Night classes becoming a refuge for China’s young people?

Young people in China are turning to night classes as a source of mental respite from the daily grind. From Shanghai and Beijing to Nanjing and Wuxi, thousands of applications are seen for classes with dozens of vacancies. Does this trend point to a larger social phenomenon?
People learn folk dance at a night school in Gansu province, China, 30 November 2023. (CNS)
People learn folk dance at a night school in Gansu province, China, 30 November 2023. (CNS)

Going to night school after work is becoming the latest trend among youths in China.

The trend first started in Shanghai. During the enrolment period of Shanghai’s Citizen Night School for Arts for the autumn semester in September, over 650,000 people fought to sign up online for classes, with all classes fully booked; the registration platform even crashed at one point.

Night classes offered at Zhejiang’s cultural centre were insanely popular as well; a makeup class with only 30 spots attracted 1,700 applicants, while a floral arrangement class even attracted a whopping 22,000 applicants.

Statistics from lifestyle services and e-commerce platform Meituan-Dianping showed that since this year, the number of searches for “night school” on the platform jumped 980% year-on-year, while the number of reviews increased 226% year-on-year.

Calligraphy, yoga, sewing, nail art, bartending, vocal training, makeup, intangible cultural heritage courses… Night schools, known as the “adult version of youth activity centres”, are mushrooming in China’s first- and second-tier cities, injecting new life into the rather nostalgic concept of “night school”.  

Back again after 40 years

The last time a night school trend swept across China was in the 1980s. 

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, a generation of youths who were held back by the Cultural Revolution went to work in the day and enrolled in “night universities” run by colleges and universities at night to attend cultural courses and obtain a college diploma, thereby changing their destiny. 

... its students were mostly working adults aged between 25 and 40. Their jobs ranged from programmers and white-collar workers to freelancers...

People attend calligraphy lessons at a night school in China. (Weibo)
People attend calligraphy lessons at a night school in China. (Weibo)

Night schools only gradually disappeared from the public eye after the expansion of college and university enrolment in the 1990s.

Shanghai’s Citizen Night School for Arts, which started the current “night school craze”, was opened in 2016 in the Shanghai Mass Art Center, offering just seven courses such as Chinese painting, calligraphy, vocal training and paper cutting in the beginning, mainly targeted at the elderly.   

In 2018, the Citizen Night School for Arts added new courses such as the card game bridge, floral arrangement, African hand drum (djembe), and red wine appreciation, which slowly caught the attention of the younger generation.  

Xu Hao, vice curator of the Shanghai Mass Art Center, told Shanghai’s Laodong Daily (《劳动报》) that China’s art education has long been facing the issue of being “hot on both ends but cold in the middle” — while art education for children and the elderly has been popular, there is a big gap in art education for the middle-aged and youths, and it is against this backdrop that the Citizen Night School for Arts was founded.

Xu said that since the opening of the night school, its students were mostly working adults aged between 25 and 40. Their jobs ranged from programmers and white-collar workers to freelancers, and it was quite impossible to find two students from the same industry in one class.

People attend drum lessons at a night school in China. (Screenshot from Weibo video)
People attend drum lessons at a night school in China. (Screenshot from Weibo video)

After the Citizen Night School for Arts gained popularity, it began offering a wider range of night courses. According to cctv.com, the more unique courses include beaded bracelets, healing, e-sports, ancient makeup, and pet interactions. Even artificial intelligence (AI) courses can be further split into “AI we-media”, “AI drawing” and “AI writing”. 

Looking at the content of the courses, the resurgent night schools today are vastly different from the night schools of the 1980s — now, they are more like “interest courses” catering to adults.

‘Night school economy’

Chinese youth’s enthusiasm for attending night school has resulted in the mushrooming of night schools in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and has even spread to regions such as Chengdu, Nanjing, Kunming, Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou and Wuxi.  

An article reposted by Chinese business consulting media platform huxiu.com wrote: “Consumption hot spots are rare nowadays. It is only natural that all parties want a piece of the pie.” It added that teaching centres have even been set up in some streets, villages and towns, offering trendy courses such as using singing bowls for relaxation and improvisational theatre.

