Between Privileges and Precariousness: Remaking Whiteness in China’s Teaching English as a Second Language Industry

Research Highlighted:

Lan, S. (2021) Between Privileges and Precariousness: Remaking Whiteness in China’s Teaching English as a Second Language industry. American Anthropologist, n/a(n/a).

This research examines the multiple and contradictory racialization of white identities in China’s booming ESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) industry. China represents a new geography of whiteness studies beyond Euro-America due to the transformation of corporeal whiteness into a minority identity as a result of international migration. This research makes distinctions between white privilege as a form of structural domination in western societies and white skin privilege as a form of embodied racial capital in China, which can be easily transformed into white skin vulnerability. It interprets the tension between white skin privilege and precariousness as a concurrent and mutually constitutive process that foregrounds the open-ended nature of white racial formation in China. By focusing on the intersections between global white supremacist ideologies and local Chinese constructions of self/other relations, this project explores new forms of racialization beyond the black/white, superiority/inferiority binaries in the western context.

The rise of China as a global superpower has generated abundant debates in western media, which contribute to the “China threat” discourse in the political, economic, and security domains (Jacques 2009; Xie & Page 2010). However, little attention has been paid to the racial implications of shifting power relations between China and the West. Existing literature on international migrants in China mainly focuses on black Africans in Guangzhou (Bodomo 2012; Haugen 2012; Lan 2017; Mathews 2017). The relative absence of whites in migration studies literature points to the racialization of “migrant” as a category reserved mainly for non-white people (Lundström 2017). This research denaturalizes whiteness as an invisible norm by rethinking it in a context of international labor migration and cross-cultural interaction. China represents a space of rupture where white skin can be decoupled from white hegemony due to the transformation of corporeal whiteness into a minority identity. Since mainland China was never fully colonized by any single western power, there is no historical legacy of an institutionalized structure to support white supremacy. Rather than commanding institutional power, corporeal whiteness is often conflated with foreignness and subjected to the disciplinary power of multiple Chinese gazes. By critically interrogating China’s role in contributing to the reconfiguration of whiteness, this research sheds light on the intricate yet contentious ways that white supremacy may reproduce itself, albeit in distorted and fragmentary manners, in multiple social and cultural contexts.

The social construction of whiteness in China is mediated by multiple and intersecting factors, which both obscure and intensify the racialized nature of white identities. Indigenous distinctions between Chinese and non-Chinese became institutionalized in the state’s waishi (foreign affairs) policy, which contributed to the conflation of whiteness, westernness and foreignness. The elastic meanings of “foreigner” often hide the racialization of white identity due to the latter’s unmarked status within the foreign category. Although the vulnerabilities experienced by white migrants in China’s ESL sector are also faced by non-white migrants, there is a certain degree of flexibility in the white experiences that is absent from that of non-white migrants. That is, the flexibility to move between markedness and unmarkedness, between different categories such as “foreigners”, “native speakers,” and “westerners.” This research interprets the tension between white skin privilege and precariousness as a concurrent and mutually constitutive process that foregrounds the open-ended nature of white racial formation in China. The racialization of native English speakers as white may lead to unethical hiring practices which facilitate the hierarchical ranking of different groups of white migrants. Although white teachers may enjoy preferential treatment over non-white teachers in finding employment, white skin privilege cannot shield them from state immigration control and workplace exploitation. The fetishization and depreciation of white bodies often go hand in hand due to the commodification of whiteness in the profit-driven ESL industry.        

The slippery boundaries between white skin privilege and precariousness indicate the possibility for some white English teachers to degrade from professional talents to low-skilled migrants with dubious legal status. Recalling Cezard’s artistic portrayal of low-skilled white migrants in China at the beginning of this article, it seems that one no longer needs to wait until 2050 for that to happen. In addition to white face jobs in the ESL sector, the rise of white monkey jobs, where white bodies are reduced to a spectacle for curious Chinese gazes in provincial Chinese cities, presents another example of new types of precarious whiteness in China’s stratified labor market for “foreigners” (Toropov 2019). However, instead of reading these as symbols of the crisis of white identity, which presumes white domination as the norm, I interpret the Chinese case as contributing to the fragmentation and pluralization of whiteness in a global context. While stratification in white identities may lead to the emergence of multiple versions of whiteness, of which the precarious white English teacher is just one example, it should not hinder us from interrogating the persistence of white supremacy as a global power system.

