Teaching in China

Capital City: Beijing
Population: 1.3 billion (NBS China)
Government: Single-party socialist republic

Currency: Yuan (¥), also referred to as Renminb
Main Language: Standard Chinese (Mandarin)
Main Religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism

At just under 10 million square kilometres, China is the second-biggest country in the world by land area. In the times of the ancient dynasties China was a leader in culture and science, with the ancient Chinese reportedly inventing gunpowder, papermaking, printing and the compass. Home to the world’s largest population and showing rapid economic growth, modern China’s international influence is also on the increase.

With its vast land mass and 56 officially recognised ethnic groups, Chinese culture is difficult to define, with customs varying between different cities and provinces. To foreign visitors, Chinese values often appear traditional and conservative, and this is certainly true to a degree. Media in China is still subject to restrictions, and several major global websites remain blocked by the governing Communist party. However, China is a fast-developing nation, and there is a real desire for progress in academia, science and technology.

Social gatherings in China are often driven by shared pastimes and sports. It is not uncommon to see groups of people playing board games or cards in the street or meeting up in parks to exercise or dance together. On the world stage, Chinese athletes are strongly associated with gymnastics, diving and table tennis. With outdoor tables a regular sight across the country, ping pong remains a staple in China, although football and basketball are increasingly popular too. For a more traditional experience, visitors can watch or even try ancient Chinese pastimes such as dragon dancing, martial arts and equestrian sports. China’s surprisingly vibrant nightlife also has a distinct personality with diverse activities like acrobatic shows, karaoke, gaming and opera!

Chinese food is often defined by the Eight Culinary Traditions, but as with most things in the country regional variations are common. The staple food in southern China is rice, while wheat farming is more common further north where wheat flours are used to make dumplings or noodles. Typically, Chinese dishes are cooked quickly and feature characteristic flavours like ginger, chilli and soy. Meals tend to be communal and consist of lots of small dishes to be shared.

China produces a huge variety of teas and meals traditionally end with tea. Common alcoholic drinks include grape and rice wines, beers and baijiu, a strong spirit reported to be the world’s most consumed due to its popularity in China.

China has several spoken dialects, some of which are not mutually intelligible. This has led to a degree of confusion over what is a language and what is a dialect, and academics continue to debate and evaluate the distinctions today. Officially, the main language is Standard Chinese. Based on a dialect of Mandarin, it is sometimes referred to as Putonghua, Guoyu or Huayu. Cantonese is also widely spoken, and English and Japanese are both commonly taught in schools.

The sheer size of China means its climate varies hugely. The extreme north of the country can see winter temperatures as low as -30°C (-22°F) while in the tropical south temperatures regularly reach over 20°C (68°F), although the difference is much less in summer. China’s weather is also affected by the differing terrains of its regions and there are several microclimates that experience different levels of rainfall, as well as monsoon and typhoon conditions at certain times of year.

China is generally a safe place to visit, with heavy penalties serving as an effective deterrent for most serious crimes. In urban areas, beware of pickpockets and keep an eye on luggage and belongings, but the risk is usually no greater than in other major cities around the world. Road safety is a bigger issue, and care should be taken at all times as traffic can be very heavy and unpredictable. Travellers should also try to be aware of local laws, particularly in areas outside the main provinces.

China has four levels of education: primary school, junior middle school, senior high school (or vocational school) and university or college. State law requires all Chinese children to have nine years of education, so primary school and junior middle school are compulsory. The government funds this period, although more recently the country has started to embrace private education and there are a growing number of private schools at all levels of education. The Chinese state has invested heavily in developing a better education system with the annual budget running to hundreds of billions of Yuan, but many expats choose to send their children to international schools to follow an International Baccalaureate programme. The nine-year compulsory education law does not apply to the children of foreign nationals.

Most institutions in China divide the academic year into two semesters, although the length of each changes depending on the dates of the Chinese New Year. Generally, the first semester begins in September and runs until January or February, and the second starts in February or March and ends in July. Some regions, particularly in the rural north, choose to have a longer winter break and shorter summer break because of the extreme winter weather.

