The Chinese university: A primer for prospective foreign teachers

Chinese university 1

Despite their varied and sometimes startling architecture, Chinese university campuses are virtually indistinguishable from one another. The following pictures are taken from four different universities. The reader is invited to identify them.

As my Chinese improved and I met more people from within the institute and beyond, I was struck by the deep hostility toward foreigners among Chinese in authority. There was a lot of talk of friendship but very little to be found. (John Pomfret, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China)


Let’s imagine a dystopian turn of events where the Far Right in the USA got the upper hand, and I mean really got the upper hand and took power, and once in power rammed through an authoritarian Christian agenda on the American people. The public schools are already primed for this, so instituting universal school prayer and Creationism in lieu of science classes would be a fait accompli. The main priority would be the archenemy in their university bastion, namely Liberals. What would the universities look like after being reconstituted along Christian lines? We needn’t envision a reign of terror, with “heathen” professors hung from nooses in public executions, such as featured in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. That would be much too messy, when there is a simple and elegant solution: the Chinese university.

If American universities were refashioned along Christian lines but with Chinese characteristics, we could expect to see the following. A new course entitled Christian Ethics is mandatory for all students, undergraduate and graduate alike, offered not just once but every semester, right up through doctoral study. Each student thus has to attend and pass the course anywhere from eight to sixteen times (or 360 to 720 class-time hours) depending on highest degree attained. The course itself doesn’t change much with each new semester, just rehashings of the same content—different passages from the Bible or new writings from contemporary evangelists to recite, even a stab or two at Biblical hermeneutics for graduate-level courses.

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The rest of the curriculum remains largely intact. The heathen professors retain their job, though they are now required to toe the line, forewarned to stick to the relevant content of whatever they were hired to teach and avoid pushing any extreme (i.e. secular) ideas on the students. Most university courses have always been of a bland technical nature anyway—business, computing, engineering—and largely indoctrination proof. If you are already a Christian conservative or fundamentalist and familiar with the curriculum of private Catholic or evangelist Protestant universities today, you will be perfectly at home. For others, the mandatory Christian courses take a bit more getting used to but something that can be put up with.

As the university’s focus is no longer primarily research and pedagogy but religious indoctrination and conversion, the Christian courses lend it a ready way to monitor and track the loyalty and dedication of the student body. Unlike the rest of the curriculum, whose courses are of merely practical value to the students but little value to the school, class time spent in Christian Ethics is symbolic: hundreds of hours of classroom downtime serving the sole but crucial purpose of reminding the students of who’s in charge. But the mandatory courses are of immense practical value to the school leadership as well, enabling them to identify the students in greatest need of attention and discipline, namely those who stand out due to their lack of enthusiasm or mediocre grades. In contrast to the latter are the godlier students sympathetic to the university’s Christian mission, who can be recruited as foot soldiers to attract yet more upright students in turn and further extend the school’s means of surveillance by noting, if not exactly spying on, the unconverted.

Whenever I ask them in private conversations what they learn in their politics classes, I draw a blank. They have a hard time even remembering the names of the courses.

By this point it should be apparent that my analogy corresponds to the Communist Party’s stranglehold over the Chinese university. The equivalent of our hypothetical courses in Christian Ethics is the mandatory politics courses taken by all Chinese students in every semester. They have names like Mao Zedong Thought or Deng Xiaoping Thought or Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, but whatever they are called they recapitulate the same content and narrow spectrum of ideas over and over. Not much actual learning takes place in these courses. I taught in various Chinese universities for eleven years and got to know many of the 1,500 or so students who passed through my classrooms. Whenever I asked them in private conversations what they learned in their politics classes, I drew a blank. They scratched their head and couldn’t for the life of them remember a single valuable thing, or anything at all, that they got out of the courses. They had a hard time remembering the courses’ names. Even students who were Party members couldn’t seem to recall anything about the courses.

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It would be one thing if these courses genuinely addressed current issues in ethics and politics. There is an argument for making such courses a universal requirement for university students anywhere. Some US universities offer ethics courses or their equivalent at the freshman level. With all the financial corruption presently running American society into the ground, American students could use a solid education in ethics. In order to be pedagogically effective, however, an ethics course must present competing visions of society, and the students encouraged to debate the various positions in a searching and dialogic way that stimulates critical thinking and builds internal knowledge structures.

If the purpose, on the other hand, is not the cultivation of moral character and intellectual independence but rather obedience for its own sake, then you will do the opposite: design courses to be essentially contentless, with boilerplate language for relatively straightforward if tedious memorization and regurgitation on exams. The duller the content the better, to standardize its processing and even out any knotty distractions requiring more thought and concentration.