Author Bio

Shanshan Lan is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Moving Matters research group. She received her Ph. D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She had worked as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University and Connecticut College in the United States. Before joining the University of Amsterdam, she was a Research Assistant Professor in the David Lam Institute for East-West Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University. Lan is the Principal Investigator of the ERC project “The reconfiguration of whiteness in China: Privileges, precariousness, and racialized performances” (CHINAWHITE, 2019-2024). Funded by the European Research Council, this project examines how the western notion of whiteness is dis-assembled and re-assembled in the new historical context of China’s rise as a global superpower.

What influences the direction and magnitude of Asian student mobility?

Macro data analysis focusing on restricting factors and lifelong planning

Research Highlighted

Sato, Y. (2021). “What influences the direction and magnitude of Asian student mobility? Macro data analysis focusing on restricting factors and lifelong planning”. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, doi:


Dr Yuriko Sato, Tokyo Institute of Technology

This study aims to explore the factors that influence Asian student mobility using a life planning model, which focuses on students’ lifelong planning and restricting factors in decision making. As a result of macro data analysis of student mobility from six Asian source countries (including China) to eight major destinations (including China) from 1999 to 2017, the income gap between source country and destination country shows a negative correlation with student mobility, which supports the hypothesis that a decrease in budgetary constraints promotes study abroad. This finding is contrary to the assumption of the traditional push-and-pull model. This may be explained by the expansion of a middle-class population who are eager to send their children abroad whenever the budgetary constraint is lifted. Bilateral trade shows a positive correlation, which supports the hypothesis that prospect of employment, associated with economic connectedness, promotes study abroad.

Background and purpose

While the total number of international students has tripled in the last twenty years, several significant changes have been observed during the period, such as the rising personal incomes and aspirations for international education in source countries, and diversification of study destinations. Although the push-and-pull theory of migration has been the foremost utilized theory to explain decision making of international students (Rounsaville 2012), its assumption that economic and social gaps between source countries and destination countries are the major driving forces for student mobility must be re-examined.

The purpose of this study is to elucidate the factors which influence the direction and magnitude of international student mobility and to obtain clues to predict the future direction of international education.

The target of this study is Asian international students who account for half of the international students in the world. International student data from six major source countries in Asia (i.e. China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Nepal) to eight major destination countries (i.e. the USA, the UK, Australia, Germany, France, Canada, China, and Japan) is examined in terms of economic and social indicators which seem to influence the mobility.


As a theoretical framework, “life planning model” was selected after a careful review of existing models. This model assumes that restricting factors (cost, language, intention of family, visa, etc.) are considered first in international students’ choices of study destination and the other four factors (i.e. capacity development/utilization, better employment prospect, social environment, and others) are considered in the second round, depending on their priorities. It also assumes that the choice of study destination is often made by considering their future choice of workplace and is influenced by the policies and economic, institutional, and cultural factors of source and destination countries.

Based on this model, panel data (regression) analysis was conducted by setting the number of international students from six Asian countries (including China) to eight destination countries (including China) between 1999 and 2017 as objective variables. Explanatory variables are selected from the indicators which represent the assumptions in the life planning model.


As the result of the analysis, the ratio of per capita GDP of the destination country relative to that of the source country (income gap) shows a negative correlation with student mobility at the 1 % level, which supports the hypothesis that a decrease in budgetary constraints promotes study abroad. This finding is contrary to the assumption of the traditional push-and-pull model in which income gap is a driving force for student mobility.

Bilateral trade between source and destination countries shows a positive correlation with student mobility at the 1 % level, which also supports the hypothesis of the life planning model that prospects of employment, associated with economic connectedness, promote study abroad.

Youth unemployment in source countries has a positive correlation with student mobility at the 10% level, which is in agreement with the hypotheses in both the life planning model and the push-pull model.

