Rural ethnic, and disability education in China–A conversation with award-winning author Dr Jinting Wu

The NRCEM was privileged to speak with award-winning author Dr Jinting Wu about her fascinating research on rural ethnic education (as encapsulated in her book ‘Fabricating an education miracle’, SUNY Press) and disability education in China. Jinting also helpfully shared tips on how to transform a PhD dissertation into a monograph with a University Press. She additionally revealed her fascinating and important work as a meditation practitioner and trainer.

To listen to the episode in full, click here. To read introductions to Jinting’s articles, click here, and here.

Dr Jinting Wu, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

Cora: Can you briefly introduce yourself? (Institution, position, research interests)

Jinting: Thank you so much for your kind invitation to produce this podcast for our network members. My name is Jinting Wu. I am an assistant professor of Educational Culture, Policy and Society at the Graduate School of Education, State University of New York at Buffalo. Prior to joining SUNY Buffalo, I worked as Assistant Professor at the University of Macau and was a postdoctoral fellow of educational sciences at the University of Luxembourg.

I am an anthropologist and comparative education researcher. My research interests coalesce around the production and amelioration of educational inequality in varied contexts and institutions. To date, I have pursued three main lines of research: rural minority education (originating in my dissertation), immigrant youth and families (postdoctoral study), and child disability and special education (current research). These research streams are synergistically linked to the broader concern of educational inequality as lived, negotiated, and often intersected with class, gender, racial/ethnic, biopolitical, and citizenship regimes. In addition to ethnographic projects, I also have strong interests in philosophy and cultural studies, as these fields shed light on the politics of knowledge production, push us beyond the Western analytical traditions to draw on Eastern, Indigenous, Global South epistemic frameworks to think about what kinds of interpretive possibilities are there for understanding social realities differently.

Cora: Can you tell us about the body of research as published in your recent book ‘Fabricating an education miracle’ (SUNY Press), your recent chapter ‘Erasure and Renewal in (Post)socialist China: My Mother’s Long Journey’ and your latest article on ‘From Researcher to Human Being: Fieldwork as Moral Laboratories’? How can this work inform our network members working on Chinese Ed Mobilities? 

Jinting: Certainly. The book and the field reflection article draw from the same body of work, so I will talk about them together first. I want to start with a note of my biography, because I believe every research has a biographical note behind. I grew up in a homogenous small town in southeast China’s Fujian Province and have always had a fascination for lifeworlds different from my own. My undergraduate studies in English language and literature cultivated my affection towards storytelling as a way to understand other people’s life. In graduate school, I discovered anthropology which allowed me to continue exploring different ways of seeing and living, and to develop a culturally sensitive lens to understand educational issues. And the fact that anthropology is a discipline in which scientific writing and artistic creativity are equally important made my transition from the humanities to social sciences a seamless one.

As they say, research projects often come about with a great deal of serendipity. My first project, which ultimately led to the book you referred to in your question, emerged from a summer volunteer opportunity that took me to a part of China, that could not have been more different from my East Coast Han majority middle-class upbringing. There, I saw striking poverty and alarming dropout rates among rural minority youth, against the backdrop of the state promotion of ethnic tourism and rural development. All of this came together and made me ponder for the first time why these children were not in school despite the ever escalating educational competition in China, and despite the belief in education’s role in development and social mobility. These questions became my constant companions, took me back to Guizhou in subsequent summers, and culminated in my dissertation study, which draws upon 16 months of multi-sited ethnography, oral history, and archival research in two villages in Southwest China. This research was sort of my rite of passage to becoming an anthropologist, what people call the “slow cooking of social sciences,” which involves painstaking long-term fieldwork, living with the local communities and learning the local language both literally and symbolically, and capturing the particularity of local life in relation to dynamics and forces that transcend the local boundaries. As Clifford Geertz used to say, as anthropologists, we study in the village; we don’t simply study the village. The kinds of issues we study are really transcending the boundaries of the local community and have larger relevance. In a nutshell, this book is an attempt to unpack how education is increasingly penetrated by development programs, audit culture, tourism, and labor migration to produce unintended consequences. I take a close look at the paradox of consequences when compulsory education policy not only fails to reverse the high attrition rates but also becomes part of the problem it is charged to address.

So this is the book in the nutshell. The field reflection article recently published in Anthropology & Education Quarterly, is a retrospective attempt to unpack the black box of ethnographic fieldwork – we often talk about the research product and not about the research process – and think about ethics and methodologies through the metaphor of moral laboratory. I draw from two episodes in my fieldwork, one in which I was taken as a “spy” and almost expelled from the field as a consequence, and one in which I was accompanied by my parents for brief intervals, to talk about the kind of political, social, and cultural negotiations I had to undertake in my fieldwork. These two episodes are used as a heuristic device to illustrate fieldwork encounters and ethics as a form of moral laboratory –as you know, natural scientists work in physical laboratories where they manipulate the environment and do control and experiment and find the results, and social scientists also engage in a sort of moral laboratories – where assumptions are tested, boundaries are negotiated, and relations are made and remade. So in a sense, we are not just giving an account of “what happened” but also have to make sense of the local social world through recasting our own selves in its midst. We are transformed through the process of fieldwork.

