Revisiting Symbolic Power and Elite Language Education in China: A Critical Narrative Ethnography of the English Education Major at a Top Language University in Shanghai

Liu, Y., Nam, B. H., Yang, Y. (2023). Revisiting symbolic power and elite language education in China: A critical narrative ethnography of the English education major at a top language university in Shanghai. Educational Review, 1-26.

English as a de facto global lingua franca is a commonly accepted concept in a contemporary global society. Accordingly, the promise of English language teaching (ELT) as an academic profession and the use of English as a medium of instruction (EMI) as a bilingual/multilingual practice have become barometers of economic globalization and internationalization of higher education (IHE). Indeed, many non-Anglophone and monolingual nations have adopted a neoliberal approach to language panning and educational development, using ELT and EMI to participate in cosmopolitan academic and market competition. Opportunities for cooperation within diverse professional industries often make ELT a worthwhile venture in the educational industry. However, the hegemonic position of the English language potentially divides classes based on socioeconomic status. Thus, the Anglophone ideology and its linguistic capitalism have long been ingrained into many non-English-speaking countries’ educational systems and social structures. Meanwhile, China has demonstrated an even more complex example of language planning and educational development. Despite the promise of ELT and EMI for many college students enrolled at prestigious universities, concerns have been growing about the decline in the number of English majors and structural problems in elite language education reflected in the rural-urban divide and resulting educational gaps. In this context, the English education major at a top language-intensive university could serve as a key site for this investigation. In China, English education means teacher education in English that aims to foster public school teachers. Hence, this study explored the life course stages of Chinese students who were originally from rural areas or socioeconomically underrepresented regions/districts and majoring in English education at a top language-intensive university located in Shanghai, along with the concerns about the decline of English-related majors.

This study drew insights from Pierre Bourdieu’s thinking tools, such as social and cultural capital, especially using his work, “Language and Symbolic Power,” to look at the life course stages of 18 students. By adopting a critical narrative ethnographic approach, two Chinese authors and one American author examined how Chinese students majoring in English education at a top-tier, language-intensive institution in Shanghai cultivated linguistic habitus and capital in the stratified realm of elite language education; factors influencing their academic major choice; and ways to broaden horizons and worldviews about prospective careers, despite the decline of English-related majors in the current Chinese higher education system. Thus, the authors conducted direct and participant observations, developed field notes, and conducted in-depth interviews with study participants. The findings showed that mothers’ involvement significantly influenced students’ motivation to learn English, college admission, and academic major choice. However, students also developed personal perceptions about career prospects while in college. Accordingly, this study suggested these four primary themes: (a) “Mothers’ Involvement”: Family Habitus and the Development of Linguistic Capita; (b) “On the Glorious Journey to Shanghai”: Motivation, Admission, Major, and Career Prospects; (c) Securing the Accumulated Linguistic Capital and Rebranding It to Cosmopolitan Capital; (d) From English Teacher to Be…”: Career Transitioning to the Global Academia. 

This study promoted scholarly discussions. Initially, it was significant to view Chinese mothers as gatekeepers and participants’ cultivation of linguistic habitus and capital in elite education from the domestic perspective. Participants’ family habitus inevitably differed based on socioeconomic status. However, the most common and generalizable factor was their mothers’ involvement in their education as gatekeepers. Mothers were driven to help their children achieve their academic aspirations, regardless of their financial circumstances. As evidenced throughout the participants’ narratives, their mothers provided financial support even if their families faced financial challenges. Thus, linguistic habitus and capital can be fostered through collective and committed efforts by both parents and children. Furthermore, it was instrumental in interpreting how participants managed their accumulated linguistic capital in the stratified realm of global education. They believed that obtaining admission to higher education institutions in the most economically advanced and cosmopolitan city would lead to numerous career opportunities. Many were initially interested in pursuing careers as English teachers at public schools. However, through socialization with diverse peers and foreign teachers and new sociocultural learning experiences, they broadened their horizons about future career prospects. Further, they engaged in extracurricular activities to accumulate linguistic capital and rebrand it as cosmopolitan capital, such as cross-cultural and linguistic competencies and professional interdisciplinary knowledge. From Bourdieusian social and cultural reproductive perspectives, while students from relatively wealthy families in urban areas have more access to social-emotional support from their parents, a greater opportunity to develop self-efficacy and cultivate positive social and cultural personae, students from rural areas have fewer opportunities to gain such benefits in the competitive academic ecological system. Due to inadequate fundamental forms of social and cultural capital, not every student can obtain entry into prestigious universities. Given the nature of competitive elite education, only some students gain support from social agents to foster a positive schooling experience, socialization process, and personal development. 

