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Section I: Teaching English in China continued—Foreign Teacher Compensation

Salaries for Foreign English Teachers in China

Historically—back in the days prior to China's admittance into the World Trade Organization and when foreigners were restricted to special areas, monitored around the clock, and even given their own currency to use—wages for foreign English teachers were specifically designed to keep them comfortable, i.e., meet their basic needs by Chinese standards, during their typically limited stints of up to one year. The idea was to devise a monthly allowance, conceived of more as an honorarium than a bona fide salary, that would allow their foreign guests to spend some time visiting and helping the people of China without having to go into their own pockets to do so. These honorariums were specifically calculated for foreign guests with bachelor’s degrees who would, most certainly, return to their native countries within six months to a year.

However, in July 2009, the SAFEA released new salary guidelines for the remuneration of foreign teachers that, in a completely unprecedented manner, takes into account the highly variable cost of living between developed, developing, and underdeveloped cities (see below). In fact, the new guidelines more closely reflect what foreign teachers and Western professors are earning across China than had the former October 2006 guidelines.

SAFEA Salary Guidelines (Effective July 2009)

The salary guidelines for a foreign expert or teacher are officially established by the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs (SAFEA). The salary range was updated in July 2009 and comprises 12 categories based on the teacher's education, experience, rank, and school location.

SAFEA Foreign Teacher Salary GuidelinesThis table was derived from Chen, Jane (2009, July 16). Foreign teachers' salary guidelines issued. Shanghai Daily. Retrieved July 20, 2009 from However, the article has since been archived and is only available now to subscribers.
Teacher Category

Developed East Coastal Areas

Developing Central Areas

Underdeveloped Western Areas

Professor (PhD)

11,000 to 15,000

9,000 to 12,000

8,000 to 10,000

Assistant Prof. (MA or PhD)

6,700 to 11,000

6,400 to 9,000

5,800 to 8,000

Lecturer/H.S. Teacher with 5-yrs+ exp (BA/MA)

4,200 to 7,600

4,000 to 7,200

3,600 to 6,500

Teaching Staff/H.S. Teacher 2-yrs+ exp (BA)

3,500 to 4,800

3,300 to 4,500

3,000 to 4,100

In reality, the recommended salary ranges at the lowest end, i.e., for bachelor-degreed teachers with two years of experience, are actually lower than what is typically paid, especially at private language schools. Although salaries as low as 3800 yuan per month have been reported in less populated cities, such as Kunming and Haikou, the typical salary range throughout most of the mainland—as a matter of practice—is generally 4000 to 8000 per month depending on degree, experience, school type, and location.

Comparing Seemingly Different Offers

What you need to keep in mind when reviewing offers from various schools is that there is something of an invisible and rigid balance sheet or bottom-line that exists in regard to compensating foreign English teachers in China that is distributed across the following five dimensions: base wage for X amount of face-to-face teaching hours; quality of housing; paid holidays; travel reimbursement, and; medical insurance. If you were to assign numerical values to each of the five aforementioned variables and then add them all up for each offer, what you will find is that the totals will be more or less the same across schools. Some will pay what appears to be a higher salary, but will provide you with poorer housing and less paid vacation. Schools that offer superior housing will probably pay a little less and demand slightly more teaching hours, etc. In the end, there is far less variability in total compensation than most foreign teachers like to contemplate. Roughly speaking, the package is designed to meet your basic needs while you are here without providing much of an opportunity for savings or "getting ahead." The bulk of your savings or discretionary income will come from outside work or moonlighting, as discussed in other chapters.

In terms of income viability, what it all boils down to is how willing and able you are to live as if you were Chinese.

As a rule, and outside the three aforementioned international cities, teachers with a bachelor’s degree and two (or less) years of work experience can expect to be paid between 4,000 to 6,000 RMB per month for 14 to 16 hours of face-to-face classroom teaching per week at government schools and universities, and usually more (5,000 to 7,000) at private schools with a concomitant increase in work hours, usually in the range of 16 to 20 hours per week. The range of 14 to 16 hours is based on the teaching assignment of oral English classes. Foreign teachers hired to teach reading and writing classes, such that these classes require a great deal more time for preparation and grading weekly assignments, are generally given an adjusted workload of 10 to 12 hours, but not always. While just over 16 percent of our survey respondents, who are working for universities (N = 220), reported base contract hours of 12 to 14 hours (5.5 and 10.9 percent respectively), 29.1 percent are under contract for a maximum of 16 hours and close to another 24 percent reported having contracts with a maximum number of work hours ranging from 17 to 20 periods per week. Those with advanced degrees and a good deal of teaching experience can usually command starting salaries of 6,000 RMB and more (at private schools), but the demand for this level of teacher is relatively low in China. Salaries of 10,000 to 15,000 RMB and more are common in international cities such as Beijing and Shanghai (even for those who are non-degreed), but earning 10,000 there is like earning 4,500 to 5,500 in a northeastern city (such as Dalian, for example) in terms of buying power owing to the relatively higher cost of living as well as the increased opportunity to buy more “Western goods."

