The Local Practice of Global Aspirations: Ethical Self-Making in Contemporary Chinese Educational Volunteerism

Wang, Chenyu, Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Hoffman, Diane, Cu-Leadshp Fndns & Pol Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores how the educational development work enacted by foreign-educated Chinese students in rural China reflects contemporary Chinese thinking about the meaning of an educated person. I use ethnography as the methodological orientation, because my goal is to explicate the emic beliefs, knowledge, and practices concerning rural education in China. Data in this dissertation come from a total fourteen-month ethnographic fieldwork in a volunteer education development organization in Beijing and a county high school in Hunan. I conducted participant observation with the orientation, training, program, and the concluding ceremonies with three short-term programs as well as the daily operation of the NGO itself. I also conducted ethnographic interviews with the volunteer participants and the NGO staff members.

By analyzing the living and teaching experiences of the Chinese volunteers in rural schools, I examine how the overseas-educated young volunteers have forged an ideal personhood that is able to be connected to the soil, or jie di qi. Rooted in the concentric model of Chinese selfhood, the jie di qi ideal is an authentic cosmopolitan personhood that synthesizes the rural and the urban of China, and the foreign outside of China. In turn, this ideal shapes the volunteers’ thinking about “proper” behaviors and curriculum in rural China. It transcends material and cultural boundaries, and has ethical implications. Emphasizing on cultivating the capacity to relate to the Others, this ideal forges an alternative cosmopolitan community in contemporary China.

Moreover, an analysis of the critics within the NGO circle shows that the Chinese cosmopolitan ideal is, in effect, a deep and implicit resistance against the Chinese state’s dictation on the ideal personal development scheme. The privileged educational background of the overseas-educated students enables them to conceptualize an ideal personhood that defies against the Party-State’s human capital discourse. Hence, the quest for a cosmopolitan ideal in China reflects the collective search for morality of a new Chinese generation.

My study fills a significant gap in the literature on development and education. It provides an alternative to the dominant narrative that focuses on the production and reproduction of privilege and social structures through educational activities. It also takes seriously the role of ideal and aspiration in educational practices, providing empirical evidence to the further consider the relationship between the present and possibilities and politics of the future. Lastly, it enriches the literature on educational reform in China through a critical look at a collective attempt to rehumanize education in an out-of-school context.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
self-formation, service-learning, ethics and morality, education reform, China
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: