The Grown-Up Lives of China’s ‘Bad Kids’
It is five in the afternoon by the time Yifei wakes up and begins getting ready for work. She picks her outfit for the night carefully, eventually landing on a black T-shirt tucked into a black miniskirt and a pair of black ankle boots. She combs out her long, straight, newly blonde hair and applies her makeup. A cat tattoo peeks out from her right boot; two roses are visible across her left thigh.
Just a month earlier, Yifei graduated from a middle school in the southern megacity of Guangzhou. Now, she and her best friend Anyi were about to start their fourth shift as peinü, or “companion girls,” at a nightclub in the city’s bar district. (To protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.)
At half past nine, a manager at the bar gathers the seven girls working that night and goes over the rules: They’ll earn a base rate of 200 yuan ($29) per six-hour shift, plus an extra 40 yuan for each extra set of drinks their customers order; they’re only to go to their assigned tables; they should walk away and report it immediately if a customer touches them; and, most importantly, if they leave with a customer, they’ll never be allowed to work at that bar again.
Yifei hopes that tonight she’ll be assigned to a table with real customers. Peinü are only allowed to sit if they’re drinking with customers. A few days prior, the club was so dead that her boss ordered her to stand at a high table and play dice with Anyi for six hours straight, pretending to be customers to improve the atmosphere. It made their feet sore.
This time, she gets her wish. Soon after her shift begins, she’s assigned to a table with a Korean man. He doesn’t speak any Chinese, but playing drinking games doesn’t require much in the way of verbal communication, and they get by with a Chinese-Korean translation service on their phones.
Six hours later, Yifei and Anyi walk away with the promise of 240 yuan apiece. Though they don’t know when the bar will pay them, Anyi is eager to come back. “Who doesn’t like making money?” she asks.
Yifei is not so sure: “Instead of serving others, I want to be the customer.”
Yifei and Anyi are just two of the millions of young people known in China as “floating children” — kids of the country’s floating population of migrant workers. Like their peers, they grew up between city and country, bouncing from urban villages to the rural or small-town communities their parents once called home. Largely excluded from the urban public education system due to their lack of a local hukou household registration, they must choose between struggling rural schools in their hometowns or low-cost and low-quality private schools in the city. At the end of their nine-year term of compulsory schooling, most are shunted into China’s nascent and unevenly developed vocational education system.
A minority — less than 20% in Guangzhou — manage to beat the odds and attend academic high schools and then possibly university. Many more, like Yifei and Anyi, graduate middle school with few marketable skills and no direction.
About half of the population of Guangzhou, including Yifei’s mother, is categorized as migrant. Originally from a small town in the central province of Hunan, Yifei’s mother has worked and lived in Guangzhou for nearly two decades, most of them in a beauty salon. A single parent, both of her children — Yifei and her younger brother — were born and raised in the city, but her lack of a Guangzhou hukou meant her kids had to be registered in her hometown, in the central province of Hunan.
Like most other working-class floating children, Yifei began first grade at a cheap private school in an urban village in Guangzhou. Too shy and timid to talk to others, she was an easy target for bullies. After spending second grade back in Hunan, where she was ridiculed for her inability to speak the local dialect, her mother re-enrolled her at her old school in Guangzhou.
When my colleagues and I met her in 2018, Yifei was a seventh grader at the New Talent School, a private secondary institution for floating children. We were there as part of a longitudinal ethnographic study on how these kids are navigating the watershed transition from China’s nine-year compulsory education system to the workforce, high school, or vocational school.
But Yifei was going through another transition, from a timid and marginalized student to the school’s queen bee. In the words of one of her classmates, Yifei had become the “ringleader” of the popular girls’ clique. To her teachers, she was a stereotypical “bad kid,” in dire need of saving from moral corruption.
We were curious. This transition didn’t happen overnight. What, if anything, changed on the road from bullying victim to so-called bad kid? And what could Yifei’s experiences tell us about the similar predicaments faced by millions of other “floating children” every day?
A new talent
When my colleagues asked Yifei and her classmates what their lives at New Talent were like, the word that came up most was “boring.”
It didn’t take long to understand why. Classes consisted of reading and underlining textbooks, and lessons often boiled down to group “fill-in-the-blanks” exercises, with students expected to memorize the answers for future use.