Tuition fees at destination country show a positive correlation with student mobility at the 1% level, contrary to the assumption of the life planning model.

As the result of the analysis of student mobility from the six Asian countries to four English-speaking countries and four non-English-speaking countries, a higher fitness of the model is observed in the analysis of student mobility to English-speaking countries.


The analytical result supports the hypothesis of the life planning model that the decrease of budgetary constraints plays a critical role in the decision to study abroad. This may be explained by the expansion of middle-class population who are eager to send their children abroad whenever the budgetary constraint is lifted.

Bilateral trade shows a positive correlation, which also supports the hypothesis that prospect of employment, associated with economic connectedness, promotes study abroad.

The reason why tuition fees in the destination country show a positive correlation with student mobility may be explained by the Chivas Regal Effect that higher price is perceived as evidence of a quality brand (Askin & Bothner 2016), implying the aspiration of the Asian households who hope to let their children have a better international education.

Although this study could not capture the factors that do not appear in macro-level data, the result reveals an important fact that the expansion of international education has been sustained by the aspiration for better education and employment of the emerging middle-class families in Asia. It is necessary to examine if a similar tendency is observed in international students from other parts of the world.


Askin, N., and M. S. Bothner. 2016. “Status-Aspirational Pricing: The ‘‘Chivas Regal’’ Strategy in U.S. Higher Education, 2006–2012.” Administrative Science Quarterly XX: 1–37. doi: 10.1177/0001839216629671.

Barnett, G. A., M. Lee, K. Jiang, and H. W. Park. 2016. “The flow of international students from a macro perspective: a network analysis.” Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education 46 (4): 533–559.

Beine, M., R., Noël, and L. Ragot. 2014. “Determinants of the international mobility of students.” Economics of Education Review 41: 40–54.

Rounsaville C. A. 2012. “Where should I study? International students’ perceptions of higher education in the UK, Ireland, and the U.S.” PhD diss., University of Nottingham.

Wei, H. 2013. “An empirical study on the determinants of international student mobility: A global perspective.” Higher Education 66 (1): 105–122.

Yang, P. 2020. “China in the global field of international student mobility: an analysis of economic, human and symbolic capitals.” Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. doi: 10.1080/03057925.2020.1764334.

Author Bio

Dr. Yuriko Sato is an associate professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. She has been engaged in the study of international students for twenty years and is one of the most prominent scholars in this field in Japan. Her research fields cover International Student Policy, International Education, and Development Economics reflecting her experience of working for Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) before joining her current workplace. She was awarded Best Paper Prize of Japan Association of International Student Education in 2013 and the Best Paper Prize & the Best Presentation Prize at the 1st Asia Future Conference. She also received the Best Teacher Award of her university in 2007 and 2013. She can be contacted via email:

The Educational Hopes and Ambitions of Left-Behind Children in Rural China: An Ethnographic Case Study

Research Highlighted:

Hong, Y. (2021). The Educational Hopes and Ambitions of Left-Behind Children in Rural China: An Ethnographic Case Study. Routledge.

Listen to an interview with Yang here, and watch the interview here.

Children who are ‘left behind’ by migrating parents is a growing phenomenon across Asia. Left-behind children is a consequence of China’s rapid urbanization and its peculiar household registration system. The number of this highly disadvantaged young population across China is overwhelming (61 million in 2013). These young people are doubly disadvantaged, first by their poverty and secondly, by the loss of their parents in their day to day life. Research in different national contexts has provided evidence of how growing up as a ‘left-behind child’ can have a profound impact on young people’s development. Large-scale quantitative research has demonstrated well that being ‘left behind’ has an impact on educational attainment as well on measures that explore sense of well-being and character development.

I conducted an ethnographic case study in a rural school with a high proportion of left-behind children in southwest China. Data were collected from 17 left-behind children. I explored in-depth the individual educational experiences of being poor and ‘left behind’ in rural China, and understood how the experiences of young people themselves had shaped their aspirations as well as self identity. Through this deeply qualitative study, first hand insights into the day to day experiences of left-behind children were gained. By living with the students for 4 months; eating, sleeping and spending academic and leisure time together, a rich and detailed understanding of what it meant to be ‘poor’ and ‘left behind’ for the children in this study were possible.

