Test-taking mentality and class society

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Latest article in SupChina:

"‘Small-town test taker’ — phrase of the week"

A “small-town test taker” is a self-deprecating — or slightly insulting — phrase to describe a country bumpkin who works their butt off in pursuit of success.

Andrew Methven (7/22/22)

One would not expect a strongly class consciousness and behavior in a presumably classless communist society, but that seems to be the case in the PRC, especially in the entertainment sector, of all places.

Our phrase of the week is: small-town test taker (小镇做题家 xiǎo zhèn zuò tí jiā).


Chinese pop singer Jackson Yee (易烊千玺 Yì Yángqiānxǐ) and two other celebrities are facing controversy after the National Theatre of China (国家话剧院 guójiā dà jùyuàn) hired them as staff performers, sparking calls on social media for more transparency amid concerns that they gained privileged access.

The public sector roles, or biānzhì 编制 in Chinese, that they were offered are highly sought-after jobs that are supposed to be secured through a rigorous competitive process of exams and interviews. Thousands of people may apply for a single job.

    • A bianzhi brings with it attractive perks: It can normally be extended for life, and it offers a stable income with housing subsidies and other benefits.

Yee has apologized on his Weibo account for any misunderstanding or angst caused, and decided not to take the job.

While it may be admirable for Jackson Yee to turn down the cushiony job under these circumstances, I don't quite see what offense HE committed in being offered the position of staff performer at the national theater.  Rather, it seems that something is drastically wrong with the schizophrenic social system and its values.

But the real controversy came following an article on July 8 in the state-run publication China Newsweek (中国新闻周刊 zhōngguó xīnwén zhōukān), which has since been deleted.

Senior journalist Yáng Shíyáng 杨时旸 suggested that celebrities like Jackson Yee are more talented and more able to pass exams to access cushy public sector jobs than “normal people,” no matter how hard they work:

There are many people who take the exams. These “small-town test takers” take tutoring classes every day, do practice tests, and they still can’t obtain a public sector job with job security.


Kǎo biān de pǔtōng rén dà yǒu rén zài, zhèxiē xiǎo zhèn zuò tí jiā měitiān shàng péixùn bān, zuò zhēntí juǎn*, yě réngrán kǎo bù zhòng nàge néng wèi tāmen dài lái ānquán gǎn de biānzhì nèi zhíwù.  *[VHM: –> juàn]


Small-town test takers originally referred to people from remote or poor parts of China who have worked hard to pass gāokǎo 高考 exams and get into top universities in the country. The reaction to the China Newsweek article has brought a broader meaning, so it now can refer to the common people in China as opposed to the privileged few.

The phrase first became popular in 2020 in a discussion group on Douban of over 50,000 self-proclaimed small-town test takers. They, and people like them, came to the conclusion that even though they are great at taking tests and managed to get into their dream university, they are still at a big disadvantage compared with their well-off city-dwelling peers who enjoy support from parents and are given a leg up through networks and a more luxurious lifestyle.

It is a self-deprecating phrase, but it also carries with it a level of respect for anyone who could work that hard in order to improve their lives.

But the new twist added to the phrase by the China Newsweek article is described as arrogant and condescending by social media users:

Since ancient times, no one has dared to blatantly laugh at people for working hard. He is the first one.


Zìgǔ yǐlái jiù méiyǒu rén gǎn míngmùzhāngdǎn de cháoxiào nǔlì de rén, tā shì dì yī gè.


With China on the brink of war against Taiwan and building up its forces along the Indian border, it's difficult to imagine how the privileged classes can get so worked up over the awarding of public sector roles in contrast to the struggle to rise in society through the grueling college entrance examinations, which usually don't make that much difference in the lives of ordinary citizens.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Hill Gates said,

    July 25, 2022 @ 4:38 pm

    Not sure where we'd find a"classless communist society," but China never gave up the distinctive scholar-bureaucrat/commoner class distinction, and organized the revolution around distinctions between commoner sub-classes with a very firm hand. I assume that whenever a Chinese person over, say, 40 hears the expression "social harmony" they say to themselves: Right. That's what we call "no class struggle" now. Hierarchy is their middle name!

  2. DMcCunney said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 9:55 am

    "One would not expect a strongly class consciousness and behavior in a presumably classless communist society,"

    I would. One thing I've been convinced of for many years is that societies change with glacial slowness. When Mao's Chinese Communists won the civil war, forcing Chang Kai Shek to retreat to Taiwan, and Mao took over as China's leader, his *title* was General Secretary of the Communist Party, but the *role* he stepped into was Emperor of China. The name changed but the role did not.

    I saw a similar example years back. The Wall Strteet Journal had an interview with a then senior CCP official. He was asked about the Chinese economy, which was looking a lot like free market Capitalism, complete with a stock market in Beijing. His attitude was extremely pragmatic. If it worked, it was a triumph of the glorious people's revolution. If it didn't, it was a nefarious plot of Western imperialism. #What "it" was was irrelevant. I thought of Humpty Dumpty commenting that words meant whatever he wanted them to when he said them.

    A friend in the UK was involved for years in international education. She talked about dealing with the Chinese. Like every other Asian country, you greased palms to get things done, but in China, the *order* in which they were greased was critical, and was based on internal factors you would be ignorant of. China was nominally classless, but still obsessed with rank, status, and precedence. What things were called changed, but the underlying relationships did not. China was still utterly class conscious.

  3. Hill Gates said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 12:04 pm

    OK. That important point is clear. Now think through how the vast majority of Chinese–commoners–saw it (Gates 1996) and we start seeing actual China in focus. Unblushingly, Hill

  4. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    July 26, 2022 @ 4:09 pm

    The work which Prof. Hill Gates "unblushingly" refers to is her 1996 Cornell University Press book: China's Motor: A Thousand Years of Petty Capitalism (Wilder House Series in Politics) https://www.amazon.com/Chinas-Motor-Thousand-Capitalism-Politics/dp/0801431433/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2OJUIHB7KZ5GA&keywords=Hill+Gates+China%27s+Motor&qid=1658869545&s=books&sprefix=hill+gates+china%27s+motor%2Cstripbooks%2C86&sr=1-1

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