Such instruction is the norm rather than the exception at the underfunded and understaffed private schools attended by floating children across China. In 2019, New Talent charged around 7,000 yuan per semester. That’s a fortune for working-class families, but barely over a third of the per-pupil funding received by Guangzhou public schools that same year.
The school’s teachers are poorly paid and often must juggle administrative duties in addition to heavy course loads, leaving little time for meaningful lesson planning. Most of them see their jobs as a temporary gig; the handful who genuinely care about their students inevitably burn out within a couple years.
Yifei lost count of the number of teachers she had during her time at New Talent. The one exception was Mr. Yan, her seventh-grade math teacher. A chubby young man, Mr. Yan showed up the first day with the top two buttons of his shirt unbuttoned. Yifei thought he looked “sloppy.”
But Mr. Yan’s math classes turned out to be interesting and engaging, unlike anything else Yifei had previously sat through. Though Yifei had failed most of her math exams in elementary school, her grades improved quickly, boosting her confidence and prompting her to engage in other subjects. “I had good grades in most subjects then, except for English,” she recalled. “Teachers liked me. My homeroom teacher had high hopes for me.”
When Mr. Yan married and left the school abruptly at the end of Yifei’s seventh grade year, Yifei was shocked and frustrated. “We didn’t even know he had a girlfriend!” she says.
Yifei’s class was assigned an entirely different set of teachers for eighth grade. As her grades dropped, her new teachers no longer expected much of her. Soon, she was trapped in a downward spiral.
A new look
Yifei and her closest friends have known each other since elementary school. She met Lili on the school bus in first grade. Pretty soon, they were roaming the streets together whenever they could, scouring the nearby urban villages for cheap food and window shopping in the gigantic shopping malls downtown.
Anyi joined the group in sixth grade, shortly after she moved to Guangzhou from her hometown in rural Hunan. Her father and mother worked long hours as a security guard and a nanny, respectively, and she leapt at the chance to join Yifei and Lili on their weekend excursions. After all, it beat sitting at home, watching TV.
In seventh grade, Yifei met Juanzi, a talkative and sociable girl who later became Yifei’s desk mate and good friend. “She talked so much!” Yifei recalls. “We spent so much time chatting. It changed me gradually. By the second semester of seventh grade, I had also become talkative and sociable.”
With her newly found outgoing personality, Yifei’s social circles expanded rapidly. Eager to be “a beautiful woman like (her) mother,” Yifei began experimenting with makeup. Her skills improved dramatically in eighth grade, after the departure of Mr. Yan killed her fragile interest in academics and she began spending more time following beauty influencers on short video apps Kuaishou and Douyin.
Yifei was also the first kid in their school to get tattoos. “I saw other people’s tattoos when I browsed Kuaishou,” she recalled “They were so fashionable! So I wanted to try. Once you get the first one, you want the second one. You’ll get addicted.”
Despite their tight budgets, the girls took pride in never buying cheap fakes. Well-known brands were one of the few means they had of obtaining the recognition and status from their peers that they couldn’t get from their teachers. On their graduation day, Yifei and Lili wore Japanese-style schoolgirl outfits known as “JK” to school, while Anyi wore a black “Lolita”-style dress. “Yifei’s JK is Kindergarten brand,” Anyi made a point of whispering to one of my colleagues. “It’s really expensive.”
A new love
After her personality and fashion makeovers, Yifei began a period of serial dating. Most relationships lasted only a few days.
She had no reason to think Gaoheng would be any different when they got together toward the end of seventh grade. Yet their relationship not only lasted through the summer, but also through graduation two years later.
If Yifei was the ringleader of New Talent’s female students, Gaoheng exemplified the kind of masculinity idealized by China’s floating children. Tall and lean, he wore stylish bangs, was a star basketball player, and was one of the best in the school at the popular mobile game “Honor of Kings.”
More importantly, Gaoheng had a reputation among students as a fierce fighter and loyal friend, always ready to defend himself and stand up for his crew. In spaces like internet cafés or on basketball courts, conflicts were usually resolved through violence. Fighting was a necessary survival skill, one that Gaoheng mastered at an early age. Once, seeing a friend of his being beat up on a basketball court for his perceived poor play, Gaoheng threw his instant noodles at his friend’s assailants and fought them until they ran away.