The spy episode happened about three months after I arrived in one of the villages where I already established rather good rapport with the local community. The Public Security Bureau approached my informants because they were suspicious of my intention as I had stayed for several months and was affiliated with an American university. The fact I did not have a job and could hang around and talk to people all day long with the support of overseas funding was incomprehensible at best, and questionable at worst, for village bureaucrats. That I was there during a time when village schools were caught in a whirlpool of tourism transformation process and when local villagers were in constant conflicts with bureaucrats and commercial developers made my presence even more unwelcome. I was staying with a teacher’s family at that time; and they were very concerned about whether my presence would make their life difficult. In order not to jeopardize the rapport and lose my access altogether, I decided to take a temporary exist from the field site, and spent four interim months in my other fieldsite, to let the situation settle and wait for the optimal time to return. There my parents visited me on two separate occasions, and serendipitously opening up a new world to my everyday routine, changing my role from a researcher to a daughter. My father and my mother came on two separate occasions. My father, a very sociable person, was making friends in no time and invited to have drinks with local men, and my mother’s interest in embroidery and handicraft created informal opportunities to interact with women. My mother’s presence created an opportunity for me to talk to the local women, and my father’s presence created an opportunity for me to talk to the local men. Most importantly, my being accompanied by parents made it easier for the locals to locate me in their social category of kinship, and subsequently allowed me to be seen as less “foreign.” These two episodes complemented each other and allowed me to transform from a researcher who only asked people questions to an object of gaze by the informants themselves. Ethics and relationships in the field cannot be codified in a set of rules and guidelines that you learn before going to do the fieldwork. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) is not sufficient in helping us navigate these fieldwork dynamics. The fact it is a moral laboratory means it has to be always negotiated at any given moment in the field. I had great fun writing this piece, which I did not get to write about in the book. I hope that it will be helpful for students who are new to the ethnographic method and learning how to negotiate political, social, and cultural dynamics.

Cora: I know I’m certainly going to introduce this piece to my students who are preparing to enter into the field. It will be incredibly helpful to them. It’s really fascinating to learn how the sense of serendipity brought you to the fieldsite and then opened up access to identity makers that positioned you differently in the fiedsite. Also fascinating is how the mother-daughter relationship allowed you to interrogate how each of you were and are positioned in the broader social political history of China, the third piece we are going to talk about today.

Jinting: The chapter about my mother was part of an edited volume on childhood and schooling in (post)socialist societies edited by Iveta Silova and other colleagues. The chapter is a very personal piece of writing to me, because I had always wanted to write a family memoir of some sort to document the experiences of three generations of women in my family. My maternal grandma was born in the early 1920s. At that time, women did not receive education at all. She, a rare case, not only received a good education (“good” in the standard of those days), but also became the first and only woman judge in my little town. My grandma’s story was quite incredible. And then here goes my mother’s story, you read in the chapter. So all these years I had always wanted to write a family memoir of some sort. Then this opportunity came, and I decided to write about my mother first. In a sense, this chapter had been in the making for a long time. This chapter is a tribute to my mother, who came of age during China’s turbulent decade of the Cultural Revolution, but who did not interpret it the same way as we would see in the conventional academic literature. My mother fused her personal interpretation, and even a bit of optimism and hope, in narrating her stories during the cultural revolution. This was fascinating to me, because as our education in the West often tells us, this is a dark period of oppression and totalitarianism. So my conversation with my mother really opened up a new angle of vision to enter this period of China’s history.

My mother’s youth and adulthood have been intertwined with state’s political agendas, such as the Red Guards’ Movement, the “Down to the Countryside” campaign, revolutionary dances and dramas, and various other forms of class struggles. It was fascinating to capture all of these in the small space of a chapter to think about what education means in a political state of exception. Obviously education was dramatically suspended, and my mother did not go on to pursue a college degree despite being a very smart student. Her education became political socialization. To this day, she still lives the legacy of those years, such as teaching the revolutionary dances. In a way, this is not just my mother’s story. It is a story of the party-state and its youth.

My mother’s journey sheds light on the fraught relations between party-state and its youth, between education and political socialization, between public values and authoritarian limits that continue to be part of the lived realities in contemporary China.

Through memories, oral history, personal memorabilia and biographic accounts, my mother’s story intertwined with my interpretation. I was trying to highlight the state’s shifting power, as mediated by continual assertation of political authority alongside people’s creative agency. I wanted to emphasize creativity and agency even in the narration of a dark time. Over the years I have heard my mother talk about her youth, but 2016-17 was the first time I made appointments with her and talked on the phone to get some details straightened out. A lot of my friends who are not in academia asked me to share this piece, because they have met my mother and wanted to read about her. So this kind of writing has a unique reach to the audience.

