In recent years Chinese people have attached greater importance to the term“laoshi”(teacher), and expanded it far beyond its traditional meaning. It is even now used to respectfully address people possessing strong knowledge or competence in a specific field.
In spite of this socio-linguistic consideration, the traditional role of educators has not lost its appeal in the fast-growing Chinese society, quite the opposite of what is happening in Western culture (for instance, there is no Chinese version of the saying “Those who can do, those who can’t teach”). Academic professions have always been highly regarded in China, but not for economic reasons. In fact, among the motivations that lead a university student to embrace an academic career, it appears that financial reward and benefits play a secondary role compared to stability and job fulfilment.
Government investments in the field of education, along with an increase in the number of cooperation and exchange agreements with foreign universities, have contributed to create a variety of new academic professions, each of which with its own purpose and benefits.
If you are considering a teaching career in the Middle Kingdom as a foreign professional you might fall into one of the following categories:
The foreign expert or waiguo zhuangjia:
Following recent government policies on the development of specific areas and sectors of the Chinese economy, the number of academic or government institutions seeking overseas expertise or counselling on a variety of projects has also increased. The foreign experts, or waiguo zhuangjia, were probably the first professional figures coming from abroad in modern China and, according to the Administration’s Cultural and Educational Experts Department, about a third of them work in cultural or academic institutions. They are independent professionals or scholars belonging to non-Chinese universities with an expertise in a specific field. They are appointed by a Chinese institution to supervise a project, train a group of young scholars or just as teachers of a relevant subject. The conditions and benefits of the post vary according to the length of the project or the rarity of the field of expertise. Scientists or IT experts can usually expect a better financial package, because of consistent investments in those fields. After the introduction of new visa regulations in 2013, the Chinese authorities are also perfecting the recruitment process of foreign experts and are trying to bring them into the social security insurance system and thus encourage them to blend in with society. At the same time, due to the flux of foreign talent in almost every region, the State Administration is also paying more attention to criminal records and is improving background check systems on non-Chinese workers.
The language teacher or waijiao laoshi:
Although they also fall into the category of foreign experts, the enormous crowd of foreign language teachers deserve a section of their own. Chinese websites for expats thrive on vacancies for language teachers – mostly native English speakers, for universities, primary and secondary schools. Foreign teachers are traditionally considered the best way to attract students by institutions. Contracts are usually offered for between one semester and a year, with salary or benefits varying according to a number of conditions subject to negotiation.
The type and location of school, weekly workload and ‘importance’ of the taught language are just a few parameters that can influence the type of contract. For instance, as unconventional as it might seem, some adverts are targeted specifically at ‘teachers of minor languages’ (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese), for which a benefit package may differ to those offered to teachers of ‘major languages (English, German). Salaries usually range between RMB 6000 and 20,000 in big cities, sometimes including accommodation, but teachers in less-developed areas may even make do with RMB 4000 or 5000 per month. Having said this, teaching schedules can be quite flexible, leaving plenty of time for private tutoring and the search for a second income.
The visiting scholar or jiaoliu xuezhe
Due to the increasing demand for foreign expertise – or maybe as a part of the Chinese soft power policy, the number of exchange programmes between Chinese and overseas universities is also increasing. If you are a member of an academic institution seeking a fresh research opportunity or a way to improve your skills in Chinese, you might consider applying for a visiting scholar programme. The majority of them are provided by Hanban (the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language), a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. Hanban is in charge of developing international cooperation in the field of Sinology, but each Chinese university provides their own offer. The average salary is often low (usually between 2000 and 5000 RMB/month), but comes with accommodation and sometimes travel expenses. Hanban scholarships are usually more generous in terms of benefits, with a monthly stipend of around RMB 8000 alongside travel expenses. An experience as a visiting scholar is a soft way to take the first steps into a Chinese university. Foreign scholars are highly regarded and are often involved in a number of interesting cultural and research activities. These events are often sponsored or held in conjunction with their country’s embassy or diplomatic institution.
The working environment provided by Chinese universities is relatively stable and stimulating, but can be challenging for newcomers. The biggest differences foreign scholars find with their own universities, especially those from the EU, is the incredible amount of funding Chinese institutions have access to and the number of resources available. If you decide to settle down for a while, you might consider improving your academic CV by undertaking a PhD, which is a key to obtaining promotions and pay rises. You can still receive these as a ‘simple’ language teacher, but it will depend on the institution. If you don’t need anymore letters after your name, then focusing on perfecting your language skills is another option: it might not boost your career in terms of money and benefits, but it will surely aid your study of Chinese culture and will put you in a more balanced position with your students and colleagues.