I’ve learned a new word during my fieldwork : 门槛. It regularly comes when I ask people why they joined the hairstyling industry.
“This industry has no 门槛, it doesn’t matter your education level, your gender, your social class, your intelligence. Anybody can do it.”
“For many occupations in China, there is a strict 门槛, in this industry anybody can join.”
“I am not intelligent. I did not do well in school, so I needed to find an industry without a 门槛.”
Google translate defines 门槛 as a “threshold.” The way I hear the term used is more like a “gatekeeping mechanism” or a “ system of credentialization,” and in the hairstyling industry there is neither, provided you are physically able to do the work. Most hairstylists I’ve spoken with have completed elementary school, and some have finished 初中 (junior high). There are a few who stopped schooling after elementary school, and few with some 高中 (senior high). By in large though, hairstylists represent the lesser educated (institutionally speaking) social strata of Chinese society. Even hairstyling training school, which is becoming more and more common, is never a requirement for employment. A teacher at a training school told me,
“Yeah, sure, the students get a certificate from completing my program, but that certificate doesn’t mean anything. It’s hard to find workers now, so anybody can get a job in the industry if they are willing to start from the bottom. And if you want to get a high-level job, the boss will just ask evaluate your technique. Nobody will ever ask to see any kind of certifications.”
This is different from the opposite end of the educational spectrum in China, where a hyper-obsession with degrees and certifications leads parents to spend spend thousands of RMB (and undoubtedly ruin many childhoods)absence in the race to a high score on the college entrance examination. These days, more and more of my middle-class big-city Chinese friends are telling me that a bachelor’s degree from an elite university isn’t enough anymore to get a good job. You need a master’s or PhD, and if it’s from the United States or Europe, all the better.
No matter how much we think otherwise, educational requirements and other institutional gatekeeping mechanisms are inherently skewed towards those who have the best access to the resources necessary to obtain them. The hairstyling industry on the other hand, because of a lack of 门槛, is largely removed from these inequalities which affect many other industries. And while some hairstylists start out with more resources than others (i.e. financial help from parents), this support is generally minimal since most come from humble backgrounds in rural areas.
Since job placement and upward mobility in the hairstyling industry are determined almost entirely by one’s individual skills and technique, there is little potential for any form of corruption in the industry (The potential for graft is often cited as a reason not to eliminate China’s standardized college entrance examination). You can’t “sneak through the back door,” since the front door is wide open, and there is no way make your way to the top through payments and bribes, since employment is based almost entirely on actual skill level.
People often ask me why, of all the potential topics in China, I study the hairstyling industry. This is a complicated question with many answers, but one I keep returning to is that the people around me who I see become successful, do so almost entirely on two factors 1) their skills and technique and 2) their attitude and work ethic. In a world absence of 门槛, it’s refreshing to see those who make it to the top are doing so on account of their own hard work and talents.