Cora: Certainly. Through this type of work I feel I can relate to the author and the time they lived through much better. I was personally very drawn to this piece, probably because my own parents (I think they are a few years younger than your mother) went through their private school during the Cultural Revolution. A lot of the scenarios you described were also experienced by my parents. For their entire generation, they have such an unprecedented memory. What I like about this piece is exactly as you suggested. While outsiders and political commentators may think of this as a dark age, the actors who actually lived through it may have experienced it as something quite different. This also depends on their backgrounds. I have an uncle, my father’s elder brother, who was at that time really suffering a lot because he was one of the elder children and there was not enough food. But my father, who is younger, did not have to go through that because the family prioritized the younger sibling’s needs. These very individual experiences cannot be replaced or brushed away. Every story needs to have an outlet to be represented.

Jinting: That’s so true. There is not just one Cultural Revolution. There are many, seen from unique personal experiences and interpretations. My mother always talks about how her classmates who were not selected to go to Beijing were resentful. So their memories of that period were not the same. During their class reunion fifty years later, people sat around the table, careful not to broach the topic. They were very sensitive and avoided this topic. I think I wrote about this a bit in the chapter. The avoided the topic of going to Beijing and meeting chairman Mao and living through the Cultural Revolution. It’s such an elephant in the room – depending on which part you touch you tell a different story. So they simply avoided it. But it is very educational for the younger generations. This piece is a small attempt to preserve the personal in the political.

Cora: That’s a good way to put it. You have already mentioned your motivation in conducting these researches. While writing your book, book chapter and article, were there any interesting anecdotes that you can share?

Jinting: Of course. Long-term fieldwork always produces ample anecdotes. I have already talked about the two episodes so I won’t repeat. One anecdote I think is worth mentioning is my efforts to learn the local language, the Miao and the Dong.

In my fieldwork, I made intentional efforts to learn my participants’ language because it allowed me to establish rapport and gain an in-depth cultural knowledge. One of my mentors said that you only hire a translator when you actually understand the language. It’s paradoxical. Precisely because you understand the language, that’s when you can tell whether the translator is telling you the truth or not. Joke aside, anthropologists take language learning seriously. What I did was I carried a notebook with me wherever I went, jotting down words and phrases in Miao and Dong, marking their pronunciations with a mixture of Mandarin, my hometown dialect, and English according to the phonetic features I heard.

The locals were amused by my efforts and at times asked me “What is the use of learning our language? We want our kids to learn your language and English.” But people gradually started to see me not just as a normal tourist or a researcher who came and stayed over a weekend and left with a bunch of recordings and who never returned. They saw me as this interesting person who came to live with us and tried to learn our language. In the Dong village, the entire village shared the last name Lu. locals jokingly asked me to change my last name to Lu, as I was now living in the Dong village of the Lu’s. In the Miao village, my efforts gained me a Miao name by which villagers gradually came to remember me. My Miao name was given by some middle school teachers, who chose this name because it refers to a type of vegetable commonly used in making pickled fish soup, a local specialty dish to welcome special guests. In the village, females are commonly named after natural objects that are important for an agrarian livelihood. The naming was a sign of recognition and strengthening of our bond over time.

I also carried an atlas of Guizhou, a booklet of regional maps. Whoever I met, I would take it out and ask them to tell me where they were from. They were mostly from Guizhou and they would flip the pages and told me where exactly on the map they were from. So the atlas was a device for me to invite conversation and approach people in a more organic way, because people were interested in travels. In retrospect, they also asked me where I was from. We traded stories about travels and families. I often got asked, “what is the peasants’ life like in the United States?” People were very interested in the life of their counterparts in a different part of the world.

Cora: Fascinating. This practice of naming as a sign they had accepted you. Also interesting is that you were named after a vegetable, something very tangible and maybe of symbolic meaning to them, because it’s a special dish. I recently read an article about the sociology of naming in the context of Chinese international students in the U.S. choosing multiple names. This scholarship is quite fascinating to me. Now that I heard your anecdote, it strikes a chord for me again.

Jinting: We can talk about your name, Cora.

Cora: I chose Cora Lingling Xu as my publication name. It’s very strategic because in China if there are not millions there are hundreds and thousands of Lingling Xu. If I publish as Lingling Xu, it will be difficult to distinguish myself. But also I took on this name Cora when I went to Hong Kong for my undergraduate study. It was not my choice actually. I remember my first day when I went to the university, there was a white male English language lecturer who gave us a task. The task was to choose an Anglophone name. I thought okay I could do it later. But then he gave me a dictionary and pointed to the last few pages of English names and asked me to choose one. So it was like a dictation that I had to do that. At that time I felt quite uncomfortable. Being a very young student, I did not know the implication. So I chose this name. You probably know, it is quite common for people in Hong Kong and Macau to have Anglophone names. So this name stuck with me. Now it’s become part of me. When I reflect how this name came into being and became part of me, it was actually quite a brutal process.

