How does language matter in mainland Chinese university students’ social integration in multilingual Hong Kong?

Dr. Matthew Sung discusses the role of language in influencing mainland Chinese students’ social integration in multilingual Hong Kong.

Hong Kong universities are becoming increasingly international. Between 1998 and 2018, the number of international students in Hong Kong universities grew from under 2,000 to over 40,000. The proportion of international students has also increased from 2% to 17% within the same period. Notably, 71% of international students were from mainland China. They are drawn to Hong Kong because it is perceived as a bridge between the domestic and international. But in what ways do mainland Chinese students experience Hong Kong as a bridge to the international during their time here?

While others have examined how these students handle cultural adjustment, my research sheds light on their experiences in the realm of language. In the multilingual context of Hong Kong, English is the official medium of instruction in universities, Cantonese is the most commonly-used language in everyday interactions, and most local students have at least basic proficiency in Mandarin. How do mainland Chinese students interact with these circumstances? For instance, how and why do they acquire Cantonese? What is their experience of studying in universities where English is the instructional medium? When and where can they use Putonghua?

My research study recruited 22 mainland Chinese students from a Hong Kong university and conducted three rounds of semi-structured interviews to learn more about their language learning experiences and usage. For the most part, this qualitative study revealed many obstacles for social integration through language.

The mainland Chinese students understood Cantonese as the language for integration into the social circles of local students. Consequently, a number of interviewees took the initiative to learn Cantonese. However, they found that ‘authentic’ Cantonese appeared to be a symbol of Hong Kong identity whereas accented Cantonese would be viewed as ‘unauthentic’. Since these students were unable to speak with a ‘standard’ accent, they struggled to gain meaningful interactional opportunities despite attempts to engage in Cantonese-mediated interactions. They did not find an atmosphere of tolerance towards Cantonese learners.

It was not uncommon for them to encounter resistance from locals when using Cantonese. Such resistance was met in everyday encounters. One interviewee was humiliated at a restaurant. She recalls: “I ordered in Cantonese. But the waiter looked at me with contempt and said, “Miss, why don’t you speak Putonghua?” I just had a weird feeling. I wanted to integrate into the community, so I’ve learnt Cantonese. Perhaps my pronunciation wasn’t accurate. But you can’t make me feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, to be honest.”

Interviewees encountered similar struggles within the university setting. For example, one interviewee told her group mates that they could speak Cantonese to her. However, the request fell on deaf ears as her fellow students continued using Putonghua when speaking with her. Another interviewee would attempt to speak Cantonese during group projects, but found that the rest of the group would simply reply in Putonghua. This damaged their self-esteem.

Difficulties in the use of Cantonese ran in parallel with unprecedented challenges in the use of Putonghua. Many interviewees recounted being affected by the negative cultural stereotyping of mainland Chinese among Hong Kong people. One interviewee puts it this way: “When you speak Putonghua, Hong Kong people will think of those stereotypes… If you don’t speak Cantonese, you are from the mainland.” Another interviewee recalls using Putonghua to speak with fellow mainland Chinese friends on the subway, but simply because they used Putonghua, they would receive glares from bystanders. Some went so far as to refrain from using Putonghua altogether in order to avoid being identified as a ‘mainland’ student on campus.

Curiously, mainland Chinese students also discovered a stronger sense of their ‘mainland’ identity through language. Some interviewees reported that whenever they would spend time with other mainland Chinese students, Putonghua would be their medium of communication while they connected over shared concerns such as taking the gaokao (national examination for secondary school) or arranging for transport to their hometown during the Lunar New Year. In effect, the reconfigured use of Putonghua within the context of multilingual Hong Kong simultaneously hindered their social integration and reinforced their sense of connection with other mainland Chinese students.

As for English, most mainland Chinese students were required to take the course, ‘English for Academic Purposes’, in the first two years of their study programmes. Most interviewees agreed that English was a commodity worth investing in because they regarded it as the language used in academia as well as the leading world language. Learning English would open up opportunities for finding work after graduation. Yet, using English with a mainland Chinese accent could sometimes lead to being ostracized by local students. Moreover, many interviewees felt that their English proficiency was not improving even after interacting with exchange students who were native speakers of English.

