Cover of Fragile Elite by Susanne Bregnbæk
Fragile Elite
The Dilemmas of China's Top University Students
Susanne Bregnbæk

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March 2016
184 pages.
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Cloth ISBN: 9780804796071
Paper ISBN: 9780804797788

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China's One Child Policy and its rigorous national focus on educational testing are well known. But what happens to those "lucky" few at the very top of the pyramid: elite university students in China who grew up under the One Child Policy and now attend the nation's most prestigious universities? How do they feel about having made it to the top of an extremely competitive educational system—as their parents' only child? What pressures do they face, and how do they cope with the expectations associated with being the best?

Fragile Elite explores the contradictions and perplexities of being an elite student through immersive ethnographic research conducted at two top universities in China. Susanne Bregnbæk uncovers the intimate psychological strains students suffer under the pressure imposed on them by parents and state, where the state acts as a parent and the parents reinforce the state. Fragile Elite offers fascinating insights into the intergenerational tensions at work in relation to the ongoing shift in educational policy and definition of what a "quality" student, child, and citizen is in contemporary China.

About the author

Susanne Bregnbæk is Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen.

"For elite students in China's top universities, academic success often exacerbates the existential dilemma of achieving personal goals or sacrificing one's own aspirations for the good of one's family or the state. Bregnbaek brilliantly describes how these quandaries are variously experienced and negotiated, throwing new light on changing Chinese conceptions of filial piety, state control, and personal freedom."

—Michael Jackson Harvard Divinity School

"Fragile Elite is a beautifully-written ethnography of students at elite Chinese universities. Bregnbaek integrates vivid stories of these students' experiences and perspectives with analysis of the familial, psychological, social, and political factors that fill their lives with anxiety."

—Vanessa L. Fong, author of Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Students and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World

"Clear and unassuming in style, Fragile Elite is in fact a sophisticated meditation on Chinese parent-child relationships today, and on the dilemmas faced by China's young people as a result of the country's recent and rapid transformation."

—Charles Stafford, London School of Economics

"This book ultimately offers a fascinating illumination of the lifeworlds of a social group that carries great significance and prestige in Chinese society. Bregnbæk boldly deciphers social issues through the terminology of existential anthropology and opens avenues for intriguing intercultural comparisons. Scholars who are interested in Chinese society, social mobility via education, and the hopes and anxieties of young people will find this book thought-invoking. "

—Gil Hizi, Anthropological Forum