“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. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2021.1962244.  

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 w.m.sier@uva.nl and she tweets @WillySier.

“Decentring” international student mobility: The case of African student migrants in China

Research Highlighted:

Mulvey, B. (2020). “Decentring” international student mobility: The case of African student migrants in China. Population, Space and Place, n/a(n/a), e2393. doi:10.1002/psp.2393

Listen to an interview with Ben Mulvey; Read the summary of Ben’s interview

Read Ben’s other entries here and here.

Mr Ben Mulvey, Education University of Hong Kong

A higher proportion of African tertiary students are globally mobile than in any other region, with approximately six percent undertaking higher education outside their home country (Kritz, 2015). At the same time, China hosts the second greatest number of African international students of any country, and African students are the second largest regional grouping of international students in China – there were 81,562 students from all 54 African countries studying in China in 2018. The development of China as a major destination country for African students and the growth of outbound international student mobility amongst African students are both emergent phenomena. This partly explains the lack of empirical research on this student flow, and why the bulk of research on international student mobility focuses on major sending countries in East Asia and destinations in the West. The result of the focus on “Rest” to “West” student flows in international student mobility is that existing theory around students’ mobility decisions, largely developed with reference to these student flows, are insufficient to explain some forms of South-South mobility. In this presentation, based on empirical research consisting of 40 interviews conducted with African students in Chinese universities, I analyse the decision-making processes of this group of student migrants, and explore how this new knowledge challenges existing conceptual understandings of the nature of international student mobility (ISM).

An outcome of the article is that it draws attention to under-acknowledged unequal dynamics within the Global South. I seek to situate Africa-China educational migration within the broader context of the globalisation and the global regime of coloniality, incorporating structural power relations into an analysis of student migrants’ decision making. The research aims are as follows: firstly, to understand the logics underpinning African students’ decisions to study abroad in China, and secondly, to explore how these logics may be shaped by structural forces.

In terms of the theoretical approach, this paper is concerned with how ISM is embedded within a global regime of coloniality (e.g. Grosfoguel, 2010; Mignolo, 2013). Whilst there are a number of articles (e.g. Madge et al., 2009; Stein and de Andreotti, 2016; Ploner and Nada, 2019) which examine various facets of ISM through a postcolonial lens, the approach has been developed in a very limited way. I pay particular attention to how global structural inequalities shape student decision-making, answering calls by Kelly and Lusis (2006) and others for an approach to migration studies which incorporates global structures of inequality and power into the analysis, applying an innovative approach to educational migration in the Global South specifically, thus making a theoretical contribution to the ISM literature.

Grosfoguel (2010) describes how peripheral nation-states exist under a regime of global coloniality, as non-core zones continue to exist in conditions of coloniality despite the end of formal colonialism. This is fundamentally because the exploitative global division of labour which developed as a result of colonialism is reproduced in the “postcolonial” capitalist world-system (Wallerstein, 2004). It is obvious that this global regime shapes South-to-North migration patterns, and as such postcolonial approaches to analysing labour migration are well established. For example San Juan (2011) and Eder (2016) describe how low income countries such as the Philippines become reservoirs of cheap labour and Western countries its’ clients, reproducing colonial asymmetrical relationships. Less well developed in the literature however is the notion that firstly, migrations within the Global South, and secondly, migration for educational purposes, entrenched within the same global system, can be viewed through this lens.

I give four main examples of how mobility between Africa and China is mediated by global structural forces, arguing that doing so deepens understanding of the structural drivers of student migration, and of the mechanisms through which international student mobility is related to inequality. African students have a wide variety of rationales for seeking overseas study, usually influenced in some way by China’s structural position within the (post)colonial global political economy, and by China’s reproduction of core-periphery relations in its interactions with Africa. Empirically the article makes a significant contribution to the literature by outlining four cases of student mobility decision-making which differ from those outlined in existing literature. Some are from outside the middle-class, and are able to leverage China’s soft power gambit to go beyond their “field of the possibles”. Others are pawns in China’s political manoeuvring, and are essentially forced into studying overseas by their own government. Most, unsurprisingly, appear to be middle-class. I note however that these students are not necessarily members of the affluent “global” middle class (e.g. Koo, 2016), and are excluded from the “best” educational migration opportunities in the West by the unequal distribution of capital afforded by the global (post)colonial political economy. A minority of students are social elites who are able to leverage social networks in order to take advantage of China’s courting of the political class across Africa. This example again demonstrates how China’s semi-peripheral position is reproduced in its relation with African nations (as peripheries), and in turn how this creates discrepant logics of migration. All of these examples demonstrate how China’s ambiguous political and economic relationship Africa, borne out of its position within the postcolonial world system, serve to create logics of migration that cannot be easily explained using existing frameworks which tend to be quite simplistic in their assumptions about who moves and to what ends.

Author bio

Ben Mulvey is a PhD candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong. Ben’s research focuses on educational migration between Africa and China, and what this student flow reveals about China’s attempts to (re)shape the global “field” of higher education. He can be contacted via the following email address: bmulvey@s.eduhk.hk

Time, class and privilege in career imagination: Exploring study-to-work transition of Chinese international students in UK universities through a Bourdieusian lens

Research Highlighted

Xu, C. L. (2020). (Open Access) Time, class and privilege in career imagination: Exploring study-to-work transition of Chinese international students in UK universities through a Bourdieusian lens. Time & Society, 0(0), 1-25. doi:10.1177/0961463×20951333

  • Watch a video on this paper.
  • Refer to a presentation given by Dr Cora Xu at the ‘International Mobilities and Post-Pandemic Futures in the Asia-Pacific’ conference organised by the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

    Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University


    Existing research and policy on international students’ study-to-work transition fall short of a temporal theoretical perspective that is sensitive to the fluid and class-stratified nature of their career imagination. Career imagination refers to how international students conceive of, enact and reconfigure their careers as they encounter novel circumstances along their life courses. Drawing on in-depth interview data with 21 Chinese international students and graduates at UK higher education institutions, this article adopts a primarily Bourdieusian framework that centres around how time, class and privilege intersect to shape these students’ career imagination. In this framework, time is conceptualised both as a form of coveted cultural capital and as an underlining mechanism that constitutes these students’ habitus. This theoretical orientation facilitates exposition of the complex rationale behind the two observed temporal career strategies, ‘deferred gratification’ and ‘temporal destructuring’ and accentuates nuanced inequalities pertaining to fine-grained familial class backgrounds and places of origin of these students. This article furnishes empirical cases that challenge extant policy and empirical literature’s tendency to consider international students and their career imagination as homogeneous, individualised and present-focused. Instead, the empirical findings reveal how these Chinese international students’ career imagination is class-differentiated, embedded within and influenced by broader temporal structures and constantly evolving. This article thus advances understanding about how temporally sensitive and better differentiated career supports should be and could be tailored for international students at policy and practice levels.


    Current policy discourse in destination countries such as the UK, Canada, Denmark and Singapore has often statisticised international students as lifeless figures that constitute graduate employment indicators. These instrumental approaches betray policymakers’ lack of intention to harbour international students’ subjective career wishes, plans and imaginations. Instead, there are prevalent focuses on the present, the Now of the international students’ employability and much oblivion of the ‘unpredictable’ future and impact of ‘the passage of time’ on these students’ post-study career enactment (Collins & Shubin, 2017, p. 19). Such policies also tend to consider career deliberation of international students as a linear process that could be compartmentalised in a specific period, e.g. pre-employment stages.

    Within such policy accounts, international students are often individualised and homogenised. They are individualised because they are frequently assumed to be ‘individual free agents, able to respond to [migration policies] in line with their individual career or lifestyle preferences’ (Geddie, 2013, p. 204); this assumption ignores the ‘embedded’ nature of international students’ career decision-making, as shaped by their complex transnational relationship and citizenship strategies (ibid.). They are homogenised because they are typically portrayed to fit this persona:

    … are financially secure; have the support (emotional and material) of family and friends (i.e. ‘social capital’); have been raised in an environment that places great value on formal education and credentials; have highly educated parents; and have experienced overseas travel as a child (Waters, 2012, p. 128).

    This stereotype is counterproductive as it may falsely lead policymakers and institutions to believe that a one-size-fits-all approach is sufficient for supporting all international students’ study-to-work transition. In fact, research has revealed that international students can be highly diversified and socio-economically stratified.

