A Generation of Rural Teachers Challenged by Changes in Chinese Education – Xiaoxuan Li and Michael Zang

Students Xiaoxuan Li and Michael Zang traveled through villages in rural areas of and to investigate problems in Chinese , in addition to teaching English classes to elementary and middle school students. They contributed the following photos and essay to CDT.


(Students in Inner Mongolia)

A Generation of Rural Teachers Challenged by Changes in Chinese Education

Marching to the order of “building a harmonious society” to bridge the gap between the urban rich and the rural poor, reformers of Chinese public education in recent decades have called for greater financing for primary education in the countryside. This new emphasis on improving rural education marks a drastic departure in China’s national education policy from the previous approach of favoring urban schools and higher education.

Despite the historical significance of this policy shift and the enactment of unprecedented measures, such as the elimination of tuition and miscellaneous fees for students of rural public schools, rural education remains unequivocally inferior to urban education in China. Reforms have fallen short of achieving genuine equality within China’s increasingly polarized society.

In 1988, the central government introduced a ten-year plan to revamp rural education in two fundamental areas. First, it sought to finance the construction and renovation of schoolhouses in poor villages. Second, the Ministry of Education initiated a program to systematically incorporate all privately hired teachers in the countryside into the ranks of state employees.

The first prong of the 1988 reform package succeeded in drastically improving the facilities of rural schools. Zhang Jun, Senior Researcher at the Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, commented, “Fifteen years ago, you could find many schools in remote villages that would nearly collapse every time a rain storm hit. But now, it’s virtually impossible to find those places.”

Despite the effectiveness of the 10-year plan to bring about improved classroom conditions and facilities at rural schools, its program of enlisting privately hired teachers at the village level into the ranks of state employees structurally worsened the quality of rural teaching staffs.

Rural schools across the country hired over three million private teachers, known as “min ban” (Ê∞ëÂäû) teachers, in the 1970s and 80s. During those decades, the central government had little money to pay teachers at the lowest level of the public education system. Therefore, poor villages were forced to find their own teachers, who were often paid by the village council with meager compensation.

Because of the impoverished economic conditions of the villages where “min ban” teachers were needed, qualified candidates were often unwilling to apply for jobs in those remote areas. As a result, the teachers that were hired generally offered very little educational background and pedagogical experience. Nevertheless, the “min ban” system was a temporary, but effective, solution to China’s teacher shortage problem, filling unattractive posts at rural schools.

The 1988 plan called for the promotion of the status of these “min ban” teachers from village workers to state employees. In effect, it raised their salaries, and guaranteed them lifetime tenure in their positions. That policy succeeded in improving the working conditions and income of “min ban” teachers, elevating them to a rank that was both financially and socially comparable to government-employed teachers in urban areas.

Today, the one-child policy has reduced student enrollment in the Chinese countryside. Consequently, teacher shortages have become a problem of the past. With the elimination of schools in these remote villages due to low enrollment, there are no longer unfilled teaching positions. Thus, the advantage that “min ban” teachers offered in teaching classes in areas where professional teachers couldn’t be found has become obsolete.

Unfortunately, the former “min ban” teachers have become a burden on efforts to improve the equality of rural education. Most of the older, “min ban” teachers were merely high school graduates. Even more troubling, a vast majority of them attended high school during the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution when little academic knowledge was imparted to them other than class struggles.

“Min ban” teachers are ill prepared for unfamiliar subjects or what most Chinese education reformers call “soft education”. Constrained by their understanding of new curriculums, such as English, computer science, technology, and the arts, “min ban” teachers mostly instruct secondary classes on morality and the social sciences. Even in these areas, the older teachers find it difficult to connect with young students. In addition, these teachers conduct their classrooms using the outdated method of “hard education”, conveying the material through repetition and rote memorization.

Although deeply ingrained in the history of Chinese education, the “hard education” method is now being replaced by a less-constrained style that focuses on discovering each student’s individual talents and nurturing the development of his or her creativity. Teachers are encouraged to promote dialogue and participation among the students in a lively and interactive classroom environment. Now mostly in their late 40s and early 50s, the “min ban” teachers lack the energy and the capability to keep up with their students.

Lin Shifu is principal at the Kang Jia Yin Zi Village Middle School located in a remote village in the northeastern part of Inner Mongolia. He expressed his concern that “Although ‘min ban’ teachers have almost 20 years of teaching experience, they cannot adapt to today’s standards in teaching methods. They have trouble communicating with young elementary students and inspiring the students’ interest in school.”

In addition to their inability to provide adequate instruction in new areas of education, the “min ban” teachers’ occupation of existing teaching positions also precludes younger and better-trained teachers from being hired. Because the number of available teaching positions in public schools is strictly controlled by a quota system based on student enrollment, local schools cannot independently hire more teachers with government salary and benefits. Frustrated by the “min ban” teachers’ inability to provide instruction in new curriculums, many village schools have resorted to hiring younger and better-trained teachers outside of the quota. Because they are not government employees, these teachers are often given little to no compensation.

Denied lifetime tenure, and meagerly compensated, younger teachers often have little choice but to seek more attractive employment options. Those with higher degrees and established teaching experience are frequently hired by private and urban schools, and some without college diplomas study independently for further development. Mr. Su, a middle school teacher in the impoverished area of Heze, Shandong Province, teaches seven classes during the day, and diligently practices for the GMAT at night.

“I graduated from this very middle school and I’m attached to being a teacher here,” said Mr. Su, “However, I only earn 500 yuan a month. I want to get a graduate degree and teach in a city high school, but it is very difficult.”

The difficulty he speaks of not only comes from his limited resources, but also from the criticism he might receive from school superiors who are keenly aware of their fleeing work force. Therefore, Su studies privately and does not speak of his ambitions to his colleagues.

Recognizing the troubling deficiency in the overall quality of rural teachers, the central government has eliminated tuition for all teachers’ colleges in China starting from the 07-08 academic year. In return, all graduates who benefit from free schooling must teach in the countryside for a set number of years. While this program may prove to be highly effective in bringing new talent to rural education, it is only a temporary remedy. A permanent solution will only become possible when the “min ban” teachers retire from the workforce in the next 10 to 20 years, and when professionally trained teachers are appropriately matched with places where they are needed the most.

“We recognize that even with our years of teaching experience, we are lacking in many ways,” said a 47 year old “min ban” teacher who wished to remain anonymous, “As rural education modernizes along with the rest of Chinese society, we will eventually enter the history books, and yield to the new generation that will shape the new China.”


(English class)


(Teacher’s Room, Middle School in Heze, Shandong)


(7th Grade Students, Middle School in Heze, Shandong)


(Elementary school in Kang Jia Yin Zi, Inner Mongolia)

-Xiaoxuan Li is a junior at Yale College majoring in Economics and International Studies. Michael Zang is a senior at Yale College majoring in Political Science and International Studies. All photos were taken by Xiaoxuan Li.



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