The aforementioned issues are just the tip of the iceberg. My study has highlighted the nuances of language in higher education beyond a few courses here and there, or rudimentary mentions of it in university policy. Based on the experiences of the interviewees, language is an issue with much wider ramifications for social integration both within and without the university setting. For the most part, mainland Chinese students encounter difficulties when entering both Cantonese-mediated and English-mediated environments. Moreover, mainland Chinese students entering a multilingual setting unexpectedly discover Putonghua as a marker of identity.

These findings invite further research to determine how universities can shape language policy that supports students as much as possible. What would it take to enable mainland Chinese students to learn Cantonese in suitable learning environments? How can English-medium universities enable English learning for non-native speakers both inside and outside the classroom? What is the place of Putonghua in universities? Should efforts be focused on university policy at the top, or encouraging more open-minded attitudes from the bottom? Ultimately, resolving these questions of language will help pave the way for Hong Kong universities to become the bridge between domestic and international, something which both mainland Chinese students and the universities themselves hope for.

Further reading

Sung, C. C. M. (2020). Mainland Chinese students’ multilingual experiences during cross-border studies in a Hong Kong university: From a language ideological perspective. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. Advance online publication.

Sung, C. C. M. (2020). Investing in English-mediated practices in the EMI university: The case of cross-border mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong. Lingua, 243, Article 102919.

Sung, C. C. M. (2020). Cantonese learning, investments, and identities: Mainland Chinese university students’ experiences during cross-border studies in Hong Kong. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 26, Article 100415.

Author’s Bio

Dr. SUNG Chit Cheung Matthew (宋哲彰), CityU

Dr. Matthew Sung is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at City University of Hong Kong. He holds a doctoral degree from Lancaster University, UK. He previously taught at the University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University. His current research focuses on the role of language in students’ experiences in international higher education.

Managing Editor: Tong Meng

Everyday heritaging: Sino-Muslim literacy adaptation and alienation

Ibrar Bhatt[1] and Heng Wang

School of Social Sciences, Education & Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland (United Kingdom)

To be cited as: Bhatt, I. & Wang, H. (2022) ‘Everyday heritaging: Sino-Muslim literacy adaptation and alienation’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, DOI: 10.1515/ijsl-2022-0058

Acknowledgement: This research is being supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust


What we in this article describe and discuss as practices of ‘Sino-Muslim heritage literacy’ have existed in China for as long as there have been Muslims in the region – since the 7th century according to the best evidence. The community’s religious and heritage literacy practices can incorporate, for example, a systematic Arabic representation of Chinese, systems of Chinese characters representing Arabic pronunciation, as well as more contemporary and novel digitalised manifestations of heritage literacy in everyday life.

Our study uses a social practice approach to literacy to examine the multiple forms of Sino-Muslim heritage literacy in modern China, including how heritage literacy practices are maintained, relinquished, and/or adapted in current times. In this paper published in the International Journal of the Sociology of Language, we draw from the first round of our data collection to offer a critical examination of heritage literacy maintenance and adaptation in the everyday lives of two Sino-Muslim families based in Xi’an (Shaanxi Province, China): the ‘Wang’ family, and the ‘Chen’ family. We explore how their religiously expressive heritage literacy practices occur at the interface between an authoritarian state which confines religious practice entirely through minority ethnic identity (shaoshu minzu; 少数民族) and its Muslim minority who have inherited and adapted literacy practices that are situated in heritage-related activities and inherently translingual and transmodal in nature.

Theoretical framework

The theoretical framework for this study brings the ideas of heritage literacy in the historical Sino-Muslim context together with a social practice approach to literacy. In our study, therefore, Sino-Muslim heritage practices are considered to inherently involve values, materiality and social relationships, and be mediated by sacred or religiously themed texts and events. Conceptualising heritage literacy through a social practice framing in this way means acknowledging that heritage identities change over time and are given shape by the values people hold. This frames our ethnographic commitment in the study.

Methodological approach

The research is being conducted by a team of researchers located across China and the UK, including the two authors of this paper. Xi’an is chosen as one of the focal sites of the research and the context discussed within the paper due to its historical connections with the historical Silk Roads, its localised development of historical Sino-Muslim ‘scripture hall’ (经堂教育) literacy, and its more contemporary BRI-related cultural shifts. Consistent with our context-sensitive and interpretive approach to literacy, we adopt a range of methods to capture the diversity and richness of the heritage literacy practices of the two families reported on in the article. These methods include inter-generational interviewing, document collection, and observations of key heritage events.

