The making of transnational distinction: an embodied cultural capital perspective on Chinese women students’ mobility

Research Highlighted

Siqi Zhang & Cora Lingling Xu (2020). ‘The Making of Transnational Distinction: an Embodied Cultural Capital Perspective on Chinese Women Students’ Mobility’British Journal of Sociology of Education, p.1-18.

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About the article

The rapid rise of international education worldwide and China’s dramatic economic development have led to a boost in Chinese students’ pursuit of transnational higher education in the UK. Statistics from the Centre for China and Globalization (CCG 2015) reports that more than 60% of the international Chinese students in Britain were female Chinese students in 2015. With the implementation of one-child policy, women’s improved position in Chinese society and family is the driving force for urban Chinese middle-class young women’s drastically rising transnational education mobility (Kajanus 2015a). Many studies focus on the visible cultural capital and students’ distinction such as the degrees which Chinese international students obtained and its conversion to job competitiveness, but less visible embodied cultural capital has been somewhat neglected in the literature of international students’ distinction. Distinction can also be problematic as mobility sometimes disrupts the advantages that are usually assumed to be linked with cross-border student mobility (Xu 2015; Xu 2017; Xu 2018a; Xu 2018b). Transnational distinction is highly relevant in an age when western degree inflation intersects with harsh gender expectations for Chinese women student migrants, a significant group of players in the scene of UK higher education. As there are rising numbers of women Chinese students participating in the flow of transnational educational mobility, it appears crucial to investigate how Chinese women students studying in the UK negotiate their positioning, especially in relation to how they construct their own distinction to justify their transnational education moves. This article aims to address these research questions: How does transnational student mobility from China to the UK still bestow these women students’ ‘distinction’ against the backdrop of ‘Western degree inflation’ in China’s labour market? More explicitly, when Chinese women students claim distinction from gaining a UK degree, what is the significance of such transnational student flows that result from such a search for distinction?

This research applied a mixed qualitative methodology including participant observation and semi-structured interviews in a British university. Participant observations were conducted in diverse students’ social activities. Meanwhile, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 25 participants during the fieldwork. We find that upon entering a new transnational HE field, most participants expressed a strong disappointment and even depression when their middle-class social status was overridden by their status as ‘racialised migrants’ (Cui 2015). Most participants felt that their middle-class social status, social network and family resources in China were cut off due to transnational mobility. The transnational education mobility seems to diminish the likelihood of converting their possessed capitals into a desired distinctive status in this new transnational HE field (Xu 2017). However, it was shared by most participants that distinction can be achieved through accumulating embodied cultural capital, namely, the absorption of new gendered practice. Their distinction is reflected from their active comparison with their Chinese peers and their peers studying in the US on the basis of the new embodied acquisition of global cultural taste obtained from the cultural opportunities/consumption that transnational mobility offered. Some participants perceived that performing locally accepted middle-class British made them feel more recognised in this transnational HE field. Meanwhile, most of the participants embodied increasing global cultural tastes through frequenting exhibitions, museums and galleries in their spare time. However, participants’ interpretation of ‘British local middle class’ or ‘embodied higher taste’ was restricted to their perception because of the mixture of their middle-class taste and their taste for popular mass culture. We also find that Chinese women students’ choices of returning to their home country after graduation were also strongly affected by the gender norms in home country, participants feel that their absorption of new gendered disposition of mind was restricted when taking her final destination into consideration.

We argue that these students’ transnational distinction can be contingent upon the fields where they perceived they were/would be in, the mixture of what embodied cultural capital they have actually obtained and which peer groups they compared themselves with. In these students’ attempts to mark their transnational distinction, they displayed notably uninformed understanding of the complex racial/ethnic and class fabrics of the British society. Such a partial frame of understanding in relation to the host society had induced a mixture of results, including their heightened sense of marginalisation and their romanticised ascription of cultural superiority over peers studying in other popular destinations. But it still took time for students to ascertain what newly acquired cultural capital and disposition of mind to maintain when the field is about to change. Therefore, we argue that the distinction achieved during transnational student mobility is field-specific and educational mobility can both relegate their social status as well as elevate their middle-class distinction under certain circumstances. There still exist complexity to their realisation of distinction.

Authors’ Bio

Dr Siqi Zhang, University of Edinburgh

Siqi Zhang (PhD) is a teaching fellow in Moray House School of Education and Sport at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD research explores the ways in which gender and cultural capital are closely linked with international students’ transnational educational choices and their transnational study experiences during their stay in a Scottish university. Her research interests include sociology of education, gender, cultural capital, transnational educational mobility, social inequality in education and student experience in international higher education. She can be contacted via; Twitter: @_Siqi_Zhang.

Dr. Cora Lingling Xu

Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University

Dr Cora Lingling Xu (PhD Cambridge, FHEA) is Assistant Professor at Durham University, UK. Her research interests include educational mobilities, identities and social theories. She has researched cross-border student and academic migration, ethnic minority and rurality topics within contemporary Chinese societies. She is an editorial board member of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Cambridge Journal of Education and International Studies in Sociology of Education. She is founder and director of Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. She has more than a dozen publications in journals such as The Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology of Education, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Time and Society,  and European Educational Research Journal. You can access her publications here. She can be contacted via Email:; Twitter: CoraLinglingXu.

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