China has more illiteracy than you may think

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:18 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past winter, I spent 3 months in Fujian researching hairstylists as part of my dissertation fieldwork.  Since my research was being partly supported by a small research grant, I had to keep track of basic living expenses such as food, hotels, and transportation.  In order to get reimbursed for an expense, I would need a receipt.  Since my grant was from the US, and not China, there was no need to obtain the official “fa piao” receipts, which are required by most Chinese firms and organizations for reimbursement.  Instead, all I needed was a written record, either a print out from a cash register, a hand written “shou ju” receipt, or in most basic circumstances, a written note with date, price, and what I had ordered.  

Since my default meal is usually at a cheap, mom-and-pop restaurant in which the cash register consists of a drawer full of cash, many of the receipts I obtained were of the hand-written variety.  This daily act of receipt gathering led to an inadvertent experiment with an unexpected result:  There is a lot more illiteracy in China than I had previously thought.  This was revealed in the uncomfortable situation in which I would ask for a written receipt, and receive an embarrassed reply indicating that the restaurant proprietor  could not write Chinese characters.  While nowhere near the majority, this situation occurred enough times during my three months in Fujian that I started to take notice. It was always from a female proprietor of a family-run restaurant, usually between the ages of 30-60.  The solution was for me to wait until her husband or child returned, or to have me write my own receipt.  

Before going further, it should be mentioned that illiteracy in China is low. This was not always the case. For much of China’s Imperial history, literacy was reserved for government officials, as was the case for the clergy in many Western societies. One of the most important accomplishments of the Chinese Communist Party was lowering illiteracy, particularly by making primary education available to girls.  

Literacy is difficult to quantify, but the CIA World Factbook estimates China’s literacy rate at 95.1% for individuals over 15 as of 2010 (97.5% for boys and 92.5% for girls).  Of that small percentage who are illiterate, presumably most would be elderly women in remote areas, who came of age before girls were commonly educated.  (Previously, the only people in China who I had encountered who couldn’t read and write fit this description).  This is why I found it surprising to encounter so much illiteracy among restaurant owners, who were well below this age threshold. Also, in reflection to another group who come from one of the least educated strata of Chinese society:  hairstylists.

Of the several hundred hairstylists and other service industry workers I have befriended, interviewed, and observed over the years, never once have I encountered one who couldn’t read a Chinese newspaper and fill out forms with written Chinese characters.  (I have incidentally met a few who could not read pinyin, the Chinese Romanization system, taught in primary grades).  The median education level of a hairstylist in China is probably around 8th or 9th grade.  When I broach the topic of schooling, responses I receive are usually to the tune of “I hate school, so I quit.” or “I suck at studying.  It’s meaningless to me.”  Yet, it would not be a stretch to say literacy is universal among this population.  Which is all the more reason I was surprised to find it, inadvertently, among restauranteurs.    


  1. Jeremy Zheng United States said,

    May 27, 2015 at 1:46 am

    Hi Ben,

    I am Fuqingese, your experience in China sounds interesting to me, do you have weibo account?

  2. Benjamin Ross United States said,

    May 28, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    I have one, but haven’t updated it in years. You can follow me at @Benross on twitter though which I update often.

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