position and power if not delivered over time. Fei calls this form of organization a ‘differential mode of association’ (


). This continuing mode of organization also helps to constitute a somewhat different division between the private and the public than holds in the West and also the continuing importance of not losing ‘face’ among peers.


has always supported some locus of local power and control to hold off dictatorial and remote central control, or else it has provided continuities to bring some order during periods of collapse or chaos at the centre. For most Chinese even today it is still the case generally that there is more shame and loss of face in letting down a family member than in breaking the ‘laws’ of the state.


See note 1 above.

1The Chinese Scene

Development is of overriding importance.Reform is the only way for China to develop its productive forces.

Deng Xiaoping

Where class struggle was the ruling ideology in Maoist times, economic development is the ruling ideology in China today. It is impossible to exaggerate the degree to which this single term, ‘development’, continues to permeate all official political discourse, often as well in casual conversations, about the state of China’s ‘progress’ – almost always framed in unilineal terms by way of comparison with the ‘West’. The ‘hard truths’ of development have been faced practically and ruthlessly and at all levels. Stagnation was ended with the thunderclap of ‘at-all-costs’ development with Deng’s ‘reform and opening up’ of 1978, implemented with full force in 1992. This has been followed by a hundredfold increase in the country’s GDP over the last thirty-five years, which has buried altogether the Maoist obsession with the destruction of feudal relics and the hunting down of ‘capitalist roaders’. World history has never seen such a colossal volte-face. You could say that China has heroically explored every nook and cranny and extreme of the human forms of social organization before stumbling on the ‘magic formula’ for success, or at least potent nostrums for achieving astounding economic growth. The astonishing economic growth of China has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty, contributing no less than 70 per cent to the worldwide total of such advances in recent history.

Official narratives often conveniently package China’s surge into modernity as a specifically Chinese phenomenon, putting aside though still learning from and honouring past ‘errors’. The nostrums are, however, at bottom rather conventional and under different circumstances might have been tried much earlier: market freedoms, industrial production for world markets, wage labour instead of peasant subsistence, and urbanization with internal migration, albeit on a scale such as the world has never before seen. This huge social change is usually characterized not as a social process but as a matter of achieved results presented in quantified graphics and metrics of economic and technical progress. Statistical representation has driven out class representation. Class or class-related thinking does not figure in popular and official representations, even as Gini coefficients soar, and economic fate, whether market or Communist Party-mediated, or both, decisively settles very unequal social destinies. The ruling ideology of economic development in China is presented usually merely as a matter of common sense – always a sign of the presence of ideology. Deng had a number of folksy sayings to convey the earnest pragmatism of China’s early efforts at reform. The country and its leaders were ‘crossing the river by feeling for stones’. On the other side of Deng’s river, of course, lay the market economy. Indeed, Deng had another pithy little saying to cover any difficulties here: he didn’t ‘care if it is a white cat or a black cat. As long as it catches mice it is a good cat.’ Also he didn’t mind if ‘some people get rich first’ – with the emphasis very much on the last word, leaving a hanging promise for the masses.

This wholesale practical and ideological reordering is also a cultural reordering. In Maoist times workers were seen as the ‘leading class’ and their culture celebrated – incidentally, exams were abolished and proclaimed the enemy of the working class – and according to modern-day textbooks they continue to enjoy the same status, though in practice the cultures and the struggles of workers and migrants are ignored or looked upon as problems in need of correction. ‘The poor’ are a continuing policy focus and are addressed by successive five-year development plans. Much like its antecedents, the thirteenth five-year plan, unveiled in 2016, and pronouncements from the nineteenth Party Congress in 2017 highlight the party’s aim of lifting ever more people out of poverty through further urbanization and market liberalization. But, in esteem and popular cultural estimation, ‘the poor’ are ignored and have no recognition except as ‘losers’, or as fodder for sneering at. This is in total contrast to the Maoist-era view of poverty as imbued with a distinctly positive moral valence bearing intrinsic value, not least as an assumed vow of allegiance to the communist cause.

Although there are compulsory classes on Marxism in schools and universities, there is very little or no Chinese Marxist class analysis applied now, despite the blistering and obvious presence of the raw market relations which must produce unequal social class formation. Certainly in official announcements, but also still to an extent in popular belief, there is a strong view that China is different: it is a socialist not a class-based society. This firm vestigial belief still continues to provide a framework even for understanding modern times: China may be a market economy, but it is a socialist market economy. Yes, society is changing very rapidly, but along lines of advancing modernity, not along lines of exploitative class formation. Markets are simply tools to be used for the development of planned modernization, not for the rise of the bourgeoisie and private wealth. Though China is manifestly a market economy in most of its economic functions and relations, with according to the China Daily more billionaires than the United States,1