Extending from Bourdieu’s sociological theories, my study offered an original contribution by combining three theoretical/disciplinary perspectives (cultural capital – sociology, rational action – behavioural economics, and self-efficacy – psychology) in a new and useful way to conceptualize aspirations for higher education in the context of rural China. The three different disciplinary perspectives are often seen, at the surface level at least, not especially compatible; this study however integrated them as well as transferring these Western theories to an Eastern context and demonstrating cultural nuances that these theories do not capture when applying in the West.

Key findings

Results of the study were organized as two chapters (Five and Six) in the book to reflect the different educational attitudes and aspirations of left-behind children under study. “University Non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’” referred to those who did not intend to receive university education and those who had difficulty making decisions. “University aspirers’ were those who explicitly expressed that going to university was what they definitely wanted to do. Findings indicated that whilst educational aspirations were embedded in left-behind children’s disadvantaged social background, they were also shaped by the consequences of being ‘left-behind’.

University non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’, and university aspirers were primarily differentiated by their differential attitudes towards higher education as well as schooling in general. Comparing to university aspirers who demonstrated a strong faith in meritocracy, university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ shared a strong desire to enter, what they saw as, the real social world instead. Their beliefs and plans with respect to how to achieve their developed future goals were very individualized because they had very personal and varied understandings of the social world as well as how they saw themselves in terms of personal advantages and weaknesses.

Family played a significant role in shaping student aspirations. What was distinct for university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ was that educational aspirations appeared to be linked strongly with loose family connections as well as authoritarian family members. But for university aspirers, parents’ expectations, their concern and encouragement became a strong motive to learning. However, despite this, these young people expressed an extreme sense of isolation as even though having developed an aspiration for university, there was no extra parental involvement, advice or support provided as guidance when making future plans.

Although the school provided no guidance and very little support with respect to future preparation, university aspirers were able to gain support from their peers as well as their teachers, while university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ were left alone to make decisions only with limited source of information circulated among classmates and friends.

‘Left-behind-ness’ was seen by all these young people as being compensated by a clearly improved family financial situation and their opportunity to stay in education. However, university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ felt they could have more positive personal changes if they were not ‘left behind’. University aspirers, while some also acknowledged they could have a better school performance and a closer relationship with parents, being ‘left behind’ was viewed by some as beneficial for securing independence and freedom to decide the future. Overall though, university aspirers largely expressed a strong sense of loneliness and in particular, a sense of making the best of life’s circumstances with bravado. 


This book employed the concepts of cultural capital, habitus, social capital and emotional capital to investigate the role of family in shaping aspirations. I casted some doubts on Bourdieu’s deterministic view that the value families place on their children’s education is the result of class-based dispositions and habitus. Where Bourdieu is useful is in the ways that poverty can impact on families and in the resources families have to support their children, the results of this study led me to suggest that the idea of habitus should be re-considered specifically to different cultural contexts – in this case, in the Chinese society. Whilst family cultural capital supports a child’s education with knowledge, skills and abilities, emotional capital invested by parental encouragement, support, confidence and interest cultivates a strong sense of belonging, assurance and security for a child, which arguably is significant in promoting self-confidence and self-esteem or encouraging a sense of self-efficacy and autonomy. I also suggest it is being emotionally ‘left behind’ that ultimately is the specific disadvantage of Chinese left-behind children, as opposed to the disadvantages associated with poverty alone. 

Author Bio

Dr Yang Hong is currently a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, China. She specializes in the area of social justice, focusing on issues of poverty, gender, education and identity. She can be contacted via email:

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:

Rural-urban gap and career preparation trajectories in a Chinese elite university

Research Highlighted:

Chen, L., & Tian, F. F. (2021). Rural-urban gap and career preparation trajectories in a Chinese elite university. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 1-26.

