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Country Guide: China

China’s geographic footprint is very large, and there is much to explore from the power capital of Beijing to semi-autonomous regions and special economic zones.  Spending time in the country gives student visitors unique access to understanding the political, economic, environmental, and international relations challenges contemporary China is facing.

Use the following guide sections to become familiar with how to prepare for and what to expect during a semester abroad in China.

Higher Education in China

China’s higher education system is the largest and one of the oldest in the world – comprised of over 2,000 institutions with origins also of nearly 2,000 years – and is extremely competitive.  The system is very centralized under the Ministry of Education, which through policy-making and legislation has the authority to plan for, fund, and evaluate all institutions of higher education.  Since the educational reforms of the 1980s, however, some of this authority has been partially devolved to more localized state bureaucracies, which in turned provided universities with more autonomy and freedom and the ability to pursue more interdisciplinary degree programs and research.  The growth of high quality private universities was another outcome of this process.

Young Chinese students study intensively throughout secondary school in order to be eligible to take, and ultimately pass, the Gaokao, the national college entrance exam.  Only a minority of students will have the opportunity to attend university, though as the middle class grows students are clamoring for the opportunity to gain access to higher education.  Students will attend elementary and junior high school as compulsory education, and then may take the Zhongkao to gain admission to senior high school to complete their secondary education.  Depending on scores, students will either pursue coursework in the vocational high school track, or the regular high school track.  Regular track students must take the General Examination for High School Students or Academic Proficiency Test and earn a passing score in order to gain eligibility to sit for the Gaokao.

Due to the level of difficulty required to gain entrance, higher education is viewed as a privilege and taken very seriously.  A greater amount of rigor than most American students are accustomed to exists in the classroom, and is instructor-centered, rather than student-centered as it in the U.S.  Most classes are lecture style, and, depending on the lecturer, may not provide many opportunities to interact, and provide feedback or a personal opinion.  Students are expected to listen, take notes, and complete the homework as assigned.  Presentations, essays, and group projects are uncommon experiences.

Obtaining a Visa and/or Residency Permit

All U.S. passport holders will require a visa to study on exchange in China.  Students will need to apply for the X visa, which has two subcategories.  The X1 visa is used for students who plan to study in China for more than six months, while the X2 visa is used for shorter periods of study that equal less than 6 months.  Students who plan to study for 1 semester abroad should apply for the X2 visa.  Students who plan to study for the full academic year will need to apply for the X1 visa.  (Students who are not U.S. passport holders should check with the Chinese embassy in their country of citizenship to determine visa requirements and needs.)

Students cannot complete the visa application process until they have received the form JW202 from their host institution.  Once the host university receives all the student’s materials, they will apply to the local Education Ministry for this form on behalf of the student and mail it to either IPS or the student.  Once students have received this form, they may formally apply for the visa.  Students should be aware that the X2 and X1 visas have different requirements regarding certifications of health.  Students applying for an X1 visa will be required to undergo a physical medical examination either before or after they enter China.*  Proof of satisfactory completion of this exam will need to be submitted when applying for the residence permit.

In order to facilitate the visa application process, the IPS and host schools abroad recommend that students use a visa processing service.  There are a variety of options, though past Georgia Southern students have found great success using China Professional Tours, located in Atlanta.  Use of a visa processing service is not a requirement.  Not using a processor, however, often necessitates travel to the closest Chinese consulate for the Southeast U.S. – located in Houston, Texas – to complete the visa application process.  Students who are not U.S. citizens or residents of the state of Georgia should consult with International Programs & Services about recommendations for obtaining a visa.

After arriving in China, students will need to apply for a residence permit and register with the local authorities.  The universities Georgia Southern works with typically provide assistance and instructions for this process during their orientation program.  Students should follow directions carefully and make this action a priority as those entering with country with an X visa will only have a certain number of days to register and obtain the residence permit before their presence becomes unlawful.

*Notes about the physical examination: The Foreigner Physical Examination Form is very comprehensive.  Often when applying for the visa, this completed form is not required.  Students may complete this form in the U.S. with their physician if they chose.  It is worth pointing out, though, that some of the tests required are considered unusual in the U.S. if there is no evidence of the illness in a patient.  For some students, it may then be difficult to persuade an insurance provider to cover the cost of these tests for the sole purpose of completing the form.  It is also not uncommon for examinations in the U.S. to be considered incomplete or incorrect, and some students have been required to re-complete the examination after arrival, for a cost equivalent to roughly $100.  Based on this information, students will need to make a personal choice about whether to pursue completing the physical medical examination before or after arrival in China.

