Introducing ‘Being Modern in China’ by Paul Willis

Paul Willis, author of the landmark ethnographic study, Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, has written a brand new book. This book is entitled Being Modern in China: A Western Cultural Analysis of Modernity, Tradition and Schooling in China Today. Michael Apple, perhaps channelling the thoughts of many readers, confessed his surprise upon finding this out: ‘Being Modern in China may come as a surprise to some people who are familiar with his work but are not aware that he was recently a professor at Beijing Normal University (BNU)… I too was surprised—but in a good way’ (Apple, 2020, p. 4). The interaction between schooling and social reality is the core of the analysis in this work, as it was for his previous study. The major difference is that, in this case, Willis’s focus is on contemporary China.

What is this book about?

The book is reflective of Professor Willis’s typical ethnographic style. The materials are either directly derived from, or embedded closely within, his personal experience of Chinese society. From 2014 to 2017, Willis was a Professor at a major university in Beijing. He drew on examples from his everyday lived experience of being a ‘lao wai’ (foreigner/outsider) in this Chinese mega-city to construct his book. The work is based primarily on his three field trips (to a migrant school, an NGO organization, and a remote rural village), his students’ retro-ethnographic writings that they produced as part of their course assignments, and his interpretation of relevant media content. While it is impossible to summarise all of the book’s insights in several sentences, it can be broadly understood, as Willis himself puts it, as an exploration of how ‘mesmerised modernity meets the Gaokao.’ In other words, the book considers China’s ‘quite special relationship with modernity,’ examining how this ‘future-obsessed society is simultaneously structured by and in continuous dialogue with the past, specifically in its forms and grammar, as well as in its ultra-high-stakes exam system and its culture stretching back millennia’ (Willis, 2020, pp. viii).

The book begins with the introduction of three main ‘arrows of modernity’, constituted by the ‘symbolic orders’ (as opposed to ‘material orders’) of human experience. Willis argues that these orders are characteristic of contemporary Chinese society. They include the intense veneration of the city and a corresponding hierarchy in which the city is valued more than the country; a ferocious yet moneyless sort of ‘spectral’ consumerism (e.g. consuming fancy items not by materially possessing them, but by mentally experiencing or imagining them); and the rise of an almost ‘supernaturally invested’ use of the Internet (Willis, 2020).

Subsequently, the book goes on to portray and explore the Chinese school system, with Gaokao and its associated ruthless exam system at its centre. It analyses this system in relation to the ‘arrows of modernity.’ In terms of the ‘city/country’ binary, Willis argues that success in the educational system is both materially and symbolically associated with access to the city. In this model, successful students (referred to as G-routers—G stands for Gaokao) move to the city first by attending university and then by building their livelihood through their new life in the city. These successful people may even end up bringing their families with them to the city (as one mother says to a child: ‘When you grow up, where do you want to take me?’ p. 79). Less successful students (referred to as non-G-routers) are reduced to finding an alternative, probably less dignified, path to the city (for example, by becoming migrant workers). In terms of consumerism, the G-routers who thrive in the rigorous school system develop a mentality of ‘delayed gratification’ which chains them to a dull, commodity-deprived present in exchange for the promise of a bright future. The non-G-routers, on the other hand, who have less hope of a bright future are more likely to ‘consume’ their resources fully in the present. They tend to be emersed in commercial styles, cultures and attitudes, even though, paradoxically, they will eventually be those who are most emblematic of ‘spectral’ consumerism due to their fateful lack of financial resources. As for the Internet, given the educational system’s emphasis on hard work, students are warned of the potential threat that the Internet might pose to their academic success. As a result, those who are at different ends of the school system also relate to the Internet differently. The non-G-routers use the Internet for ‘messing around’ and having fun in an immediate sense, whereas the G-routers restrict themselves to becoming ‘netizens,’ presenting their views as carrying weight in serious debates.

How is this book related to Willis’s previous work?