Gaoheng’s childhood experiences resonated with Yifei. He spent the first seven years of his life living with his grandparents and two older sisters in a rural part of Guangdong province. After falling off the roof of his village home in first grade and spending a couple months in hospital, his parents took him to Guangzhou, where they ran a small grocery shop. His parents were avid mahjong players. Gaoheng knew to get out of their way when they lost money at the betting tables.
The first private school he attended in Guangzhou went bankrupt a year after he enrolled. At his second school, he had good grades until his homeroom teacher and favorite English teacher left. Struggling to adapt to the new staff, Gaoheng’s grades plummeted. He began hanging out with a group of boys who played mobile games in a small park in their neighborhood. It was there he tried his first cigarette and participated in his first street fight.
Attempting to salvage his falling academic prospects, Gaoheng’s mother transferred him to New Talent ahead of sixth grade. He did well on the entrance exam and placed into the class for top students. There he met a homeroom teacher who earned his trust and helped him get back on track academically. But the teacher left after just one semester, and when the same thing happened again the next year, Gaoheng “gave up for real,” he says.
Not long after Yifei and Gaoheng started dating, they were hugging and kissing whenever they could steal a moment away from their parents and teachers. In eighth grade, they got matching tattoos — “I love you YF” and “I love you GH” — on their collarbones. They were the celebrity couple at New Talent, envied by their peers and abhorred by their teachers.
Like most other Chinese schools, New Talent has a set of regulations governing how students should appear and behave: Children should focus single-mindedly on their academic study, respect school regulations and teacher authority, refrain from conspicuous consumption, and, most importantly, stay far away from sex and violence. While academic failure can be tolerated, behavioral deviance cannot.
New Talent enforces a strict uniform dress code, and Yifei and her friends’ makeup, ear studs, and brand-name shoes marked them as chao ren, or “fashionistas,” among their peers — and problem children among the faculty and staff. Like fighting, expressions of sexuality – especially female sexuality – were classified as a dangerous sign of disobedience and moral corruption that must be eradicated before it spreads, or worse, lands the school in the news.
Yifei’s relationship with Gaoheng jumped her to the top of her eighth-grade homeroom teacher’s watchlist. For an entire year, whenever he saw Yifei hanging out with Gaoheng — even if they were simply walking side by side without touching one another — the teacher called her into his office, where he scolded her, often by slut-shaming her.
Yifei soon landed on the vice principal’s radar as well. She would call Yifei into her office whenever they ran into each other in the halls, even when Yifei wasn’t violating any rules. She scolded Yifei so often and so harshly that, halfway through ninth grade, Yifei ran away as soon as she saw the vice principal coming her way.
For Yifei and her friends, the school’s behavioral discipline was symptomatic of a broader problem: the unequal treatment of students.
Yifei remembers a telling experience: “In seventh grade, I was walking with a classmate whose sister was in 801, the top homeroom. My uniform was wet so I borrowed her sister’s uniform, which had an ID card on it. When I went downstairs, I got caught by the vice principal. She scolded me, asking why wasn’t I wearing the uniform, and she said that she was going to take points off my homeroom.”
“But then she looked at the ID card on the uniform, and she said, oh, you’re in 801,” Yifei recalls. “Then she let me go back and change. I think she treated me differently because she thought I was from the top-scoring homeroom, the homeroom the principal cared a lot about.”
“Teachers are caring toward students with good grades but scold the ones with bad grades harshly,” she says. “They call us ‘idiot youth who lead society astray’ and ‘a nest of snakes and rats.’ Anything you can imagine.”
In eighth grade, Anyi’s ex-boyfriend beat up a boy who was pursuing her, and Gaoheng was drawn into the fray. At the time, Yifei and Anyi were sitting for an interview with my research team, unaware of what was happening. In the end, however, the school suspended Anyi and Yifei together with the boys who were actually involved.
The suspensions were announced in schoolwide gatherings and posted on the school bulletin board, solidifying the reputation of Yifei, Gaoheng, and their friends as the school’s “bad kids.” It also destroyed any remaining trust and respect that the group had for the school and their teachers.
As Yifei and Gaoheng’s relationship deepened, their core friend groups gradually merged. And as their relationship with their school soured, they all began looking for other ways to spend their time.
Together, they began to explore new spaces like mahjong houses and clubs, typically on the invitation of Yifei and Gaoheng’s friends outside of school. Despite their signs declaring “minors prohibited,” these entertainment spaces are generally hungry for young customers with time to kill. Curious about Guangzhou’s nightlife, Yifei and her friends were soon staying in clubs and mahjong houses all hours of the night.