It is not by accident that Chinese university courses are hierarchically stratified into different levels of importance. There are three levels, with the mandatory politics courses at the top. Their significance is underscored when bachelor students apply for graduate-level study. For this, two exam essays are required, one based on the content of their undergraduate politics courses and one on their major. Their acceptance into a graduate program depends as much on rote recitation of the irrelevant political material as on the relevant preparation in their major. The second level in the hierarchy consists of the training courses in the various majors (e.g., the Intensive Reading and Extensive Reading courses for English majors). Both the politics and the training courses are covered on the final “comprehensive examination” the students must take in their senior year in order to graduate.

Not covered on this exam are the courses of the third level, the so-called selective or optional courses. Ironically, it is often these “selective” courses that are the most important for the students’ preparation in their major—at least for those students applying for graduate study abroad. It is these courses that the visiting foreign professors are usually hired to teach. They require more advanced and up-to-date knowledge in the field than their Chinese counterparts generally have, e.g., for English literature majors, courses on critical theory, women’s studies, the contemporary novel, and the like. As they depend on the temporary hiring of foreign instructors who may or may not be available to teach them, they are regarded as occasional courses, not part of the fixed curriculum. Yet for building knowledge in one’s field they are indisputably the most important courses.

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It might seem that one mandatory politics course per semester is not the worst of fates befalling the students, when most consider themselves lucky enough to have made it into a decent university and are now positioned to find a good job with their degree, whatever the quality of the education they happen to be receiving. But the ramifications of this hierarchy are profound and far-reaching, permeating every aspect of Chinese university life. When the least useful courses are treated as inviolable and the most useful courses trivialized as one-off affairs not worthy of inclusion on the graduating exam, it conveys to the students the message that their education is likewise trivial and unimportant (reinforced every time classes are cancelled for impromptu meetings or events—typically without the foreign teachers being informed). Whereupon every other dreary aspect of Chinese university life makes sense and falls into place. It has the momentous consequence of demoralizing the students (and teachers as well) and leaving them utterly cynical at the outset. Let’s go into more detail.

The first major effect of the upside-down curriculum is to short-circuit communication and stop up the flow of information. I don’t mean a conspiracy from on high to prevent access to ideas deemed volatile or politically sensitive (though this occurs as well). I mean something more insidious because it is normative: an operative disconnect at every interactive node. When education is no longer the purpose of the university but this purpose is instead mocked, energy dissipates, meaning deflates, and people deflate as well and become passive. Passivity engenders indifference and apathy, and nothing is more poisonous to learning than apathy.

When education is no longer the purpose of the university but this purpose is mocked, energy dissipates, meaning deflates, and people deflate as well and become passive.

A telling instance appears in Rosemary Mahoney’s The Early Arrival of Dreams, her account of a year as a teacher at Hangzhou University. Upon arriving in China, she found no one to pick her up at the airport, despite having been informed there would be (as is standard procedure). Whereas she never finally got to the bottom of the lapse, I have no trouble understanding it. It follows from institutionalized apathy. This is more than mere dispersed responsibility, the mix-ups that can happen anywhere because instructions were never clearly assigned in the first place. It is worse, and it is systemic. All of the concerned parties may in fact have been dimly aware of her arrival. But no one took the major step of following through and successfully picking up the laowai at the airport, for the simple reason that there was nothing personally to gain from doing so.

When the default condition is to do nothing unless forced to do otherwise, the simplest acts of communication fall through. It’s a common experience of many foreign teachers in China on the first day of the semester not to be informed where their classroom is. The Chinese teachers all seem to know where their own classes are. But unless those charged with the task have enough personal incentive to inform them, the laowai are invariably out of the loop.

I could spend the rest of this essay listing endless instances when apathy prevented vital communication that I needed for the most basic purposes from reaching me. I’ll give one example. I was once asked to teach a course on Modern Drama for the following fall semester, and I happily accepted. As I normally taught Shakespeare, I spent the entire summer reading up on modern plays. Only a week before the semester was to start I found out that the course was canceled. In fact it had been cancelled back in the spring, shortly after I was invited to teach it, due to insufficient student enrollment, which was due in turn to the failure of the relevant person to list the course in the electronic catalog. No one informed me of any of these developments. Only upon inquiring at the start of the semester on the location of my classroom—after I had lovingly prepared my syllabus and the course was ready to go—did I learn about the cancellation.