Given the college expansion in China, increasing numbers of scholars have paid attention to the variations in college experience. A growing number of studies have shown that the urban-rural gap is still pervasive in both entry to and exit from the Chinese higher education system. Rural students were marginalized, felt inferior, and experienced a huge emotional burden trying to fit into the university culture (Tian & Chen, 2018, 2020; Li, 2013, 2015; Liao & Wong, 2019).

Informed by Bourdieu’s two classic concepts––habitus and field, we conceptualized inequality in the college experience as a distinction between habitus fits and misfits. Students with college-educated parents tend to have a habitus that fits with college culture, which gives them a sense of being entitled to participate in both academic and extracurricular activities (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013; Stuber, 2012) and to seek advice and help from professors and mentors (Jack, 2016). By contrast, less privileged––and for purposes of this study often rural––students may be trapped as habitus misfits in college culture. As a result, they feel confused and inferior, and have less of a sense of belonging (Lehmann, 2007; Li, 2013, 2015; Reay, 2005; Reay et al., 2009).

According to Bourdieu, when individuals encounter an unfamiliar field, their habitus can transform but such transformation can be cirsumscribed by past experience (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977). Yet some recent efforts at hybridizing habitus and reflexivity have stressed a larger role for reflexive deliberation in habitus transformation (Adams, 2006; Elder-Vass, 2007). For young adults, one critical aspect of reflexivity is future expectations. How young adults think about the future and design plans to achieve it is an important part of reflexivity in shaping habitus transformation. Therefore, we theorized career preparation in college as a reconciliation between thinking about future, which is reflexive but at the same time bounded by habitus, and the blueprint of a ‘bright future’ that students seek in college.

In this article, we compare how rural and urban students prepared for their career in 4 years of undergraduate study at a top-ranking public university (WU) in China. This study conducted longitudinal in-depth interviews with 32 students majoring in social sciences from 2014 to 2018.

Elite universities often have a popular career preparation trajectory, which consists of steps to be achieved over 4 years. At WU, such path exists as well. While the path provides a promising blueprint for students from various family backgrounds, students approach it differently. We identify four career preparation trajectories––implementing, following, transforming, and downgrading––in relation to students’ various perceptions and experiences.

The four career preparation trajectories illustrate dynamic experiences among students at WU over 4 years. With their parents’ help, students on the implementing trajectory appraised their capabilities and resources before college so that they implemented their career plans right after matriculation. They continued to strategically solidify their prowess in academic performance and noncognitive skills through various activities on and outside campus. With these cumulative advantages, their career preparation was well ahead of that of their peers. Students on the following trajectory were inspired by the path ideal and tried to develop plans that aligned with the path. However, they seldom contemplated life beyond the path but were more attracted by the immediate results of following the path, which helped them maintain their status as rural/county exceptions. Students on the transforming trajectory critically appraised their resources and realistically chose pragmatic skills to fit their own future expectations. Their understandings of their future careers evolved along with their resources and understandings of the future, from an ideal process to tangible goals that fit their means. Students with less privileged family backgrounds showed creative and diverse reactions to the evolving habitus (Li, 2013; Reay et al., 2009). Although students in the downgrading trajectory realized that the less competitive milestones of the path were less attractive to future employers, they continued to stick to the path because they did not know how to prepare for a future career otherwise due to limited capabilities and resources.

Drawing on Bourdieu’s notion of habitus (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992), the career preparation trajectories of these 32 students fell along a spectrum with habitus fit and misfit at two ends. The implementing trajectory leans toward the habitus-fit end and the downgrading trajectory is, unfortunately, prone to the habitus-misfit end. The following and transforming trajectories show a status swinging between habitus fit and misfit, which we conceptualize as a habitus fluid-fit, as ‘habitus reshaping is an evolving process with continuous adaptation and position-takings’ (Li, 2013, p. 841). For students on these two trajectories, habitus fits may alternate with habitus misfits given their resources, the reflexivity of their career plan, and their experiences with career preparation. As such, these students’ habitus fitting presents versatility and flexibility, echoing their evolving reflexivity and habitus transformation in the elite university.