University level education has developed rapidly in China over the last fifteen to twenty years, and academic achievement is highly prized. The number of higher education institutions has increased drastically, with around 20 million people now attending over 2,000 universities and colleges. Over a hundred institutions carry the National Key University designation, which although no longer an official term, is still considered a mark of real prestige. Historically there was a tendency for Chinese universities to specialise in one area, but recent diversification means that even institutions whose names imply a specialism often have faculties covering completely different academic areas.

Higher education in China is funded through a scholarship and loan system. Institutions are free to set their own course fees, but generally they range from around ¥20,000 (≈£1,900) to ¥60,000 (≈£5,700) per year (source: www.cucas.edu.cn ). Different scholarships are available to both Chinese students and international students. Although universities have not been state-funded in China since the mid-1980s, there are a number of government initiatives aimed at driving teaching and research excellence, and many institutions obtain additional funding through these schemes.

Chinese universities provide degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and postgraduate courses are showing particular growth in availability and prestige. The majority of institutions offer taught courses in English and these are popular with both domestic applicants and international students, although over 40,000 international students travel to China to study Chinese language and culture too. Admission to university is assessed by an examination called gaokao.

Research in China is well-funded by the state, with many government grants available. The science and technology sectors are particularly well supported. Information about the major state funds can be found through the Access4.eu website, while funding may also be available through provincial or regional initiatives.

Once the nine years of compulsory education are complete, students aged 15 to 18 may undertake an additional three years of studies. This is either vocational training or a more traditional academic curriculum through senior high school. Entry to this level of education is assessed by the zhongkao examination, although the content varies between regions. With competition for university places fierce, senior education is the highest level of education achieved by many Chinese nationals.

The nine-year compulsory aspect of Chinese education takes place between the ages of 6 and 15, with six years at primary school and a further three at junior middle school. With over 200 million children enrolled at any one time, the system is vast and in the past it struggled to provide for all children, with rural areas in particular missing out. In order to widen opportunities, China’s government now targets particular groups with different schooling initiatives according to the needs of their province and community.

Kindergarten is among the most popular forms of preschool education in China. State-run kindergartens usually accept children aged between 3 and 6, while privately-owner equivalents may take younger children as well. Costs of preschool vary hugely and demand is very high, however some employers offer childcare facilities for the children of staff.

Average salaries in China are relatively low compared to the countries like the UK, but costs are also comparatively low, giving greater purchasing power and potentially a higher standard of living. The cost of living is cheaper in western China and in rural regions than in the large eastern cities of Beijing, Qingdao and Guangzhou. Shanghai has a reputation for being the most expensive place to live, although job opportunities there can be more lucrative.

Many foreign nationals who move to China for work are provided with accommodation by their employer, particularly in the academic sector. However, these arrangements may only be short term or limited in availability. If you need to find your own rental accommodation, it is best to use an estate agent unless you have a really good understanding of the Chinese language. Estate agents will charge a fee based on the rental value of the property once they have successfully placed you. Costs vary hugely across the country, so make sure you research the area you are relocating to beforehand. 

To buy property in China, you must have lived there for a year or more. Property owned by foreign nationals must be lived in and cannot be bought to rent out. There are also restrictions on expats buying land in China and taking out mortgages from Chinese banks, so many choose to rent instead.

The initial outlay for renting in China can be quite high. As well as any agent’s fees, you may be asked to pay a non-refundable holding deposit of one month’s rent. Security deposits can be up to three months’ rent and there may be property management fees on top of this, particularly in communal residences like apartment blocks. Quoted rent prices often don’t include bills, so check what is included before signing.

Homeowners in China may be required to pay real estate tax on the value of their property, while landlords must pay tax on rental income. Some landlords will pass this tax on to their tenants in the rental agreement, so always budget accordingly.

Utilities such as water, electricity and gas are provided by regional suppliers. In theory, tariffs are regulated by the state and should be the same across the country, but in practice there is a degree of variation. Payment systems also vary between suppliers, so it’s best to check your local service. In some areas, particularly in the cooler north of the country, shared residential buildings may have communal heating. Telephone and internet connections are available from a number of suppliers on a range of pricing packages and structures.

There is no fee for owning a television in China and the China Central Television (CCTV) provides 22 free-to-air channels. Most programming is in Mandarin, but there are some channels broadcast in other languages or with subtitles. The company also offers pay TV channels. Paid satellite and internet TV services are also available through a range of providers, and are popular with foreign nationals looking for more programming in their native languages.

