China, where is your conscience? The tragic curtain call of substitute teachers

By CC & Key

Starting 2010, 448,000 substitute teachers in China will be laid off (The word 清退 [qīng tuì] is used in the news. I looked up 清退in the dictionary it means to give back something that does not belong). Most of the already laid off teachers are struggling with difficult lives. And the teachers who are waiting to be laid off do not ask for more compensation, but they only want to leave with dignity, and hope that there will still be teachers for the children after they leave. Netizens are outraged, an article on Tianya (translated below) generated over 4000 comments in a day, and this post has also been re-posted all over the Chinese Internet. After the article, there are also pictures showing the hardships of these substitute teachers, so please keep scrolling.


News from

China News reported on January 1, 2010, at the end of 2009, in order to optimize the teaching staff, our country will finally lay off all substitute teachers in many areas. The term “substitute teacher” will become a part of history. In the past, because of the financial difficulties, many remote areas could not afford to hire public teachers or public teachers are unwilling to teach in such poverty-stricken areas Substitute teachers bear hardships, being selfless and without attracting any public attention have made great contribution on the primary education in poor Chinese provinces. Now, in order to conform to the policy, they will return to the farm fields to make a greater contribution.

The Ministry of Education is not only laying off teachers, they are destroying their conscience (from Tianya):

In 2006, the Ministry of Education proposed that in a relatively short period of time, all the 448,000 remaining substitute teachers in China would be laid off, and that the last substitute teachers would be laid off in 2010.

What is a substitute teacher? Substitute teaching is a job with Chinese characteristics, they are short-term teachers in the Chinese countryside with no association the any particular danwei (work unit). In the past they were known as “community-supported teachers,” but about 10 years ago, the over-ambitious and navel-gazing Ministry of Education decided that in the guise of “improving the quality of elementary education teachers,” community-supported teachers would no longer be allowed. Though in reality, in many remote and poverty-stricken areas, they are unable to hire regular teachers or regular teachers are unwilling to go, they can only hire temporary teachers, so their identity was changed to “substitute teachers.”

So what do substitute teachers represent? First, these substitute teachers reveal the difficult and harsh state of China’s rural education. In 2005, Southern Weekend published an article entitled “The Heartbreaking Hardships of Substitute Teachers,” which reported on “China’s oldest substitute teacher,” Wang Zhengming (王政明), who founded Gansu’s elementary school Zhang Jiabao (张家堡). They pointed out that it is precisely the long-term hard work of substitute teachers like Wang Zhengming that support the foundations for education in poverty-stricken areas. They are truly backbones of education in these areas. Second, they represent poverty. From 1985 to 2005, Wang Zhengming had a salary of 40 RMB a month (note: about $6.00 a month). At the beginning of 2008, the 340 substitute teachers of Jianghui in Hunan province issued a public letter. The letter said:

Even though our workload is heavier than regular teachers, our working conditions more harsh than regular teachers, our teaching results are not any worse, but our wages are drastically lower. Our wages are only 400 rmb/month and we only get paid 10 months in a year. That is not even a fourth of what regular teachers make and we have no other benefits.

The letter then tells of a heart-wrenching story. Liu Junmu had been a substitute teacher for 21 years when she fell ill with a number of illnesses. Due to lack of medical treatment, life was incredibly hard for her. Because substitute teachers have no medical benefits, in 2006 her lingering sickness forced her to leave her teaching position and go to Shenzhen to seek treatment and find part-time work. In less than a year, she passed away. Before dying, she said with extreme remorse, “It is teaching that ruined my life, it is teaching that took my life away!”

Third, substitute teachers represent the lowest classes of Chinese society. After 20 years of being a substitute teacher, in 1984, Wang Zhengming was fired because more regular teachers were hired at his school. In 1985, the number of teachers was insufficient again and he was re-hired but his work standing was completely renewed, which is the reason he was not able to eventually gain regular teacher status. At the end of the public letter issued by the substitute teachers in Jianghua, they said, “What makes us the most sorrowful and humiliated is we have suffered and taught books for decades, but we are not even given the legal status of “public teachers” by the government, this is the kind of ridicule that substitute teachers and the country’s education system suffers!” The intellectuals in rural areas are naïve, in fact, for the people that put the very system to split public and substitute teachers into place, and made the decision to fire them, they do not perceive any of it as ridicule. In their eyes, the dividing of people into different classes according to household registration and identity is as normal as night and day. Also, it is because of this that since China’s opening up 30 years ago, the registration and identity systems show no sign of changing.

