In this article, Xin Xiang investigates what dushu, or “schooling,” means for rural senior secondary school students in a high-poverty county in southwestern China. With the persistence of China's rural-urban education inequality and alarming reports about secondary school dropout rates, rural students' and their families' attitudes toward schooling have become a topic of academic as well as public debate. Drawing from repeated interviews with and observations of twenty-seven students conducted over a year, Xiang uses portraiture methodology to illustrate the different dimensions of meaning these rural youth attach to dushu: the means to a future of comfort and dignity, a family responsibility and collective investment, and a path toward individual freedom and actualization. This portrait also reveals the deep contradictions that define these students' experiences of dushu and how it often denies the hopes they attach to it and demands painful compromises.

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