Gender and Study Abroad from China


Review of Journey of the Phoenix: Overseas study and women’s changing position in China, by Anni Kajanus.

Anni Kajanus’s Journey of the Phoenix is a significant contribution to the growing field of research on young Chinese people’s engagement with an increasingly mobile world. Building off the work of scholars such as Vanessa Fong, who has documented the hopes and desires of students with aspirations to study overseas, Kajanus’s dissertation explores the gendered dimensions of educational migration in China and its relation to Chinese cosmopolitan aspirations. A multi-sited and methodologically rich ethnography, it impressively spans the stories of young Chinese she met in Finland, Amsterdam, and the United Kingdom, as well as several regions in China such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Fujian. Theoretically, it raises interesting questions around the tensions found in young Chinese lives as they negotiate the cosmopolitan dreams and gender norms that have emerged in the reform era. Journey of the Phoenix clearly demonstrates that for many young people today conflicting projects of the self result in difficult situations and impasses where they must weigh up their desires for career success, conjugal relationships, and freedom alongside their sense of responsibility and attachment to family.

Journey of the Phoenix sets out to “offer an insight into the transformation of the social and moral landscape of China, and the role migration plays in the changing family and gender dynamics” (p. 4). Kajanus traces how women, and their families’ hopes surrounding them, have changed in an era where overseas study is increasingly popular. Her dissertation addresses a central contradiction where, when positioned as daughters and students, women are encouraged to succeed and travel widely, while when positioned as actual or potential wives and mothers they are not (p. 1). In order to explore this question, Anni Kajanus combines several theories of the self and subjectivity developed recently within the anthropology of China, as well as wider concepts of the cosmopolitan, to show how mobility, affect, and education are entangled with one another. Of equal significance however, is the empirical richness of her ethnography, which utilizes participant observation, surveys, and detailed interviews to provide a highly personal and nuanced selection of examples. Her thesis structurally follows several central figures that with whom she spent extended periods, confirming their personal stories with a wide range of shorter interviews and survey-based examples. In doing so, Kajanus achieves the difficult balance between close and personal tales and wider representative analyses often aspired for in good ethnography.

The first chapter of Journey of the Phoenix, titled “Affected Mobility,” outlines Kajanus’s synthesis of approaches in recent Chinese studies to the self and subjectivity in China, providing the major theoretical framework for her thesis. Using the concept of “economies of affect,” Kajanus describes how affects produce subjects through economies of various phenomena such as relationships, interactions, objects, and discourse (Analiese Richard, Daromir Rudnyckyj, “Economies of affect.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 15:1 (2009): 57–77). She draws on Lisa Rofel’s work on the formation of “desiring subjects” in China’s postsocialist context, to show how desire is an increasingly formative part of young Chinese images of self, education and gender (Desiring China: experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality and Public Culture. New York: Duke University Press, 2007) and combines this with Yan Yunxiang’s work on individualization (“Afterword: the drive for success and the ethics of the striving individual” in Charles Stafford (ed.), Ordinary ethics in China today. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), alongside a wider series of work on the self and personhood in China today (see, for example, Arthur Kleinman, et al. (eds), Deep China. The moral life of the person. What anthropology and psychiatry tell us about China today. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). Synthesizing this scholarship, she typifies the different forms of subjectivity she came across in her research in three forms: a caring subject, a desiring subject, and an enterprising subject. The concept of the caring subject links young people’s desire to be filial daughters and sons to wider concerns around their responsibility to Chinese society and the Chinese state. In this sense, it is a reframing of Vanessa Fong’s work on filial nationalism among young Chinese students, with slightly greater emphasis on the gendered and affective dimensions of this kind of subjectivity by connecting it to Charles Stafford’s work on relatedness (“Filial nationalism among Chinese teenagers with global identities.” American Ethnologist, 31:4 (2004): 631-648). This kind of subjectivity must be reconciled with the desire to be an enterprising subject, whose ambitions for success link to how individuals are valued in contemporary Chinese discourse. Finally, she describes how these forms of subjectivity are entangled with a desiring subject, who envisions new experiences, romance and consumption as part of a more general cosmopolitan project. Through this synthesis, Journey of the Phoenix clearly situates itself within an important body of scholarship on China today and sets out a nuanced model for understanding how young people’s desire to study overseas intersects with state-informed, family, and gendered pressures.

The second chapter, “Cosmopolitical Education,” connects the previous chapter’s emphasis on individual Chinese subjectivity to the wider system of global educational migration as a whole. Through a general overview of the literature on international education and the Chinese state’s role in this market, this chapter provides context for the more personalized stories found throughout Journey of the Phoenix. At the same time, it provides a thought-provoking ethnography of an international education fair held in Beijing in 2009 and connects the testimonies of many of the stall workers interviewed there to global discourses on global education and development. Using this ethnographic description as a central structuring feature of the chapter, Kajanus describes the different policies of receiving countries, such as the United Kingdom and Finland, through encounters with parents taking their children around the market and discussions with different stall attendees. Through this trope, this chapter explores the push-pull factors, imaginaries, and networks that inform Chinese students’ decisions to move abroad.