Jiemian News (《界面新闻》) categorised the night schools into three types. One, those with official backgrounds and were established through the coordination of local governments, community organisations, village committees, and cultural centres; they offer a plethora of courses and can guarantee the quality of teachers and teaching content.

People attend hairdressing lessons at a night school in China. (Screenshot from Weibo video)
People attend hairdressing lessons at a night school in China. (Screenshot from Weibo video)

Two, those initiated by training institutions, which offer affordable and popular introductory courses to attract students and later turn them into long-term course applicants. 

Three, those run by individuals or teams who act as intermediaries, forming interest groups on social media and then connecting these with institutions and teachers. After gathering three to five students in an interest group, classes can commence within a week. 

A night school administrator called “Dreamchaser” (逐梦) told Jiemian News that three days since she released information on enrolment for night school, she received more than 1,000 private messages expressing interest. Three classes were successfully set up in the end with around 30 people each. 

However, due to low barriers of entry for setting up night schools, problems with commercially run night schools have surfaced. Chinese self-media “Shidianrenwuzhi” (十点人物志) pointed out that those who wished to enrol in night schools were pulled into a huge WeChat group, and would be asked to repeatedly pick their courses of interest in a process that lacked a system and proper service standards. 

Also, some online night schools are small businesses that do not have a fixed location, and it is difficult to ascertain the credentials of their teachers. A lack of after-sales service for courses is also a hidden risk.  

... night schools have been jokingly crowned by Chinese netizens as “the Mixue Ice Cream & Tea of the hobbies and interests sector”.

Why are night schools so popular?

Despite the lack of a proper system to guide operations for the night school industry, this has not deterred many youths from fervently signing up. One key reason is the low cost of night school courses.

A woman uses balls to exercise at a park in Beijing on 30 November 2023. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
A woman uses balls to exercise at a park in Beijing on 30 November 2023. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

A search on the market revealed that courses were mostly priced at 500 RMB for 12 classes, and so night schools have been jokingly crowned by Chinese netizens as “the Mixue Ice Cream & Tea of the hobbies and interests sector”. In comparison, most hobby and interest classes for adults in first-tier cities would cost thousands of RMB. 

A Weibo user named “Teacher Zhao of Beijing’s Night School” said that attending night school might not be to gain in-depth knowledge, but rather an opportunity for everyone to experience something they are interested in, at a budget-friendly price.  

In the past two weeks, Chinese mainstream media outlets Xinhua, People’s Daily, and China Youth Daily all ran articles on the “night school hype”, unanimously expressing praise and support for the choices of China’s youths.

The People's Daily said that night schools have promoted "non-utilitarian" learning and provided a place for young people to unwind, satisfy their spiritual needs and improve themselves — they are precious shelters for refreshing the busy soul.

The China Youth Daily article stated that night schools could help the average worker “lift their heads slightly amidst the exhaustion of their lives to look at a different slice of the sky and experience a different side of life”, and to “provide new possibilities for one’s life”. 

... 59.1% of Chinese white-collar workers in 2022 have a side job, a huge increase from 32.1% in 2021.

This aerial photo taken on 29 November 2023 shows people riding boat among trees in autumn colours at a park in Nantong, in China's eastern Jiangsu province. (AFP)
This aerial photo taken on 29 November 2023 shows people riding boat among trees in autumn colours at a park in Nantong, in China's eastern Jiangsu province. (AFP)

What is worth thinking about is, when night schools are being described as a convenient channel to acquire skills, a cure for the exhaustion experienced by the average employee, and a “mental refuge” for people today, is greater anxiety perhaps hidden behind this "peace"? 

As the number of youths who attend night school rises, the number of people with a side job has also gone up significantly. The Peking University China Center for Economic Research jointly released the 2022 employment relations trends report with Zhilian Zhaopin, which revealed that 53.9% of working professionals have a second part-time job. In another report by Zhilian Zhaopin showing the 2022 white-collar professional satisfaction index, 59.1% of Chinese white-collar workers in 2022 have a side job, a huge increase from 32.1% in 2021.

Amid busy city life, finding a mental refuge that suits oneself is indeed valuable. But it may be the case that even here, the average Chinese youth continue to hold great uncertainty and worries about the future. 

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “夜校成中国年轻人“精神桃花源”?”.

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