In summer 2017, an article entitled A Monthly Salary of 30,000 Yuan is Not Enough for My Child’s Summer VacationFootnote 1 went viral on WeChat Moments. This article was written by a middle-class entrepreneur mother, who tells the story of her struggles in attempting to grant her child the best education opportunities. In the article, she specifically addresses the topic of overseas summer programs. However, her post generated a hot debate about education in China and about what middle-class familiesFootnote 2 are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve their top education dreams.
The Chinese educational system is actually the largest state-run educational system in the world: in 2015, it had over 200 million full-time students (Ministry of Education 2016). Traditionally, Chinese people strongly believe in the importance of education in the development of the nation and of individuals, and this tradition was further strengthened by the introduction of the One-Child Policy, implemented in 1979 (Fong 2004). Since then, Chinese parents have started to nurture huge expectations towards their only child and have been willing to sacrifice their own economic and personal wellbeing in order to grant their children the best chances to achieve educational success (Fong 2004). In fact, educational expenses make up a large proportion of income expenditure for households: statistics show that the per capita expenditure of Chinese private households on education has tripled over the past decade, rising from 670 yuan in 2000 to 2637 yuan in 2016 (National Bureau of Statistics 2017). These data also comprise those cultural and recreational activities that are school-related expenditures, such as after-school extra curriculum activities: math and English lessons, and music or dancing classes also represent a proportion of private household educational expenditure.
Educating their youth is, therefore, paramount to middle-class Chinese parents, and providing their children with quality education is the dream of most middle-class families. Sure enough, educators, parents, and scholars have argued that in today’s China the latest “luxury status symbol” of Chinese parents is not the latest bag by Vuitton or Gucci, but rather their children. However, why is quality education so important for the new Chinese middle class and what implications does education have on ideas of status and social standing? My efforts to answer these questions were guided by two key concepts: social distinction and capital convertibility, both introduced in the major work of Bourdieu (1984).
Social distinction is essential for individuals to secure middle-class status belonging and derives from the presence of strong symbolic boundaries that discern and separate the middle class from the working class (Bourdieu 1984). In other words, the Chinese middle class view education as one of the most powerful means to strengthen their social status in relation to the lower classes as well as the weaker members of the middle class. Therefore, data show that middle-class parents are willing to spend a small fortune on their children’s education in order to obtain distinction and social status, or to use a Chinese term, dujin, which literally means gilding: this common and very visual expression refers to the power of education to increase the value and worth of individuals.
In the Chinese context and society, social distinction is deeply connected with another key concept for this analysis, which is suzhi . Suzhi, or “human quality” (Hanser 2006), is what gives value to human capital and, therefore, allows Chinese individuals to secure a place in the middle-class category and to secure strong social distinction. The “suzhi discourse” (Hanser 2006; Jacka 2009; Tomba 2014), which has been promoted by the Chinese government since the 1980s and which basically implies that individuals are qualitatively different, largely revolves around the acquisition of cultural capital, of which quality education is a great part of.
As a theoretical basis, Bourdieu’s theory of the four species of capital provides a strong framework to support the analysis conducted in this article. We have already seen, when determining class identity, how a central element is class difference awareness: what differentiates one class from another are the economic and symbolic boundaries between different social classes (Bourdieu 1984).
However, when analyzing class differences, income and wealth alone are not enough to determine class identity and membership. Therefore, Bourdieu identifies four different types of capital that are sources of power and socially valued as important elements of class distinction: economic capital (income and wealth), cultural capital (education, language and taste), symbolic capital (status and consumption patterns), and social capital (networks) (Bourdieu 1984).
At this point of the discussion, the Bourdieusian concept of capital convertibility comes into play: indeed, economic, social, and symbolic capital do not create suzhi, or human qualitative value, but cultural capital does (Anagnost 2004).Footnote 3 Hence, the implication that suzhi can secure middle-class belonging and the reproduction of middle-class status in the long run is the reason why Chinese middle-class parents strongly encourage their children to pursue quality education and often organize their lives around quality school enrolment opportunities.
Quality education is, therefore, the fulcrum around which middle-class family lives and dynamics revolve.
The present article advances a new framework for analyzing the different effects of schooling and youth education on ideas of class and social status for the new Chinese middle class. I do this by exploring different dimensions of cultural capital and their effects on social standing and class membership. In fact, as briefly introduced above, cultural capital does not merely refer to education and schooling, but also to other dimensions which are reflected in individual status, behavior, and taste.
