Youth, Mobility, and the Emotional Burdens of youxue (Travel and Study): A Case Study of Chinese Students in Italy

Lan, S. (2019) Youth, Mobility, and the Emotional Burdens of youxue (Travel and Study): A Case Study of Chinese Students in Italy. International Migration. doi: 10.1111/imig.12676


Dr Shanshan Lan, University of Amsterdam


Based on fieldwork in China and Italy, this article examines the affective dimension of middle‐class Chinese students’ youxue (travel and study) practices in Italy. With the liberalization of state policy in China’s self‐funded study abroad market and the proliferation of educational intermediaries, youxue has become a special type of educational consumption that caters to the middle‐class Chinese family’s desire for transnational mobility and cosmopolitan life styles. The blurring of the line between travel and study points to the open‐ended and multi‐linear nature of transnational student mobility. However, due to the limitations and pitfalls in international education policies in both the sending and the receiving countries, Chinese students’ youxue experiences in Italy are marked by notable contradictions between mobility and immobility, hopes and frustrations, self‐appreciation and self‐reproach.


I met Brian in summer 2017, when he was working as a volunteer tutor for Chinese students at University X. Originally from Nanjing city in East China, Brian came to study in Italy in 2008 as an eighteen‐year‐old high school graduate. Since his score in the Gaokao (National College Entrance Exam) was not high enough for him to be admitted to an elite university in China, Brian decided to follow the popular trend of youxue (travel and study). Helped by a study abroad agent in Nanjing and financial aid from his parents, Brian managed to enrol in University X, a reputable university in Northern Italy. With much hesitation, Brian confessed to me that it took him eight years to learn to speak Italian fluently. A few days later, Brian made another confession: he never graduated from University X. He said, “I am still working on my thesis, but I sometimes tell Chinese students here that I graduated because I do not want them to doubt my ability as a tutor”. While promising to keep the secret, I was deeply troubled by the many contradictions in his overseas educational experiences. Why is it so easy for Brian to enrol in an elite university in Italy but not in China? Why did it take so long for him to learn to speak Italian fluently? How to explain the deep sense of shame he felt for not being able to graduate on time?

Brian is only one among many young Chinese students who study abroad at an early age. With the marketization of higher education in China and the liberalization of state policy concerning the self‐funded study abroad market, student migration from China has developed new trends in terms of the diversification of student backgrounds, motivations for studying abroad, and choice of destination countries. The rise of the youxue phenomenon in the late 2000s is one example: the Chinese word xue means study, but the word you has multiple meanings, such as travel, tourism, wandering, play, and fun. To expand their consumer market, commercialized intermediaries often trace the origin of youxue back to ancient China, when Confucius travelled with his students to surrounding countries for the purpose of building their knowledge and character. While upholding the combination of knowledge formation and character training in the Confucius model, the contemporary concept of youxue also highlights the experimental and experiential dimensions of overseas education. There are generally three types of youxue activities in the Chinese context: short‐term study tour or summer camps for children or adolescents (sometimes accompanied by parents); touring elite overseas university campuses by pre‐college youth and their parents; and short or long‐term study abroad projects for the purpose of obtaining language certificates, course credits, overseas degrees, and cross‐cultural experiences.

This research focuses on the youxue practices of Chinese students who study abroad with the purpose of obtaining a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. I chose this group due to excessive media reports of failure stories among them. Some were reported as getting involved in criminal activities in the host countries; others had to return home due to difficulties of adjusting to a new educational system (Luo, 2013; Mott, 2018). In 2014, it was reported that 8000 Chinese students were expelled from U.S. universities due to low grades, academic dishonesty, and breaking rules (Zuo, 2015). In 2017, three cases of suicides among Chinese students (one undergraduate, two doctoral candidates) were reported in U.S. universities (Chang, 2017). While such dramatic examples run the risk of pathologizing overseas Chinese students in popular media, few efforts have been made to explore the structural reasons that mediate the emotional wellbeing of these youth. This article contributes to literature on student migration and neoliberal affects by making a connection between the youxue phenomenon and neoliberal transformations in Chinese society. I argue that Chinese students’ feelings of disappointment, frustration, shame, and hope are symptomatic of structural problems embedded in the marketization of international education and the neoliberal transformation in China’s higher educational system.