Jinting: It was forced upon you by a White Anglophone teacher. I think it is quite fitting for Hong Kong’s colonial context. I have a similar story. When I went to Shanghai for my undergraduate studies, we had a foreign teacher who had trouble pronouncing Chinese names. So everyone had to choose an English name. I had no idea and chose Jenny at that time. The name never stuck with me. I went to the U.S. for graduate school. People asked me: “what’s your name?” I thought maybe they preferred to call me by the English name. But they insisted, “No, what is your real name?” So it’s interesting sometimes the name stays with you and sometimes it doesn’t.  

Cora: Indeed. Many of our members are interested in the publication process of your book/book chapter/article. Today we specifically talked about your book. Can you share some of your experiences of getting this book published?

Jinting: Sure I can speak a little bit about the book publication. In fact, I recently gave a Professional Development Brownbag workshop to our students on how to turn one’s dissertations into books. In my field, anthropology, book publishing is a standard practice after one finishes her/his PhD, especially if one chooses to work in academia. But your dissertation and your book manuscript are not the same thing. They are two different creatures. Why, because very few publishers are interested in publishing a revised dissertation. In fact, they encourage you to scratch the very word “dissertation” from the manuscript. They want to publish an original, engaging piece of work, which may or may not have originated from your doctoral research. So your job is to take the dissertation as a foundation but move way beyond that in various ways which I will briefly talk about.

The main purpose of a dissertation is to show a narrow audience, your dissertation committee, how you’ve grasped a body of literature, how much you know. On the other hand, the main purpose of a book is about joining or creating a conversation with a larger audience. Nowadays publishers are very concerned about marketing: how much your book is going to sell and who it’s going to sell to. So if you write in a jargon-filled way, so called constipated writing, the publishers won’t give you positive reviews. So this may sound harsh: but parts of your dissertation will be completely thrown away and rewritten from scratch. This happened to me. I had to go back to my original four hundred pages of fieldnotes, and dug out stories and anecdotes that did not go into your dissertation. So when you decide to publish your dissertation in a book, the first job is to come to term with the fact that you are going to completely reshape that manuscript. There is no way you can maintain that technical format of intro, lit review, methods, data, discussion and conclusion. You will break that apart and regenerate a more integrated format that consists of a number of meaningfully provocative titles. One of the advice I received is to never use the words “introduction and conclusion” in the table of content. Why waste the space when you can say something more than introduction and conclusion? You also want to transform a jargon-filled form of writing to an engaging voice your reader can actually enjoy.

First things first: what you need is a book proposal. But even before that, you want to draft an email to a potential publisher’s acquisition editor first to introduce your topic and express your interest in publishing with them. The email needs to be very brief, a few lines, because the editors have no time to read lengthy emails. Just a few lines and they will get back to you if they are interested. But before you approach an editor, you must do your homework, studying the press to see whether it actually publishes scholarship in your field. If the press published in your field 20 years ago and dropped that focus in their current list, you may save your efforts not to contact them. Make sure the press is actively publishing works in your field. If that’s the case, you want to make it clear in your initial email to the editor, that you see a strong fit to their current list, and you see how your work will bring a new dimension to their current list. So initial short email, then wait for the response. If they respond, “That’s very interesting. I’d like to see a book proposal.” Sometimes they will ask a few more questions, then they will decide whether they want to see the proposal. At that point you send in the proposal.

About the proposal: each press has its own recipe. You need to go to their website and take out that recipe because they have different components. There is the component of the prospectus, a couple of paragraphs capturing what the book is about. And then chapter titles, intended audience, marketing, course adoption, competing titles (who else have already published in your topic and how do you see yourself competing with or complimenting their existing work). You want to craft a really good proposal according to that recipe. Just remember that acquisition editors receive 200-300 book proposals each year and they can probably publish only 20-30. You want to be well positioned when you send in your proposal.

Once you send in the proposal, there are a number of scenarios. One is that they are really interested and will send the proposal out for review. One is a flat rejection. Don’t get discouraged because it is not the end of the world. Lots of us have had lots of rejections. It’s common, if it is your first book, to have rejections before you hit a press that is really interested in taking on your work. So if it is a rejection, then learn from the process (if they give you feedback then pick up the feedback), and move on to a different press. If it’s a positive review saying that we are sending this proposal out, then you have your fingers crossed. Remember at this stage, they are not reading the full manuscript yet; it’s only a proposal. Once the reviews come back, if they are positive, the press will want you to address, point by point, how you are going to tackle the criticism raised by the reviewers. You will write a detailed letter in a very constructive and appreciative manner. Even for points you do not see worthwhile to revise, you want to appreciate the reviewers’ time and insight and tell them why you don’t think it is necessary to revise. Your letter will be taken back to the press’s board of directors. After their deliberation, they will tell you whether they want to grant you a contract or not.