My core argument is that youth quality education, which implies the accumulation of cultural capital and, therefore, of suzhi, is the strongest driving force affecting middle-class families’ life strategies, as well as their ideas of status. Furthermore, cultural capital is the primary resource that can generate the other three forms of capital (Bourdieu 1984), since it can be converted into economic, symbolic, and social capital. Therefore, cultural capital is key to securing suzhi and middle-class reproduction. Ultimately, due to the fact that in China the access to quality education is strongly connected to housing strategies, house and neighborhoods have been selected as the salient lens for analysis.
Many relevant studies have dealt with education in China and the importance of educating the Chinese youth (Tan 2015, 2019; Price 2017; Gu and et al. 2018). However, most studies dealing with education in China discuss the issues of academic performance and of China’s score-centered system (Yan 2016; Tan 2019).
Other studies have looked at the relationship between education and housing. Feng and Ming (2010) and Zhang and Chen (2017) have analyzed the correlation between quality schools and housing prices in Shanghai, while further studies have analyzed the inequality in terms of educational opportunities between owners and tenants in Shanghai (Zhang and Chen 2016).
Ultimately, separate studies have looked at the Chinese middle class in relation to housing. Tomba (2010) has analyzed Chinese neighborhood planning as a way for the Chinese government to achieve social clustering and social engineering, thereby applying the concept of suzhi to neighborhoods and residential areas. The ideas of suzhi and social distinction, also in relation to the Chinese middle class, have been dealt with extensively (Anagnost 1997; Fong 2004; Kipnis 2006; Hanser 2008; Jacka 2009; Sun 2009; Zavoretti 2017).
However, few studies so far have examined the interconnection between quality education and ideas of class and status or have explored different dimensions and implications of cultural capital for the new Chinese middle class and its ideas of social standing. However, these effects and implications are of great significance, as they cast light on a complex phenomenon—that of the key role of quality education in China—which up to now has only been partially explored. Sure enough, the Chinese middle class does not only pursue quality education for reasons of career and wealth, but also for deeper and more complex class-related implications which are presented in this article.
In this regard, due to resources and to my research focus, in this paper, I will not go into detailed schooling policies, or topics such as academic performance, as my research interest pertains the effects of quality education on the external realm of family and class-belonging. I will, however, refer to other relevant studies for more detailed readings on such topics.
As a result, my findings show how quality education is indeed able to affect cultural, economic, social, and symbolic capital of middle-class individuals and families, as well as highlight the significance of the phenomenon of “education fever” for the new Chinese middle class.
This study is the result of qualitative field research conducted in Shanghai from September 2015 to June 2016, where I held repeated in-depth interviews and participant observation with the members of eleven middle-class families (including extended family members). Although I do not go into the qualitative and ethnographic methodological details in this article, I wish to hereby provide an overview as for data collection and qualitative methods applied.
The main theoretical framework utilized was grounded theory (Glaser, Strauss 1967), which provides a methodology that allows the concerns of the social participants to emerge in context (Goulding 2002; Charmaz 2006) and is thus useful for research of a social nature. In order to answer my research questions, I used a variety of data collection strategies, which I adapted throughout the 10 months of fieldwork in order to obtain data which were significant, personal, and relevant for this study. Along with face-to-face formal semi-structured interviews, I used other more informal means of data collection, such as guided conversations in informal settings, e-mail exchanges, video-calls, and voice-messages. The selection of such a varied range of data collection approaches is mainly derived from the personal rapport I built up with the participant families, who expressed a desire to share personal experiences and thoughts through more informal means of communication as well. During my formal face-to-face interview meetings, I relied on semi-structured interviews, participant observation and a memo (Gobo 1999; Corbin, Strauss 2015), and I have recorded these interviews both in oral form on a recording device and in written form in a fieldwork diary.
In line with the major categories identified during the data categorization process, the article is organized around three core dimensions or thematic findings (entitlement to property—renters vs owners, status by association—quality schools and neighborhood segregation, and cultural status—middle-class reproduction goals) through which education and schooling are able to affect middle-class families’ ideas of class and status. I have, furthermore, linked these three dimensions to the four types of capital described by Bourdieu in his analysis of class (Bourdieu 1984): economic, symbolic, social, and cultural capital. I will now look at these three dimensions in turn, also availing myself of interview extracts provided by the participants to give voice to ideas and experiences of the new middle class.