Healthcare in China is not free and relies on an insurance system. Visits to the doctor or hospital usually incur a charge. If you are working in China your employer is obliged to provide health insurance, but the levels of cover vary greatly. If you are unhappy with the policy on offer, it may be worth taking out private cover. Some foreign nationals are insured for treatment in China by policies they hold in their home country, but it’s always worth checking that the hospital you are attending is covered by your provider. 

The availability of goods in China depends on your location. In the cities you can find everything from exotic foods to designer clothing, whereas in rural areas supplies are more basic. While the general cost of goods is low, expect to pay similar prices to the UK or US for designer brands or premium products.

Value-Added Tax (VAT) is charged on most goods and services in China at a rate of 17%, although some products and particular industries benefit from discounted rates.

  • Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – ¥3,776.19 (≈£358.87) per month
  • Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – ¥2,134.35 (≈£202.84) per month
  • Price of apartment in city centre – ¥31,590.53 (≈£3,002.20) per square metre
  • Price of apartment outside city centre – ¥15,930.07 (≈£1,513.91) per square metre
  • Loaf of bread – ¥10.40 (≈£0.99)
  • Milk (1 litre) – ¥12.99 (≈£1.23)
  • Bottled water (1.5 litre) – ¥3.89 (≈£0.37)
  • Draught beer (0.5 litre) – ¥8.00 (≈£0.76)
  • Packet of cigarettes – ¥15.00 (≈£1.43)
  • Petrol (1 litre) – ¥7.94 (≈£0.76)
  • Cinema ticket – ¥75.00 (≈£7.13)

Although China has a developing network of highways and the biggest car-buying market in the world, road transportation remains challenging. The number of vehicles is often greater than the road capacity and the standard of driving is generally considered poor. Car hire is also restricted for foreign nationals, so many prefer not to drive in China, choosing to use taxis or bicycles instead.

For those who do choose to drive, international licences are not accepted by the Chinese authorities. Instead, you will need to obtain a Chinese licence, which most people apply for through an agency. Depending on the qualification you already hold, you may be able to convert your licence, but some people will need to take the theory and/or practical components of the Chinese driving test. In mainland China you drive on the right-hand side of the road, whereas Hong Kong and Macao retain the colonial custom of driving on the left.

With driving conditions regarded as hazardous, taxis are a very popular and inexpensive way to get around in cities. Most taxis charge on a meter, although rates increase at night and surcharges may apply for slow journeys on busy routes.

Bus services are also very cheap in China, with fares from as little as ¥2 or even less with a smartcard. However, buses can get extremely crowded and signs are very rarely translated, so if you don’t understand Chinese it’s important to plan the route in advance. Tickets are normally bought from a conductor on the bus, although in some areas they can be bought before travel.

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The Chinese rail network is extensive and new high-speed sections have cut the journey times between major cities significantly. For lengthy travel, avoid ‘hard class’ tickets as travel conditions can be very uncomfortable, particularly on sleeper trains. You usually need your passports to buy tickets for long-distance train journeys and may also need them to board the train. Further information and travel advice is available through Seat 61. Although major stations usually have multi-lingual attendants, it can be useful to pre-book your tickets through an agency such as China Train Tickets, although costs may be higher.

China’s largest cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou, have modern underground railway systems. Trains run for around 18 hours per day and signage is usually in both Chinese and English.

China’s sheer size makes air transit a very appealing prospect for domestic travel. There are around 200 commercial airports in the country, including Beijing Capital International Airport – one of the world’s biggest and busiest airports. The country’s aviation safety record is improving, and increased competition between airlines has helped to drive down costs.

Bikes are a very popular option in China, but if you want a slightly different experience there are plenty of alternative forms of transport available in Chinese cities. These include rickshaws and motorised tricycles with an enclosed cabin at the back for passengers. Although they aren’t the most practical way to travel on a regular basis they can be great for novelty value! Always agree a price upfront though to avoid paying over the odds.

Cover People will offer a Hints and Tips supplement for anyone moving abroad making sure you are equipped to deal with the different cultures. For more information about teaching in China contact the Overseas Team for more information.