The Chinese Middle Class: Myth and Reality

American Students are Interested in Learning about China

While most Lotus Chinese Learning students are children, I still teach adult students who are interested in learning Mandarin Chinese. Many of these adult students have plans to travel in China for business or China is a big part of their company’s future.

Anyone who reads the news knows that China is a growing consumer market with a large middle class. In my previous life, I was a marketing manager for a consulting company that assisted foreign companies in China. We had a steady stream of clients who were interested in selling everything from Belgian waffles to North American yoga pants in China.

photo of interior of shopping mall
Lots of companies have big plans to sell their wares to the emerging Chinese middle class

Is China’s Middle Class What you Think it Is?

Almost invariably, I could tell that the products would be less successful than their makers dreamed that they would be. Often, a cheaper, local option was already available. Or the product had very little appeal to the local market. If you wouldn’t try selling marinated chicken feet in America, pitching artisan Greek cookies in China is just as foolish. I know the size of the Chinese middle class inspired big ambitions in these clients, but the truth about the Chinese middle class is not what you think.

Most of my adult students think either one of two things: Chinese people are still running around in Mao jackets living the lives of subsistence farmers or Chinese people drive their Lamborghinis to the Louis Vuitton store to buy a new handbag for every day of the week. Many businesses with interests in China are hoping that the second scenario is the one that is closer to the truth. Well… China’s population is still 43% rural.

There are people cruising around Shanghai in their Lambos, but those folks are the elite of the elite. If you are interested in learning about China’s ultra rich, check out the Hurun report.

The Gap Between Rural and Urban

Anyway, back to the rest of the country. Not only is China’s population still 43% rural, but there is a big difference between the lives of rural and urban people. In America, people in rural areas average about 4% poorer than urban people. In China, rural people are on average 63% poorer than urban people. There is a huge gap between the lifestyle of professionals in Beijing and famers in Anhui.

What counts as “middle class” in China, is also a bit different that what we think of the middle class in America. The raw numbers are promising: by certain measures, China has a middle class population of about 330 million. The entire population of the US is about 327 million!

photo of RMB 100 notes
How many Chairman Mao’s does a middle class Chinese person have at their disposal?

Seems like a lot of middle class people, right? Not so fast, that figure includes people with household incomes of $8,000 a year. They are not subsistence farmers, but they don’t buy a lot of iPhones either.

Still Interested in Doing Business in China?

If, after reading these sobering facts the Chinese middle class, you are still convinced that China is in your business’s future, get in touch. You can also read about class options for adult learners here.

**Big thanks to Mario Gonzalez Fuentes, phD (aka Mr. Lotus Chinese Learning) for the statistics in this post**

More Tips for Adult Language Learners

How Adults Can Get the Most Out of their Chinese Classes

Many adult students want to learn Mandarin Chinese really want to speed up the learning process. Unfortunately, language acquisition is slow, ordered and complex. There really is no way to make the process go faster. It takes about the same number of hours to learn language no matter what an app promises. Students cannot “leap frog” the different stages. Sure, you can quit your job, move to China, sign up for language classes, and live with a host family. Your progress will be greater in one year than someone who just has class in the US for one hour per week. It will still take the same number of total hours to master the language, however. In any case, there are ways that adult learners can give their studies a shot in the arm. Below are a few tips.

Tips for Listening

Many students worry about their speaking. Output (speaking), however, comes long after input (listening). In other words, students need a flood of input in order to produce a trickle of output. Almost every adult student thinks that speaking practice is important. In fact, we do not learn to speak through practice, we learn through listening. Okay, okay, you say, that is great, but I REALLY want to improve my speaking, how can I do that? One way that students can get the most out of their listening (and thereby improve their speaking) is to pay close attention to how teachers and native speakers talk to them in Chinese. A good teacher will not spend much time at all on correcting grammar or pronunciation errors. More on that here. Instead, she will just use the more native-like structure or pronunciation in her response. Here is an example in English:

Students: “I goed to the store yesterday.”

Teacher: “So after you went to the store yesterday, what did you do?”

