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Is teaching English in China really for you?

Gregory Mavrides explodes the myths on teaching English in China.

Teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in China is big business. Reports indicate that EFL is a 10-billion yuan (USD $1.4 billion) business and that the industry made a 700 million yuan (USD $9,800,000) profit in Beijing alone. It is estimated that of the 37 billion yuan derived annually from book sales in China, EFL-related materials constituted no less than 25 percent of the total market (Qiang and Wolff, 2004, p. 1). This ever-growing market of English language education in China has resulted in a massive recruitment drive of approximately 100,000 foreign teachers per year (People’s Daily Online, 2006) and, in 2006, it was estimated that more than 150,000 foreign experts were employed in China, recruited primarily from Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand and the United States (China Daily, 2006).

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With so much money at stake, the Internet has experienced a burgeoning of China EFL-related websites all vying for the prospective foreign teacher’s attention and, ultimately, business. A Google search on the terms “teaching English in China” returns over 6.4 million results of websites run by Chinese recruiters, private English language schools, and veteran foreign teachers hoping to get in on all the action.

All these sites have one thing in common: They all glamorize teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) as a viable way to travel abroad and experience all the exotic mysteries and adventure China has to offer. Virtually every native English speaker with white skin between the ages of 18 and 60 is provided with “expert advice” about where and how to apply, and is presented with enticing advertisements for jobs, guides, manuals, travel gear and books, and just about anything else the traffic will bear.

The truth of the matter is that although some Westerners actually thrive as foreign English teachers in China, most do not. Obviously, if everyone who ventured off to China to teach oral English decided to stay, the need and competition for new recruits every year wouldn’t be as great and fierce as they currently are.

This article presents essential information that every prospective Westerner should carefully consider before making the life-altering decision to move to China for the purpose of teaching English as a foreign language. It is written by an American doctor and professor of psychology who has lived and worked in China since August 2003, and it contains valuable information adapted from the comprehensive Foreign Teachers’ Guide to Living and Teaching in China, written by the same author.

The Question of English in China

While the need for proficient English language skills among China’s 1.3 billion people might appear obvious to some, in reality, it is a highly debatable issue.

Chinese is the most commonly spoken language in the world today. It is estimated that there are 873 million native speakers of Chinese as opposed to only 343 million native speakers of English (NVTC, 2007). The vast majority of Chinese will never utter even one word of English after passing their comprehensive English examinations and graduating from college. A few will need to read materials written in English as part of their job function and far fewer than that will occasionally need to send an e-mail in English, but most will never need English to function effectively in their day-to-day lives—and Chinese students know this.

There is a small percentage of Chinese students, particularly those who come from affluent families, who have dreams of studying abroad and they will need a relatively high level of English language skills if they are to succeed. A few have aspirations of working at the front desk of an international 5-star hotel and others hope to find employment in jointly-owned Western-Chinese companies that may require the daily use of English—but most will return to their second and third tier cities working for the government or private Chinese enterprises where virtually no one uses or can communicate in English.

What most prospective foreign teachers do not realize is that English as a foreign language holds a very low position within China’s educational system. Students who score well on their national college entrance exam (the Gao Kao) will be assigned to or choose majors in the hard sciences or technological fields that support China’s 1978 economic reform movement referred to as the Four Modernizations, i.e., agriculture, industry, technology and defense. Fields of study in the humanities, including foreign language, are assigned to those students who scored too poorly on the college entrance exam to be admitted into the far more lucrative and desirable academic majors.

The bottom line is that most students simply do not see a clear association between proficient English language skills and direct future benefits. They look at their very successful fathers and the vast majority of China’s national political leaders who cannot speak a single word of English and wonder why they have to take extra classes in oral English with a foreign teacher when they are already studying English with Chinese teachers who, unlike their Western counterparts, can actually help them pass their proficiency exams.

If English as an academic discipline is so devalued in China and if the actual need for English language skills is questionable at best, why then does China need so many foreign English teachers?

The De-professionalization of English Teaching in China

The nearly insatiable need for foreign English teachers in China can be explained by two phenomena: one involving the public sector and the other involving the private sector. First, China’s Ministry of Education promulgated a highly contested and bitterly resented national requirement that states all students of foreign language must be exposed to a native speaker. However, China’s national labor laws prohibit any employer from hiring a foreigner for a position that can be filled by a Chinese national. So, in order to reconcile the two conflicting policies, the teaching of English in China was compartmentalized into two broad areas: professional and lay. The professional certified Chinese English teachers are assigned courses in grammar, reading, and writing, and the lay uncertified and often less educated foreign teachers help facilitate the practice of speaking and listening skills. Thus, although the State Administration for Foreign Expert Affairs (SAFEA) recommends a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and two years of field-related work experience, in reality, the vast majority of foreign English teachers in China have neither, because neither are necessary to help students practice their speaking and listening skills. The truth of the matter is any native speaker who is friendly, extremely patient, and enjoys children can do it successfully.