If they give you the contract, you have the green light to go ahead and complete and submit the manuscript. Sometimes you have more work to do before they grant you the contract. Once you have the contract, then the revision process starts. As I mentioned before, the revision is very important. My suggestion is to ask a senior colleague who has gone through the process before, ask them to read your chapter and advise you on how to shape it in a way that is both sophisticated and pleasant to read. Be consistent with the efforts and don’t delay the revision process. A major work like a book requires steady, consistent work, rather than binge writing. In my case, I had to go back to my original data. One of the comments after I sent in my full manuscript was that it was too theoretical, which was indeed the case. My earlier dissertation writing was a little constipated. Again, it has to do with the committee’s requirement. They wanted me to hone in on the theoretical part, and the stories were falling on the sideway. So I had to go back to find more anecdotes. It was a really helpful comment that shaped the book in a significant way. Then you send the full manuscript back. Sometimes they will send it out for review, but most of the time, they just do an in-house review. In my case, the revision was accepted as is. And finally my acquisition editor handed it over to the production team. Then the rest of it took place, designing the cover, making an index, copyediting, and so on. They will tell you a final release day of the book. After that, the book takes on a life of its own.

The good thing about publishing with an academic press is that it will work with you after the publication. You mentioned the book award. As an author, you do the homework and tell the marketing team which societies you would like to send the book to compete for a certain award. You can also request copies to be sent to journals for book reviews.

Whether you eventually turn your dissertation into a book or not, the future of academic writing is not about satisfying narrow academic committees but about speaking to the broad interests and expectation of the general readers. I highly recommend William Germano’s seminal work From Dissertation to Book for those who are interested in publishing their revised dissertation in a book.   

Cora: that’s so helpful. You did say that you had to revisit your writing because your original dissertation was too theoretical and you had to make it more vivid and include more storytelling. How do you strike a balance: on the one hand you want it to be sophisticated and on the other hand you want it to be easy to read?

Jinting: I remember when I was in graduate school, I took a class called Ethnographic Writing from my mentor Kirin Narayan. One week all we did was to each take a piece of dense writing to class and deconstruct it. Rephrase it, paraphrase it so that the ideas remain but the passage reads very differently. How do you strike a balance? I think as graduate students we tried so hard to impress. We tended to use big words. But the more you publish and write and think, actually, writing is a reflection of your personality, a reflection of the whole of the scholar as a human being. When I read a piece of writing, I like to use it as a device to connect with the author, what kind of voice is there. I’d encourage people to start working on their voice, because everyone’s voice is different and unique. Cora you are already a seasoned writer and have your voice. For students in graduate school, the real impressive stuff, from my perspective, is not when you try to show off vocabularies, but is the idea behind, the fluidity that you are able to demonstrate, the ability to express a sophisticated idea in a way that makes people want to read more. The only way to do that is by imitation, by going to the writing that really connects with you at a deeper level. Read and imitate it. I was fortunate because my background in English and anthropology emphasizes storytelling and I got a lot of exposure to narratives, stories, creative non-fictions. Whenever my writing is stuck, I go to the good books, sometimes this means a novel, to get the creative juice going.

Cora: That’s interesting to know we all need to recharge. For you the source of inspiration is creative writing. That’s really good to know. I was planning to ask you what your next steps for the research project are. From your introduction, it seems that you are working on a whole new field. Is disability education your new focus for the moment?

Jinting: As I mentioned before, my intellectual biography is made with a great deal of serendipity. The new project also came about through a serendipitous opportunity. In 2012 when I was wrapping up my PhD, I went to an AERA pre-conference seminar. There I met a group of scholars and was invited to participate in a comparative study on the global convergence of special and vocational education, which was an entirely new territory for me at that time. It’s a global comparative study, and I became the China person to work on the project. Then I moved to Luxembourg and then to Macau. Macau’s location at the edge of mainland China gave me an advantage to do fieldwork for this project. The comparative study has over the years culminated in a jointly authored book titled “The Global Convergence of Vocational and Special Education” published in 2017 by Routledge.

Through this research, I visited special education schools across the country and learned so much. My entire understanding of special education opened up. I decided to do an independent research on this topic, which focuses on the rising number of children with special needs who are being funneled into China’s segregated special schools and grow up with stigma, mediocre schooling, and bleak employment prospects. Children with disabilities are by and large judged unfit in mainstream schools focused on producing high-performing test-takers. Where do these children go then? Although China embraces disability inclusion, intriguingly, structural segregation continues to exist and gain ever-stronger state support in recent decades. Moving my attention from the rural area to the urban area, my current project takes place in two special schools in Guangzhou Municipality. Chinese policymakers consider special schools a necessary evil to help China transition to a fully inclusive model. This research, in a nutshell, examines the unique experiences, dilemmas, and creativity of actors who daily inhabit these segregated spaces, and the ways they understand segregation and negotiate stigma for a better future for the children.

Cora: Really important work. I’m no expert in this field, but it seems that there are not a lot of work done in this area.

Jinting: There are some works done by Chinese scholars which are very valuable. Very few English publications and very few qualitative longitudinal research. The intersection of disability and segregation is a fascinating domain. For me, it is not about pointing fingers at Chinese practice of segregation as a policy failure. The goal is to understand how people interpret the space. My initial interpretation is that it is both a space of marginality and a space of potentiality. Lots of parents are very appreciative of such a space. I want to bridge the Western model of inclusion and the Chinese model of segregated inclusion, so to speak, to see what we can learn from both sides.