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Another consequence of the upside-down curriculum is the low quality of Chinese scholarship. When the priority of academics is their allegiance to institutional politics rather than research and teaching, the effect on the intellect is devastating. Like the students, professors go through the motions. As everywhere, Chinese professors must continually publish to be promoted. But publishing in China is wholly confined to the quantitative model. It’s not your contribution to knowledge that counts, only how many articles you churn out. There is no regulated peer-reviewer system for books or journal publications. It’s well known that professors get their publications accepted into journals through connections or monetary payments. Plagiarism at the highest academic levels is commonplace and flagrant. There is the amusing story of a graduate student caught plagiarizing his thesis from a well-known scholar; it was then discovered that this scholar had himself plagiarized the same content from another scholar.

Chinese scholars are largely locked out of the academic marketplace. There are exceptions in the sciences and technology, which receive vast infusions of government cash for research and development, showered on a few select institutions such as Peking and Qinghua Universities and improving their international rankings to a modest degree. From the Chinese perspective, however, it doesn’t matter much that they can’t compete, since they have their own academic market to busy themselves with. There are benefits to succeeding in the domestic market: lucrative relationships with government and business VIPs in the public and private sectors. There is also moonlighting—consulting jobs professors take on to pad their earnings—and bribery. Most government workers in China receive kickbacks of various sorts and corruption is rife everywhere. If doctors routinely accept envelopes of cash from patients to get preferential treatment, it’s not surprising the same goes on in the universities, notably in departments with close ties to the public sector. The parents of graduating majors in journalism, for example, are expected to give a cash gift (a minimum of 20,000 Yuan or $3,000) to well-connected professors to secure for their son or daughter a letter of introduction to a media firm.

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Not just the scholarship but the teaching suffers as well. The proverbial bad professor buries his or her head in the textbook and reads out the assigned passages from the lectern in a drone, while the students carry on with their own business—catching up on homework for another class, playing with their cellphone, chatting—studiously oblivious of the teacher’s annoying presence and eccentric mannerisms. Again, the Big Disconnect. If the teacher is not too strict about attendance, the students simply don’t show up to class.

Of course, there are serious and dedicated Chinese teachers; they are not all negligent. One thing I learned over many years of teaching is that the easiest route is actually to be a good teacher, since by thorough preparation everything flows smoothly, whereas bluffing your way through classes unprepared is embarrassing and exhausting. Most do a satisfactory job because it’s the only way to justify their occupation to themselves and get up everyday with dignity.

My students rarely complimented me when I taught in the US. American students pay a lot of money for their education and take it for granted their teachers are competent and professional. In China, my students repeatedly complimented me on being such a “responsible” teacher. It was never that I was a knowledgeable, or an easy, or a funny teacher, though such qualities don’t hurt. It’s simply that I was willing to read the papers they turned in and make comments on them, or that I showed up to class with an agenda I had worked hard to prepare; that I was not wasting their time and was conscientious in treating and grading them as fairly as I could; or that I was willing to write them a recommendation letter for their graduate study applications (instead of the fake letters they wrote up for their Chinese professors to sign). The implication is that many Chinese teachers lack some basic sense of responsibility, a thing that perpetually grates on the students and ensures widespread low morale.


The apathy virus infects most, if not all of the students. Predictably, those at the better “key” universities tend to be higher achievers than those at lesser institutions. But within any institution, even at the very best, there is a broad continuum. I have little patience with the sappy sort of foreign teachers who have nothing but praise for all their wonderful students, every one of whom is a saint and their good friend to boot. I also have little patience with foreign teachers who lay into them all as lazy brats. Both extremes are the reality and manifest themselves with perfect symmetry in every class, and they physically place themselves accordingly, the best students sitting at the front of the room and worst at the back. Chinese classrooms enable this, being rectangular in shape and arrayed lengthwise. In large classrooms with fifty or more seats, it’s easy for the low achievers to congregate at the far end of the room and pretend to be invisible. They even try to carry on this ruse when I call on them and they ignore me, pretending I’m calling on someone else.

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It’s standard for the students to expect not to have to do any work—until distressing evidence to the contrary appears. The minority of really serious “bootstrap” students, those intent on pursuing graduate study abroad, who know no one is going to help them acquire the necessary knowledge but themselves—are ready to buckle down at the first sign I mean business (and through sheer determination and hard work they do frequently excel and are a force to reckon with at top universities abroad). At the other extreme are the students who show up to class for the first time on final exam day and are flabbergasted to discover I have no intention of passing them (be prepared to present your syllabus detailing the course requirements to the Dean when these students’ parents come complaining about your harsh and unreasonable treatment).

One explanation for widespread student apathy applies to universities throughout East Asia, with its grueling system of secondary school education culminating in the college entrance exam, which determines what rank of university the students can reach and hence their subsequent career placement. Since this life-determining event occurs before they enter the university, their actual performance during their undergraduate years is almost a formality, as even the low achievers are guaranteed to graduate and can while away their “four-year vacation.” But in Chinese schools there is another factor compounding the apathy of the students: the university hates them. This contempt is evident in an entrenched, institutionalized infantilization of all aspects of the undergraduate experience.

In Chinese universities there is another factor compounding the apathy of the students: the university hates them.

Chinese universities strike foreigners encountering them for the first time as more like high schools or boarding schools. Since students are regarded as naughty children, there are countless rules. No electrical devices for heating food or drink are allowed in dorm rooms. Lights are automatically shut off at 11 pm. Dormitories are segregated and students of the opposite sex not allowed visits even in daytime (grad student dorms are less stringent at some schools but not at others). Until a few years ago, it was illegal for university students nationwide to have sex, and those caught were expelled. At one campus where I taught, no benches or places to sit down outside were provided; apparently (I was told) the school wanted to discourage students from romance.

High schools in China differ from universities not in kind but in degree, with the same militaristic approach to education, just more severe, an apt model being the prison. They come in two varieties: day prisons, where the students are free to leave in the evenings, and around-the-clock prisons permitting weekend home visits (common in rural areas where students have to attend school far from home). In the latter, pupils get up early in the morning for classes and study all day, with brief breaks for meals. After dinner, they are confined to their classroom for silent self-study until 9 pm, whereupon all return straight to the dorm to prepare for bed. Apart from weekends, they are allowed almost no free time to themselves, much less any for socializing. For their part as disciplinarians, high school teachers seem to be employed for the same purpose as prison guards and are paid accordingly. In lower-ranked schools salaries may be a third to a half as much as those of shop girls in cities.

The character of a country’s high school system says much about its general level of cultural development. Japanese and Korean high schools show many similarities to China’s but are more rationally administered and their teachers properly remunerated. Still, I have to admit my bias toward the West. At the high school in Germany where I once spent a year as a student, we sat around a seminar table and discussed Günter Grass’s novel Katz und Maus in German class and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in English class, among other literary classics. We shared cigarettes with our teachers during breaks. I went skinny-dipping with my classmates on weekend picnics, a perfectly ordinary pastime among German youth. Would you rather be herded like sheep through “examination hell” or learn how to engage in critical discussion with fellow students as mature adults? Not that hard study doesn’t exist in the West, but we try to balance learning with life.

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The emphasis in the Chinese university on control and obedience for its own sake instead of the acquisition of knowledge is glaringly evident in the absence of study halls, leaving only the library, which closes early in the evening, or the noisy dorm for study (undergrad dorm rooms house five to eight students in bunks), though some campuses permit evening study in unoccupied classrooms (a privilege withdrawn at a campus where I taught when a student couple were caught having sex in one). Library study space is limited and a daily struggle to find and keep a spot ensues. With mystifying overkill, libraries invent all manner of ways to make access difficult. Students surrender their ID to access materials. They are not allowed to bring in their own books or laptop. Borrowing privileges reek of the most rigid class-based society, with professors granted full, grad students partial and undergrads the least privileges—in terms of which collections are available for borrowing, the number of items they are allowed to borrow at a time, etc. Professors hoard the latest books and journals in their office with impunity, as if operating their own mini library, and no one but favored students can look at them. I speak of the better-equipped libraries at the more prestigious universities. At one less fortunate campus where I taught, the library’s book collection was smaller than my junior high library in the US; meanwhile, the school leaders had built a spiffy new karaoke party hall on campus for their own use.

Information in even the best libraries is obstructed. A senior librarian working at a university in Beijing where I was teaching once helped me try to track down an article in a semiotics journal (nothing politically sensitive). The computer records indicated it was available in the Peking University library, supposedly one of the top libraries in the country, where she happened to be a doctoral student in library science and was friendly with one of the staff working in the library. As there was no functioning interlibrary loan system, we rode there on our bikes. The electronic catalog listed the journal in the library’s collection and its status as available, but oddly no location was provided. The two of them were both a bit surprised at this roadblock and embarrassed at their inability to get to the bottom of it. You’d think with their foothold inside the library system I had all the connections I needed, but without the necessary guanxi to penetrate the upper chambers, I turned up nothing.

An object study in the infantilizing of higher education is the English speech contest, a regular event on all campuses, to which the foreign teachers and a few Chinese English teachers are invited to serve as judges. These speeches are pure exercises in form, with only the trappings of content. The topics chosen are so banal and trite, childlike and anodyne—“To Believe is To Achieve,” “My Grandmother’s Advice,” “Fond Memories of Summer Camp”—one suspects that the students are not allowed to come up with their own topic but must select it from an approved list (though they deny this). I recall Henry James’ famous caricature of public oratory in Olive Chancellor from The Bostonians, whose rabble-rousing speeches were so effective because neither she nor her audiences had any idea of what she was talking about. Some universities have “debate” clubs, but the better among these Chinese debaters who venture into international competitions tend not to fare very well and are crushed by more nimble students from the rest of the world accustomed to genuine debate.

Chinese universities resemble large high schools, with their token little library and not much else in the way of amenities and facilities.

Chinese universities are virtually unique in the world (well, North Korea excepted) in absolutely not tolerating student protesting or unofficial organizing of any kind. Even repressive regimes in the Middle East allow students some leeway to gather in campus protests. Engaging in something as benign as Green or environmental awareness groups isn’t allowed without going through official channels, which usually get rejected out of hand, for no other reason than someone had the nerve to request it. When students really do share a legitimate grievance or outrage and there is no outlet, violence can erupt. Several years ago graduating students at a business college in Henan Province rioted when they discovered their diplomas did not list affiliation with the prestigious Zhengzhou University, as had been originally promised. College and even high school campuses frequently riot over appalling conditions or facilities, e.g., the practice of pressuring or forcing students to eat in the cafeteria rather than in outside restaurants and then overpricing the food.

The norm is an atmosphere of fear. I don’t mean students are scurrying around campus like mice or cowering in their dorms. You see lots of smiling, laughing people as on campuses anywhere in the world. Students also freely voice their feelings or complaints about their school, curriculum, or teachers. I refer, rather, to the subconscious fear that gets expressed as group behavior, which compels them to tiptoe around the taboo and avoid overstepping the innumerable invisible boundaries and barriers placed all around. The students may complain individually but dare not speak up collectively.

An instance of this group coercion was on display at one university in Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. All campuses in the city mobilized their students to serve as “volunteers” at the Olympics events. While most eagerly participated—it was after all a rare opportunity for them to network, meet professionals and soak in the exciting atmosphere—I knew of students who had no interest in sports but could not decline. Meanwhile, the English Department faculty went into a bizarre, self-imposed lockdown, as if the event were something ominous like a mobilization for war, and exhibited more general anxiety than I had ever witnessed from any of the students. The most innocent queries to my supervisors concerning, say, whether classes would be cancelled on certain days due to volunteer training, went unanswered. During this national emergency, nothing was confirmed or announced without approval from on high.


As for their attitude toward foreign teachers, they hate us too. Chinese universities as a rule haven’t the slightest interest in hiring foreigners. They do so only because public universities are required to fulfill a quota of native-speaking teachers. Let me qualify this. I haven’t seen actual evidence of such a quota (it would never be officially acknowledged), but it is the only conclusion I can come to, when after repeated conversations with Chinese faculty over the years I have not once heard any of them state that we are needed. Why are we not needed? Because they have perfected their own methods of teaching English to Chinese students and can do a better job at it than we can (or so they claim). That doesn’t mean that they can’t make use of us to plug gaps in the curriculum, the dreaded English writing courses, for instance, which Chinese teachers avoid as it involves the tedious grading of student papers.

Though the scenarios vary from school to school, the prototypical situation works like this. Say an English Department seeks a qualified foreign teacher, one with experience and an MA or PhD, to teach English literature. They submit any desirable candidates they’ve found to the Foreign Affairs Office for approval. The FAO is the Party apparatus created to interface with foreign teachers and foreign exchange students (you will never meet the official in charge, who would never deign to show himself to foreigners but delegates this to his assistant or secretary).

Traditionally all foreigners working or living in China were regarded as potential spies. The earliest “Foreign Experts” to be hired by Chinese universities in the 1950s-60s were from the Soviet Union, and they too were corralled into the “Friendship Hotel” each major city built for the purpose of monitoring them. To prevent spies from getting too cozy with locals, foreign teachers were only hired for a year at a time. Later, this was extended to two years, and finally to five years, the current limit. When you reach this limit, you must leave the university where you are teaching, regardless of your popularity or value to the school (though some schools find a way around this stricture). Today we are no longer regarded as spies, but we continue to be barred from permanent or tenured hiring by any public institution, the obvious reason being they don’t want the responsibility of having to provide us with a pension and long-term healthcare.

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Back to the FAO. It operates independently of the academic departments and has authority over them. It has its own operating budget and capital which it fiercely protects. It is known to reject the English Department’s suggestions for a new foreign teacher and hire a younger and more malleable foreigner of its own choice, one less likely to complain about the low salary. The standard salary for Foreign Experts hasn’t increased much over the past couple decades—typically 4,000 or 5,000 Yuan ($650-$800) per month, with free housing. The FAO doesn’t care how much teaching experience you have, whether you have a BA, MA or PhD (the salaries are about the same), or what specialties you may have to offer the school.

I felt the contempt the FAO of one university directed toward me in the awful conditions of my apartment in the “Foreigner Guest House.” The carpet was moldy and disintegrating after years of use. The sofa raised a cloud of dust and fleas whenever I sat down in it. The hot water was intermittent. Maids came in every morning at 8 am to clean (I was expected to be up and ready), using smelly water to mop the carpet and leaving mop strings caught on furniture legs. Whenever I complained to the FAO about the fleas or other problems, I encountered the Great Silence and was ignored.

All visitors registered at the building entrance, surrendered their ID, and brought me a slip to sign. They had to be out by 11 pm. The only guests allowed to stay overnight were immediate family members. A male friend on a visit from the US was not permitted to sleep in my apartment, despite my having an extra bed; they put him in another suite in the building and charged him 250 Yuan per night—for the sake of my “safety,” they said. Also for our safety, they padlocked the building’s front door at night. All these precautions notwithstanding, one neighbor’s apartment got broken into and valuable items stolen. We guessed it to be an inside job.

What could possibly be our role when most of the faculty don’t even want to be in the same room with us meddlesome foreigners and our naive suggestions and demands?

In contrast to the FAO, the faculty of your typical English Department will treat you in a friendlier manner, but here too there are limits. First, only those assigned to deal with you—the assistant dean, the secretary—will be friendly. The rest of the Department faculty you are unlikely to ever meet. At none of the four universities where I taught was I ever introduced to the Chinese faculty. They tend not to hang out much anyway. Office hours are not a requirement and they quickly head home after teaching their classes. The occasional teacher might approach you with questions about English grammar, but there is otherwise little collegial atmosphere or friendly occasions for chitchat. There is no faculty lounge or Friday evening cocktails or campus pub. One almost feels the Chinese faculty are expressly forbidden from interacting with us. This cannot be the case. It’s enough that group coercion tacitly dictates it’s not cool for them to hang out with foreigners.

Other things reinforce this separation. We are never invited to Departmental meetings with the Chinese faculty. True, most foreign teachers can’t speak Chinese, which is the obvious explanation, but equally important is that we are the heathen, not one of them. The only ones with decision-making powers are the senior faculty, who are invariably Party members. What could possibly be the role of us meddlesome foreigners and our naive suggestions and demands, when they don’t even want to be in the same room with us? As if to make this point crystal clear, we are never placed in an office with Chinese teachers but packed into a designated “Foreigners Office,” with old discarded computers.

Sightings of Chinese teachers are few and far between. Male foreign teachers hoping to meet one or two hot female colleagues will be disappointed; you could spend years teaching at an institution without ever seeing one. As for those you do succeed in buttonholing, you’ll probably not want to take things further. There is a culture of propriety discouraging female teachers from using cosmetics, wearing jewelry, and dressing fashionably, in order to set the proper example for students (high schools forbid them outright). The dour atmosphere cultivates in them the “gray” look, which even young female faculty quickly assume: an obscure pallor to their skin from years spent indoors and lack of sunlight, merging with the dull colors of their dowdy clothes, aging them faster than females in any other domain I have witnessed.

I expect I may hear objections from foreign teachers in China who have found no reason to complain and take exception to my account. I cannot vouch for other people’s experiences. I do think I can claim some validity given the depth of my own encounter with Chinese higher education. Others may wonder why I have stuck it out for so long if everything is so grim. The answer is that China is a challenge, and I like challenges. I am not about to leave my university teaching job simply because the experience is egregious at times, any more than the students are about to leave. You deal with it and learn from it.

There are always enough inspiring students to make teaching meaningful, just as there are enough teachers, Chinese and foreign, to make learning meaningful for the students. Let’s also understand that we’re talking about institutionalized despair here, not that of individuals. The problem with the Chinese university is not the people, it is the system in control, which paralyzes, demotivates and demoralizes. There is an immense amount of talent and energy in the huge Chinese student body that is not being allowed to self-actualize. Once the blight of the Party’s stranglehold is removed, Chinese universities could flourish.

2015 update:

“Education Minister Yuan Guiren announced Thursday new restrictions on college textbooks that promote Western values, and said college students should not participate in critical debates on China’s leaders, politics, or history. The move is part of a broader crackdown on access to Western culture in China, including access to the the Internet.