Navigating Chinese Culture

The following are some of the classic terms used to discuss common dimensions to all societies and shape the underlying behaviors, values, and choices that are often “hidden” from outsiders.  You will want to use these concepts to help you understand how daily life – that visible, surface culture – operates in China.

Orientation/Time:  Overall, the Chinese are very long-term oriented when it comes to engaging with the concept of time and urgency is not always a priority in day-to-day life.  While punctuality, thoroughness, and diligence are valued, people and relationships continue to remain the first priority and the family is the prototype of how society is organized.  Figures in positions of authority (high social and political status) may be late to show their level of importance, while subordinates should never be late as it is considered rude.

Authority:  Chinese society largely operates around the principle of respect, and stresses a greater distance between authority figures and those they lead.  This holds true whether that authority is in business, politics, or teaching in a classroom.  These relationships require a greater degree of formality between parties, and requires recognition of someone’s age and seniority that grants them an expected level of authority and respect.  While hard work is emphasized, social mobility based on merit is not and status is ascribed.  The idea is that social stability originates from unequal and hierarchical relationships between people.

Ambiguity:  Chinese society is highly tolerant of the ambiguous.  Much of this is related to the concept of humility and leaning heavily on authority.  When seeking out information, unclear or conflicting answers are not uncommon.  Often you will receive an incorrect answer presented with an air of authority or truth, because the person you are interacting with does not know the answer, but would be embarrassed to admit that.  Other times, the person you are dealing with may not have the authority to answer your question or assist you.  Learn to adapt and be flexible with unclear answers, and be pro-active in seeking out multiple sources of information.

Face:  The concept of “face” is important in China, and people will go to great lengths to “save-face.”  At its most basic, it has to do with avoiding embarrassment, but the concept goes much deeper in dictating how your character is perceived and accepted by others in society and how well one aligns the ideals and expectations.  Compared to other cultures, in East Asia “saving face” is pursued with much more rigor and intent than we are used to in the U.S.  Losing your temper in public, being immodest or bragging about your accomplishments, not deflecting compliments, and similar actions will cause you “lose face.”  Humility is highly valued.  This concept can also help explain many frustrating or confusing scenarios you will likely encounter.

Individuality:  A high value on social harmony and behavior regulated according to social norms is expected in China, and individuality takes a back seat to the interests of the larger collective group.  While all individuals do possess their own wide range of interests, personality traits, and desires, great concern is placed on maintaining order and sacrificing these interests in favor of the larger in-group (whether a group of friends, family, or society as a whole) when required.  All individuals are expected to consider the implications of their actions for the wider collective unit and use this reflection to make choices that advance the harmony of the group.  U.S. students can often find this frustrating, and it can make becoming part of an in-group initially difficult as students make the adjustment to a far more collectively-oriented culture.

Daily Life in China

Language:  On the Chinese mainland, a standardized Mandarin Chinese serves as the lingua franca to unite the 56 different recognized ethnic groups that each use their own language and dialects.  Students who have studied Chinese will quickly learn that there are many differences between the classroom version of the language, and the colloquial version used in daily life.  Additionally, many regions have dialects or versions of Chinese that are mutually unintelligible.  Japanese continues to be the second-most studied language by Chinese students, though there is a growing interest in learning English, as this is seen as fairly prestigious.  While members of older generations will not have any English knowledge, you’ll find younger individuals and students who are keen to practice with you and use their language skills, however limited.

Greetings & Communication:  When meeting someone for the first time, hand shake and nod of acknowledgement will do just fine.  Hugs are reserved for good friends and family.  For as often as people communicate indirectly in China, you should be prepared for questions that, to U.S. visitors, seem very blunt or often inappropriate.  Comments related to weight, physical appearance, or position and salary are not uncommon.  In China, though, these are considered extensions of observations visible to everyone, and are not an extension of how a particular person feels about you.  In the same vein as these straightforward comments, sarcasm is not a common style of communication as it can lead to attacking someone’s character – even if the intent is playful.

