A selective review of Mette Halskov Hansen’s Educating the Chinese individual: life in a rural boarding school (2015), University of Washington Press
During fieldwork in a rural boarding school between 2008 and 2012 Mette Halskov Hansen observed that “it was mobile phone use among [students that symbolized intensified modernization of the rural boarding school, the students’ growing demand for individual space, and the weakened trust in authorities. […] Students used it to establish and maintain long-term social networks, to keep contact with friends inside and outside of their school and to play games and access information, especially about popular sporting events, music or movies” (62). Due to her continuous insights into schools in China, Hansen explains that nearly all students (at least those between 15 and 17 whom she studied) have a mobile phone from 2006/7 onward which are either tolerated, ignored or banned by teachers.
The mobile phone is in use during all kinds of time: small breaks, free time, and during classes. Hansen writes that “[E]very day and every hour, students knew exactly what they were supposed to do, and they learned to very efficiently exploit short breaks and unexpected moments without surveillance to socialize, play around, check sports or other news on their mobile phones, talk with friends in the class or send text or Internet messages on the widespread instant messaging software service known as QQ” (50). In fact, Hansen quotes a teacher saying that students “are controlled by their mobile phones” (158).
Another school of the town in which she did research managed to successfully ban mobile phones of which teachers believed that its use “weakened self-discipline and prevented them from concentrating on their studies” (52). This school had instead set up telephone booths on campus so that students can call their parents. Needless to say, calling their parents would only be a minor part of what students need their mobile phone for (and it wasn’t part of the above-quoted list). Interestingly, at one point, Hansen observed a presentation by a professional who was hired to motivate the students to study harder for their final exams (to get an impression see this bundle of youku videos, and the website “Chinese Net for inspirational Lectures” where the lecturer was found). One part of this presentation was spent to have some students call their parents in front of all the other students and staff and tell the (surprised) parents that they will do their best and that they love them. This must have been rather awkward for both sides – and I believe that this action shows different points of ideas of staff and students about the diverse purposes of ‘a telephone’. Of course, teachers themselves use QQ and the Internet (151).
Discussing the process of individualization and the role of choice in contemporary Chinese society, Hansen points out that the internet and mobile phones are used according to the norms of individualization processes: “students were faced with new options for expanding their knowledge of society and global changes through cheap and easy access to the Internet and for increasing their possibilities of communication through the mobile phones that nearly everyone had” (168). Moreover, the integration of different electronic media in students’ lives is used as a marker for different generational experiences (169).
Hidden transcripts – shatter zones
Most of the mentioning about using the mobile phone for accessing QQ, games, and the internet can be found under the subtitle: ‘Students’ quests for individual space’ (60 ff). Here Hansen shows that students use the internet as (one of) their individual escape space. From 2012 onward, Hansen writes, students put “substantial, though unorganized and uncoordinated, pressure” (67) on school authorities and teachers by using their mobile phones despite regulations against it. In these actions she found “elements of ‘hidden transcripts’”, referring to James Scott’s study about everyday resistance in peasants’ lives in Malaysia. Using hidden transcripts by subaltern subjects denotes using resistance in subtle, i.e. not public, ways against the state or authorities (ibid).
While reading this part I actually was more reminded Scott’s “shatter zones”.
Scott uses this term in The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland southeast Asia (2009), which describes the different ways in which people from highland cultures tried to escape state-making procedures and captivity until the 1950s by different means, but especially by living in more inaccessible areas. “Shatter zones” is space created for themselves: “the diagnostic characteristics of shatter zones are their relative geographical inaccessibility and the enormous diversity of tongues and cultures” (8). One important part of living in a shatter zone is to leave no paper trail, no written record in the usual sense, to be multilingual and flexible in their culture. Because Hansen describes the mobile phone and the internet as spaces that students create for themselves, I thought of their use of the mobile phone as shatter zones – also based on the speed with which ‘the hot’ expressions change among the youth and different groups of young people, and the desire to find ways and channels to not only circumvent the firewall and censorship but also to keep a certain privacy and at times anonymity. Certainly, QQ will not provide any of these, but chatting on QQ at least provides a ‘hiding’ space from teachers (who chat with their own friends).