In the third chapter of Journey of the Phoenix, Kajanus sketches the variety of reasons and strategies for studying abroad which she came across in her research and connects this to a “geography of power” as conceptualized by Sarah Mahler and Patricia Pessar (“Gendered Geographies of Power: Analyzing gender across transnational spaces.” Identities: global studies in Culture and Power, 7:4 (2001): 441-459). Kajanus shows how the personal aspects of studying abroad, such as envisioned practical outcomes and desire to become cosmopolitan, are influenced by other power dynamics. These include differential access to institutions, networks, and income based on family background and different ‘social locations’ based on age and gender. The complexity of the power relations and strategies that influence students’ decision to study overseas is clearly conveyed here. For example, Kajanus shows how children of middle class and poorer family backgrounds have benefited from the one-child policy, as there are more resources available to them as an only child. However, the onus for going abroad in these families lay more heavily on the child’s decisions and they would often opt for different destinations, such as lower fee or no-fee education systems in Europe, or develop complex plans of work and study. The autonomy of these children was often greater than their elite counterparts whose gendered expectations and support from family would often conflict with young elite women’s desires. Their parents, who had large amounts of economic, cultural, and social capital, were far more involved in the migration process of their children and so could consequently influence their daughter’s decisions about careers and potential marriage partners to a much greater extent than disadvantaged parents.

Chapter 4, entitled “Leftover Women,” continues the discussion of the conflict between gendered expectations from family and the desire for a successful career and cosmopolitan subjectivity. Kajanus starts by tracing the stories of women who have attained some form of success through overseas travel, such as prestigious qualifications and a career. She finds that they are often subject to conflicting expectations around marriage, romance, and sex. Through the diverse stories of some of her key interlocutors, Kajanus shows how these women are seen as too old or too successful to make ideal marriage partners. In a compounding way, her discussions with these women about their own aspirations in terms of marriage also show that their own expectations around an ideal marriage partner contribute to hierarchical expectations surrounding gender. Men with less education or lower incomes than these successful women are often seen as undesirable. Alternatively, even if desired by the women themselves, women’s families would deter them from seeking men seen as unworthy of their daughters. The later part of the chapter shows how cosmopolitan subjectivities, a combination of the desiring and enterprising subject, also served as a strategy in negotiating the marriage market. Despite the pragmatic concerns of success in terms of marriage and family, Kajanus’s interlocutors often quoted seeking romance and sexual experience as part of their personal projects. Normative Chinese views, particularly around sex, meant that for some women who had studied and engaged in relationships overseas it was no longer possible or desirable to meet their families’ gender expectations. Kajanus maps the variety of choices these women make in negotiating their various subject positions surrounding love and marriage. They reframe and justify their ideal partner in terms of love and ability (nengli) or opt to find partners overseas, while others remained single or compromised and married a partner seen as suitable in the eyes of their family.

In Chapter 5, Kajanus continues and expands her discussion of cosmopolitanism through the “Cosmopolitan Lives” of three of her interlocutors. She details the story of Lulu, a young woman who married a British man after moving to Finland and masterfully makes use of her cosmopolitan resources; Jonatan, a talented young man who, after a short time overseas in Austria, was forced to return to China to work in his father’s company but still engages in a cosmopolitan life in Beijing; and Nicole, who had to negotiate difficult material and affective pressures from her family in her pursuit of a cosmopolitan life in the United Kingdom. Taking inspiration from Ulf Hannerz’s point that becoming cosmopolitan often has disembedding effects from which one can never return, Kajanus clearly shows the difficult subject positions and strategies adopted by young Chinese who move overseas (“Cosmopolitans and locals in world culture.” in Michael Featherstone (ed.), Globalculture: nationalism, globalization and modernity. London: Sage, 1990).

The final chapter, “Being the First to Get Rich,” focuses on the story of Hannah, one of Kajanus’s closest interlocutors with whom she lived while conducting research in Beijing. Unlike many of the other young people described in Journey of the Phoenix, Hannah comes from a relatively poor region of Fujian and contends with two elder brothers for family support and obligations. Highly talented, Hannah successfully moved to Beijing for her studies and, despite the costs, managed to find a well-paid job in the capital while paying off the debts she accrued during her studies. Hannah had planned to go overseas but was unable to due to various monetary pressures from her family, largely influenced by gendered expectations of care. This final chapter returns to the models of subjectivity theorized at the beginning of Journey of the Phoenix, showing how the enterprising subject and the caring subject conflict with one another. As Kajanus moves into the conclusion of her dissertation she continues the story of Hannah, revealing that close to the completion of her work in 2013, Hannah had written to Kajanus stating that she had decided to undertake training as a Buddhist nun. Forgoing the enterprising, desiring, and caring subjectivities that form images of cosmopolitanism and overseas study in China, Hannah’s tale reveals how the entangled and contradictory nature of these subject positions can result in an aspiration to leave all of them behind.

Journey of the Phoenix would likely make an excellent monograph length contribution to multiple fields of inquiry. It would make popular reading for undergraduate and graduate readerships, as it engages with a topic relevant to many of their lives: love, gender, and education. Moreover, it provides clear examples that connect to contemporary theory in easily understandable ways. For the field of Chinese studies, Kajanus’s work provides rich empirical evidence that both confirms and adds nuance to many of the theories of subjectivity with which China scholars have recently engaged. She provides a skillful synthesis of these theories that also adds a vital dimension to the scholarship on Chinese overseas study and migration in general. In particular, her discussions of love, gender and cosmopolitanism complement the work of Vanessa Fong in highly productive ways. Finally, her discussion of mobility and cosmopolitanism shows why China is an important empirical case to be considered in general theories surrounding this topic. Much of the theorization of cosmopolitanism and mobility has been based on movements in and out of Europe. Journey of the Phoenix shows how these theories are complicated by the Chinese context, where discourses of movement, care, and success are strongly connected to political discourse, family expectations, and gender.

Jamie Coates
JSPS Post-doctoral Fellow
Graduate School for Asia-Pacific Studies
Waseda University

Primary Sources
Interview data collected by Anni Kajanus
Survey data Collected by Anni Kajanus
Participant observation conducted by Anni Kajanus

Dissertation Information
University of Helsinki, Finland. 2014. 206pp. Primary Advisor: Karen Armstrong.

Image: Woman on park bench. Photo by Anni Kajanus.

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