The Wang family: Letting go of heritage literacy

In the Wang family extract, we are given a glimpse into their heritage literacy story spanning three generations: Xiaoming (85 years old; ‘grandma’), her daughter Yanyan, and granddaughter Shuhan who is in her late twenties. We are able to see how much of Xiaoming’s heritage literacy learning took place within, and was contingent upon, the religious and self-help systems of Xiaoming’s early community. These resources included the mosque, the family, and community elders all of whom practiced forms of formal and informal religious education that included reading scripture with Chinese characters as well as with Perso-Arabic script.

While Xiaoming harnessed heritage literacy for spiritual, relational, and moral purposes in the community, she was unable to pass on much to Yanyan except her insistence on observing Eid and fasting. She now directs food-related activities during Eid and Ramadan, placing her as the sole ‘sponsor’ of heritage literacy in the family. The Wang family extract shows us how heritage literacy practices are distributed across networks of people, locations and artefacts, and not disassociated from social upheaval such as migration, divorce and forced cultural change.

The Chen family: Coming back to heritage literacy

As with the Wang family, multiple interviews were also undertaken with two generations of the Chen family: Jizhi and his son Lei (in his 30s). Jizhi’s account shows how his heritage literacy practices were confined to practices of liturgy which were reliant entirely on ‘hanjing’, a self-made system to transliterate Arabic scripture with Chinese characters. Jizhi’s very limited engagement with heritage literacy through hanjing, was not insignificant. It impacted his son Lei in many ways, including in two particular ways that are important for our analysis: heritage literacy as a form of ‘nurturing’, as Lei went on to undertake a more sustained religious education; and metalinguistic awareness and attachment, as Lei went on to study Arabic more deeply and complete a PhD in Arabic Language.

Heritage literacy education in this context could be described of as an active process of consciousness raising, and not just simply about doing things with culture and passing them on to the next generation. Lei’s scripture hall education was designed to orient the student to an ‘Islamic’ life grounded in a traditional moral and epistemological framework. And to cultivate in mosque students and the general congregation a sense of membership within an Islamo-Arabic “metalinguistic community”.

Our data show that Lei and Jizhi, and to some extent Xiaoming, maintained a metalinguistic attachment to Arabic even though it was through the medium of hanjing or scripture hall education, rather than a desire to be communicatively competent. They were both taught to valorise Arabic as ‘jing’ (lit. scripture) but in different ways. While Arabic was a vehicle for religious knowledge and etiquette taught in his formative years, by the time Lei applied for university entrance he thought that being an Arabic interpreter would earn him better money. In mosque, Arabic was central to status and can lead one to becoming an ‘ahong’ (阿訇; Imam), but Lei never made it that far. His alternative route took him to study Arabic all the way to PhD and to conduct field work in the Middle East, thereby making a living as an academic in the Arabic language, and also retaining a respect within the Hui community as a person who is connected to jing. Though in a manner that is far removed from the Quranic Arabic of his youth.

While mosques were the organisational base of communities and served as incubators for Sino-Muslim culture, we found that heritage literacies were not confined to them. Multipurpose sponsors of literacy in Xiaoming’s case eventually became fragmented, but in Lei’s case become sought out in other places to promote persistence through adaptation.

Concluding remarks

We conclude by arguing that it is crucial to situate Sino-Muslim heritage literacy in spaces beyond rigid and state-defined ethnic and religious discourses which tend to confine the identity of Sino-Muslims into officially designated categories. Doing so, we contend, has useful theoretical and methodological import, and can shed light on inquiry about heritage literacy in other minority settings.

[1] Contact: Dr Ibrar Bhatt [巴 亿博] (, School of Social Sciences, Education & Social Work, 20 College Green, Queen’s University Belfast BT7 1LN (UK).

Authors’ Bio

Dr Ibrar Bhatt, Queen’s University Belfast

Dr Ibrar Bhatt [巴 亿博] is Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences, Education & Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast. He has research interests in literacy studies, education, and digital epistemologies. He is currently a recipient of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship for a study on heritage literacy in China. He recently featured as guest editor for two journal special issues: ‘Critical Perspectives on Teaching in the Multilingual University’ for Teaching in Higher Education; and ‘Lies, Bullshit & Fake News’ for Postdigital Science & Education. He is a member of the Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education and an Executive Editor for the journal Teaching in Higher Education: Critical Perspectives. He can be contacted via email: His co-managed WeChat Official Account is:

Ms Wang Heng, Queen’s University Belfast

Ms Wang Heng [王恒] is currently a PhD student in education at Queen’s University Belfast. She is originally from Jilin Province in China, and works with Ibrar on the Leverhulme project assisting with data collection, analysis, access, translation and fieldwork. Her prior work is in educational contexts in China and South Africa.