    Nevertheless, there has been little empirical understanding about how time features in and shapes the career imagination of international students. Take the case of Chinese international students with British higher education degrees for example: much existing research on these students has been focused on their perceptions about employability and approaches to getting hired immediately after graduation.

    To redress the above gaps, this article investigates the career imagination of 21 Chinese international students and graduates with British higher education degrees who are from middle- and upper middle-class backgrounds. It has two aims: firstly, to provide a theoretical vocabulary for understanding how time features in and shapes these Chinese international students’ career imagination; secondly, to pinpoint how class, privilege and time intersect to underpin these participants’ temporal career strategies. By achieving these aims, this article can serve as an anchoring point for informing better differentiated career supports for international students at policy and practice levels.

    Theoretical framework

    This article is informed primarily by Bourdieu’s (1986, 2002) conceptual tools of capital, field, and habitus as well as his writings on the social structuring of temporal experience (Bourdieu 2000). Specifically, I first conceptualise time as a form of coveted cultural capital (following Cheng 2014), the possession and free deployment of which can be highly stratified along class lines and shapes the adoption of career strategies such as ‘waiting’ (to be elaborated) among these Chinese international students. Second, I draw on Atkinson (2019), Snyder (2016) and Adam (1990, 2006) to expound how time is integral to the field and sedimented within these Chinese international students’ habitus, thus inclining them towards certain career preferences, attitudes and approaches over others, reinforcing and reproducing forms of class privilege. While Bourdieu’s theoretical framework facilitates an incisive set of tools for unpicking the structural factors that impact on these participants’ temporal understanding of career imagination, I have turned to concepts such as ‘deferred gratification’ (Adam, 1990) and ‘temporal destructuring’ (Leccardi and Rampazi, 1993) from the cannon of sociology of time as specific conceptual vocabulary that can depict observed career strategies among participants.

    Temporally sensitive research approach and implications

    This study employed both pre-employment anticipation and on-the-job reflection and retrospection from participants to highlight that their career imagination is an ongoing and evolving project. The data reveal that some participants have substantially recalibrated their career ambition, e.g. Chang and Jing both realised that their initial career ideal of working in the UK did not match their temporal expectation of enjoying high quality personal time. Instead they found that working in Switzerland and Australia respectively fit their overall career temporal rhythms better. Qie’s initial decision of rejecting the overwork-culture in China was reinforced after three years of work in the UK where he could enjoy better work-life balance. However, as his career progressed, his began to see new resources and opportunities (e.g. the high-end talent schemes) in China that could serve his temporal ideal while advancing his career. Li’s deferred gratification strategy eventually allowed him to subvert the temporal structures imposed on him back in China and embraced the alternative work and lifestyle in Britain. He thus appeared to experience fewer adjustments in pursuing his career ambitions. Inclusion of on-the-job reflection, retrospection and prospection of international students is thus a useful way to unpack the embedded temporal dimension of career imagination, which has been missing in career support policy and practices, as well as empirical research (Huang & Turner, 2018; AGCAS, 2016).

    These lively career imagination trajectories also demonstrate that international students are much more than lifeless graduate employment figures (HESA, 2018). Their career imagination is fluid and contingent upon their specific personal and familial circumstances, and sensitive to alternative temporal structures that they are exposed to. It is, therefore, pivotal to devise career support services that are conducive to supporting these students to understand their longer-term career needs and priorities. Importantly, it is advisable to cultivate their exposure to alternative temporal structures and pinpoint possible routes to achieving their career ambitions. The use of career case studies, such as the ones discussed in this article, could serve as useful reference points for international students to ascertain their own circumstances and devise corresponding temporally sensitive career strategies.

    Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University


    This article makes three contributions to the literature. Firstly, its Bourdieusian temporally sensitive theoretical framework provides necessary conceptual vocabulary to understand how international students’ career imagination is shaped by their class, privilege and access to time. This theoretical orientation facilitates exposition of the complex rationale behind the two observed career strategies, ‘deferred gratification’ and ‘temporal destructuring’ and accentuates nuanced inequalities pertaining to fine-grained familial class backgrounds and places of origin. Secondly, this article provides empirical cases that illustrate the evolving nature of international students’ career imagination. Such cases challenge extant policy and empirical literature’s tendency to consider international students and their career imagination as homogeneous, individualised and present-focused. Thirdly, consequently, this article advances understanding about how temporally sensitive and better differentiated career supports should be and could be tailored for international students at policy and practice levels.

