Supporting Article

Teaching in China—the Early Years

What was it like to teach English in China in the early 1980s? One person’s observations, mainly in one city, can give some insight into the situation back then.

Contracts with Chinese universities were difficult to negotiate. During the initial negotiations between teacher and university, the contract stated a provisional (minimum) salary with the final salary to be decided in about two months. After that, a contract was to be signed in October or November. In truth, it turned out that by late February or early March, often still no contract had been signed. Some teachers had to teach all year without a contract!

Chinese universities often tried to omit the teaching load and course names in the contract. Often they would finally say they agreed to what the expatriate teacher wanted, but since the contract was not to be signed until fall, after the teacher came, the courses were often changed. Also, it was very common for the schools to withhold some facts that might change the teacher’s mind about coming until after the teacher had agreed to come.

In the very beginning, China thought that the need for Foreign Experts and Foreign Teachers[1] was only temporary and afterwards Chinese English teachers could take over. Consequently, the packages for Foreign Experts were quite generous at first—a high salary (by Chinese standards), round-trip airfare for the Expert, spouse, and a child under 12, a free winter vacation trip for sightseeing or a vacation allowance, and bath soap and toilet paper supplied. As China realized that expatriate teachers were not temporary, the packages were scaled back—round-trip airfare for only the Foreign Expert, bath soap and toilet paper provided only for the first time and then not at all, and no vacation allowance. (Foreign Teachers could receive return airfare after two years of teaching at the same university.)  Foreign Experts in China as singles could legally exchange fifty percent of their salary for foreign currency, but those with a spouse only thirty percent. They were paid the appropriate amount in “Foreign Exchange Certificates,” required for exchanging money which was often very complicated because banks did not want to give up their foreign currency.  Foreign Teachers were paid totally in nonconvertible renminbi (RMB).

All expatriate teachers were required to live on campus, typically in a special building built for foreigners. (Schools lacking such a building might house them in the Friendship Hotel which was off limits to Chinese.) The buildings all had a doorkeeper. If the school had few of these teachers, they were housed with the foreign students. Sometimes the entire building had only one telephone.  If there was a foreign teachers’ building, it might have a telephone extension in the hall on each floor. However, one might have to try fifty times in a row to get an outside line! Also, phone service was so poor that it was hard to hear someone on the other side of town. Further, the phone kept ringing even after the other party had hung up!

Most schools were very restrictive about keeping expatriates separate from Chinese people. At one school, students were not allowed to visit their teachers’ residence even to get help with their studies. (Teachers typically did not have offices.) At that school one teacher mentioned that she needed to get a haircut, and two students volunteered. They sneaked into the teacher’s suite and cut her hair. The next day the administrator asked the teacher, “Who cut your hair?” Since the administrator’s English was not very good, the teacher pretended not to understand and said, “Yes, I got my hair cut.” “No, no, who cut your hair?” “Oh, who cut my hair? A friend.” “Chinese or foreigner?” “A friend.” “Chinese or foreigner?” “A friend.” “Chinese or foreigner?” “A friend.” This school also watched the expatriate teachers so closely that they knew what time one teacher usually went out for a daily bike ride! One team of expatriate teachers elsewhere was advised by their authorities, “Don’t get a bike; you might get hurt. Don’t take the bus; you might get lost!”

At another university, whenever students came to see their teacher, the doorkeeper would page the teacher to come down and escort the students to her room. In one case, while two students were visiting a teacher, another one came. When the teacher went down to escort the newcomer up, the doorkeeper asked, “Where are the other two students?” “Up in my room.” “You’re supposed to bring them down with you!” That school also tried to establish limited visiting hours for foreign teachers, a policy that was soon discontinued.

In the early years, expatriate teachers were hired only at colleges and universities. Typically, the authorities monitored what the teacher said in class by asking either a student or sometimes the whole class. I heard that one teacher, when leaving, had given each of the students some Bible passages, but the department collected them all because the Bible was still banned in the very early 1980s. Yet, in 1986 (probably the most open year) one teacher was permitted to teach an Introduction to the Bible course and had the students read Bible passages. (An older Chinese teacher sat in on the class each time.)

Early on, older people were given the first chance to study English from expatriate teachers. For example, one team of teachers taught a one-semester, intensive English course to a group, mainly in their 50s, who were to be sent abroad for six months of study. Many did not understand any spoken English.

These earlier students were very diligent and respectful. If the teacher got to the classroom before they did, they were very embarrassed because students are supposed to wait for the teacher.  During break, if the teacher started to erase the board, a student quickly took the eraser and said, “This is the students’ job.” While most students had been relieved of their work responsibilities, occasionally some who were department heads would have to miss class because of work. In such cases, they would come very apologetically to the teacher ahead of time and ask for leave. In addition, it was very difficult to get these students to speak English in class because they were so afraid of making a mistake.

