Harvard Educational Review
  1. Educating the Chinese Individual

    Life in a Rural Boarding School

    Mette Halskov Hansen

    Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015. 240 pp. $50.00 (cloth).

    Early in Educating the Chinese Individual: Life in a Rural Boarding School, author Mette Halskov Hansen evokes an image of five hundred youth in a rural high school who simultaneously shout out, “Today I start a new life: I believe in myself! Today I start a new life: I believe in myself!” (p. 3). Such a focus on the self reflects a transitioning Chinese society in the process of individualization. Based on ethnographic research Hansen conducted in a boarding school in the town of Gaoshan, Number Two High, this book explores how the process of individualization is shaping the educational practices, worldviews, and lives of Chinese students and teachers. This book arrives at a good time. Indeed, the past few decades have witnessed China rising in economic and political power, and the story of Chinese education is also rapidly changing. Observers have wondered to what degree the stereotypical image of Chinese education as outdated and unfit for the global demands for innovation still rings true. Thus, in this book, Hansen comprehensively and critically examines how a state school functions as a site for the negotiation of the role of the individual in China’s social and cultural context. Accordingly, she focuses on “the presanctioned and official state vision and ideology of the individual; how individualization and unsanctioned views of the individual are in practice and implicitly taught; how individuals themselves respond to, and help create, processes of societal individualization” (p. 12).

    This individualization thesis makes up the main theoretical framework of Educating the Chinese Individual. It argues that, as modernity progresses, people’s behavior and ways of living become detached from group identifiers such as family, group, or gender. Quoting Beck (2007), Hansen notes that individualism is distinct from individualization in that individualism is understood as a “personal attitude or preference,” whereas individualization refers to a "macro-sociological phenomenon” that leads to changes in individual attitudes (p. 13). Utilizing a variety of methods, including observations, surveys, textbook analysis, and formal and informal interviews with students, teachers, staff, and parents, Hansen presents Number Two High as a case to facilitate readers’ understanding of how the process of individualization is reforming institutional and educational practices.

    Educating the Chinese Individual is divided into five chapters, each of which presents a dimension of the schooling experiences that contribute to the shaping of a “learned individual” (p. 73), a term coined by Hansen but which derives from the Chinese Classics, such as On Teaching (Shi Shuo) by Han Yu in the Tang Dynasty. This discourse on learning stresses the ideal of an autonomous learning individual who continuously seeks self-improvement, while fully submitting to discipline, with the goal of becoming learned.

    The book begins in chapter 1, “Discipline and Agency,” with an exploration of the context of Number Two High. A unique contribution of Hansen’s to the literature on Chinese education is her specific focus on a rural, vocational state boarding school. Drawing from many years of fieldwork in different parts of China, Hansen describes how state boarding schools are practical arrangements for parents who must earn their livelihoods as migrant workers in cities far away from their rural towns. These parents see such boarding schools as stable and secure environments and believe them to be better for their children’s development. Yet, within the perceived academic hierarchy of Chinese society, the school’s vocational nature is still considered as a disadvantage, and a deficit view of vocational students continues to prevail.

    Hansen describes how vocational schools like Number Two High retain the basic structure and regulations that encourage students to discipline themselves and prioritize their studies, much like the practice at elite schools in China. Yet, the enforcement of the regulations remains somewhat relaxed due to the subpar academic performance of students and, consequently, the lowered expectation of college going by both the teachers and the students themselves. At Number Two High, students are faced with a reduced workload and lowered expectations, relative to standard high schools, which affords them the opportunity to socialize and engage in activities other than studying. Hansen notes that teachers she interviewed, however, interpreted such deviation from studying to be a form of selfishness and considered it to be a reflection of a society that is becoming increasingly self-serving. For example, in the town of Gaoshan, there were few offerings of extracurricular activities, and the majority of the rural students boarded at Number Two High; students therefore spent their spare time staying up late, playing Internet games, chatting with their friends on their cell phones, and using different social media platforms in schools. While this may be normal for teenagers in many parts of the world, Hansen explains that in China using cell phones in a boarding school is considered a breach of discipline, and teachers at Number Two High were surprised at how daring their students were in engaging in such activities:

    “It keeps surprising me,” twenty-seven-year-old female teacher Li said, “that these students who are not that much younger than me, and who attend a school which is very similar to the one I myself used to attend, have so much more nerve than we had!” (p. 61)

    Hansen notes that in an attempt to define and test the role of the individual, such “nerve” reflects a turn toward students challenging authority in subtle ways without direct confrontation and risk of being caught. By displaying their agency, students negotiate for individual space and test limits for creating “their own communities while trying to accommodate to the demands and expectations that structure their daily lives” (p. 67).

