Navigating the Urban-Rural Divide: The Agency of Rural Chinese Female Higher Education Students in China


Lifang Wang

PhD defended at: 




My dissertation investigates how rural Chinese female students at urban Chinese higher education institutions conceptualize and negotiate the urban-rural divide that often interplays with gender and the discourse of quality (suzhi) to shape their lives. A substantial body of literature discusses the profound inequalities that rural Chinese people encounter due to the urban-rural divide and household registration system (Chan & Zhang, 1999; Wang & Zuo, 1999; Loong-Yu & Shan, 2007; Tang & Yang, 2008; Whyte, 2010; Han, 2010). An increasing amount of literature also addresses the experiences of rural Chinese migrant women working in urban China (Gaetano & Jacka, 2004; Jacka, 2006; Gaetano, 2004; Gaetano, 2005; Yan, 2008). However, little research has been done on rural Chinese university women. The few articles that do exist tend to blame them or their culture for their failure or struggles (Ren, 2008; Xu, 2007; Wan, 2007), or else focus on the unequal power structures that victimize them (Yu, 2006); but none of these studies incorporates the perspectives of these women. My dissertation fills the scholarly gap by focusing on the voices and perspectives of a group of rural female higher education students who talked about their experiences of negotiating multiple and intersecting power structures.

Qualitative methodology and feminist methodology informed this dissertation. To collect data, I conducted open-ended, in-depth interviews with 66 rural female students (51 undergraduates and 15 graduate students) at five public universities and one public college in northern China. This research revealed the profound inequalities that these students experienced in attaining higher education, such as urban primary and secondary schools’ exclusion of rural students, overt and subtle forms of gender discrimination at home and school, regional discrimination reflected in higher education admission policies, and political control and punishment through the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. These had seldom been examined by previous studies.

The students that I interviewed also encountered numerous obstacles to their integration into urban campuses; they felt marginalized from mainstream urban life because the dominant culture regarded urban life and people as superior to rural life and people. Despite all these barriers, these women did not allow themselves to be defeated; instead they became active agents by developing strategies to negotiate and resist the barriers when they could. Building upon the work of Daniel G. Solorzano and Dolores Delgano Bernal (2001) and of Tara J. Yosso (2006), I define such agency that my participants exhibited as the ability to navigate the institutional barriers and social norms that constrain their conditions of existence.

Though my participants were constrained by the unequal structures of power, they were also aware of the inequalities. They responded by making decisions and devising strategies to become upwardly mobile through educational achievements. It may seem that by striving for educational success, they were merely conforming to the societal norm; but they were also in this way resisting marginalization arising from the dominant cultural capital and the discourse of quality that represents them as inferior or deficient. In response to the discourse of quality, they also exercised their agency by making meaning of their lived experiences with this discourse and/or developing counter-discourses to negotiate it. Furthermore, when they encountered different and sometimes contradictory forms of patriarchy across rural and urban contexts, they expressed their agency by shifting and reformulating their identities.