Managing editor: Tong Meng

Opinion: COVID and immobility among Indian medical students

Heller Arokkiaraj*

*Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work, Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development, Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, India

In recent years, China has been an important destination for international student mobility (ISM). The country has attracted significant numbers of international students from Asian continent (59.95 percent).[1] Since 2013 China is a favoured country among Indian students to study medical degrees.[2][3][4][5][6][7] Due to the COVID19 outbreaks, the Government of India organized three special flights to evacuate 766 persons on January-February 2020, including students from the city of Wuhan as well as other cities of Hubei Province in China in view of the continuing lock down of Hubei Province.[8] As of 16 September 2020, three evacuation flights and five repatriation flights under Vande Bharat Mission had been operated from China for bringing back stranded Indians, including students.[9]

The Covid-19 pandemic has made students return home and attend online classes remotely in India. It has caused immobility among Indian medical students who are enrolled in MBBS degree in China. Most of the Indian medical students have returned to India since the pandemic outbreak. In this article, we tried to reflect key challenges faced by these students, particularly those in their fifth and final (sixth) years of studies.

In 2019, the author conducted an online interview with Sheela, a student who was pursuing her fourth year of MBBS degree in Chongqing Medical University, China. At that time, she was in India for the winter break. Yet having studied in China for four years, she was eager to return to China to complete her fifth year and start her internship in the final year. But after rising Covid-19 infections in China, borders were closed, and a travel ban was imposed. Therefore, her plan to go back to China was disrupted by Covid-19. She said “For everyone it is only online classes. Most of the students have returned to India. Only some one or two Indian students are staying back in China for doing internship”. The immobility has been a major concern for a number of Indian students enrolled in the universities in China, most of them are unable to return to China due to the travel ban to China from India since November last year (The Hindu, 2021).[10]

Like Sheela, a few other students who spoke to the author felt stranded in India. Why did we focus on the fifth and final year students? In the undergraduate degree (MBBS) course for foreign students in Chinese universities, in the fifth year, they have only practical classes and in the sixth year they have to do internships in hospital, this is essential for the course completion. Sheela commented, “For theory, no problem…but on the other hand, we miss the practical classes. They tried teaching online, like showing the videos. Though it was not much effective and informative…”. Another student Ram, who is also in the fifth year narrated as “In first four years we only have theory classes… in fifth year we have only practical, but this time they have made those practical into online classes…so it is difficult for us learn, so I feel I am not gaining enough practical knowledge which is important for medical students”. Due to Covid-19, the immobility and online classes constraints prevented these medical students from acquiring practical knowledge which they could only obtain from lab visits. Ram continued to say that “There is a difference better seeing practical in video (online) than we go to lab and learn the same”.

On 15 March 2021, the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in India issued an important notice which states that persons going to China have to take Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccine and holding the Certificates of Vaccination is mandatory.[11][12] While talking to a student Kumar, he also reflected that students may face immigration restrictions based on the vaccination. On the other hand, from Sheela, we came to know that international medical students were disadvantaged compared to local (Chinese students) in terms of reopening university campus to attend classes, access to lab, internship and to access other facilities. She mentioned that “for the Chinese students campus was reopened in late May or June 2020. Only for the foreign students, they are yet to reopen”. This has raised issues experienced by international medical students compared with domestic students who study medicine in the same home university. Besides, what emerged was a diverse set of factors that immobility caused in the medical degree programme such as a) unable to learn the clinical/practical skills effectively, b) visa extension for expired visa. However, students are still waiting for a decision from China.

I might have to extend my stay in China to complete the internship if visa is issued” says Priya. Anju a fifth year student said that “Our seniors completed their fifth year in 2020, but so far they did not do the internship”. From these narrations we can understand that immobility has caused the fifth year students (2020), now in sixth year, and those who are in their fifth year (2021) who are yet to complete their internship in China dearly, as they are yet to get the course completion certificates. For the author’s postdoctoral research work (2019-2020), interviews were conducted among Indian medical students who face multiple challenges in realising their dreams to become medical doctors in India after their medical degrees from China, Russia, and Ukraine. Like other skilled migrants, Indian students move to countries such as China-they need to pass their medical degree, qualify foreign medica graduate examination (FMGE)[13] in India, accumulate clinical skills during their clinical internship in India and apply license for medical practice in India. The key ambition of the interviewed students is to return and contribute to health care in India. The different waves of Covid-19 have added to the many challenges that the fifth and final year medical students face.