Personal Space:  With a population of over 1.3 billion and the rapid pace of urbanization, personal space can often be at a premium in major Chinese cities.  Don’t be surprised to find yourself jostled moving through markets, getting on and off of a subway car, or even in shops and stores.  Especially outside of the home, space is public, common, and shared.  If someone bumps you, they are just trying to move through and will likely not issue an apologize.  Taking these incidences personally or fuming because someone ran into you without saying “I’m sorry,” will lead to a lot of unnecessary anger and souring of your time in China.  You’ll probably also find that you’ll also have to end up bumping others to get where you need to go, as well.

Hygiene:  Because space is so public and shared, you are likely to see people engaging in habits that in the U.S might be considered unclean or something to be done in private.  In China, the ground is viewed as very dirty, so wearing shoes inside, touching someone with the bottom of your shoe, or setting a purse or bag down on the ground are all frowned upon.  A common belief is that expelling bodily gasses and fluids is a way to keep the body clean and “waiting” until a private moment or space is available can be harmful, so it is common to see people spitting or urinating in the street.  While the growth of a middle-class that views themselves as sophisticated is moving away from these practices – and the Chinese government made an effort to curb them in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympic games – students can still expect to see many of these actions during their time abroad.  In short, the Chinese have a much different relationship with their environment and body than U.S. citizens do.

Rapid growth and urbanization has also led to living quarters that are cramped and quite basic, which is often the case with dormitories. Chinese student dormitories are usually kept separate from international student dorms. The typical dorm room for Chinese students holds four students and there are no coed dorms.  As a foreign student, you will most likely be housed with only one roommate. While your room may not be up to Western standards, please be aware of this discrepancy when speaking with Chinese students or making complaints about your own living conditions.

Socializing & Meal Etiquette:  Meals are a slow-paced and communal affair and a popular way to network where the fresh nature of the food is a highlight and eating is never rushed.  A meal can last for hours.  It’s also important to know that, when eating out, bills are never divided or split.  The individual who made the call or provided the invitation for a meal will be the person expected to pay, though sometimes the gesture will be made by the invitee to pay, out of politeness.  Sometimes this gesture can seem rather dramatic as people “fight” over the bill.  Remember, though, that, even when it is your turn to pay, the favor is likely to be returned, either at another meal or by taking you our for tea or a drink.

While eating with groups, it is important to allow others to serve you and to return the courtesy.  Accepting food is a polite gesture, even if you do not intend to eat what is served.  Serving others before yourself is a small gesture that goes a long way, even when eating with peers of your own age.  And when eating with someone older or in a position of authority – such as a grandparent or teacher – do not sit until they are seated or eat/receive food until they have done so.

Especially when with new friends, keep conversation light and discuss your experiences in China, sports, travel, or other generally non-controversial topics.  Avoiding polarizing issues such as politics, conflict, etc. is a good rule of thumb when getting to know people.

Gifts:  Gifts are viewed as an important way to build relationships in Chinese society, especially in a culture where networking and the concept of “who you know” is highly valued.  Your relationship to the person and their social status will dictate what type of gift you present.  The most common scenario is for U.S. students to find themselves invited to the family homes of some of their new Chinese friends.  In this case, it would be impolite to arrive empty-handed and a small gift from the U.S. would be very well received – through fruit, flowers, candy, or a sweet cake will also be a respectful gesture.  You may have to offer a gift more than once, as well, so don’t be dismayed if the gift is declined when first presented.  You also should expect that the gift is opened in your presence, and you should also avoid opening gift provided to you, as well.  Any item you are presenting to someone, from a business card to a present, should be handed to the recipient using both hands.

Clothing & Climate:  Clothing in China is fairly modern, cheap, and easy to come by.  But it tends to be more modest overall compared to the U.S., and wearing low-cut tops or mini-skirts will be frowned upon and draw unwanted attention.  Since it is geographically large, China possesses a range of different climates, so students will want to spend time reviewing the general climate in their location in order to make sure they have the appropriate clothing packed.

Health and Safety Issues

China’s socio-cultural values generally mean it is a low crime country and major safety issues are limited.  Most tourists who experience crime fall prey to petty theft, so it is important to keep your valuables well protected when in crowded areas, and especially around tourist attractions.  Visitors should also be on the lookout for business scams, such purchasing goods that are counterfeit versions of brand names and using unlicensed “black cabs,” especially when coming from the airport.  Traffic in major cities can be aggressive, and taxi cabs often drive to keep up with the pace of the traffic around him, so making sure to use and wear seat belts is highly recommended.