So what exactly is laying off (清退)? “Laying off” in Chinese has always been used in the case of “cleaning out” undesirable or illegal things. If you search on Baidu, you can see that it’s always phrases like “repaying stolen money,” “repaying stolen property,” “cleaning out bribes,” “repaying rebates,” “laying off doctors who commit malpractice,” “cleaning out illegal fund-raising,” “re-claiming illegally occupied land,” “cleaning-out illegally operating street venders,” that use the phrase “lay-off”(清退). In other words, even though the schools are forced to hire substitute teachers because they cannot hire regular teachers, even though substitute teachers are still hired and used by schools, to the Ministry of Education, these substitute teachers are to their discredit (ruining their ambitious plans), these substitute teachers make China’s education system lose face (they expose the deficiencies and backwards situations in poverty-stricken rural areas), so they are put into the same category as other illegal workers.

A famous thinker from the Song Dynasty, Li Gou, has a famous saying, “The root of good is teaching, and the root of teaching is the teacher.” That is to say, teachers are entrusted with the responsibility of creating good citizens and a good society. Conversely, if a society does not treat its teachers well, then there will be immense moral consequences. In “Mister Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals,” it says “Respect your teacher, no matter their economic status.” The education department today turns a blind eye to the endless corruption in colleges and universities, yet they ignore the poverty-stricken substitute teachers. The root of this problem is that they fail to treat teachers as if they are teachers, fail to treat education as if it’s education, fail to identify good when they see it, their mentality is similar to that of feudal landlords, and their actions are no better than sweatshop bosses.

The fact that China has an endless amount of quality cheap labor is the reason that “Made in China” products are all over the world, it’s the reason that China’s economy can expand so rapidly, and it’s the reason that China has been revived as a nation. Who remembers that behind all this is the tremendous hard work of China’s substitute teachers? We have already exploited community-supported teachers, and now we have continued exploit substitute teachers for decades. Now, no matter what is the reason that we are forcing them to leave, we must give them an explanation, we must give them economic compensation, we must give them a justification for their social status. If we kick out these teachers who have worked hard for their entire lives like dogs, let these teachers become the poorest people of the countryside, let these teachers with graying hair not have the ability to enjoy life with the status of a teacher, leave these teachers with nothing and then let them slowly disappear, then it is not only a moral failing of the Chinese education system, it is a failing of the Chinese conscience. We say that an immoral person is insignificant even if she is rich, so even if a corrupt country is developed, they are still despicable.

At this point in writing, I cannot stop my tears. I do not have anything else to say, and I don’t have anything else to prove. This is not a matter of proving something; it’s just a matter of conscience. China, where is your conscience?


Pictures from Netease:


At 7:30 in the morning on December 22, 2009, at the Northwest Mountain district when it was still dark outside, all the teachers and students have already began their morning exercises. To these teachers who get up early with the students, the mornings of this windy day perhaps felt colder than usual, because entering 2010 the last 448,000 substitute teachers will be laid off.



December 21, 2009 evening, Wang Anzhi (王安治) came to the school he used to substitute for. The pine trees he planted back then had already become lush and green, but he did not belong here anymore. Wang Anzhi was a substitute teacher in Heiyinggou village, Weiyuan County. Turning 54 years old, he had been a substitute teacher for the local primary school since 1974. Because he stopped for one year, he was not eligible to be converted to a full-time teacher. In September 2009, he received 600 yuan in compensation and got laid off.



December 22, 2009, three substitute teachers’ (first row) have breakfast – red date tea with a steamed bun. Before 1984, these teachers were called community-supported teachers (民办教师). Since 1985, in order to improve the quality of the teachers for basic education, the Ministry of Education decided that community-supported teachers were no longer allowed across the country. However many poverty-stricken mountain areas due to financial difficulties could not hire any public teachers, or no public teachers were willing to go there. These positions needed to be filled by temporary teachers, who later were referred as “substitute teachers”. They had the same work as the public teachers, the only difference was – the public teacher’s had a monthly salary around 2000 yuan, but these three who are at their primes only made about 220 yuan.



At 9 am , on December 22, 2009, when Su Hanwei and his first grade students were take a family portrait, he wiped away his tears and said, “Every year we only take this picture when the six graders graduate from primary school, this is the first time I can take pictures with my first grade students, it is also probably the last time.” Currently, Gansu Province government is “firmly and gradually” laying off substitute teachers.


December 22, 2009, written on the wall of a local shop, a banner says “Respect teachers, and care about education.” These kinds of slogans are everywhere. A reporter visited Weiyuan County where substitute teachers still exist. In the western regions and remote rural areas, substitute teachers have played a major historic role in being responsible for giving compulsory education.