Cora: Over the years I had to give lectures on special education comparing the U.K. and the Chinese cases. I was really struggling to find writing about the Chinese situation, whereas there’s plenty of writing about the UK. Based on my very limited understanding of special education, even in the U.K., the model of inclusion is not uncontested. Apparently, there are many different ways of inclusion and inclusion itself can engender a host of issues. We are talking about resources. If you don’t have necessary equipment, teaching staff, capacity, inclusion can be a disaster.

So I really enjoyed our conversation today. Is there anything else you want to share with us today?

Jinting: I’ve talked a lot. There’s always more to say. I want to say a few words about what I do outside academia if that’s okay. We have so many facets to our identity; we are not just scholars. Besides my academic persona, I’m a mother of a young child and also, very importantly, I’m a meditation practitioner and trainer. These two roles are very important because they sustain what I do. I work with community members to provide support for their meditation practices. The system of meditation we practice is called Heartfulness, which is entirely free. Every semester, end of the semester, I host relaxation and meditation workshops to help students release stress during their final weeks. Going back to the idea that scholarship is deeply human, all aspects of the human experience will come through your scholarship. Meditation has helped me so much. I wouldn’t have accomplished half of what I’ve accomplished if I did not have the skill. As much as being a mother teaches me the gift of love and reminds me that scholarship needs to bring up the better side of the humanity, meditation does the same to me. Those in the audience, I’m sure we all have the non-academic side of the experience to complement what we do on the professional front. We are all searching for meaning in some ways; scholarship is one way, family responsibility and spiritual practices may be other ways.

Cora: That’s so true. A lot of times, early career scholars tend to think your scholarly identity is the only identity. You tend to place a lot of emphasis on that and you get a lot more fragile and vulnerable. What you’ve shared is so important for us to understand you are also embedded in the community and family, besides being a scholar. It resonates with what we said earlier that all researchers need to constantly recharge and get sources of inspiration. I have to say your students are very lucky. I wish I were one of your students so that I can enjoy the relaxation workshop that you host.

Jinting: We are actually doing a remote workshop. I will share with you the flyer.

Interview with Ben Mulvey: International student mobility between Africa and China

Listen to Episode 4: Interview with Ben Mulvey

Read summaries of Ben’s articles here and here.

Photo by Mark Neal from Pexels

NRCEM: Can you briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Ben Mulvey, I’m a PhD Candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong, which is quite a small university – it used to be the Hong Kong Institute of Education but they changed the name. My PhD project is on international students in China from Africa, and broadly, I’m interested in international student mobility as a means of social-class reproduction, and in applying postcolonial theory to south-south international student mobility. I’m also working on another project to do with differences between how those from working and middle-class backgrounds in the UK access internships.

NRCEM: Can you tell us what motivated you to conduct this piece of research on international student mobility between Africa and China?

Originally I was doing my master’s degree in International Development, and had just come back from living in China for a year. I noticed that the course was quite focused on Western aid to other regions. But having spent some time living in China, I was interested in China’s aid to other regions such as Africa, and thought it hadn’t really been covered. I also was living in Wuhan in China, and there’s a lot of big universities there, so I had come across a lot of students from Africa on scholarships. So I originally thought those scholarships would be an interesting thing to look at, and wrote my master’s dissertation on that topic. So that’s where my motivation came from.

NRCEM: What are the key findings/messages of your recent articles in Higher Education Policy and Higher Education?

The first one, in Higher Education Policy, was just a little project. I just looked at the motivations, experiences and post-graduation trajectories of a small group of students from Uganda, and wanted to find out, based on what we know about ‘soft power’, whether the recruitment of international students was ‘working’ from the perspective of the Chinese government. The students I interviewed had quite mixed views really. On one hand they felt socially alienated and were sometimes discriminated against, and obviously this works against soft power. They were also quite sceptical about China’s involvement in their home country through business and bilateral relations. However, ultimately they all had continued ties to China and were able to leverage their educational experience there to their advantage when they returned to Uganda. I argued that overall, the assumptions underpinning the ‘soft power’ rationale for student recruitment are flawed, because students aren’t as predictable and passive the rationale would assume, and basically it’s quite hard to predict what they will think or do in relation to China. That also applies to other countries like the UK that have this rationale for recruiting students.

The second one was more of a theoretical article. I had been looking at the way African students and their home countries are represented in Chinese policy documents. I introduced the concept of semi-peripheral (post)coloniality, for the reason that I am interested in postcolonial theory generally, but I think that China’s position in relation to Africa is quite hard to explain using just postcolonial theory, especially in recent years as it has become more powerful and influential in relation to other countries in the Global South.

The concept basically expresses how the long-term structural and ideological positions of countries are reflected in discourse. So I argued that China’s discourse is defined both by its position of subordination to the core of developed Western countries, and also of its own perceived civilizational superiority over the periphery. The discourse around China’s recruitment of African students reflects that ambiguous position, because there are two narratives present – one of anti-imperialist solidarity and an ethical aid policy, but also one of paternalism and with a sense of civilizational superiority over African countries, which actually reproduces the discourse that is present in the West and used towards China and other countries in the Global South.

