The Cultivation of Middle-Class Taste: Reading, Tourism and Education Choices in Urban China

ARC Discovery Project

Principal investigators:

Prof. Stephanie Hemelryk Donald

Dr. Yi Zheng

Research Assistants:

Leicia Petersen and Ming Liang

Postgraduate theses

Lim, Julie. ‘Race and Belonging in an International City: Overseas Chinese in ‘new’ Shanghai’

Schilbach, Tina. ‘Middle Class Identity in China’s 'Economic Centre': Shanghai as an opportunity for societal reform or a showcase for the re-invented Party-State?’

Zou, Peng. ‘White collars in quality papers: quality magazine editors and their roles in new cultural China’

Jinan Temple, a Buddhist temple built right at the center of busy Jingan district, Shanghai A residential compound on Changning Rd, Changning district, Shanghai

A small mall at Xuhui district, Shanghai

Photos by Leicia Peterson

In the Western world the middle classes have often been described as the precursors and vehicle of modernisation and democratic transformation, especially when referring to the socio-political transformation of authoritarian regimes such as China. Nonetheless, the ready assumption that the middle classes are a universal phenomenon is almost necessarily challengeable and certainly requires greater interrogation of the middle classes of China.

Who are the Chinese middle classes? They are defined in socio-economic terms as the ‘middle market’; the creative intellectuals, the entrepreneurs, and the managers of state and private enterprises. But how are they defining themselves, through their tastes, their expectations, and their cultural credentials? Who are the urban elites of Reform China, and how do they seek to consolidate their position through the choices that they make in their everyday lives?

This project investigates how class is being constructed in China’s post-socialist environment, where people and state are engaged in an accelerated process of internationalisation, but where there is also a strong national sentiment, and an emphasis on the fundamentals of Chinese culture and civilisation. In particular, the project examines the development of a self-conscious middle class aesthetic or ‘taste structure’, as it is cultivated through reading and ‘looking at’ (illustrated publications), specifically designed as manuals for self-betterment and distinction, or as prospectus for children’s education, and for travel experience and tourism.

The research will discover whether distinction, or taste, of this new ‘middle class’ suggest the development of a cosmopolitan elite; familiar, westernised, and globally predictable, or, whether they represent the first stirrings of a new version of Chinese intra-national identity that may produce significant shifts in the cultural economy of the Asia-Pacific region.


March 2008, fieldwork conducted in Guangzhou, China, including interviews with industrial representatives from media, fashion and publications.

Links have been made with the Cultural Studies Centre at Renmin University (Beijing), and joint projects were developed with Prof. Jin Yuanpu Director of Culture Industries Studies Institute at Renmin University (Beijing) and Prof. Zhang Xiaoming of the Chinese Association of Social Sciences (CASS) both of whom are carrying out research on the re-emergence of class in China.

Cooperation has been established with Dr. Shen Yuan from Tsinghua (Qinghua) University (Beijing) on the various approaches to middle class and ‘taste’ phenomena in Beijing.

As a result of the cooperation with Tsinghua University, two co-sponsored workshops (UTS-Tsinghua University) were developed. The first joint seminar took place at Tsinghua University (Beijing) in 2008 to discuss the topic of social stratification in a more market-driven society. The second seminar, held at UTS (Sydney), also took place in 2008 and will be related to one of CASS projects on China’s national minorities, to discuss the issue of national minorities and the development of creative industries.

Contacts have also been established with writers, editors and publishers in both Beijing and Chengdu. Experimental Foreign Languages School is used as a case study for the project.


Donald, SH. and Zheng Yi, ‘A taste of class: manuals for becoming woman,’ positions: east asia cultures critique, Vol 17:3, Winter 2009. positions is the top ranked journal of East Asian cultural inquiry. (ERA A*)

Stephanie Donald, ‘Landscapes of class in contemporary Chinese film: from Yellow Earth to Still Life’, in Jeff Malpas ed. Problems of Landscape, MIT Press, 2008

Stephanie Donald and Yi Zheng ‘Richer than Before: The Cultivation of Middle-Class Taste: Reading, Tourism and Education Choices in Urban China’ in David SG Goodman ed. The New Rich in China: Future Rulers, Present Lives, London: Routledge, 2008

Yi Zheng (2007) ‘文化漫游与精神家园—当代中国文化散文的公共语境’ (Cultural Tours and the Spiritual Home: On Yu Qiuyu and Contemporary Chinese Cultural Essays) Portal, Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, Vol 4, No 1, pp. 8 (in Chinese).

Yi Zheng, “The Critical Predicament of Contemporary Chinese Essays and the Literati Spirit,” Qian and Zhang (eds.), Chinese Literature: Dialogue between Tradition and Modernity. Shanghai: Shanghai Classics Publishing House (shanghai guji zubanshe), October 2007.

Conferences, symposia and workshops

August 6-8, 2007, Yi Zheng, Presentation "City Writing as Popular History of Class," Biennial Conference of the American Association of Chinese & Comparative Literature, Chengdu, China

July 4-6,2007, at the China/EastAsiaMedia/NewMedia Conference held in Brisbane Professor Stephanie H. Donald delivered the keynote speech Branding as a Cultural Term. At the same conference Peng Zou participated in their doctoral colloquium.

June 27-29, 2007, Chinese Studies Association of Australia 10th Biennial Conference held at Griffith University (Brisbane) panel: ‘China’s Middle Class Formation in Relation to Local Detail, Regional and Global Comparisons’. Presentations included:

  • Stephanie H. Donald ‘Regional Cosmopolitanism: An Asian perspective on immiseration and global class’
  • Beatriz Carrillo Garcia ‘From Black Coal to Hospital White: The new welfare entrepreneurs and the pursuit of a ‘cleaner’ status’
  • Julie Lim ‘‘Huangyin, Guanling’: Shanghai’s hierarchy of hospitality’
  • Yi Zheng ‘The Shanghai Menu of Happiness’

August 30, 2006, Stephanie Donald, “Middle class formation and transformation in Argentina and China,” presentation at China and Latin America: the relationship with the new world power seminar, TEC of Monterrey, Mexico.

August 24, 2006, Stephanie Donald, “Middle class formation and transformation in Argentina and China,” presentation at International Seminar on China and Latin America workshop, University of Guadalajara, Mexico.

August 11, 2006, Stephanie Donald, “Richer than Before – a Social Semiotic Approach,” presentation at Comparative Studies of the Middleclass workshop, University of Wollongong, NSW.

July 3, 2006, Stephanie Donald and Yi Zheng, “Richer than Before,” public lecture at Renmin University, Beijing, China.

October 26, 2005, Stephanie Donald and Yi Zheng, “The Cultivation of Middleclass Taste in Urban China as a Theoretical and Social-historical Question,” presentation at Rethinking Literary and Cultural Theory conference; Weihai, PRC.

August 23, 2005, Yi Zheng and Stephanie Donald, “Becoming Woman,” presentation at the Women in Asia conference, Sydney, UTS.

This project is funded by an ARC Linkage grant.