In the year 2020, the author jointly published an article in the ‘The Wire’, where we mentioned that the Indian medical students were uncertain about the universities reopening date due to pandemic. Perhaps, now it has been more than two years and while seeing the changes in the time, we note that these students’ immobility continues to receive little attention. Although some universities in China develop new applications for online classes, arranged recorded sessions, and hybrid classes, students are now still unsure whether they will be able to attain practical and clinical knowledge and also about their return to China. Meanwhile, recently, Indian medical students enrolled in universities in China appealed to the UN to lift the border restrictions, it states that ‘they are being deprived of learning from practical surgical classes which is not possible online” (Hindustan Times, 2021)[14].

To conclude, a student Anju said that “May be around in August or in September (2021) university may reopen. But I don’t know. Actually, the plan was in March (2021). But here (India) the cases are increasing, so again they put on halt. So, they are saying August or September. But that is also unsure”. This essay tries to bring out the problematic experiences and challenges faced by Indian medical students at Chinese universities. One consequence of the pandemic has shown the ways in which international students are treated, in this case, the long term request from the medical students to enter China to complete their degrees has been neglected. Finally, as stated by Johanne Waters in 2021, we need to think about ways to respond ethically to embodied experiences of international students – not to see them as disembodied cash cows.[15]


[2] Government of India. 2013. Annual Report 2013-2014, New Delhi: National Board of Examination.

[3] Government of India. 2014. Annual Report 2013-2014, New Delhi: National Board of Examination.

[4] Government of India. 2015. Annual Report 2013-2014, New Delhi: National Board of Examination.

[5] Government of India. 2016. Annual Report 2013-2014, New Delhi: National Board of Examination.

[6] Government of India. 2017. Annual Report 2013-2014, New Delhi: National Board of Examination.

[7] Government of India. 2018. Annual Report 2013-2014, New Delhi: National Board of Examination.






[13] The Foreign Medical Graduates Examination-screening test has been introduced through Screening Test Regulations 2002. As per the regulations, “An Indian citizen/Overseas citizen of India possessing a primary medical qualification awarded by any medical institution outside India who is desirous of getting provisional or permanent registration with Medical Council of India or any State Medical Council on or after 15.03.2002 shall have to qualify a screening test conducted by the prescribed authority for that purpose as per the provisions of section 13 of the Act.



“Living with Solitude”: Narrative of a female college student from rural China

Research Highlighted

Dr Yumei Li, Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute, China

Li, Y., Zou, Y. & White, C.(2021). “Living with solitude”: Narrative of a female college student from rural China. British Journal of Sociology of Education.  

While rural–urban differences are the most important predictor for the level of social inequality, higher education in China has long been considered a levelling playground for rural people to climb the social ladder. However, rural students’ backgrounds having a detrimental effect on their college experiences. In view of the constraints rural students are reported to have on college campus and the possible transformations they may achieve, I conducted this narrative study to explore in depth the experience of one female rural student. Adopting the thinking tools of habitus and reflexivity, the paper offers a lens into her own narrative in China’s social and educational milieu and to gain a better understanding of the detailed approaches through which she navigates the urban college. This study focuses on two major research questions: What constraints has a female rural college student experienced? How did she mediate those constraints?

I used my personal network to recruit participants in order to guarantee the solidarity and rapport between the potential participants and the researcher. Ying (pseudonym) was one of the participants who came from rural poor areas in China and were engineering seniors at a university located in a metropolitan area in northern China. She came from a village located in a nationally designated poor county in China. I conducted open-ended, in-depth interviews with her in Chinese and translated them into English when quoting in the paper.

To analyze the data, this paper used narrative as the method and form of representation. It first delineated Ying’s learning trajectory from her childhood to college and presented a full map of her social mobility with her family, schools and society placed in the background. The findings highlighted the restraints and gains Ying had experienced and how she constructed her own narrative of conflicts and agency in China’s higher education.

