Guanxi and Social Capital, Mianzi and Cultural Capital: Mature students’ experiences in Chinese Adult Higher Education

Guan, S & James, F. (2019) Staying afloat via guanxi: student networks, social capital and inequality in Chinese adult higher education. British Journal of Educational Studies (

Guan, S & Ploner, J. (2019)The influence of cultural capital and mianzi (face) on mature students’ orientation towards higher education in China. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education (


Dr Shanshan Guan, East China Normal University

In Guan and James (2019), our study illuminates students’ purposive cultivation of guanxi, or social networks based on continuous exchange of resources, in the context of China’s Adult Higher Education (HE) system. Interviews with 30 students reveal the motivations underpinning their creation of informal ties amongst peers, which they consider to procure beneficial resources for the present and long-term. They deem guanxi with peers to compensate for the isolation they experience. Such experiences, taken in the context of a competitive HE and graduate employment landscape, are then related to social capital. The marriage of the concepts guanxi and social capital is also discussed in light of our analysis.

Social, human, economic, symbolic and cultural forms of capital are regularly paired with HE in the Anglophone literature, though social capital remains the most opaque concept. This, according to Adler and Kwon (2002), is due to the intangibility of its embedded notions such as trust that are not amenable to direct measurement, and the potential quality of social capital in the sense that it is stored in anticipation of reciprocated future exchange of resources. Those deploying social capital in empirical studies (for example, Jensen and Jetten, 2015) attest to its mutability, contending it is not the ‘static property of the individual’ (Field, 2015, p. 16). It remains unclear, however, how its processual elements might be captured empirically. Social capital is a purely analytic construct so unlikely to be referred to directly by research participants. Conversely, the social practice of guanxi would be a term adopted since it is firmly embedded in every day parlance. Our study sheds light upon AHE student interviewees’ purposeful cultivation of guanxi in direct relation to the struggles they articulate at university. The article begins by outlining the political and socio-economic context of Chinese HE and its dual nature. The concepts social capital and guanxi are expounded before research literature connecting them to HE contexts is reviewed. An analysis of interview data follows, elucidating interviewees’ deliberate use of guanxi. The marriage of social capital and guanxi to enhance understanding of inequality in HE is then discussed in light of our qualitative findings.

This study elucidates the self-initiated, processual nature of guanxi in the context of China’s AHE and helps articulate the shortest conceptual bridges between guanxi and social capital. Interview data are limited to students’ perceptions, in terms of their expressed motivations for augmenting guanxi with peers. Therefore, it is not possible to discern the longevity of such ties, or realisation of the benefit students anticipate. Nevertheless, pursuing the relational components, subsumed within social capital distinctively, illuminates how the processes of inaugurating social capital fuse with the norms of a culturally embedded social practice, namely guanxi. Further investigation across national contexts, attuned to both structural and micro-social elements, could confirm social capital’s utility and flexibility as a concept integral to investigating HE inequality internationally.

In Guan and Ploner (2019), we write in the wider context of national growth and investment in higher education in China where more mature students seek to gain access to university education. Considering the far-reaching socioeconomic and political shifts in contemporary China and its higher education sector in particular, this study explores the experience of mature university students in this country and poses the seemingly simple question as to why these students did not pursue higher education when they were school-leavers, but chose to study at a mature age. Drawing on biographical interviews with 20 Chinese mature university students, the paper explores their aspirations, motivations and tribulations behind embarking on higher education. Revisiting Bourdieu’s ideas on ‘inherited’ and ‘acquired’ cultural capital and examining the related Chinese cultural notion of mianzi (‘face’), it is argued that family and social networks are decisive factors in mature students’ orientation towards higher education.

From a theoretical perspective, this small yet revealing study highlights both the strengths and limitations of ‘inherited’ and ‘acquired’ cultural capital as flexible concepts, well-suited and applicable to a wide range of social and cultural settings. However, as it is predominantly applied to Western educational milieus, ‘cultural capital’, in Bourdieusian diction, cannot always do justice to the historical, cultural, political and societal complexities that permeate notions of class, kinship and equality of opportunity in non-Western contexts. To this end, the notion of mianzi or ‘face’ has provided a useful conceptual complement in making sense of mature students’ educational experiences in contemporary China. Whilst considering the pitfalls of cultural universalism when comparing and translating different cultural expressions, future research should not shy away from seemingly unfamiliar philosophical concepts and critical cross-cultural dialogue that may help to shed light on educational inequalities worldwide.

Through biographical interviews with mature students in China, this study has produced some insightful findings as to how these individuals negotiate their access to, and participation in, higher education. Students’ narratives clearly show that they tread a fine line between family expectations, social stigmatisation, educational segregation and their personal aspirations as ‘future selves’. Although the biographical method is not without flaws in terms of generalisability, it has generated valid findings that allow for a close reading of individual motivations whilst highlighting a particular set of experiences shared by a wider group of participants. The limitation of the biographical approach, at least in this study, relates to the limited number of participants in two universities in a major city in East China. However, it is hoped that the rich evidence gathered in this study, will stimulate further research into the hitherto much- overlooked area of AHE in China. For example, future studies could envisage how increasing socioeconomic disparities between east and west, urban and rural affect (adult) higher education in the country today, or further explore the role that gender, ethnicity and, indeed, age play in forging educational and career-related aspirations among mature students.


Author Bio

Dr. Shanshan Guan now is working at East China Normal University as a postdoctoral researcher since October 2018. Her current research focuses on Chinese adult students’ study experience in higher education and how the stratification between adult higher education system and regular higher education generates inequality to adult students in China. She was awarded her PhD degree from University of Hull in August 2018. Her doctoral research focused on mature students’ study experience in higher education in both England and China and investigated how different higher education systems affect mature students’ study experience.

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