“’Never let textbooks promoting Western values enter into our classes,’ Mr. Yuan said at a forum in Beijing, according to the Financial Times. ‘Any views that attack or defame the leadership of the party or smear socialism must never be allowed to appear in our universities’” (“China builds ever-higher walls against West and its ‘values,’ Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 30, 2015).

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  2. Hi David,
    You’re comments are SOOOO….. typical! Yeah, I put up with similar things – students who tried to be invisible but also wonderful ones who really appreciated the opportunity of expressing themselves on paper at least, knowing that what they had to say was REALLY read and commented on. One of my favourites was a comment from a student who, after we went through the course requirements in the first class and the assessment scheduled observed, “but this means we have to do some work!” WOW, at master’s preparation level they expected a pass just for sitting at back of the class and being physically present! It didn’t work but it was funny how some of them turned up in further courses AFTER they had been failed. I was never consulted of course.
    Keep writing, I do enjoy your essays!

  3. And then there are the “Athenas” of China. The untold thousands of students who drop out of high school or do so badly that they score miserably on the GaoKao—-the university entrance exam—and therefore are pretty much doomed for life as to my knowledge this test can not be taken again. So what happens after this is the parents are so flustered and not knowing what the hell to do they often enroll their little darlings in a business-type school in hoping of getting a piece of paper—that is often useless—-to the tune of $20,000 per year so their one and only Emperor baby has a chance in the world. And the fact that a very very low percentage of todays university graduates can find work at all must be more than a little demoralizing.

  4. Not just universities, you can’t tell different Chinese cities or even tourist spots just from the look. I remember being to many packaged tours and look at those all-too-similar temples from stop to stop. Everything is too similar in China.

  5. I don’t agree with the three-level stratification of courses in Chinese universities you observed. Despite its designated importance, the politics courses are peripheral in actuality, at least among the students. Of course I admit its existence is pointless but for ideology control. Language colleges feature training courses with some the more so some the less, and I’m not sure whether all other universities do. Yeah, it is the few selective courses that I enjoyed and benefited from most.

    For the same term “the upside-down hierarchy”, I would define it as the reversed roles of administration and academics – instead of the former serving the latter, administrators as a whole regard themselves as the ruler. A problem common in all Chinese universities – bureaucratization.

    You know about David Crook, right? Last year his wife Isabel received a letter from Premier Wen Jiabao expressing gratitude for their contributions to English teaching in China, soon after which a statue of him was set up behind the main building of the university where they taught for forty years. It’s one of the three statues on the entire campus (the other two are not of any specific persons). Besides his contributions and the fact that he’s a communist, I guess his statue being so prominently placed is largely due to the letter, a letter from the top leader of the country. Whenever I pass by the statue, I feel the irony.

    • That’s precisely my point, that the politics classes are peripheral in importance to the students, because they are in fact not important. I have revised my expression “the upside-down hierarchy” to “the upside-down curriculum” for the sake of clarity, but your point about the “reversed roles of administration and academics” is well-taken. The statue of Crook – who cares? It’s just empty symbolism, despite the laudable achievements of the Crooks.

  6. I chuckled when I read this part.

    ” They have a hard time even remembering the names of the courses. Even students who are Party members can’t seem to recall anything about the courses (a surprising number of students I have befriended turned out to be Party members). ”

    If they have to take important exams on this stuff then of course they can remember the content. They will feign ignorance for 3 reasons.

    1) They don’t know how to talk about Marxist theory in English.
    2) They don’t want to get embroiled in an argument about Marxist theory with you.
    3) They feel they should or have been told they shouldn’t talk about these courses with you.
    On 3 I have spoken to Chinese people in the last 7-8 years who admitted friends had attended courses on meeting foreigners and extracting potentially useful information from them. Just saying.

  7. On that lack of passing information along, lack of scheduling thing… it’s not just schools, it’s endemic to Chinese culture.

    My solution to this failure is to charge a scary ridiculous premium on translation work that isn’t given to me with a minimum one week lead time. It ranges from 5x to 50x what I charge for work with two weeks’ lead time and although it was originally designed as a deterrent to last minute work it has done absolutely nothing towards encouraging them to give me work in advance.

    On the plus side, I get to make huge amounts of money.

  8. This is a fascinating insight. Luckily I have never taught at a public university in China, but many of the comments relate also to the private college where Oral English classes were frequently cancelled for vague reasons, like “all boys must have haircuts today”! I now teach in a private JV university where we have to re-educate the students about our expectations. They are frequently shocked to be told they won’t pass if they don’t work!

  9. David,
    Have you ever talked with Peter Hessler? The two of you should have many penetrating observations to exchange. I would like to be the ears in the wall if that ever happens.