This study sheds light on the dynamic and yet uncertain habitus transformation and career preparation in the elite universities in China. Career preparation oftentimes is not a prearranged activity for college students, especially for students from underprivileged family backgrounds (Savickas, 2005). During the career preparation process, the usual discussions, distinctively comparing habitus fit and misfit (e.g. Lehmann, 2007; Li, 2013) or habitus transformation and habitus hysteresis (e.g. A. Xie & Reay, 2020) may not be able to capture the dynamic, evolving nature of students’ own reflexivity. As their understanding of career and reflexivity unfold during the process, students are able to be directed with useful information as well as exercise sufficient autonomy to decide their own career path. As such, students’ career preparation trajectories can vary and show habitus fluid-fit. Also, although rural students in this study show similar vulnerabilities in existing studies (e.g. Cheng & Kang, 2019; Li, 2013; Liao, 2016; A. Xie & Reay, 2020), some of them are able to exercise the power of ‘looking ahead’ and of reflexivity in order to generate opportunities and successes (Reay et al., 2009). Therefore, this study sheds light on understanding nuanced career preparation processes in elite universities in China and the nuanced mechanism that shapes inequality in Chinese higher education.


Adams, M. (2006). Hybridizing habitus and reflexivity: Towards an understanding of contemporary identity? Sociology, 40(3), 511–528.

Armstrong, E. A., & Hamilton, L. T. (2013). Paying for the party: How college maintains inequality. Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. G. Robinson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. (pp. 241–258). Greenwood Press.

Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J.-C. (1977). Reproduction in education, society and culture. Beverley Hills, CA: Sage.

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. D. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. University of Chicago Press.

Cheng, M., & Kang, Y. (2019). Rural youths admitted to elite universities: “Empathy” and destiny. Chinese Education & Society, 52(5–6), 363–377.

Elder-Vass, D. (2007). Reconciling Archer and Bourdieu in an emergentist theory of action. Sociological Theory, 25(4), 325–346.

Jack, A. A. (2016). (No) Harm in asking: Class, acquired cultural capital, and academic engagement at an elite university. Sociology of Education, 89(1), 1–19.

Lehmann, W. (2007). “I just didn’t feel like I fit in”: The role of habitus in university dropout decisions. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 37(2), 89–110.

Li, H. (2013). Rural students’ experiences in a Chinese elite university: Capital, habitus and practices. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(5–6), 829–847.

Li, H. (2015). Moving to the city: Educational trajectories of rural Chinese students in an elite university. In C. Costa & M. Murphy (Eds.), Bourdieu, habitus and social research: The art of application (pp. 126–147). Palgrave Macmillan.

Liao, Q. (2016). Learning experiences of rural students in elite universities: Reflections on the theory of production [In Chinese]. Journal of Higher Education, 37(11), 77–84.

Liao, Q., & Wong, Y. L. (2019). An emotional journey: Pursuing a bachelor’s degree for rural students in four elite universities in Shanghai, PRC. Cambridge Journal of Education, 49(6), 711–725.

Reay, D. (2005). Beyond consciousness? The psychic landscape of social class. Sociology, 39(5), 911–928.

Reay, D., Crozier, G., & Clayton, J. (2009). “Fitting in” or “standing out”: Working-class students in UK higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 36(1), 107–124.

Savickas, M. L. (2005). The theory and practice of career construction. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work. (pp. 42–70). John Wiley & Sons.

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Authors’ Bio

Dr Lin Chen, Fudan University, China

Dr. Chen (Ph.D., UCLA) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work at Fudan University. She joined the department in June 2014 and was promoted to Associate Professor in December 2017. Her research focuses on: identity, gerontology, community, and qualitative research methods. Her monograph “Evolving Eldercare in Contemporary China: Two Generations, One Decision” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. She co-authored and published “Community Eldercare Ecology in China” and “Higher Education and Career Prospects in China”, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020.

Dr Felicia F. Tian, Fudan University, China

Dr Felicia F. Tian is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Fudan University. Her research focuses on transition to adulthood, marriage and family, social capital, and social network analysis. She co-authored with Dr. Lin Chen in a book “Higher Education and Career Prospects in China”, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020. She can be contacted via email: