“What the heck, man, you trying to be a xueba?” The question elicited snickers from the other boys standing by the classroom door. Their target, a classmate not known for his good grades, raised his head and shot them a nasty look before returning to his studies.
But his friends wouldn’t leave him alone. “Come on!” they shouted. “Stop faking it!” The boy finally gave up. Still frowning, he packed up his books, picked up his backpack, and followed them out the classroom.
The male student wasn’t being made fun of for being a nerd. In China’s test-oriented education system, the high-scoring studyholics known as xueba are generally respected by their peers. The problem was that his hard work wasn’t producing good grades. At this competitive high school in Beijing, slacking off is one thing, but if he kept it up, he was in danger of falling into the school’s lowest social tier: the one reserved for students who tested poorly no matter how hard they studied.
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In the seven years I spent shadowing students from five of Beijing’s top high schools, which I detail in my forthcoming book, “Study Gods: How the New Chinese Elite Prepare for Global Competition,” I found that students at all five schools enforced an identical grades-based status system, one in which terms like xueba denote not only students’ status at school, but also the treatment they can expect from their classmates.
The Chinese educational system is centered around tests. A side effect of this is that students focus on test scores and have organized social hierarchies around them. Students with high test scores enjoy higher status in school than those who do not. But at top high schools, where everyone is high performing by national standards, this system is impractical. Instead, students at these schools adopt a secondary criterion: the ability to make testing high look easy.
This resulted in a four-tier status system. Those at the absolute top aren’t the xueba, but the xueshen, or “study gods,” who earn their high scores effortlessly. The studyholic xueba, who must work harder for their grades, occupy the second tier, though considering the rarity of xueshen, xueba are still safely within the high-status category.
At the other end of the spectrum are the underachievers, or xuezha, who are known for their low grades and low levels of effort. Below them are the true “losers” known as xueruo, who have low test scores despite making visible efforts to do better. Many students willingly self-identify as underachievers, but almost none would admit to being a loser — and students will avoid outing peers as one. Despite their infrequent identification, losers exist on every campus. After all, as one student nonchalantly told me, “There is always someone at the bottom.”
These labels have real consequences for students’ daily lives. Xueshen are admired by their peers. When I shadowed Shiying, a xueshen who tested into Tsinghua University, her classmates frequently told me they “wanted to be like her,” and went out of their way to make sure I understood how brilliant she was. Claire, another xueshen who later went to Yale, had a posse who memorized her SAT scores, college application list, and application outcomes. The story of her legendary test scores and admission results was retold at her school even after she graduated. (To protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.)
Xueba, although not revered, are still respected by their classmates. Ziyi, a xueba who, like Shiying, tested into Tsinghua, habitually pulled all-nighters before important tests. After she handed in her test paper, she would take a nap in the classroom. Out of respect, other students hushed each other and asked those talking nearby to go outside so as not to disturb her.
While considering the needs of tired classmates might seem like ordinary behavior, lower status students generally do not enjoy the same level of peer support. Contrast Ziyi’s treatment with the above-mentioned boy who was peer pressured into abandoning his studies, for example. Sarah, another student with very low test scores, was sworn at by her classmates for giving a wrong answer on a test. And when Ruolun became a member of the student council, his classmates laughed instead of giving him the customary applause.
Kangwei, who students considered a xueruo, was shunned; most students refused to even reply to his greetings.
The impact of this status system influences students’ perceptions of themselves and others long after their high school graduation, as they attend college in China, the United States, or Europe, and even as they begin their professional lives. In follow-up interviews with the students I shadowed, I found them working in places such as Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or Singapore’s Marina Bay. They no longer referred to themselves or others as xueba or xuezha, but they continued to uphold the same status system — only with job performance substituted for test scores. Tony, a high performing worker in New York City enjoyed a status at work equivalent to that of a xueshen. As a result, he was able to gather dozens of colleagues for his birthday despite them all having just wrapped up an exhausting two-week business trip. His party became a demonstration of his high status among his colleagues.
Others felt anxiety as they struggled to adapt to their jobs. In her xueba days, Selena felt free to do as she pleased on campus. At work, however, she felt as though she was underperforming. To compensate, she stayed on call day and night.
While the adult world and adolescent society are hardly identical, high school coping and sorting mechanisms follow students throughout their lives. In school, the students I shadowed learned to differentiate their peer interactions based on test scores. Almost a decade later, they differentiate peer relationships based on job performance.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Luo Xiran for Sixth Tone)