To compare Willis’s new book with his landmark previous study, it will first be necessary to summarize his earlier work. In Learning to Labour, Willis conducted an ethnographic investigation of the experiences of working-class students in UK context. He concluded that the subculture formed by students of working-class origins was partly responsible for them ‘choosing’ working-class jobs. Rather than resisting or challenging the unjust social order, young ‘lads’ who identify their families as ‘working class’ (rather than middle class), will tend to grow hostile towards the mainstream school system (which, after all, is geared towards the middle class). They will therefore identify even more actively with their working-class origins. This not only stops them from achieving upward social mobility through the equality supposedly provided by formal education but also encourages them to exhibit an apparent eagerness for working-class occupations—as if social reproduction is a result of individual’s willing choices.

In some ways, Being Modern in China can be seen as an extension of the basic logic of Learning to Labour. Just as the working-class ‘lads’ in 1970s Britain seem to ‘learn to labour’ willingly, the students in contemporary China (G-routers and non-G-routers alike) ‘learn’ to accept their own social status voluntarily in relation to the rapid modernisation of the wider nation by either passing or failing to pass the Gaokao. More broadly, as part of a neo-Marxist line of thinking, Being Modern in China further attests to how cultural elements retain a relative level of independence from other material and institutional factors, asserting their own power over the shaping of social destinies. In Apple’s words, this ‘constitutes a substantive contribution to the questioning of the orthodox view of economic determinism within the political economy of education’ (Apple, 2020, p. 1).

Another noteworthy and inherently interesting point is that, rather than limiting his theoretical focus (and even his emotional sympathies) to the non-conformists (as was the case in Learning to Labour), in Being Modern in China Willis observes the social world primarily through the lens of conformists. As an invited professor at a prestigious university in Beijing, Willis was, in his own words, “part and parcel” of China’s contemporary education system. More importantly, one of his most important sources of information was his daily interactions with university students, who would necessarily have been G-routers/conformists in high schools, given that they were taking his class. As a champion of social justice with a working-class background, Willis in Learning to Labour was drawn to the side of the non-conformists and the socially ‘oppressed’ almost naturally. He argued that their unique agency should be recognised. In this light, it is particularly interesting that, in Being Modern in China, he was instead emotionally invested in his own students (necessarily), who were primarily privileged conformists. This likely provided a special kind of ‘tension’.

Why should researchers in the field of educational mobility read this book?

For those who fall broadly into fields related to the sociology of education, this book explores the reproduction of the existing social order within and through people’s experiences of schooling. It also provides detailed examples of how this process is mediated by cultural practice, as well as how it intersects with the wider context of a rapidly changing, modern, and modernised society (a context that should not be seen as limited to contemporary China alone but typical of many social realities).

For those researchers who focus specifically on China, this book offers valuable insights into China’s education systems, the experiences of its students, and more. It also interrogates the Chinese character not through a top-down analysis of policies or propaganda but through people’s daily lives.

On a less formal and more personal note, for researchers who are of Chinese origin or are already very familiar with China, this book offers an opportunity to ‘turn the familiar into the strange.’ For those who are not familiar with the Chinese society, by contrast, it ‘turns the strange into the familiar.’ Finally, by blurring the boundary between academic and popular writing, Willis uses ‘poetic and forceful prose’ that ‘is a great pleasure to read’ (Xu, 2018, p. 162).

References and links

Apple, M. W. (2020). Test Scores, Identities, and Cultural Possibilities, Educational Policy. Online first. Advance online publication. 1-10. doi:10.1177/0895904820904948

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Farnborough: Saxon.

Willis, P. (2020) Being Modern in China: A Western Cultural Analysis of Modernity, Tradition and Schooling in China Today. Cambridge: Polity.

Xu, J. (2018) Being Modern in China by Paul Willis (review), China Review International 25(2): 161-165. Doi: 10.1353/cri.2018.0037

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