    Author Bio

    Dr Cora Lingling Xu (PhD Cambridge, FHEA) is Assistant Professor at Durham University, UK. Her research interests include educational mobilities, identities and social theories. She has researched cross-border student and academic migration, ethnic minority and rurality topics within contemporary Chinese societies. She is an editorial board member of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Cambridge Journal of Education and International Studies in Sociology of Education. She is founder and director of Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. Her publications have appeared in The Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology of Education, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Time and Society, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, Policy Reviews in Higher Education, Review of Education, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs and European Educational Research Journal. You can access her publications here. She can be contacted via Email: lingling.xu@durham.ac.uk; ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3895-3934; Twitter: CoraLinglingXu

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  • Hysteresis Effects and Emotional Suffering: Chinese Rural Students’ First Encounters With the Urban University

    Research Highlighted:

    Chen, J. (2020). Hysteresis Effects and Emotional Suffering: Chinese Rural Students’ First Encounters With the Urban UniversitySociological Research Online. doi.org/10.1177/1360780420949884

    Ms Jiexiu Chen, Institute of Education, University College London


    In the Chinese context of a stratified higher education system and significant urban-rural inequality, rural students are generally facing with constrained possibilities for social mobility through higher education. Despite these structural constraints, some exceptional rural students, like all the participants in this research, manage to get themselves enrolled in the urban university. Drawing on participants’ subjective narratives about their first encounters in the urban university, I argue that the rural students in this research were confronted with two levels of habitus-field disjunctures, respectively the rural-urban disjuncture and academic disjuncture. Then through examining participants’ narratives about their hysteresis effects and emotional suffering, I suggest the sense of feeling lost and inferior reveals how various types of domination in the external structure of the field of the urban university play a part in affecting rural students’ inner emotional worlds.


    The role higher education plays in processes of social mobility is a central concern for researchers and policy makers around the world. This is especially true in China, where the country’s social, economic, and political environment has gone through significant changes since the Reform and Opening-Up policy in 1978. Though higher education expansion has been widely considered a useful tool for moderating social stratification (Haveman and Smeeding, 2006), some researchers have shown that the expansion of higher education has actually intensified and reinforced educational inequality in some developing countries (Buchmann and Hannum, 2001). In the UK context, higher education expansion have been found to widen rather than bridge participation gaps (Boliver, 2011). In China, scholars have found that the rapid massification of higher education systems has failed to reduce educational inequity (Luo et al., 2018). According to a study, rural students accounted for 11% of the total student body at an elite university located in Beijing in 2009, while the population registered as rural residents accounted for 52% at that time (Lu et al., 2016). Thus, for rural students who are the first in their family, or even the first in their village, to enrol in an urban university, their journeys to the university include a series of massive changes and successive challenges.

    In terms of the socio-economic constraints caused by the hukou system, there are several associated factors shaping the disadvantaged situation many rural students find themselves in when considering their educational trajectories. First, rural students’ parents tend to have much lower educational levels compared with their urban peers. According to Wu’s (2013) research based on an analysis of the Chinese General Social Survey in 2008, since the restoration of the CEE in 1978, the impact of a father’s education level has increasingly affected the college attainment of his children. Second, limited educational resources are allocated to rural areas. Schools providing basic education in urban cities are generally much better equipped with teachers and facilities than the rural schools (Liu, 2008). Third, rural students’ hukou status and financial difficulties restrict their opportunities to attend urban high schools, where the education is considered to be of a higher quality (Tsang, 2002). Therefore, in key national universities, the number of rural students is shrinking, while more rural students are enrolled in provincial or local institutions with a lower academic reputation and quality of provision.

    Theoretical framework and methodology

    This research mainly adopts Bourdieu’s conceptual tools in the analysis. Habitus, as Bourdieu argued, is ‘a product of social conditionings’ (Bourdieu, 1990 p. 116). As a compilation of collective and individual trajectories, when habitus encounters an unfamiliar field, individuals are supposed to experience ambivalences when having to deal with moments of misdisalignment (Reay, 2004). After migrating from rural villages to the urban city, the participants in this research all entered a novel field, different from their previous environments. Thus, along with the change and the mismatch between their past habitus and current field, varying degrees of habitus-field disjuncture emerged, and further led to hysteresis effects and suffering in the rural students’ university lives. As Hardy suggested, Bourdieu’s conceptual tools can be usefully applied to understand ‘change’, which in this research refers to rural students’ transition from rural schooling to urban higher education (Hardy, 2014).