December 22, 2009. College student Liu Yadong is surfing the internet at home. With her salary, buying a 4,000 yuan computer means working for 100 month. She graduated from Tianshui teacher training college, she had a chance to work as a civil servant or become a regular teacher, but because she is an art teacher, and the county only hires a few of them, she missed many opportunities. She will only have three chances; this means if she still cannot be converted to a regular teacher by next year, she will lose her qualification to ever become a public teacher.



December 22, 2009. Zhao Yongfu won the outstanding teacher’s certificate issued by the county in 2001. After the layoff, she is currently working at a construction site.



December 21, 2009, Yang Xianxi is raising his piglets. In April, 2009, he and three other laid-off teachers contracted a poultry farm, however the farms are not profitable due to the bad economy.



December 22, 2009, a former substitute teacher Zhao Yongfu working at a construction site. Monthly salary is a little over 1,000 yuan.



December 22, 2009 morning, during the morning class, substitute teacher Zhang Weirong and his students are enjoying the sun together. Usually there is no light during the winter in the western mountain areas, the temperature has dropped to minus 10 degrees Celsius. On the way to the village, the reporter often saw three to five primary school students going to school in the cold. In order for them to change their lives, and not become farmers, and not become like their parents, going to school is the only way out.



The afternoon of December 21, 2009, Wang Anzhi is walking with crutches on the mountain road. He said, back then he went to school to teach he also walked up the mountain roads. Now, he goes to a nearby village to help pick potatoes. He is helping out in the busy farm season, at the same time helping himself a little. Being a substitute teach for 34 year, also was the school principle for 9 years, three generations in the villages were all his students. He only got 600 yuan in compensation when he was laid off, but his family still owes 50,000 yuan in debt. Substitute teachers that are laid off like him do not have high demands. They only hope to leave in dignity. However they are all uncertain about their future when they are laid off.

  1. I was absolutely captured by a sense of sadness and indignance.I break out my former babit by just browing words by words silently,this time I voiced every paragaph,and to the end,I found I have my face covered with tears.

    What a heart-wrenching story it is! It’s not that condition of poverty-striking areas strike me this time,it’s the lack of conscience this community and so called “education- system” trembling me a lot.It’s country never lack of apathy and pillage or plunder,the bottomline of morality had been puncutred millions of times.Well, all this are not odd,but When even the last social conscience had been disposed and persecuted,I can say the end of the country is near!!

    unnumbered kind people get outraged about similiar phenomenon,so what?ever more people give there hypes and ironic comments,then what?

    I’ve never seen people around me willing to do any disinterest actions,everyone seem voraciously on the make…..this is the cruel reality nowdays,and do have some implicit hints that incert into our society.

    At this point in writing, I do not have anything closer to say,I feel really desperate and out of words in my thought.I don’t know if this is the most serious translation work you did,but for me,this is the most earnest comment I’ve ever type.I feel I read the essense of kind of feeling that kick myself out of spirt fist time literally.Thank you,Key,You suprised me more beyond my imagination.

    1. It should not be “indignance”,should be ”indignation”,sorry about that.correct here!

  2. Thank you again key & CC for your wonderful translation,and BTW,I have a question to inquire,that how can I use the word “cruel”and “brutal”differently? Do they have any regulation for use? If I want to express”a cruel social reality or competition” can I use “brutal” as the same to replace it here?

    In summary,I can’t discern the crutial difference between these two words.

    1. A same perplex about words “difference”&”discrepancy”,sometimes I just want to try to broaden the use of my word range especially when descibe a same matter or situation.

      1. A discrepancy exists between things which ought to be the same; it can be small but is usually significant. A difference exists between that things that are not (nor necessarily should be) the same.

    2. Brutal deeds are committed by creatures of low intelligence; cruel deeds are done by those who should have known better. Both have similar consequences.

      1. Cruel would be used to describe actions or a person that deliberately causes suffereing for a group or individual. For example, a cruel landlord raises the quotas of his tenant farmers keeping them poor enough so they cannot buy or leave the land.

        Brutal would be used to describe a person of environment that is characterized by it’s harshness or difficulty. It does not necessarily mean bad, but just very difficult. For example, a BRUTAL exam or registration process ensures that only the most dedicated and physically/mentally tough individuals are able to enter the ranks.

        1. Got it! Thank you for your accurate interpreation.I feel I touch the subtle sense of that.Appreciation…

          1. I must be cruel only to be kind;
            Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.

            (For example, when deliberately revealing a scandalous secret)

  3. In addition,I believe that almost 90% of social problems and failures derive from this,that is :The huge tremendous disparity between the poor and the rich,which the root imbeded is utmost inequality.