Moreover, this study presented the ethnographers’ reflexive turns on symbolic power and elite language education in China. From the American author’s perspective as an outsider, contemporary China seems more globalized and multicultural than ever. The country has hosted numerous international mega-events, promoted important slogans of actions, such as the social importance of education, informatization of education, digitalization of education, and emphasized cultural heritage conservation through its historical sites and world-class museums. However, inner cultural conflicts and educational inequality issues frequently hinder the effectiveness of the current movement of socialist education with Chinese characteristics, which should demonstrate prosperity, justice, equality, candor, and trustworthiness. From the Chinese authors’ standpoints as insiders, the mainstream Chinese academy has seen that many younger generations have developed decolonial awareness from Anglophone linguistic ideology, valuing their native language over English in diverse public places, social spaces, and cultural events. However, ELT and EMI have still been dominant in Chinese higher education curricula and worldwide, despite many nations’ aspirations for promoting decolonial awareness.

Additionally, the English education major at a top-tier language-intensive university in Shanghai has developed some optimistic perceptions and attitudes toward their career transition out of post-secondary education. Indeed, China is a prominent socialist regime. Thus, the nation emphasizes social equality of education by fostering qualified teachers for the public education system and language talents who can serve their nations’ cultural diplomacy and international relations. Thus, investigating the life course stages and how a cohort of socioeconomically non-elite students develop optimistic social imaginaries and educational values, becoming academically “elite” students is meaningful. This has positive implications for promoting critical pedagogic theory and practice in teacher education. Finally, this study called upon scholars to rethink the meaning of symbolic power and elite language education in a broader global context. From Western and Anglophone standpoints, scholars have often positioned international students from China and across the world in institutions of Anglophone higher education as potential cosmopolitan elites armed with English proficiency, foreign academic degrees, and global social network circles. However, numerous Chinese higher education institutions have also made great efforts to provide students with opportunities to develop cosmopolitan capital by promoting international student mobility and academic migration. Therefore, domestic students in China may have greater opportunities to become equalized to those international students in Anglophone nations and broaden their cosmopolitan worldviews and horizons regarding their academic goals and career prospects regardless of their socioeconomic status and sociocultural circumstance.

Authors’ bio:

Dr. Yuanyuan LIU, Shanghai International Studies University

Dr. Yuanyuan LIU is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Shanghai International Studies University. Her research focuses on English language education policies in China, teachers’ and students’ identity construction in relation to their lived experiences of transnational mobility, multilingualism, and online learning. Her publication appears in international peer-reviewed journals, such as Current Issues in Language PlanningJournal of Language, Identity and EducationHumanities & Social Sciences CommunicationsEducational Review, and so on. She can be contacted via email:

Dr. Benjamin H. Nam, Shanghai International Studies University

Dr. Benjamin H. Nam is an associate professor in the School of Education and a senior researcher in the Center for Comparative Study of Global Education at Shanghai International Studies University. His current research interests and focus center on comparative and international education, sociolinguistics, STEAM education, and vocational education. He is an editorial board member of the International Journal of Intercultural Relations and the Journal of Intercultural Communication and Interactions Research. He is also a member of the International Academy for Intercultural Research (IAIR), Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), and Society of Transnational Academic Researchers (STAR). He can be contacted via email:

Miss Yicheng YANG, the University of Pennsylvania

Miss Yicheng YANG is currently a graduate student studying Intercultural Communication in the M.S. in Education program at the Graduate School of Education, the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include symbolic competence development in foreign language education, intercultural competence and capital building, and immigrant identity development. Her publications appear in international peer-reviewed journals, such as International Journal ofIntercultural Relations and Educational Review. She can be contacted via email:

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun) Bian