Key findings

The first finding was how the participant experienced pride and inferiority at the same time due to her appearance and her excellence in learning. She was very self-conscious of her appearance since “a young girl ran after [her] and called [her] a ‘fatty’” in her childhood years. On the other hand, Ying’s excellence at learning since childhood gave her a sense of “pride near arrogance”. The mixed feelings of pride and inferiority largely led to her earlier failure to blend into the campus culture. When the researcher asked her about how she felt at the time of the interview, she claimed that she “had grown out of that sentiment of caring much about outer appearance”. In addition, she added that she was going on a diet at the time and claimed that society always placed too much criteria on women.

The second finding was how the rural-urban educational disparity was affecting this rural college student. The narrow scope of knowledge posed a great challenge for her as a student from rural China and resulted in her lack of confidence. She was feeling inferior at the beginning but was trying to broaden her knowledge scopes in the university. She was also taking a critical stance towards the view about talent. In the college, she spent much time in the university library and read books she had no access to in her previous school years. Reading and learning in college broadened her mind and enabled her to critically examine her own strengths and those of others. She elaborated on her change of feelings:

I was filled with inferiority, complaint and dissatisfaction at the beginning concerning the urban-rural divide and my narrow scope of knowledge. However, currently I believe a better way for me is first to realize the gap and also learn from my friends who come from affluent backgrounds.


While she was not as versatile as students who received training in music, dance or arts in their childhood, Ying was starting to appreciate her own experiences with crops and farm work.

The third finding was how Ying was seeking for financial self-reliance in order to walk away from the stigma of rural poverty. She did not apply for scholarships the university set up for needy students. She believed these were for students who were “really in dire need”. She mentioned her high school experience:

When I was a high school junior, my teacher advised me to apply for scholarships for students from impoverished families. She might have noticed my unstylish dress. When my father learnt about it, he declined the offer, insisting we did not need it as long as he could support me financially. My father is a very hardworking man with high self-esteem. I am so proud of him.


The last major finding was how she thought about the meaning of college life to her. In her senior year, she was preparing for the graduate entrance exam to a very prestigious university in eastern China but did not meet the benchmark score. When the clock of college life for her was ticking its last days, Ying was preparing for her graduation, continuing her tutoring job while doing another internship at a marine engineering company. She had not found a job yet. She planned to take the graduate entrance exam for a second time in the coming year. Facing all these uncertainties, Ying revealed that she had a “sense of anxiety, powerlessness, and failure” but still tried to calm down and made the best of her final time in the college.


This paper employed the concepts of both habitus and reflexivity to interpret the research participant Ying’s educational experience. As a female student from rural China, Ying has felt the constraints placed upon her by the intersection of gender and rurality, experienced the sense of inferiority as a consequence of lacking financial and cultural capital desired by the urban campus and society. While higher education has confronted her with all those constraints, it also served as a venue for her to examine these factors and to search for her own self-worth and self-improvement through internal conversations. With the unfolding of her story, this paper illustrated her reflexivity when she was exposed to a world larger than herself and experienced the dislocation of habitus. Reflexivity is also constantly exhibited as a regular practice for her self-cultivation. While Ying’s story underscores the importance of agency showcased in reflexivity, her struggle and “feeling of powerlessness” reveals the fact that agency is socially embedded and relational. Meanwhile, habitus transformation also comes in tandem with resistance and acquiescence through reflexivity. It might also be reproduced without the agent being aware of it. The research suggests the important responsibility of our society and our education to challenge the unequal social structures and to level the playground by providing more resources to rural areas.

Author Bio

Yumei Li is currently an assistant professor in Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute in China. Her research centers on international education, language, culture, and social justice in education.  

Daughters’ dilemmas and the price of aspirations: Rural education migrants’ experiences in China

Research Highlighted:

Sier, W. (2020) (Open Access) Daughters’ dilemmas: the role of female university graduates in rural households in Hubei province, China. Gender, Place & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2020.1817873

Sier. W. (2020) The Price of Aspirations: Education Migrants’ Pursuit of Higher Education in Hubei Province, China. The European Journal of Development Research. DOI: 10.1057/s41287-020-00297-6

Dr Willy Sier, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands


These two articles are both based on one year of fieldwork in Hubei province (2015-2016) in the context of research for a PhD-project with a focus on the increased educational participation of students from rural backgrounds in China’s higher education system. These articles in particular focus on the effects of educational expansion on gendered rural household dynamics (Daughters’s Dilemmas) and the way youth aspirations are rooted in structural (family) conditions (The Price of Aspirations). These articles both relate China’s educational expansion to the domain of the family.