    In chapter 2, “Text and Truth,” Hansen takes a detailed look at the changing high school curriculum, citing examples of an official discourse on the individual promoted through the curriculum, and explores how teachers participate in the interpretation of “correct” political action. She documents how the teachers in her study taught the concept of “political life” in the course Thought and Politics. Taking up one-fourth of the course curriculum, lessons on “political life” covered China’s basic political system and its relations with the rest of the world and sought to convince students that “they are all active participants in political life” (p. 85). Through a teaching manual, teachers were provided with detailed instructions, as well as “correct” interpretations, to answer students’ questions. For example, using texts from Montesquieu, who argued that “the law is to the citizen what water is to the fish: without the constraints of the water the fish has no freedom because it dies,” teachers were instructed to explain to students that “citizens have political rights and freedom (zhengzhi quanli he ziyou) within the limits of the law and that absolute freedom (juedui de ziyou) beyond these constraints does not exist” (p. 86). The manual provided many concrete examples to enrich the teacher’s repertoire and to help students learn by repetition that their role as citizen is to abide by the law and that careless actions or speech may be interpreted as incitement that could endanger national security or stability. This sort of education, Hansen asserts, forms an ideal and multifaceted “Chinese individual” who exerts a high degree of self-control and self-discipline and who has knowledge of their rights and obligations within the boundaries of law, as interpreted by the party/state.

    In chapter 3, “Hierarchy and Democracy,” and chapter 4, “Motivation and Examination,” Hansen examines the tension between official discourse found in documents from the Ministry of Education and local educational bureaus and its implementation in the school. To describe this tension, she first uses the student cadre system, which is established and practiced in all high schools in China. Hansen observed that although the students elected their own class cadres in principle, the homeroom teacher had a strong influence in nominating candidates and determining the results of such elections. Candidates were encouraged to promote themselves as confident and self-secure, with desirable qualities they already possessed (i.e., “responsible,” “hard-working,” “extroverted”) and additional qualities they would develop through work in the association (i.e., “courage,” “self-improvement,” “self-training”), yet they were firmly interrupted if they began to discuss how the association might be improved for the common interests of students (pp. 118–119). As such, the thinking is that these student leaders should be able to govern themselves to be capable of self-representation and to be proactive—but within constrained limits so that authority and formal structure remain unchallenged. As beholden both to the association and, ostensibly, to the representation of their peers, students in these leadership positions are gradually trained to “rule themselves and others under the guidance of their teachers” (p. 126). Here Hansen argues that the cadre system may be perceived to be part of the government’s strategy of assigning the responsibilities of maintaining social order and political stability to certain social actors and groups, with the ultimate aim being to secure the authority of the party/state leadership.

    In examining life within the ecology of school, Hansen unveils artfully in chapter 5, “Dreams and Dedications,” how teachers, who acquiesce and teach political obedience, are caught in the negotiation between “the private sphere” that opens up possibilities for “negotiations of self and self interests” and the public sphere that remains “under tighter control of political authorities whom teachers should not—and largely did not—question” (p. 172). This leads to an interesting tension: teachers in her study expressed feeling a lack of choice and voice in their professional positions, the very same profession that provided them with an esteemed status in society. While teachers freely exchanged views on a wide variety of topics related to the education system regarding their students, they felt they had no voice in larger political debates. Teachers felt there was no space in which they could discuss their experiences and reflections collectively as teachers, nor could they viably translate their disappointment into acts of resistance or change. In this way, teachers had no choice but to promote individual qualities and solutions to address and overcome social issues and challenges.

    In the concluding chapter, Hansen summarizes the general trends in Chinese educational policy since the 1980s and considers the shift in discourse and practice. The party/state demands that people be more self-reliant, focus on their own social and economic investments, and protect their own well-being and stake, and choice is actively employed as a technique of governance in China. While the neoliberal discourse of innovation and creativity is popularized, the leadership is reluctant to introduce into the education system significant elements of critical debate, analytical skills, or active participation. And while private criticism of the public education policies and practices remain, there is no expectation that teachers or students should act collectively to enact change.

    Educating the Chinese Individual is an important and timely contribution to the burgeoning literature on a changing China. It provides a highly accessible yet complex introduction to life at a Chinese state school. From the study we learn the perspectives on and practices of students and teachers around the new, optional, and individualistic ethos of rights and self-development in both macro and micro contexts. Yet, with a renewed perspective on this complex reality, the reader is still left wondering what feasible recommendations Hansen would make for educators and policy makers interested in building the capacity of the next generation of creative and innovative Chinese citizens. Nonetheless, Hansen offers a prismatic lens onto the possibilities of learning as the government considers its strategic priorities, and she skillfully discusses the learned Chinese individual in a neoliberal society guided by principals of “authoritarian individualization,” making it accessible to both those already engaged in research on education in China as well as newcomers to this topic.
    s. z.

    Beck, U. (2007). Beyond class and nation: Reframing social inequalities in a globalizing world. British Journal of Sociology, 58(4), 679–705.
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