‘Small-town test taker’ — Phrase of the Week

Society & Culture

A “small-town test taker” is a self-deprecating — or slightly insulting — phrase to describe a country bumpkin who works their butt off in pursuit of success.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Our phrase of the week is: small-town test taker (小镇做题家 xiǎo zhèn zuò tí jiā).


Chinese pop singer Jackson Yee (易烊千玺 Yì Yángqiānxǐ) and two other celebrities are facing controversy after the National Theatre of China (国家话剧院 guójiā dà jùyuàn) hired them as staff performers, sparking calls on social media for more transparency amid concerns that they gained privileged access.

The public sector roles, or biānzhì 编制 in Chinese, that they were offered are highly sought-after jobs that are supposed to be secured through a rigorous competitive process of exams and interviews. Thousands of people may apply for a single job.

  • A bianzhi brings with it attractive perks: It can normally be extended for life, and it offers a stable income with housing subsidies and other benefits.

Yee has apologized on his Weibo account for any misunderstanding or angst caused, and decided not to take the job.

But the real controversy came following an article on July 8 in the state-run publication China Newsweek (中国新闻周刊 zhōngguó xīnwén zhōukān), which has since been deleted.

Senior journalist Yáng Shíyáng 杨时旸 suggested that celebrities like Jackson Yee are more talented and more able to pass exams to access cushy public sector jobs than “normal people,” no matter how hard they work:

There are many people who take the exams. These “small-town test takers” take tutoring classes every day, do practice tests, and they still can’t obtain a public sector job with job security.


Kǎo biān de pǔtōng rén dà yǒu rén zài, zhèxiē xiǎo zhèn zuò tí jiā měitiān shàng péixùn bān, zuò zhēntí juǎn, yě réngrán kǎo bù zhòng nàge néng wèi tāmen dài lái ānquán gǎn de biānzhì nèi zhíwù.


Small-town test takers originally referred to people from remote or poor parts of China who have worked hard to pass gāokǎo 高考 exams and get into top universities in the country. The reaction to the China Newsweek article has brought a broader meaning, so it now can refer to the common people in China as opposed to the privileged few.

The phrase first became popular in 2020 in a discussion group on Douban of over 50,000 self-proclaimed small-town test takers. They, and people like them, came to the conclusion that even though they are great at taking tests and managed to get into their dream university, they are still at a big disadvantage compared with their well-off city-dwelling peers who enjoy support from parents and are given a leg up through networks and a more luxurious lifestyle.

It is a self-deprecating phrase, but it also carries with it a level of respect for anyone who could work that hard in order to improve their lives.

But the new twist added to the phrase by the China Newsweek article is described as arrogant and condescending by social media users:

Since ancient times, no one has dared to blatantly laugh at people for working hard. He is the first one.


Zìgǔ yǐlái jiù méiyǒu rén gǎn míngmùzhāngdǎn de cháoxiào nǔlì de rén, tā shì dì yī gè.

In response to the article, there has been an outpouring of sympathy and support for small-town test takers on social media, with many people sharing stories of themselves or their parents who, through hard work and passing the gaokao years ago, were able to make a better life for their families:

Effort and hard work should be valued. “Small-town test takers” show evidence of having worked hard, and the phrase should not be a label to be ridiculed.


Nǔlì, pīnbó yīnggāi shì yī zhǒng kěguì de pǐnzhí,“xiǎo zhèn zuò tí jiā” yě yīnggāi shì yīgè rén nǔlìguò de zhèngmíng, ér bùshì bèi cháofèng de biāoqiān.

Andrew Methven