The younger generation, however, is in sharp contrast. One teacher was shocked to find graduate students who cut class, tried to talk the teacher out of final exams, and gave their department a written complaint (which the whole class was forced to sign) about a course they did not like.

In 1984 many undergraduates had studied English for three to six years before attending a university. One teacher had a freshman Listening and Speaking class of fifteen girls and fifteen boys. Many of them were nervous because this was the first time they had had a foreign teacher. When the year began, about one-third could not understand one word of spoken English, but another one-third could already converse with a native speaker. When being paired up for speaking practice the first semester, the students insisted that their partners be the same gender.  Consequently, there had to be two groups of three. About the beginning of the second semester, the girls learned that boys are interesting!

At first, exercise music was played over loud speakers for the whole campus twice a day, from 6:30-7:00 a.m. and from 9:50-10:10 a.m. when students went out to do morning exercises. After a few years the ten a.m. music was discontinued, but the six-thirty a.m. music persisted for a number of years. At first, it was only Chinese music, but later there was Western music—sometimes rock or even “Pomp and Circumstance”! 

Shopping could be a challenge. In the early 1980s almost everything important was rationed—eggs, meat, flour products, cotton goods, sugar, and so on. While booklets were issued to locals for eggs and meat, other items were to be bought with ration tickets—good for only that item and normally just in that city. Of course, expatriates were not given any ration tickets. Once, a teacher was very angry over not being allowed to buy a loaf of Chinese bread without a ration ticket. Protesting that she had not been given any ration tickets did no good.

On another occasion a foreign teacher had found out where to buy the big, standard, Chinese-English dictionary. At first, the clerk said they did not have any more copies of that dictionary.  When the teacher asked to buy the one in the window, the clerk said it did not have any printing in it! The teacher said, “Please let me have a look at it.” The clerk kept saying it had no printing in it while the teacher kept repeating, “Please let me have a look at it.” Finally, the clerk talked to someone at the back, got the very dictionary from a back room, and sold it to the teacher! They were evidently keeping some back to be able to fulfill important people’s requests.

On arrival, all foreign teachers had to exchange only enough money for a month’s supply of food and bus fare (about ten fen per ride) plus a bicycle. (The school paid their rent and utilities, and they got paid for teaching after completing each month.) In major cities such as Beijing, imported items could be bought only at the Friendship Store (off limits to ordinary Chinese) and only with Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC). Foreign teachers were often frustrated because they were paid totally in RMB—no FEC. After they had their RMB salary, why should they have to exchange more US dollars to buy goods in China?  When expatriates exchanged their foreign currency for RMB, they were given a receipt. When they left China, to change FEC back to foreign currency, they had to have receipts showing they had exchanged that much foreign currency for FEC.

In the very early 1980s most things were very cheap. For example, to park one’s bicycle in a lot with an attendant to watch the bicycles cost only two fen (100 fen = 1 yuan). No ice cream was sold, but small ice lollipops were sold by street vendors for two fen. Stamps for international letters cost seventy fen. (At that time the exchange rate was kept artificially high, with two yuan equal to one US dollar. By the mid-1980s, the rate was perhaps five or six yuan to the dollar.)

Mail sent to expatriate teachers was often read before it was delivered. In 1981-’82 some expat teachers received anti-Chinese government propaganda in Chinese inside their letters. (This was probably an attempt to get the teachers into trouble.) In at least one case, the propaganda was even dated later than the US postmark! Also in the early years, some teachers received their mail with the envelopes still wet from having been steamed open, and some even received them ripped open! Since this was before computers and email, it usually took about a month to get a reply from home in the US (two weeks each way).

To sum up, teaching in China in the early 1980s was challenging. Starting to teach without a contract, the difficulty of getting foreign currency, poor phone service, very restrictive rules at residences, many students whose listening comprehension was very low, annoying music early in the morning, difficulties shopping, and having no private mail meant adjusting to these situations was not easy.


  1. ^ Foreign Experts had to have at least a Master’s degree and three years of teaching experience, but Foreign Teachers could have less. Foreign Experts were paid about twice as much as Foreign Teachers. However, sometimes there was no difference in qualifications; it depended on who the school had permission to hire and was willing to hire.
Image credit: Foreign Exchange Certificate (FEC) of China. Back 兌換 元 by hiroo yamagata via Flickr. 
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Mabel Anderson

Mabel Anderson (pseudonym) taught in China for some years starting in the early 1980s.View Full Bio