Their parents had different degrees of knowledge about — and very different reactions to — the group’s nocturnal activities. Yifei’s mother was largely sympathetic to her daughter’s interests, only asking that she be careful and never sleep in an unfamiliar place. Gaoheng’s father scolded him harshly but had no real way to stop him. Anyi’s mother thought she was sleeping over with a friend. Ah Dan, another friend of Yifei’s and an active participant in the group’s school-based activities, never joined these late-night outings because her parents didn’t let her out at night.
With little cash, the group often relied on friends working at bars or clubs to score them seats at “invite tables” — tables promising free food and drinks to guests in exchange for “creating good vibes” that would attract paying customers. After a while, Gaoheng began hosting these tables, getting kickbacks for bringing in friends from his extensive out-of-school social network.
Before long, Yifei, Lili, and Anyi joined “atmosphere teams,” dancing for four or five hours straight to warm up the floor at clubs in exchange for free food, drinks, and a tiny stipend. They were just 14 years old. At 15, they graduated from New Talent and started to work as peinü, saving up money for the Valentino heels and Nike sneakers they’d had their eyes on for years.
Always eager to find alternative sources of income, when COVID-19 shut down Guangzhou’s bars, Yifei found a supplier online and began selling cosmetics, JK uniforms, and Lolita dresses through the messaging platform WeChat. Gaoheng followed suit. While her business quickly failed, the venture introduced them to suppliers of other products, including vapes. In a matter of days, Gaoheng found his first buyer. Within two months, Gaoheng and Yifei had each earned around 1,000 yuan selling smoking products.
With little to no adult supervision, the group developed its own set of morals and rules for navigating the occasionally dangerous world of bars and nightclubs. First and foremost was to always stick together. When the girls encountered unwanted sexual advances at crowded clubs, the boys gathered around them to keep the offenders away. And when one of the girls was working, the others waited by the door till dawn to walk home together.
Meanwhile, contrary to the accusations of sexual promiscuity leveled by their teachers, Yifei was adamant that sexual intimacy should be reserved for long-term romantic partners. A few months after they graduated from New Talent, she kicked Lili, her best friend since the first grade, out of their friend group because Lili had begun having casual sex.
“I don’t want to become someone like her, so I stopped hanging out with her,” Yifei says. “Otherwise, she would give us bad ideas.”
In the eyes of New Talent’s teachers, Yifei and Gaoheng’s circle was full of stereotypically bad kids who didn’t care about education, morality, or their own futures. After witnessing their journeys and talking to them about their lives, my research group arrived at a very different interpretation of their choices: Their abysmal academic performance and apathy to schoolwork was the nearly inevitable result of an exam-driven and a highly unequal school system that not only failed to support their learning, but also repeatedly destroyed their fragile motivation and interest in education.
Like most teenagers, Yifei and her friends were eager for fun, belonging, and recognition, all of which their families and schools had consistently failed to provide. This led them to look for validation elsewhere, in makeup, tattoos, brand-name shoes, romantic relationships, and nightclubs — all things their school forbade and their teachers abhorred. While New Talent may have intended to save them with harsh scolding and disciplinary measures, the school’s methods only pushed the kids further away.
As we got to know Yifei and her friends, it was hard not to be concerned about their safety at work or their uncertain futures. With limited economic capital, no specialized skills, and no prestigious degrees, they’ll likely join the ranks of China’s “precariat,” an urban underclass operating on the economic fringes.
Nonetheless, we marveled at the initiative, resourcefulness, and entrepreneurial spirit that Yifei and Gaoheng exhibited in their various ventures, and we could only wonder what they might have accomplished if they had guidance and support from caring and responsible adults they could actually trust.
While they may have given up on New Talent, they certainly had not, as their teachers often claimed, given up on themselves. It might not have been her first choice, but Yifei remains hopeful about her decision to enroll in an e-commerce vocational training program after graduation. “I want to have my own successful career,” she says. “I won’t let my life depend on men.”
This article was made possible by contributions from Xinning Huang, Xiao Luo, Yu Sun, Jiamei Yang, and Yuan Yuan, as well as funding from the Shanghai Jing'an Adream Education School and the Yifang Foundation.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header and in-text illustrations: Wang Zhenhao, edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)