NRCEM: While conducting this research, was there any interesting anecdote that you can share?

My fieldwork for my PhD ran into some difficulties. I had a couple of friends in Wuhan who were studying there, so I had been planning to make that the starting point of my fieldwork. I was planning to visit Wuhan for about three weeks, just before Chinese new year. I was about to book my flights just as the situation with Coronavirus was becoming clear there. My friend suggested that I don’t book the flights just in case, and then the same day, the whole city was locked down with no-one allowed to leave. So I dodged a bullet there. But it has affected my fieldwork quite a lot. So far I’ve been able to do interviews with some current students over Skype, thanks to the help of some really kind people in Wuhan and also Jinhua in Zhejiang and a couple of other places, who have helped me to find potential interviewees. So I’ve actually been quite lucky that I’ve been able to carry on with my work throughout this whole time.

NRCEM: Many of our members are interested in the publication process, can you share how you went about writing these articles as a PhD student? What were the highlights/challenges of getting these articles published?

It was quite time consuming getting those two articles published. The first article was just something I wrote while I was doing research methods classes, before I really started properly with my thesis. But the approach I am taking with my thesis is to make each chapter kind of self-contained, so that it could with a little bit of tweaking be an article by itself. Thinking about the chapters in that way from the beginning makes it a bit easier to see how they will become articles in the end. So the second article in Higher Education is just one of the early chapters which puts the study in the context.

As for highlights and challenges, there are also some reviewer comments which I don’t really agree with or don’t really understand. So it can be tricky to deal with them. So in those cases I had to make a decision whether to argue with the reviewer or just change my article in a way that I didn’t really think made sense.

NRCEM: What are your plans/next steps for this research project?

I’m still conducting interviews and some really interesting things are coming up, which I hope to be able to share with everyone soon. I also hope to actually be able to physically go to China soon, as I mentioned, I had a trip to Wuhan planned but that got cancelled. I’m hoping that the situation improves soon, and I can go to finish my fieldwork. After my PhD there’s a million other things that I’d like to research – hopefully I can find a postdoc and actually be able to.

在台陆生访谈:新冠疫情下“两岸政治示威的牺牲品”?Mainland Chinese students in Taiwan: Sacrifice of Cross-Strait political demonstration under COVID-19?


Photo by Henry & Co. from Pexels

自疫情爆发以来,台湾和大陆相继出台影响陆生就学的政策,先是台湾以防疫为由对陆生采取基于身份的区别对待,无限期暂缓陆生返台 ,之后大陆以保障陆生就学权为由暂停大陆毕业生申请台湾高校升学读书。








Episode 2: Shuning Liu — New ‘Elite’ Schooling in China

Listen to the podcast episode

Read a summary of the book

NRCEM: Can you briefly introduce yourself?

Shuning Liu: Thank you, Cora, for inviting me to this podcast program and to discuss my newly published book—Neoliberalism, Globalization, and “Elite” Education in China: Becoming International. I am Shuning Liu, an Assistant Professor in Curriculum Studies at Teachers College, Ball State University. My primary research interests are in the areas of critical theory, curriculum studies, education reform, educational policy, globalization and education, comparative and international education, and qualitative inquiry.

  • NRCEM: Can you tell us what your new book ‘Neoliberalism, Globalization, and “Elite” Education in China’ is about and how it can inform our network members working on Chinese Ed Mobilities?

Shuning Liu: As shown in the title of my book, I study the complex relations between neoliberalism, globalization, internationalization, and new forms of “elite” education in China. I study these issues by examining the practices, effects, and implications of the emerging international curriculum programs created by Chinese elite public high schools. For readers and audiences who are not very familiar with these new education programs, I can say a little more about the international programs. These international curriculum programs established by Chinese elite public high schools are commonly called international classes (guoji ban, 国际班) or international divisions ( guoji bu, 国际部). Some features of these international programs merit special attention. For instance, these programs integrated Chinese national high-school curriculum with different types of imported foreign curricula, such as the A-Level (the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level, a UK curriculum), AP (Advanced Placement, a U.S. curriculum), and Global Assessment Certificate (GAC) to prepare Chinese students for the international college application process. These international programs are ostensibly public, but students who are able to choose these international programs need to pay high tuition. The tuition usually ranges from about ¥60,000 to ¥120,000 each year (roughly about £11,000 or $14,000), which is far more expensive than that of any Chinese state high school (as yearly tuition for these institutions is approximately ¥800 to ¥2,000). It is about 100 times higher. It is clear that only those Chinese families affluent enough to pay for such expensive tuition can send their children to these fee-charging quasi-public international programs.

The guiding questions discussed in my book include:

  1. Why did these “public” international high-school curriculum programs emerge at a particular time in China? How were they constructed?
  2. Why and how do Chinese students choose to attend these internationally focused Chinese high schools?
  3. What are Chinese students’ educational experiences at their chosen international programs in China? How do the students understand their educational experiences with these international programs?
  4. What are the effects and implications of these newly-established international high-school programs?

