“College Material” and Their Cultural Production:A Narrative Study of Contemporary Rural Kids’ Growth in China


Dr Meng CHENG, Beijing Normal University, China


Research highlighted

Cheng, Meng. “College Material” and Their Cultural ProductionA Narrative Study of Contemporary Rural Kids ’Growth (in Chinese). China Social Sciences Press. 2018.

Cheng, Meng. & Kang, Yongjiu. Youths from Rural Families Admitted to Elite Universities: “Empathy” and Destiny (in Chinese). China Youth Study. 2018(5)

Cheng, Meng. & Chen, Xian. “College Material” and Its Cultural Implication (in Chinese). Journal of Schooling Studies. 2018(5).

Cheng, Meng. Rural Background:A Complex Structure of Feeling (in Chinese). Youth Study. 2018(6)

Cheng, Meng & Kang, Yongjiu. “Things Are Increased By Being Diminished”: Another Discourse on the Cultural Capital of Underclass (in Chinese). Tsinghua Journal of Education. 2016(4).

Cheng, Meng. & Chen, Xian. The Cultural Production of Conformists. Youth Study. 2016(2)

My publications over the past four years have been focused on a special group of Chinese rural students who were born after China’s Reform and Opening-up and have managed to get access to elite universities. There are three reasons why they are special. First, they are the first generation of rural kids who grow up in a market-oriented economy as well as an Urban-Rural dual social structure. Second, most of them had to enroll in urban schools in their middle or high school for a better academic environment in their early life, experiencing rural-urban inequality deeply in their heart. Third, these rural children were not only economically placed in the bottom of Chinese society, they were also politically positioned at the bottom of Chinese society. As such, their cultural experiences were complex and their body and mind were constrained by class, identity as well as the Urban-Rural dual structure.

Their schooling experience is expanding from rural village to county, small city and big city through the view of space. Meanwhile, their schooling experience is also like migrant bird, flying from home to school and then from school to home. Unlike their father, most of those rural kids are only passing traveler of village life and will finally got middle-class jobs in cities. People had paid much attention on their academic success but ignore their special emotional experience and social actions in the process of climbing academic ladder. In some sense, they were contemporary Chinese class travelers as Trondman has described (Trondman 2006, 2018). They went into university in order to achieve upward class mobility which means they will “not be their mother, their aunt, their father” (Hurst 2012).

I would like to use a Chinese local metaphor to name these rural kids: College Material (Du shu de liao, in Chinese “读书的料”). The following text is the abstract of my recent book “College Material” and Their Cultural ProductionA Narrative Study of Contemporary Rural Kids’ Growth which is theoretically inspired by Paul Willis’s Cultural Production theory and Bourdieu’s Cultural Capital theory (Bourdieu 1986, 1990).

In Paul Willis’s masterpiece Learning to Labor: How working class kids get working class jobs,the conformists are just “a dramatic foil”, comparing with “the lads” who create counter-school culture (Willis 1981a, 1981b). Most Chinese researchers take this paradigm and pay their attention to the cultural production of students who come from lower classes and do not obey school rules (Xiong 2010;Zhou 2011; Xiong 2013; Li 2014). The logic of this kind of cultural production is that those underclass students create a subculture which encourage them to give up the possibility of getting higher social status and sink into the curse of social reproduction by their own. In these studies, the underclass students who have attained notable academic achievements and make a class breakthrough are selectively overseen. Are they really as bookish as the lads satirized? What is the cultural production behind their conformity? Where is their subjectivity and creativity?

Starting from the questions above, this monograph turns to the cultural production within the process of getting high academic achievements. Students from rural areas who get access to elite universities and start their school lives after China’s Reform and Opening-up become an ideal research sample to investigate the cultural production in the process of class mobility. I define these rural kids as “college material”. This research tries to interpret the cultural production of students from rural areas and its unanticipated consequences. Surrounding the growing-up narratives of “college material”, this research pushes further the applicable research objects and the space-time scope in cultural production theory.

The findings are as below: (1) There is a unique type of cultural production which runs with the logic of “Some things are increased by being diminished”. “College material” created inherent impetus, moralized thinking and school-based mind which propped up their school life. (2) The cultural production of “College material” highlights the unique culture of Chinese underclass. The reason why some kids from underclass can get high academic achievement lied in the utilizing of the cultural capital of underclass rather than the remedy of cultural capital of middle class. (3) The cultural capital of underclass students is a double-edged sword and its limitations will burst out after they enter universities. Inherent impetus is followed by tremendous recoil. Huge psychological pressure was hidden behind moralized thinking. The school-based mind was highly relying on timely encouragements from institutions and the powerful public education system. (4) The cultural capital of underclass is complex. A dark side accompanies with high academic achievements. In the process of climbing up the academic ladder, “college materials” produce a complex structure of feelings which focuses on their rural background and results in constrained body and mind. Although the character of being sensible to the sacrifice of their parents helps them fit into a family community,it also restricts their family roles and their expression of emotion, extending a relationship structure characterized by both love and hate. They turn out to be marginal individuals in the process of class and culture travelling, facing double walls of interpersonal communication, lacking cultural belongings. (5) Another cost of being college material is the imbalanced development based on personal self-torture. It will cause heavy anxiety for success, bear the completion risk of meritocracy, sink into alienation and self-estrangement or even drive their lives into the paradox between success and happiness.