Students new to the Chinese language should consider having a native speaker write their university’s address or their place of residence on a small card to carry around.  That way if you get lost or can’t find your way back, you can use the card to assist with conveying where you need to go.  It is also recommended that you look up the U.S. Embassy or Consulate closest to your location in China and keeping their contact information with you.

All students going abroad will have study abroad insurance that be used to obtain medical care.  Use your CISI account log-in to find recommended providers and hospitals in your location.  Most Chinese hospitals are not up to Western standards, though those located in major cities often have VIP wings of higher standards to serve foreigners.  When in doubt of which hospitals may offer the best care or widest range of services, be sure to ask the staff of the International Office of your host institution. When possible, having a native speaker accompany you to assist with translating is a good idea, as English-language knowledge is prominent among some of the VIP doctors, nurses, and staff, but can still be difficult to convey detailed medical information in a second language.  Many hospitals require a deposit or some form of payment for medical treatment in advance, and most hospitals in cities should take credit cards for this.  If required to do so, save your receipts and CISI can reimburse you for the cost of any care received.

Many common U.S. prescriptions and medications are not available within China.  Make to bring your original prescription with you and only have the prescription filled at a licensed hospital or pharmacy.  If possible, though, it is recommended you work with your doctor to have a travel script filled that will often provide you with enough for your time abroad, or speak with them about a viable alternate you may be able to use while in China if they believe carrying your prescribed medications may pose an issue.  Always travel with the original labeled containers with your name on them.

Routine vaccinations are typically sufficient for travel to China – MMR, dTap, flu, chicken pox, etc. – though depending on trip location and length of stay, other specialized vaccinations may be recommended.  Students can learn more about the current recommendations for China by visiting the CDC webpage and speaking with a doctor for final recommendations about their vaccination needs.

Currency and Banking

China’s official currency unit is the renminbi (RMB), which can be translated from Mandarin as “people’s currency.”  The basic unit of currency is the yuan, and this term is used broadly around the globe to refer to Chinese currency.  The yuan is further divided into 10 jiao, which itself is divided into 10 fen.   (To illustrate, this would be similar to dividing a dollar into 10 dimes, then each dime into 10 pennies.)  Renminbi is accepted all over mainland China as legal currency, but is not accepted in special economic zones of Hong Kong or Macau.

Arriving to China with some renminbi with you is a good idea.  Currency can be exchanged at some major airports, but this is not guaranteed.  ATMs in airports are still rare to find so students should be prepared with renminbi in order to arrange and pay for any necessary transportation or initial arrival expenses.  In larger cities, ATMs for withdrawing cash are more common, though you may have to try a few in order to find one that works with your card.  China’s economy is still very cash-based and the low cost of many common goods means few people rely on debit cards to make daily purchases.  Even in some major cities, finding a store, restaurant, or tourist destination willing to accept a debit card for payment can be tricky.

When traveling to smaller cities, or more rural or outlying areas, debit cards will almost never be accepted and ATMs are difficult to come by.  Make sure to access and keep enough cash on your person safely for these types of short trips.

Read Before You Go

It is strongly recommended that students keep reading and accessing information about the history, culture, politics, economics, and other major themes to familiarize themselves with the country they will be calling “home” for the next several months.  Having this background will help provide students with context for what they see and experience, and help minimize the effects of culture shock.

All books listed are available on Amazon, and almost all are available as Kindle Books or in electronic format.

Recommended Bibliography:

Chang, Leslie T.  Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China.  New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009.

Christensen, Thomas J.  The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Delury, John and Orville Schell.  Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century.  New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014.

Gaetano, Arianne M.  Out to Work: Migration, Gender, and the Changing Lives of Rural Women in Contemporary China.  Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015.

Hessler, Peter.   Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.  New York: Harper Perennial, 2011.

Lewis, Charlton M. and W. Scott Morton.  China: Its History and Culture.  New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2004.

Meyer, Michael. The Last Days of Old Beijing. New York: Walker & Company, 2009.

Mitter, Rana.  Modern China: A Very Short Introduction.  2nd Ed.  London: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Theroux, Paul.   Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China.  New York: Mariner Books, 2006.

Wasserstrom, Jeffery N.  China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.  London: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Weng, Zhang.  Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Yiwu, Liao.  The Corpse Walker.  Translated by Wen Huang.  New York: Anchor Books, 2009.

Last updated: 2/15/2017