    • No, never met him. He’s a good writer, but the kind who aims for a broader, “explain China to the West” audience. My writing attempts to be a bit knottier and get under people’s skin. Hessler’s wife Leslie Chang (Factory Girls) is also a good writer.


  10. I don’t know what school you went to but me and my roomate were banging overnight chicks like there was no tomorrow and they didn’t ahve to give up their ID’s. This was in Beijing. WHere the hell was your school so I can avoid it.

    • Schools are different, ranging from relatively lax guest and curfew policies to insanely strict. They tend to have relaxed a bit over the years, but it’s still a law in China that Chinese guests are not allowed to stay overnight at foreigner’s residence in China. It’s a question of who chooses to apply the law or who doesn’t.

  11. Some excellent writing there and equally good comments. I work in two different places that help students who wish to study abroad. In both of these places, the material that I am told I must use is far above most of the students ability. I just have to wonder what will happen to these students (who mostly are the children of cashed up factory owners from Jiangsu/Zhejiang) after they arrive in England, America, wherever. As one British teacher said to me – the entire education system in China revolves around money, not education. It’s kind of disheartening, soul-destroying.

    • I was lucky that I always taught in pretty good-to-excellent universities with just enough motivated students to keep me going. My assessment of the Chinese university system is based on the best universities. It’s well known that many (more poorly prepared) Chinese students don’t do very well once they’re abroad. A disheartening number resort to cheating, with increasing numbers being deported back to China when caught.

    • I taught at a place called the Telfort Business Institute in Beijing—-granted I wasn’t really a “teacher” but could easily teach from the text books they provided. After succeeding in everything in the first 50 years of life, my efforts at teaching these Little Emperors almost killed me—-really jerked my heart daily—-I once commented to my students that at 50 years old I had more energy and drive than ALL of them together. All of my students were ones who didn’t pass the GaoKao test and even some were high school drop outs—but alas their parents were more than willing to pay up to 20,000 U.S. to put them into our school because they didn’t know what else to do with them. I think it will be the poor—the ones who couldn’t afford to go to college—who will rescue China one day. They will be the ones who WORKED at age 14 in factories making rubber baby heads and clawing their way into the middle class that will be the true backbone of a new China because they will have a background of sweat and hard times to make them confident and successful.

      • I agree with this comment. I also teach mostly kids that have failed the Gao Kao. They seem completely disinterested in every class they have. My wife is from a typical working class family in Shanghai and she has told me how she cherished her time at university.
        This is an issue connected to the gap in social classes in China and it could bite China in the arse again one day.

  12. Reminds me of Australian Universities, except that everything is implied, what I mean is, if you complain….well you know….tow the line…don’t rock the boat etc etc
    Education is big business everywhere, not just in China

  13. I think I have an issue with this part:

    “One almost feels the Chinese faculty is expressly forbidden from interacting with us. This cannot be the case. Still, group coercion is operative to some extent, tacitly dictating that it’s not cool for them to hang out with foreigners.”

    I don’t think it is considered uncool for Chinese faculty to hang out with foreigners in Chinese universities. I think most of them just don’t because they couldn’t give a damn, and think it’s too much trouble to try and communicate with foreigners.

    I don’t think anyone would look down on them for doing so. Actually, I think that if they were often seen conversing with foreigners in fluent English, it might actually do their standing some good. Just saying.

    • As a guy who taught at Beijing Youth Politics College, worked at China Central TV and China Radio International—-my take on foreign workers in China is thus: You are ONLY important when you are NEEDED to complete a task—make money for someone else—available to be USED for relationship trading (this is when you get a call out of the blue to “do” something for a so-called friend as you were already promised to do that task anyway) or to simply X the spot that says that a foreigner is needed to do X job. When it is over you are simply replaced by another X foreigner. When departing my last job as a news broadcaster at CRI I simply walked out the door without saying “fake” goodbyes to anyone and felt good about that decision. Back in the day when foreigners were NEEDED for many things it seemed like we were important—-wrong—we were just needed to take a few more steps up the economic ladder—from the bicycle to the electric scooter—electric scooter to the BMW.

      • I know what you are saying, and I agree to some extent.

        At the same time, I think this doesn’t invalidate what I am saying. I don’t think Chinese faculty would be looked down upon for going out with foreigners.

  14. I agree with you jixiang—I don’t think they would be looked down upon as it simply doesn’t matter—-maybe looked upon as being fools for having a relationship that won’t produce anything or gain economic status. I personally think the whole social structure in China is very very difficult and hard on the soul…..too much smoke and mirrors—words/statements with too many meanings to be figured out and how to answer such statements——and for foreigners it is MORE tiring as we slip up constantly making the wrong statements or doing something socially wrong.

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