Therefore, we can confirm: First, there is another kind of creativity besides counter-school culture, which is an active cultural production through a kind of conformity and from which one can reconstruct their universe of meaning and achieve class mobility. “College materials” are not fully born beauty. There is a moral world based on Chinese culture traditions, family and school life practices which underlie their cultural production. This moral world encourages their own subjectivity. In this perspective, conformity is also a process of cultural production. Family relationship is an important perspective to explore the cultural production of underclass students. Second, cultural capital is not constructed by the same materials. Underclass students can produce their unique underclass cultural capital which contains inherent impetus, moralized thinking and school-based mindset that prop up school life. This kind of cultural capital is not a natural thing. It can only present itself in cultural production. This underclass capital theory connects cultural production and cultural reproduction in a unique way, extending Bourdieu’s and Willis’ thoughts with a new approach and countering the idea that the underclass lacks cultural capital. Third, the paradox that either being weeded out for resistance or being assimilated by middle class culture and betraying the culture of their original family is not an iron law. Class and culture travelling facilitates a complex emotional orientation. Rural students with high academic achievement love and hate their parents at the same time, reconstructing their parental relationship through creative actions, rather than fully cut off cultural connections with their original families.

The high academic achievements of these college materials are not only constrained by the underclass economic condition but also benefit from the creative power of their will. Learning to Labor did not pay enough attention to the energy of conformists’ cultural production while Bourdieu ignores the complex relations between personal will of social actor and social structure. The idea of “Things are increased by being diminished” rarely has living space in their theoretical framework. The life of college materials is a journey of fighting. Actually, their high academic achievements were based on a moral world connected with Dao tradition which has lasted for thousands of years in China. Objective family economic condition is not predestination and underclass cultural capital is not an eternal double-edged sword. The obstacles in mental and emotional structure can also be overcome. In a more sound, fair, diverse and open society, the pain of these “college materials” can be mitigated and the risk of their culture world can be defused to some degree.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986.The Forms of Capital In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, J. E. Richardson (ed), New York: Greenword.

Bourdieu, Pierre &Jean-Claude Passeron, 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: SAGE Publications.

Hurst, Allison .2012. College and the working classWhat it takes to make it,Sense publishers.

Li Tao. 2014. Underclass of Society and Education——The Truth of Underclass’s Education in an Agricultural Country of Western China. Doctoral Dissertation of Northeast Normal University.

Trondman, Mats. 2006. “Disowning knowledge: To be or not to be ‘the immigrant’ in Sweden”, Ethnic and Racial Studiesvol.29(3).

Trondman, Mats. 2018. Educating Mats: Encountering Finnish ‘lads’ and Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour in Sweden, Ethnography, vol.19(4).

Willis, Paul. 1981a. Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, Columbia University Press.

——1981b “Cultural production is different from cultural reproduction is different from social reproduction is different from reproduction”, Interchange, Vol.12.

Xiong Yihan, 2010. Underclass, School and Class Reproduction. Open times (1).

Xiong Chunwen, Shi Xiaoxi &Wang Yi, 2013.The Equal and Unequal Experience of “Yi”: The Migrant Children’s Group Culture and Its Social Meaning. Peking University Education Review (1)

Zhou Xiao,2011. Counter School Culture: A Complex Study of “Lads” and “Zidi”. Chinese Journal of Sociology (5)

Author Bio

Dr Meng CHENG is lecturer at Beijing Normal University. His main areas of research are on Sociology of Education, Anthropology of Education, Educational Administration and Educational Policy. Dr Cheng Meng gained his PhD degree in education from Beijing Normal University. He was a postdoctoral research fellow in Tsinghua University from 2017 to 2019 and was a visiting scholar in University of Wisconsin-Madison from 2015 to 2016. His publications examine how Chinese rural kids get access into elite universities and argue they had produced a special kind of culture capital which is “ underclass cultural capital” (Tsinghua Journal of Education, 2016); the unintended consequences of rural students getting high academic achievements (China Youth Study, 2018; Youth Study,2018; Journal of Schooling Studies,2018); the cultural production process of rural kids who get into elite universities (Youth Study,2016; China Social Science Press, 2018). The current research project that he is leading is on the cultural production of contemporary rural kids in the process of class travelling. He has also conducted studies on the psychological and mental problems of universities students in the perspective of medical anthropology. He can be reached at chengmengbnu@126.com.

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