Beyond the ABCs: schools that offer personal development and add spice to life

Lu Feiran
When the work day ends, many people are heading off to night schools to fulfill latent interests, have fun and meet new people.
Lu Feiran

After a day at work, some young people go home to their families. Some go out for a couple of drinks with friends. And then there are those who spend their evenings going back to school.

In a new trend online, the keyword search words "night school" are starting to appear more frequently, especially on lifestyle platforms.

Take the popular site called Red Book (Xiaohongshu), for example. The tag "night school" recorded nearly 9 million views in the past two months, while on Dianping, the search words soared 980 percent in the same period.

But these aren't night schools in the traditional sense of education. Rather, they are opportunities to pursue unfulfilled interests, add some spice to the dull routine of life or simply have fun and meet new people.

"It was as if I were back in my childhood, when I went to extracurricular activities after school," said white collar worker Zhang Youling, who signed up for a dance class at night school. "When I was little, my mother forced me to learn piano, but now I can pursue my own interests."

Night classes were very popular during the 1980s and 90s, giving people who missed out on high school or college education the opportunity to make up lost ground. At the time, the curricula at night schools mirrored the courses of mainstream secondary and tertiary education.

The current offerings at night schools, however, are not necessarily academic, but rather focus on leisure endeavors like playing musical instruments, calligraphy, foreign languages, coffee making, baking and yoga.

Beyond the ABCs: schools that offer personal development and add spice to life

According to Shanghai Citizen Night School, 80 percent of the night school attendees are young women, and lifestyle-related courses are especially popular.

The Shanghai Citizen Night School, organized by the Shanghai Mass Arts Center, is the most popular destination for the new generation of students.

In the past autumn session, more than 650,000 people applied for about 10,000 class slots; the most popular 600 classes were fully booked in just one minute. Tuition is modest: 500 yuan (US$70) for 12 classes that last for three months.

"Half of our students were born after the 1990s, and 80 percent are women interested in lifestyle courses," Wu Penghong, director of the center, told Shanghai Daily. "I'm glad that young people now are keen to keep learning new skills after graduation. Many of the teachers our true masters of their disciplines."

Beyond the ABCs: schools that offer personal development and add spice to life
Dong Jun / SHINE

Last year the Shanghai Citizen Night School targeted expats in a new class on making Chinese snacks. It was so popular that it is likely to be continued this year.

Zhang said she signed up for night school on a friend's recommendation.

"I felt that I was gaining weight and my health was suffering from sitting at a desk all day," she said. "But gym work was not for me. A friend suggested I learn dancing, which is more fun than jogging or weightlifting."

Zhang told Shanghai Daily that the class was a friendly setting with an experienced dance teacher. After three months, the class was able to dance together to a full piece of music.

"The moves were quite slow and not difficult, but they left me feeling more energetic, with better body coordination," she said.

Apart from traditionally popular subjects like music and arts, niche classes were added to the school's autumn curriculum last year and will return for the upcoming spring session. They include lessons in sign language and traditional Chinese wisdom.

In many places across China, night schools are venues that promote cultural awareness. In Inner Mongolia, for example, a class in the traditional Thangka paintings of Xizang is offered, while African drum lessons are held in a karaoke bar in the city of Chongqing. Topics such as Shaoxing Opera, cross-talk and various dialects are also offered in classes.

Beyond the ABCs: schools that offer personal development and add spice to life

In the city of Liaocheng in Shandong Province, a master of gourd carving teaches at a night school. These schools have become platforms for promoting traditional culture.

With government-funded night schools reaching capacity, private institutions are all too eager to take up the slack. However, lack of oversight over their activities is proving a problem.

While recruitment information floods social media, most private night schools don't reveal who is funding them, and potential students are often told to join online chat groups to sign up for courses.

"If you search the 'night school' tag on Red Book, most posts you find are in accounts under screen names such as Shanghai Night School or Beijing Night School," said marketing manager Eva Liang, who was looking for an evening handicrafts course. "First, they asked me to join a chat group on Red Book, and then on WeChat. When I joined the group, the organizer asked me to add her personal WeChat to pay the deposit."

Liang said the organizer offered more than 10 types of classes, but none of them was a go until enough people, usually 10 to 20, signed up.

"The chat group had only 72 people, and they all wanted different courses," she said. "I waited for three days and no handicrafts class was formed. When I asked the organizer who was behind the night school, she just said, 'an institution.' That smelled fishy."

Liang also said that descriptions of the courses at the night school often seemed thin on relevance and content information.

She finally concluded, "It might be a good platform to meet people, but not a good way to actually learn anything."

Shanghai Citizen Night School's Wu said it's not surprising that dubious entities spring up when a popular, trendy business takes off. The result can be confusing and even chaotic.

"We are trying to open classes in companies, in suburbs and in industrial zones to make it more convenient for people to attend," he said. "Our goal is for our night school to be available in all towns and subdistricts of Shanghai in three years."

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