    In the China context, Xu (2017) examined Chinese mainland students’ with rich economic and cultural capitals encountered with differential capital valuations in an elite Hong Kong university, and uncovered how habitus-field disjuncture revealed itself in a transborder context. Xie and Reay’s (2019) longitudinal research on academically successful rural students at four Chinese elite universities revealed ‘habitus transformation’ and ‘habitus hysteresis’ derived from the ‘compartmentalized fit’ between the students’ previous habitus and the exclusive field of top universities (p.2).

    Drawing upon Bourdieu’s conceptual tools, I delve into the following two major themes in this paper. First, I focus specifically on rural students’ subjective perceptions of their mobility trajectories to investigate what kinds of habitus-field disjuncture (if any) they had encountered when entering an urban university. Second, through the theoretical lens of hysteresis effects and emotional suffering, I examine participants’ narratives about their sense of feeling lost and inferior, and explore how various types of domination in the external structure of the field of the urban university play a part in affecting rural students’ inner emotional worlds.

    This research reports part of the findings of my Ph.D. project on rural students’ social mobility trajectories in China. In 2018, I conducted life history interviews in several cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Ji’nan in China. I recruited 40 university students who graduated in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, and who were now working in cities, to participate in this research. All of the participants were born and brought up in rural areas (including villages, parishes, and towns), and they had graduated from public universities and been awarded at least bachelor’s degrees.

    Findings and discussions

    Drawing upon Bourdieu’s conceptual tools of habitus and field, this research focused on rural students’ subjective social mobility experiences from rural villages to urban universities, and explored how habitus-field disjuncture, hysteresis effects, and symbolic violence are lived and manifested in the China context. Instead of regarding mobility across urban and rural fields as a straightforward transition of social group, this research took a step further to dig into the complexity and hierarchy embedded in rural students’ mobility process. In the process of entering a novel field, rural students experience habitus-field disjuncture at two levels: urban-rural disjuncture, which refers to the metropolitan and cultural (geographical) distance between rural students’ origin and destination, and academic disjuncture, which is marked by the changes in the rules of the game between rural schooling and urban higher education. The two levels of habitus-field disjuncture led many participants to various experiences of hysteresis effects and emotional suffering, such as a widely-mentioned sense of inferiority when living at an urban university.

    The rural students’ emotional suffering discussed in this research resonates with research on working-class students conducted in the Western context, in which the hidden injuries and struggles related to social mobility have been broadly reported. As discussed above, rural students’ first encounters with a metropolitan context shares certain similarities with immigrants’ culture shock when entering a foreign country. The lack of metropolitan knowledge and culturally and geographically distant mobility creates a strong sense of alienation and inability. Moreover, I found the encounters of hysteresis effects and emotional suffering were widely reported by participants across all the cohort groups, which demonstrates how dominant and lasting the urban-rural inequality has been during the past decades.

    This research contributes to the application of Bourdieu’s conceptual tools in a non-Western context. The existing literature on Chinese rural students generally has adopted the notion of working-class habitus to understand rural students’ experiences, and has diluted the uniqueness of the Chinese rural context where those students originally generated their habitus. Through unpacking the multilevel of habitus-field disjunctures, this paper strives to present the complexity and hierarchies embedded in the urban-rural inequality in China and the distinctive features of China’s social and cultural milieu. Thus, I suggest Bourdieu’s concepts should be carefully approached with recognition of the significant differences between urban-rural disparities in China and class inequality in the Western context and mindful reflections should be conducted to challenge the long-existing Western and/or urban analytical perspectives in the study of Chinese rural students.

    Author Biography

    Jiexiu Chen is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Education, University College London, UK. Her research interests include social mobility, cross-cultural adaptation, and education policy. She has an emerging journal article and book publication on Chinese rural students’ social mobility through higher education and international staff’s experiences in Chinese universities. She can be contacted via the following email address: jiexiu.chen.16@ucl.ac.uk.