Being Modern in ChinaA Western Cultural Analysis of Modernity, Tradition and Schooling in China Today
Being Modern in China
A Western Cultural Analysis of Modernity, Tradition and Schooling in China Today

This book analyses modernity and tradition in China today and how they combine in striking ways in the Chinese school. Paul Willis – the leading ethnographer and author of <i>Learning to Labour</i> – shows how China has undergone an internal migration not only of masses of workers but also of a mental and ideological kind to new cultural landscapes of meaning, which include worship of the glorified city, devotion to consumerism, and fixation upon the smartphone and the internet. 

Massive educational expansion has been a precondition for explosive economic growth and technical development, but at the same time the school provides a cultural stage for personal and collective experience. In its closed walls and the inescapability of its ‘scores’, an astonishing drama plays out between the new and the old, with a tapestry of intricate human meanings woven of small tragedies and triumphs, secret promises and felt betrayals, helping to produce not only exam results but cultural orientations and occupational destinies. 

By exploring the cultural dimension of everyday experience as it is lived out in the school, this book sheds new light on the enormous transformations that have swept through China and created the kind of society that it is today: a society that is obsessed with the future and at the same time structured by and in continuous dialogue with its past.

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  • December 2019
  • 240 pages
  • 153 x 229 mm / 6 x 9 in
Available Formats
  • Hardback $69.95
  • 9781509538300
  • Paperback $24.95
  • 9781509538317
  • Open eBook $19.99
  • 9781509538324
Table of Contents


Introduction and Theoretical Groundings

The Chinese Scene

Part I    Modernity’s Symbolic Order

1          Country Bad/City Good
2          Consuming Consumerism
3          The Internet as Deus Ex Machina

Part II Education’s Symbolic Order

4          The GaoKao Regime
5          The Three Arrows and Experience
6          ‘People is the Fish’

Part III The View from the Saved

7          Passing GaoKao
8          Not Passing GaoKao

Part IV Closing Portraits

9          ‘Chen’
10        ‘My Own Song’
11        A Country Trip

Orders of Experience

About the Author
Paul Willis is an ethnographer and cultural theorist and a founding editor of Ethnography.
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‘Written in a lucid and witty style, Paul Willis’s book provides a uniquely penetrating lens to scrutinize the deeply held meanings and cultural nuances in China’s relentless pursuit of modernity. A landmark contribution to China studies as well as the sociology of education.’
Yunxiang Yan, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles, and author of The Individualization of Chinese Society 

‘Paul Willis is a wonderful guide in surveying China’s jarring juxtapositions. His analysis of the ideological imbrication of communism, consumerism and Confucianism, and his close attention to the feelings of shame, stress and guilt experienced by the losers of China’s new rat race, are particularly insightful.’
Shehzad Nadeem, City University of New York

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