    PS:Am I use the right words to express this view appropriatelly in the above? Key .Tks!!

  4. Q. how do you keep china’s economy booming?
    A. maintain a vast, impoverished work force

    Q. how do you keep a vast, impoverished work force?
    A. no education, no hope (in lamen’s terms, keep them poor)

    Q. what are the rich chinese bureaucreats doing?
    A. keeping their work force

    1. Not really, this is just another well meant measure that isn’t implemented well (or maybe too well/efficient). We have these policies everywhere, and yes also in parliamentary democracies.

      The Chinese government does recognise that it needs to focus on other industries than just product based. It’s investing heavily in R&D and other branches of industry.

  5. I think that you are seeing this story as a glass half empty. Surely that these substitute teachers who are laid off are probably being replaced by more educated teachers are certified. Yes it is sad for the substitute teachers, but ultimately, school is there to give the kids the best possible education and not just to keep the teachers employed.

    1. Hate to say it pug_ster, but what I have seen and heard from the folks in P.R. China – those “subs” are probably the only teachers most of these kids are going to see for an education. Given the conditions and pay – not going to see a great “rush to the countryside” unless the powers to be in Beijing are going to replay Mao and “persade” folks by the end of a rifle barrel.

      Flat out – at a time when P.R. China needs to be retool the kids/workforce for the future work environments ahead – it appears that some think that S.O.E. and Laowai Factory Owners are going to continue to stay in P.R. China “out of the goodness of their hearts”, and not vacate to the next third world “developing” country with a cheaper labor force.

        1. Not really pug_ster – even the article that you provided has stated that in this attempt to weed out the “underqualified” the drop rate is increasing in the rural areas.

          Now my mind is a bit hazy on this – but how are schools managed in P.R. China? Federal mandates, but provincial management… or management “from afar” in Beijing?

          1. I have no idea of how the schools are managed in China. However, I would assume that teachers go where the money is, and unfortunately, not the rural areas. I think this laying off teachers in the rural areas and China’s plan to subsidizing education for the poorer areas by hiring more qualified teachers is to address issues of development between the urban are rural areas.

            Notice the class size of those classes are probably less than 20. The article suggests that the Chinese government is trying to bring consolidate the education system by forcing the kids to go to a neighboring village so that they can go to a better school. Ultimately, the kids are the winners as they are educated in a better equipped facilities. Sounds like alot of China-bashers here are crying over spilled milk.

            1. Lying off sub teacher who are “not qualified” is eventually the way to go for a better education system. But first government should make sure sufficient regular teachers will be provided to these rural areas. Nothing was talked about there, so we don’t know how this is going to happen, only time will tell… However the point of the public out-cry is that these “teacher’s standards” never existed in China until recently, but sub teachers existed for 30, 40 years. The poorly implemented education system and poor finical situation caused failure of education system at the poverty-stricken rural areas. School had no choice but to hire these substitute teachers. They spent their whole life making 20% of the regular pay doing the jobs nobody wants to do. Some of them are definitely qualified teachers, the reason they are not regular teachers is because the school just don’t have the funding and quota to covert them. And some did not get converted to regular because of some messed up rules… (not getting into that) Now the government basically laid them off as if they are “illegal workers” giving them 600 yuan (that’s not eve 100 dollars) as compensation. That’s why in the article “the Substitute teachers that are laid off do not have high demands. They only hope to leave in dignity.” It is like you messed up the education system, and those guys helped you for the past 40 years, sacrificed their lives and youth making no money just so that kids in those areas can have teachers… and now the government lays them off as illegal workers, all 400,000 of them. In the Chinese sayings it is “pull down the bridge after crossing the river”—drop one’s benefactor once his help is not needed; kick down the ladder. That the government doing to them is “break their bones and suck the marrow” (exploiting)

          2. Key & pug_ster,

            There is one flaw in this plan that not many people care to address. Unlike the U.S. and Canada – there is NO school bus system in P.R. China – either in the cities or rural areas. Having lived in a semi-rural in the States, and witnessing the area in which my wife went to school in rural area of Southern Guangdong – the idea of consolidation of schools, to which one system handles children from 40 to 60 square km, at the expense of the poor rural kid’s parents – just doesn’t fly. Am I to assume that the two of you also believe that the schools are also giving out free lunches to the kids?

