Growing up in a north Chinese village, I was constantly reminded of the weight on my shoulders. “No one in our family has ever been truly successful,” my relatives liked to say. “You must devote yourself to your studies so that you can leave behind this village and bring us honour.”
Because my village elementary school only went up to the second year, I had to transfer to a school in the neighbouring village. My classmates and I would walk to school along a dirt road that would turn to mud at the first sight of rain and wade across the river between the two villages. Later, when I started middle school in the nearest township, I found shabby buildings, checked-out administrators, and bullying.
My parents simply told me to buckle down. What else could I do? We had to rely on ourselves. From there, I tested into the county high school, then Beijing Normal University, where I stayed for a Ph.D. course before finally securing a job at a university in the eastern province of Zhejiang earlier this year.
Now that I’ve reached the finish line, I’ve found myself reflecting on my trajectory as the rare rural Chinese success story. Reading books like Annette Lareau’s study of class and American family life, “Unequal Childhoods,” and Robert D. Putnam’s study of falling upward mobility, “Our Kids,” I increasingly see my experiences not as unique, but as the product of structural inequalities faced by so many disadvantaged children in China’s education system.
In recent years, a number of studies have all pointed toward the same conclusion: “Humble homes no longer produce noble children,” an update of a Chinese proverb about the difficulties kids from poor backgrounds face climbing the social ladder. In a 2016 study, for example, sociologist Wu Xiaogang found that rural students were outnumbered more than four to one by their urban peers at China’s elite universities. Those who do make it complain of being marginalized and treated like “losers.”
Given the longer odds rural students face, many outside observers have come to believe that people in the countryside no longer see the value in education. But my own experiences and subsequent research into rural families suggest the contrary: Parents and rural society as a whole continue to place a tremendous emphasis on education as a tool of social mobility, no matter how long the odds.
When I was young, my family made an annual trip to my grandparents’ graves. My father used to stand before their tombstones and swear to them that I’d study hard and bring them glory.
We were far from wealthy. My parents never rested on weekends; they only took days off when it rained. They were reluctant to buy new clothes and rarely cooked hot meals, preferring to eat pickled vegetables and steamed buns to save money, and they only fired up the wok when I came home from school on weekends. But they always handed over the money I needed for my schooling without a word.
The value that rural parents such as my own attribute to their children’s education is part of a greater, deeply rooted cultural phenomenon in rural society. In the rural context, having a child who excels at their studies can grant parents “face” and improve their social standing. For as long as I can remember, adults in the village where I grew up cared deeply about their kids’ studies, and kids’ academic achievements were an important topic of discussion at any adult gathering. Whose kids were excelling and whose were falling behind was common knowledge in the village. At Spring Festival celebrations or other family occasions, adults reproach any children with poor grades.
Although rural children have a much harder time getting ahead than kids in the city, this unique culture meant that, from a young age, we all viewed studying hard as the greatest expression of filial piety, which pushed us to do as well as we could. Carrying my family’s expectations on my shoulders, I attempted to get the best possible results in every exam; my academic abilities became a kind of social capital that could earn us the approval and respect of our neighbors.
In interviews with families of rural children born after 2000, I found that many parents attribute a similar importance to their children’s studies. What’s more, as a result of their experiences of migrant work in the city, these parents have a more acute sense of the gaping divide between rural and urban living conditions than previous generations. As a result, compared to my own parents, they feel a greater sense of urgency when it comes to investing in their children’s education.
These parents use their own experiences as cautionary tales, telling their kids stories of migrant life to keep them engaged in their studies. “Our parents’ lives revolve around earning money,” a 19-year-old boy from the central province of Henan, surnamed Zhang, told me. “But it’s not just for the sake of it — that money goes toward our education.”
Zhang’s parents first cultivated farmland in their hometown before switching to migrant work in the county seat. For a while, his mother slaughtered fish at a market. In winter, after handling fish in the cold all day, she had scratches and cuts all over her hands, which she’d simply cover with band-aids before returning to work. Though many people in the city looked down on Zhang’s parents as bumpkins, all the couple wanted was for their kids to receive an education that would allow them to lead dignified lives.
Although it’s increasingly difficult for “humble homes to produce noble children,” my research suggests rural families still see investing in education as a crucial strategy for social mobility and regaining a sense of control over their destinies. It is precisely this attitude that has given rise to a whole series of new social phenomena relating to education, such as peidu mothers, the extracurricular tutoring craze, and even bribery to secure spots at better schools. Rural parents are willing to do what it takes to ensure a better education for their children — both boys and girls — in the hope that they won’t endure the same hardships that they themselves went through.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: View Stock/Sino View/VCG)