Chinese migrant parents’ educational involvement: Shadow education for left-behind children

Research Highlighted

Peng, B. (2021). Chinese migrant parents’ educational involvement: Shadow education for left-behind children. Hungarian Educational Research Journal, 11(2), 101-123. DOI: 10.1556/063.2020.00030.

Baiwen Peng, Education University of Hong Kong

China’s turn towards neoliberalism has exerted significant influences on all aspects of life for Chinese people. This article zooms in on changes that take place in Chinese education system and focuses on responses of families, especially those of lower social-economic status victimized in an educational marketplace that emphasizes individual choices (Harvey, 2005) and the (false) logic of meritocracy (Sandel, 2020).

With a focus on “shadow education” for left-behind children in China, this article aims to look at the opposite of a booming Chinese economy depicted domestically and abroad – rural areas and people marginalized in cities – and considers education as an institution of social mobility in neoliberal contexts. This approach is line with growing scholarship (e.g. Roberts, 2020) that penetrates through the surface of the economic miracle and dives into an often blurred field of inquiry of the “cost” of the robust economy.

Shadow education, or “private tutoring” (课外补习), has become a focal point of discussions recently thanks to the “Double Reduction Policy” (双减政策) that sets harsh restrictions on tutoring agencies. Despite its popularity in the public domain, shadow education as a field of scholarly inquiry is still undergoing a process of institutionalization, and it remains unfamiliar to many researchers. Given this, it is necessary to briefly chronicle its theoretical development and depict industrial realities.

Shadow education, as Bray (1999) proposed, takes place outside of formal schooling at private cost, and serves to give students a competitive edge in high-stake (transitional) academic examinations. It is “shadow” because it mimics formal schooling and reflects its requirements, standards and processes. It has been studied across the globe, and diverse theoretical and methodological approaches have been utilized to generate insights that inform policies and guide practices. In China, prior to the “Double Reduction Policy”, nationwide 38% of primary and lower-secondary school students had received shadow education, and average annual household expenditure on the service was RMB 1,982 per student nationwide (Wei, 2019).

While Chinese migrant families have been studied extensively, and opportunities and difficulties associated with education access and outcomes for their children have been well documented in the literature, what is largely missing from the knowledge base is the ways in which migrant parents engage in the educational marketplace.

To fill the gap, research was conducted in 2018 in a village primary school in Sichuan Province home to 6.92 million left-behind children (Duan et al., 2013). Since the research was exploratory in nature and sought to document the lived experiences of migrant families, research methods were qualitative. The bulk of interviews were conducted in December when migrant parents had turned to hometown to prepare for celebrations of the Spring Festival, and face-to-face interviews with them were thus possible. In total, semi-structured interviews were conducted with six migrant parents (two mothers and four fathers), 26 left-behind children (16 boys and 10 girls), and six teachers. The interviews were supplemented with information collected from researcher observation and field notes in data analysis.  

The theory of concerted cultivation and natural growth (Lareau, 2011) was employed in this article to frame strategies and practices of migrant parents. Concerted cultivation, in its original meaning, refers to a logic of interventionist parenting exercised by middle-class families, featuring organized participation in extracurricular activities (e.g. music, sports, chess), parent-child discussions, and close parent-school relations. On the other hand, working-class parents adopt the logics of natural growth: a non-interventionist parenting logic that places parental responsibilities in providing necessities for the children and entrusts further development (e.g. leisure, education) with the children themselves. While concerns might arise as to the applicability of the Western theory in the Chinese context, findings (as shown below) attest to not only its fitting but possibilities of development.

It was found that shadow education creates a space where parental responsibility and aspiration converge into either expected outcomes or bleak realities of anxiety and guilt. While most of the families (20 out of 26) studied in the research felt obliged to purchase shadow education for their children in view of intensified educational competition, only four of them actually used the service. These families, with more resources than others, heavily invested in the service that as a result occupied much of their children’s after-school time in hopes of university degrees that signaled, in the parents’ eyes, “a better life”. Their strategies and practices fit into the model of concerted cultivation, and in the meantime extending it to the domain of academic support. On the other, the remaining 16 families were left in a “mixing zone” that falls between concerted cultivation and natural growth. These families lacked necessary resources and confronted diverse barriers to access to shadow education. They felt obliged to provide additional support (i.e. concerted cultivation) for their children, and their inaction (i.e. natural growth) led to anxieties and guilt.

Overall, this research provides a glimpse at educational strategies of Chinese migrant families in neoliberal contexts and suggests that shadow education is a worthy vintage point to examine relationships between urbanity and rurality as well as processes of inequality in contemporary China. A final remark: since this article was published prior to the “Double Reduction Policy” that has reshaped the supply of shadow education in China, further research is needed to follow up with this recent development in efforts to understand the needs and circumstances of migrant families.


Bray, M. (1999). The shadow education system: Private tutoring and its implications for planners. Paris: UNESCO, International Institute for Educational Planning.

Duan, C., Lv, L., Guo, J., & Wang, Z. (2013). Woguo nongcun liushou ertong shengcun he fazhan jiben zhuangkuang – Jiyu diliuci renkou pucha shuju de fenxi [Survival and development of left-behind children in rural China: Based on the analysis of sixth census data]. Population Journal, 35(3), 37–49.

Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal childhoods: Class, race and family life (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Roberts, D. (2020). The myth of Chinese capitalism: The worker, the factory, and the future of the world. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sandel, M. (2020). The tyranny of merit. TED Talk available at

Wei, Y. (2019). Report on household education expenditure in China (2019). Beijing, China: Social Sciences Academic Press (China).

Author Bio

Baiwen Peng holds a Master of Education degree from The University of Hong Kong and is currently a researcher at The Education University of Hong Kong. Being a qualitative researcher, he is interested in shadow education, the sociology of education, and China studies. He investigates neoliberalism in Chinese education and its impacts from interdisciplinary perspectives. He can be contacted via email:

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