In their study of middle‐class British students attending élite universities in the United States, Waters et al. (2011) note that part of the goal of their informants’ study abroad experiences is to seek happiness, overseas adventure, and to extend the freedoms associated with youth. To a certain extent, the youth period for the Chinese students in this research has also been significantly prolonged due to their engagements in traveling and part‐time working activities, and the extra time they take to obtain an overseas degree. However, there are also important differences between the Chinese case and the British one. Most importantly, student migration from China to Italy has been heavily mediated by policies in both the sending and receiving countries and by commercialized educational intermediaries. The Marco Polo and Turandot programmes represent the Italian state’s effort to speed up its pace in the internationalization of higher education and to strengthen its geopolitical interests in China. The extremely lenient admission policy, endorsed by official bi‐lateral agreements between the sending and receiving states, not only creates a short cut for Italian universities’ recruitment of students from China but also effectively fends off competitions from universities in other European countries. However, the active involvement of both the Italian and Chinese states in transnational student mobility has its drawbacks. According to Matteo, a staff in the international office of University X, due to the politically sensitive nature of the Marco Polo programme, he and his colleagues are cautious not to offer any critique of it for fear of jeopardizing Sino‐Italian relations. Although there are plenty of complaints among the teaching staff at University X concerning Chinese students’ poor Italian proficiency and inadequate performance in class, there seems to be a lack of communication between top administrative personnel and teaching and support staff who work with Chinese students on daily basis. The politically sensitive nature of the Marco Polo programme ends up doing a disservice to Chinese students, since many of the challenges they face cannot be openly discussed and dealt with by the university authorities.

It is important to note that while the Marco Polo and Turandot programmes are state‐initiated pathways for student migration, the operationalization of the study abroad services are generally handled by private educational agents. In other words, the Chinese and Italian states not only function as big brokers of international education but also facilitate the development of agent chains at the local and transnational scales (c.f. Xiang, 2012). Collaboration between state and non‐state sectors highlights the neoliberal transformation in the international higher education market; but it also poses limits to the state’s power to regulate unethical business practices. Diego, a senior administrator at University X, disclosed to me that in 2016 the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had discovered 400 forgery cases among Chinese students. Examples of fake documents include language certificates, diplomas, transcripts, and other supporting materials. Diego blamed the unethical practices of study‐abroad agents for the relatively “low quality” of Chinese students they have recruited. Meanwhile, he considered it difficult to implement structural changes at University X. He said, “Since these students have already been admitted to the university, there is nothing I can do”. To a certain extent, the lenient admission policy of Italian universities has become a double‐edged sword. While it allows academically less competitive students from China to easily enrol in elite universities in Italy, it does not guarantee a stimulating and nurturing learning environment for these students. While it is easy to blame some Chinese students for their inadequate performance in class, the neoliberal discourse of self‐responsibility also obscures important structural constrains faced by them in Italy.

Another difference between the Chinese case and the British case is the intensive emotional turmoil most of my student respondents had to go through, mainly resulting from the tensions between the study dimension and the consumption dimension of their youxue experiences in Italy. This research finds a contradiction between Chinese youth’s self‐narration of personal growth and the reality of their prolonged youth period abroad, which highlights the emotional complications of some Chinese youths’ mobile transitions to adulthood through overseas youxue practices (Robertson et al., 2018). Regarding their job prospect in China, younger returnees with Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees from non‐traditional study abroad destinations often find themselves falling into the cracks of state policies, which favour overseas returnees with doctoral and post‐doctoral qualifications (Zweig, 2006; Xiang, 2011). The structural marginalization of these younger returnees in China’s job market is further aggravated by negative media coverage of radical examples of failure, mentioned in the introduction to this article. This research suggests that we need to move beyond the success and failure binary in evaluating the youxue experiences of Chinese youth. Instead, we should pay attention to how youxue impact youth’s mobile transition to adulthood and how this process is filled with feelings of vulnerability, confusion, self‐appreciation and self‐depreciation. Instead of criticising these youths’ problematic behaviours, we need to question the institutional power relations that normalize youxue as a pathway for middle‐class youths’ transition into adulthood. Due to the limitation of the research sample, this article cannot represent the study abroad experiences of all Chinese students in Italy. Future research needs to be conducted on the experiences of returnees and how these youxue experiences translate back into life in China.

Author Bio

Shanshan Lan is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests include urban anthropology, migration and mobility regimes, comparative racial formations in Asia and Euro-America, transnational student mobility,  African diaspora in China, Chinese diaspora in the United States, and class and social transformations in Chinese society. Lan is the Principal Investigator of the ERC project “The reconfiguration of whiteness in China: Privileges, precariousness, and racialized performances” (CHINAWHITE, 2019-2024). For more information, please see

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