The second explanation lies in the fact that private English language schools absolutely need white faces in the school in order to attract customers. Despite the highly debatable reality of the situation, Chinese parents (as well as most foreign English teachers) firmly believe that good English language skills will afford their children both an academic and financial advantage later on in life. Consequently, many will drag their children to private English language schools when they are as young as four-years old, often at great personal financial sacrifice. In order to attract Westerners into China, school owners must offer their foreign teachers up to four times what they are paying their certified Chinese teachers, and the added business expense is hardly appreciated. There isn’t one Chinese school owner or administrator who wouldn’t immediately replace every single one of his culturally-alien and costly foreign English teachers with a much less expensive and, often, better educated Chinese English teacher if he knew doing so wouldn’t cost him his business.

The Truth About Housing and the Myth of the “Comfortable” Salary

China maintains something of a schizophrenogenic relationship with its foreign English teachers. On one hand they are needed to satisfy a national educational requirement or to stay in business. On the other hand, they are deeply resented for it. This resentment is expressed in a variety of ways, both obvious and subtle.

In the vast majority of cases, the housing afforded to foreign English teachers is inferior even by middle-class Chinese standards. It is typically an 800 sq. ft. (or smaller) apartment that is usually in varying states of disrepair, undecorated, starkly furnished with a cheap, rock-hard “mattress,” and a 2-range countertop propane gas stove and a mini-refrigerator for a kitchen. The bathroom consists of a Western toilet, a cold-water sink with a water heater and shower head attached to the wall that is often not separated from the rest of the bathroom inside a shower stall. Requests for repairs or necessary improvements are almost always ignored or endlessly delayed in the hope that the foreign teacher will simply incur the expenses himself.

Outside of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, salaries for foreign teachers typically range from RMB3,800 to 6,000 (US$551 to $870) with an average of about 4500 yuan (US$653) per month for 14 to 20 hours of face-to-face teaching per week (depending on qualifications, location and school type). The reality is that this salary can only be considered as adequate, as opposed to comfortable, if the foreign teacher is able to live like a Chinese. Those who buy amenities like cell phones and Western DVD players, choose to eat at 4- and 5-star hotel restaurants for a culinary respite from cheap Chinese food, and otherwise try to replicate a quality of life they enjoyed back home will not be able to do so on 4500 yuan per month. The vast majority of foreign English teachers in China engage in outside part-time contract work in order to supplement their base monthly incomes.

So, Is There Any Good News?

In the context of students who, for the most part, could accurately be described as unmotivated to learn English, an educational role that is devalued and de-professionalized, managerial and collegial environments that are dismissive and resentful, and a remuneration package that is just barely adequate, does it make sense for anyone to teach English in China? Actually, as it turns out, it does for those who comprise one of two specific sociodemographic groups and go into it well-informed and with their eyes wide open.

Westerners who report the greatest degree of satisfaction with their decision to teach English in China comprise recent college graduates who are seeking a short-term adventure before resuming their normal lives back home and early retirees who already enjoyed a successful career, have some money in the bank, and are looking to stretch their savings and pensions in an Asian country. Those who report the least amount of satisfaction as foreign English teachers in China are Westerners between the ages of 30 to 50 who moved to China as a perceived forced choice as a result of having mismanaged their lives back home.

Western professors on sabbatical and certified primary and secondary school teachers—who are looking for a short-term teaching assignment—should only consider Project 211 universities and international schools, respectively.

Having just written this, there are some middle-aged Westerners who are able to beat the odds and do, in fact, carve out lives for themselves that are better now in China than they were before. Typically these are men who managed to acclimate to the vast cultural differences relatively quickly, married a Chinese national, can speak some Chinese, and now consider China to be their new home.

This article is just a brief preview of just some of the essential information contained in the comprehensive Foreign Teachers’ Guide to Living and Teaching in China. If you are seriously considering moving to China to teach English, you owe it to yourself to read that guide.


- China Daily. (2006, April 4). Number of foreigners working in China soars. People’s Daily Online. Retrieved November 14, 2007 from

- National Virtual Translation Center (2008). Languages of the World. Retrieved January 23, 2009 from http://

- People’s Daily (2006, May 23). China to recruit foreign experts through Internet. People’s Daily Online. Retrieved February 23, 2008 from

- Qiang, N. & Wolff, M. (2004). EFL/ESL Teaching in China: Questions, Questions, Questions. Paper presented at the Sixth International Symposium on Applied Linguistics and Language.

About the author

Dr. Gregory Mavrides is an American psychoanalyst who has been working in China as a professor and mental health consultant since August 2003. He is the author of the comprehensive Foreign Teachers’ Guide to Living and Teaching in China.

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3 comments to Is teaching English in China really for you?

  • I’ve linked to this post before on my blog, but just come across it again and reread it while looking for something else. A fabulous blog post.

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  • gusman

    While I agree with an awful lot about what is contained here, I also think one can have a very good experience living and working in China. I have just returned after 2 years and wish to go back. The culture is the most ‘foreign’I have encountered and I have travelled quite a bit this and the language barrier are the most difficult and frustrating things, and I do think that the locals sometimes resent the high salaries foreign teachers get BUT money is one thing that the Chinese do understand and realise no foreigner would come or cope on a local wage. I think that in all fairness the salaries are more than adequate but unless you really work 24-7 any savings mean very little once transported home.

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  • [...] demand for learning English as a foreign language in China is so huge that it resulted in a massive recruitment drive of approximately 100,000 foreign teachers per [...]

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