In brief, my book examines two interconnected issues, that is, the complexities of Chinese students’ choice to attend newly established international high-school curriculum programs and their concomitant schooling experiences with the programs. This study pays a particular attention to the motivations, experiences, and perspectives of Chinese students who choose to attend the public international high school programs in China and who hope to study at U.S. universities!!!

  • NRCEM: What motivated you to write this book and conduct this research on elite education in China?

Shuning Liu: This is a thoughtful question. As I just shared, I connect my research on elite education in China with the issues of neoliberalism, globalization, and internationalization. Elite education has different meanings in different national contexts. I study new forms of elite education in China by exploring the interconnections between curriculum reforms, educational policies, and international education in a changing globalized context. I have discussed my motivations of doing such research in my book Chapter 1 and Epilogue regarding Reflection on positionality and research design. The particular way that I conduct the research project on elite education in China is related to my long-term research interests in curriculum reforms, teacher education, educational policies, international education, and comparative education.   

To Make the long story short, I will share some of my own educational and teaching experiences with you and audience. This book is based on my dissertation research. Before I pursued my PhD study at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I was a secondary school teacher in China and the United States for 8 years. I attended BNU for my college education, majoring in Chinese Language and Literature. After graduation, I became a full-time classroom teacher in 1999 in an academically elite public high school in China—commonly called key high school. The year of 1999 was unique because that year, China’s New Curriculum Reform was launched. In my six-year teaching experience in China, I gained first-hand teaching experience with the implementation of New Curriculum Reform. I was very excited about many progressive ideas brought by such curriculum reforms; in the meanwhile, I observed and noticed many problems associated with Chinese educational reforms. I had a lot of questions about the practices and actual effects of China’s New Curriculum Reforms, which motivated me to study abroad to seek answers for the questions.

After I received a master’s degree in secondary education with an emphasis on improvement of instruction, I got a teaching license in the U.S. and taught as a full-time classroom teacher in U.S. public secondary schools. My two-year teaching experience in U.S. public middle and high schools allowed me to gain first-hand experiences with the American education system and its problems. I realized that my imagined American education is not ideal. I was motivated to seek better curriculum and pedagogical practices. This motivation brought me to the Departments of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at UW-Madison, where there are many highly-influential, and world-class scholars in curriculum studies, multicultural education, and educational policy studies. I was engaged into my PhD study of curriculum and instruction, educational policy, and quality inquiry—particularly sociology of education, anthropology of education, and comparative and international education studies.

Meanwhile, I always pay attention to curriculum and educational reforms in China. I observed the emergence of international high-school curriculum programs created by Chinese elite public high schools and also a concomitant educational and social phenomenon, which is the rapidly increasing number of urban Chinese high-school students apply to U.S. universities and many of them choose to attend these newly established international programs.

These educational and teaching experience along with my PhD study at UW-Madison have shaped the particular way that I study on elite education in China. These experiences motivated me and enabled me to integrate curriculum studies, educational policy studies, and comparative and international education studies in this book project.  

  • NRCEM: While writing your book and conducting this research, were there any interesting anecdotes that you can share?

Shuning Liu: I used ethnographic research methods to do this research project. I conducted my field work in a public international high school curriculum program in China. It was very interesting to observe how I was often treated as an insider and also an outsider by my research participants. There were a lot of moments I was reminded that I was a “professional stranger.” As a graduate student at a prestigious U.S. university, I had grown accustomed to carrying a backpack and brought my backpack to the field. One day a school administrator expressed curiosity about this lifestyle. After I explained that graduate students in the United States often carry backpacks, the administrator commented that “American people value a simple life and they put everything in a backpack.” At that moment, I came to realize that in the eyes of my Chinese participants, my lifestyle had been Americanized. In subsequent interviews with student participants, several of them mentioned that they had noticed me before ever meeting me because I wore a backpack, which made me different from others. Reflecting on how I was perceived by my participants, I decided to stop using my backpack in the field so that I could make myself more like my participants.

Jenny — Life as an international scholar amid COVID 19 中文总结

Photo by Irene Strong on Unsplash



English Summary


此次疫情让她反思自己作为海外华人学者的身份。Jenny笑称新冠疫情中中国打上半场的仗,其他国家打下半场,而海外华人似乎全场被打。身居海外,她发现有时在聊天,或者媒体以及社交媒体上都会遭遇反华情绪,这个让她觉得有点不舒服, 同时又觉得这不是一两句话可以解释得了的。这样的困境让她思考以后要是有同类危机时能有什么保障机制。目前而言,她觉得中国大使馆以及她的雇主是两个主要的保障机制。她说,如果有东西方二元论的话,这次疫情让她反思东西方的不同价值观。她说一开始西方国家似乎更集中在以个人自由为名义来反对强制隔离和家居隔离,随着疫情的全球扩散,这种讨论才变得更为多元。Jenny感觉这次疫情给大家上了很大的一节课,尤其是在这种全球化环境下我们除了要对自己负责,我们的所作所为还会直接对我们的社区有影响,所以也要为社区负责。