Recognising “the power of weeds” - a narrative inquiry of the higher education transitions of undergraduates from rural backgrounds in China

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


This thesis explores the transitions of under-represented students from rural backgrounds to higher education, focusing on how multiple dimensions of rurality intersect with higher education dynamics. It investigates the day-to-day transitions of students from rural China, as they navigate the complexities of urban universities, amidst enduring rural-urban divides.

Conceptualising transition as “becoming”, the study examined students’ rural upbringings, their journeys to higher education, and their subsequent encounters in urban universities. Holland et al.’s (1998) “figured worlds” theory and Moll et al.’s (1992) ‘‘funds of knowledge’’ concepts were employed to interpret how students shaped their identities through improvisations in daily transition practices. Narrative inquiry methods were employed to study twelve second-year undergraduates from rural central and western China attending eastern urban universities in Nanjing. Three stages of narrative interviews were conducted, each with a distinct focus. Following the initial interview, participants wrote autobiographies for discussion in subsequent interviews.

The findings revealed the multifaceted manifestations of rurality, which present as both obstacles and assets in shaping the participants’ transitions into universities. Participants’ rich funds of knowledge acquired from their rural contexts were identified as cultural assets, facilitating their transitions to university. However, as they embarked on their journeys to universities, they encountered multiple challenges including adjusting to uncharted academic cultures and practices, navigating an urban-dominated landscape, and negotiating complex dynamics between family and university world. The study found that participants employed their agency to reposition themselves through improvisations, thereby developing novel academic, emotional, and bodily practices, including “the cautiously exploring body”, “the imitated body”, “the resisting body”, and “the disguised body”. Furthermore, findings showed how participants dynamically ‘‘authored’’ their own identities, actively navigating the often-conflicting voices encountered while moving between different figured worlds. This led to the identification of four distinct response patterns: “conformist”, “struggler”, “resister”, and “boundary-crosser”. The process underscored a complex interplay between rurality, higher education, and urbanity as enduring structures interacting with individual agency throughout their transitions.

This study argues for a reframing of rural backgrounds as assets rather than deficits in higher education transitions, illuminating the complex learning practices in rural communities across the wide spectrum of rurality. It also challenges the prevalent cultural reproduction discourse in Chinese higher education research and the normative dichotomy of ‘‘success’’ or ‘‘failure’’ in transition narratives, advocating for universities to value the experiences and knowledge students bring from diverse backgrounds, and to acknowledge multiple pathways of “becoming” in higher education.
Date of Award7 May 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorLisa Lucas (Supervisor) & Sue Timmis (Supervisor)


  • Transitions
  • figured worlds;
  • rurality
  • identities
  • higher education

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