            1. How China school commute works: Almost from 5th 6th grade on, kids walk to school on their own. So most schools are walking distance, if it is too far, they get on the public buses on their own. Until they are old enough to ride a bicycle. That’s when they go to Jr. high – high school. Well, the lucky one gets a bike when they are in Jr. high, it means freedom (kind like how kids in the US gets a car when they turn 16).

              Now I am talking about common people, of course rich kids, or officials’ children always have private car rides. Even helicopter is not suprising in the old days.

              The school does give out free lunches, depends on the school though. But most Jr. high and lower does. (at least in the city) Because in China there are only 9 years of free obligated education, from 1-9th grade. 9th grade is the last grade for Jr. high in China. Three year of High school requires a standard test and must be admitt into…

  6. This got to be a friggin joke. I was SLIGHTLY inclined to take the governments side on this from reading the headline since I am one of the few foreigners here teaching English who actually has a degree in teaching but reading through the story the main point that you JUST CAN’T GET AROUND is that some rural areas can’t afford to hire “real” teachers or the areas are so remote than noone would want to go there. What’s the alternative?? These subs basically sacrifice their life for pocket change to teach kids when nobody else wants to. Why would you fire them all without at the VERY least making sure there are qualified replacements? It’s classic top-down regulations without the adequate thinking involved.

  7. this is so sad it is so touching. no wonder china is still developing. laying of teachers=less teachers =less educated children

  8. This is very touching and sad. To see those kids faces, how can you not feel for their plight? And the teachers, same thing. They are heroic in the things they do, and they deserve better. Don’t lay them off. SUPPORT THEM.


  9. quote: I am one of the few foreigners here teaching English who actually has a degree in teaching.

    Well, that’s wonderful to hear so will you be going to teach them ?

    1. Fucking white trash shitbags.

      You penniless, old, hairy, ugly whites from USA and UK come to China to teach your fucking useless ENGLISH and spread your bullshit CHRISTIAN religion because you have no other money making skill.

      You gwailos are unemployed losers in your home country and cannot get a white girl, so you come to China and prey on our prostitutes because at least here, your money can buy you a tight pussy.

      Well here is a wake up call. Europe is being crushed by China’s export economy and brokeass USA has already sold itself to the PRC. We no longer need your money.

      If I bump into any of you English teacher faggots at the bar, I smash your head with a brick. Police will not help you because they will be giving me high five.


      1. and despite the rise of china, you still can’t get a woman. poor you.

        and on the subject of consolidating schools – key, you ‘commute’ argument is fair for urban schools, but do you really see rural kids jumping on a bicycle to commute to a school 20k away? have you seen some of the environments these schools are in?

      2. lol @ leejing

        Obvious troll, but still: “…We no longer need your money.” <- not true, you guys still do.

        Nonetheless, his sentiments are in the right place, so I'll stop there.

        Truth be told, patriotic trolls such as leejing are everywhere in China. They are image obsessed new generation – if you badmouth China, well.. you are gonna get a can of whoop-ass opened on you. But, the tragedy lies in that they are apathetic about their own people – so what if these substitute teachers get laid off after dedicating their lives to improving the education of the ? The leejings of China's dont really care about this minor detail, as they are more concerned with defending the overall image of China.

        More perverse, however, is that as much as Chinese nationalists such as leejing say about how gr8 and independent and self-resilient and etc etc China is, deep down they really want to impress foreigners. The spectacle of the 2008 Olympics is really China is way of saying "hai guyz look at how cool and different i am!." They hate it when news defaming China's image (such as this one) gets leaked, because it really reveals just how imperfect and (pardon my french) fucked up the modern Chinese society is.

        So then there you have it, leejing and his compatriots analyzed.

  10. Way to show yourself to be a racist moron leejing. How about all of your chinese people who live abroad (there are “Chinatowns” all over the globe), yet a few westerners go to China and now there is racism. Charming.

  11. Wow.. no offense but ur money sucks. what u earn in a month is less then what i earn in an hour. and if u cant pay for normal teachers dont treat sub teachers like sht. its bad for ur country lul when other countries find out. theyll just think ur sht or somethin no offense lul. cuz personally, if u treat sub teachers like sht, other ppl will think ur like sht . =p

  12. o jeezus christ, guys. so much hate, so much hate.

    yes, China is immensely flawed. but we all are obviously fascinated by it, and i would like to think that we all care about it too, or we wouldn’t be on this website reading this article in the first place.

    i think the effort to attract teachers to these western parts of China should have come first, before the firing part. it seems China’s leadership tends to use punitive/negative measures before anything else. but who’s to be punished anyway?

  13. Look for the real reasons for this, not with your feelings or from your cultural perspective, the “why” is the desired results of the actions…

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