Daughters’ dilemmas: the role of female university graduates in rural households in Hubei province, China.

This article, published open access in Gender, Place, and Culture, explores how higher education changes the role of rural daughters in the household. It shows that the contributions of university-educated daughters to rural households go far beyond what has been described in the literature on women in rural Chinese families. Decisions pertaining to the careers and marriages of highly educated daughters are shaped by the strategies of rural households aiming to establish independent households of brothers and sons. Drawing upon ethnographic research in Hubei province, this article sheds light onto the processes of intense negotiation underlying household strategies and articulates the dilemmas faced by female members of rural households after graduating from university. How can they best support their families while constructing a life they desire and without treading on dominant gender ideologies?

The article focuses on two cases. There is Julia, a very ambitious young woman who is determined to become successful enough to support her widowed mother and struggling brother. Julia rapidly changes jobs, always searching for a better opportunity. Julia’s mother does not agree with her daughter’s strategies, arguing that she would be better off if she focused on finding a husband. Julia works hard to prove her mother wrong, trying to make enough money to help her mother buy her brother’s “marriage house” and show her that she does not need a husband to take care of her. Misty’s case is very different, as she dreams of marrying into a family that can free her from the pressure of sustaining herself in the urban labour market. Having worked in a string of different jobs, Misty is tired of trying to make it on her own and therefore welcomes the marriage prospects introduced to her by her mother.

Analysing these cases, this article demonstrates how female university graduates from rural backgrounds navigate a social landscape in which their positions are shaped by their gender, educational achievements and rural status, as well as societal structures including marriage and labour markets. In the scholarly literature, Chinese daughters in rural households have long been discussed in the context of China’s tradition of patrilocal living and patrilinear family systems, which prescribes that young women marry into their husbands’ families. Scholars have argued that Chinese daughters keep closer ties with their natal families than is often assumed. This article has taken this argument to the next level by showing that the young women who become the first member of their families to enrol in universities provide crucial support for precariously positioned rural households, particularly in terms of financing the marriage of sons and brothers and facilitating their parents’ retirement.

The ethnographic data in this article have shed light on the intense negotiations, particularly between female members of the household, that bring about the reconfiguration of gendered household dynamics. The differences between the two cases remind us that female university graduates from rural backgrounds are not a homogeneous group. Whereas Julia works very hard to maintain her independence, Misty cannot wait to marry into a family with a strong foundation in the city. These cases, of course, represent two points on a much wider spectrum.

The Price of Aspirations: Education Migrants’ Pursuit of Higher Education in Hubei Province, China.

This article, published in the European Journal for Development Research, brings an analysis of the structural condition of China’s social transformation and higher education system into dialogue with a discussion about the goals Chinese rural youth aspire to achieve. It analyses in detail how one families’ choices in relation to their children’s education are rooted in changing land policies and how students’ rural status inhibits their success within the Chinese higher education system. It also presents research data gathered among rural high school students that shows how students’ awareness of the challenges faced by their parents shapes their motivations.

This article focuses on the strategy of Morning Sunshine’s family. It explores why Morning Sunshine, who has two older sister and one younger brother, was the only member of her family to attend high school and university, demonstrating the importance of considering the family’s economic circumstances. It also provides an ethnography of how rural-urban inequalities are reproduced in China’s system of higher education.

This article encourages critical thinking about China’s educational expansion and the role of higher education in the lives of rural youths. It puts forward stories that highlight the paradox between education as a social structure that offers hope and strengthens youth agency and a system that perpetuates and deepens rural–urban inequalities. Theoretically, this article suggests how a framework for understanding youth’s aspirations developed by Zipin et al (2015) in the context of Australia can be adjusted for the purpose of theorising youth aspirations in societies marked by rapid social transformation.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled Youth, Aspirations and the Life Course: Development and the social production of aspirations in young lives. This special issue was edited by Nicola Ansell, Peggy Froerer, and Roy Huijsmans.

Author Bio

Willy Sier is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Her PhD-research focused on rural university students in Wuhan and the role of China’s higher education system in the country’s rural-urban transformation. Currently, she works on a project on whiteness in China. To see her in action, please see her short film “Empty Home”. For a preview of her work on Covid-19, please see here. Willy can be contacted at and she tweets @WillySier.