Note, that the teacher does not explicitly correct what the student said. She just uses the correct formation (“went” instead of  “goed”) in her response. So for students who are worried that they are making lots of mistakes when they speak in their second language, listen carefully to the response. Do you hear your teacher (or someone else) saying something a bit different? Paying attention to these differences might be useful to you.

Tips for Reading

Just like listening, reading is input. Input is how we learn language. We need to do lots of reading in Chinese in order to improve our language abilities. The problem with reading in Chinese is that students don’t want to do it :). It seems exhaustive and overwhelming. Because of these problems, students don’t even get started with it. Students can do two things to improve their reading experience in Chinese. Firstly, they should choose readings that are meant for language learners. Secondly, they should try to read shorter things.

Many ambitious students want to start reading authentic resources as soon as possible. Authentic resources are written by native speakers for native speakers. These are unfortunately too complex for beginner and intermediate students. They get frustrated and give up. A better choice for lower level students are graded readers. I’ve had great success with books like Susan You Mafan for beginner advanced and intermediate low students.

Students also get frustrated when they bite off more than they can chew. Instead of trying to read an entire book in one sitting, they should read shorter passages. Spending 15 minutes at a time reading is plenty for beginner and intermediate students. Social media often has nice, short options for reading.


Mandarin Chinese Classes for Adults

Legacy Methods VS Methods That Work

Since I ditched legacy teaching methods (the old “teach and practice” model*) I have a new challenge every time I begin a Mandarin class for adults. When I step into the classroom, my students are usually at their desks, sitting with notebook out, ready to write down notes like “Mandarin has four tones.” They are ready for the old-school model of a Mandarin class and I have only an hour or two to earn their trust. They are not used to a class that begins with: 我是Mary (I am Mary). When students do not hear what they are expecting, they get nervous. Adults who want to learn Chinese are usually making a big sacrifice of their time. It is important that they trust that Chinese classes are a good use of their time.

Getting to 90%

During a first Mandarin class, it is only reasonable for students for students to learn a few things. For a two-hour group Mandarin Chinese class, my students learn 我是、你是、他是、我喜欢、她喜欢、我有、你有、她有 and a few question words. That is a few pronouns, three verbs (to be, to like, and to have), and three question words at most, maybe ten unique words in total. In this first class, we maybe spend half the time in the target language and half the time in English. We work up to spending about 90% of the class in Chinese by class 4 or 5.

I can tell that students are nervous at the beginning. Within 20 minutes of class however, they are responding to questions like “who are you?” “are you Mary?” “Are you a teacher?” Students are able to do this without a minute of grammar instruction. I’m confident that my students are “getting it” because I ask them regularly. Thanks to a TPRS workshop with Blaine Ray, I started doing a “finger check” with students. When asked, students hold up one finger to show that they totally do not get what is going on, five fingers for “I am so getting this” and two, three and four fingers for everything in between. The finger check is great because it allows the teacher to check-in with all the students quickly, and the individual students are less embarrassed to show that they don’t get it, if that is the case.

Importance of Reading

Back during my legacy-method days, I used to tell adult students that they did not have to learn Chinese characters if they did not want. It is still true that I cannot actually force anyone to learn Chinese characters, but learning Chinese characters is now a large part of my adult Chinese classes. The caveat is that we only learn to read Chinese characters that we have repeated orally many, many times in class. Thanks to the finger check, I can tell that by the end of class, students are “so getting it” when it comes to Chinese characters.

Gaining Confidence in Chinese

It is really hard to conduct a class that is very different to what students are expecting. Often, adult students who have 12+ years of schooling under their belts have a very specific ideas about what a class should look like. They are looking for “Mandarin Chinese has four tones. The first tone is…” In this type of class, the problem is that students are learning ABOUT Chinese and not learning Chinese. After two hours of a class in which we are using Chinese to talk about ourselves and each other, students leave pretty confident. When the students feel confident, I have their trust.

page from Chinese 1 textbook
Page of a text we read during day one of Mandarin Chinese class

*Carol Gaab is quoted in this article from Language Magazine predicts that no one will be doing any professional development based on “teach and practice” by 2025. I think that is a little optimistic, but you never know!