By way of national comparison, a salary of 5,000 RMB per month, at a private English language school, tends to represent two to four times as much as your Chinese counterparts are paid for a 40-hour work week. The only exception to this appears to be at public universities where the local teachers and professors earn as much and, in some cases, significantly more than the foreign teachers when you factor in the considerably lower base teaching load of six to eight periods per week, and other benefits such as medical insurance, prescription plans, bonuses and pension. Thus it would not be unusual for a master's degreed Chinese teacher to be earning about the same or even more than a doctoral level English teacher for the same workload of 16 periods per week, when you factor in the overtime pay that the former is earning.

By far, the lowest pay scale is offered by government universities and are typically 3800 to 4,500 yuan for undergraduate EFL teachers: Public universities in international cities may offer as much as 8,000 for those with advanced degrees and experience. Quite remarkably, and despite the new 2009 SAFEA guidelines, there is very little (to no) cost of living adjustment factored into the salaries across provinces and cities (as they already exceed the maximum amounts at the lowest levels). One will most likely be offered the same salary in Guangzhou (a relatively expensive city to live in) as one will be in Shenyang (a relatively inexpensive city by comparison). Nevertheless, many foreigners prefer to work at public universities (as opposed to private English language schools) as the work load tends to be the lowest (14 to 16 periods per week), one only teaches for 34 to 36 weeks (two 17- to 18-week semesters) out of the year (while 44 to 52 are paid for), and, as a rule, the teacher is required to do little more than just show up: Just as long as the students are engaged and active, the university usually doesn't particularly care how the teacher uses the class time. Salaries at public universities tend to be a little higher for those engaged to teach primarily in master's degree programs, but this usually requires a minimum of a master's degree and some bona fide teaching experience in one's country of origin.

The only significant exceptions to the aforementioned salary ranges would apply to former Western university faculty who are teaching in their respective disciplines (as opposed to oral English). Professors with doctoral degrees who teach professional courses in their fields of expertise at international schools or departments can expect to earn between 8,000 to 15,000 yuan per month at public universities (the same salary scale established for Chinese faculty), but without bonuses or pension eligibility, for up to four to five classes per week. Foreign teachers with advanced degrees can earn more than twice that (a minimum of 300,000 yuan per annum) working for joint venture programs and foreign faculty teaching at free-standing Western university campuses in China will be paid whatever the prevailing rate is in that university's country of origin. For more information, see Jointly Managed Sino-Western Programs and Teaching in Fields Other Than English.

It should quickly be added here that simply reporting the base starting salaries at public and private schools for teaching English doesn't quite tell the full story in regard to foreign teacher income, especially for those who have been teaching in the country for more than a year or two. Foreign teachers who have been in-country for awhile will gradually begin to learn of better paying part-time positions in their areas (ones that are not usually advertised) and will, over time, start picking up a few extra hours a week at wages that are often 150 yuan per hour. Thus, a foreign teacher who is earning 4500 for 14 hours of teaching per week at the local university and, then, is earning even an additional 600 a week from choice overtime, will be netting about 7,000 yuan per month for 18 hours of teaching per week—and this is a viable middle-class income in China by anyone's standards. The problem is, this is not something you can count on right away: It takes time to cultivate and develop this type of better paying arrangement in China, but it is a very common scenario. Many foreign teachers with several years of experience in China will report enjoying more discretionary income here than they did back home (when you factor in free housing and the relatively lower cost of living).

To give the readers a very clear and specific understanding of how these salaries compare with what recent graduates in mainland China are earning, I've included a table of 2007 salary ranges in Suzhou, a typical city in China located in Jiangsu province.

2007 Salaries for Chinese Graduates in Suzhou (Ho, 2008)
Diploma High Middle Low Average
Masters 4,455 2,747 1,857 2,909
Bachelor 3,880 2,000 1,409 2,122
Junior College 3,580 1,705 1,247 1,891
Technical 2,295 1,497 1,069 1,537

As you can see from the above table, a foreign teacher at the bachelor's degree level who is earning 4500 yuan per month, for 14 to 16 periods of teaching per week, would be earning anywhere from approximately 16 to 319 percent more than his Chinese counterpart for a little more than one-third the work (in terms of face-to-face teaching). This information is provided to further inform the section "Understanding the Quality of the Housing Provided" (in the chapter on Foreign Teacher Housing), as well as the "withholding" mind-set most Chinese private school owners have in regard to foreign teacher requests for better amenities and housing improvements.

As an aside, Chinese universities have a salary payment custom that is worth mentioning. Foreign teachers at universities are paid two months in advance for the winter and summer holidays. For example, if the academic semester in the fall ends in the middle of January, you will receive two months' salary for January and February around the end of that semester. Likewise, if you are on a 12-month contract, most universities (but not all) will pay you for July and August at the end of the spring semester, usually during the first or second week of July. While some teachers appreciate this lump sum payment, others find it to be burdensome as it requires carefully budgeting one's monies for as many as 10 weeks before the next month's salary is paid (either at the end of March or September, respectively).

Can I live comfortably on my teaching salary in China?

The short and definitive answer to this question is "Only if you are able and willing to live like a lower-class Chinese." The more detailed answer to this question truly depends on how you personally define "comfortable" and the type of lifestyle you had maintained back home.

... grocery staples such as milk, eggs, bread, and butter... cost more in China than they do in any American city

Imagine yourself asking both a truck driver from South Carolina and a successful trial attorney from New York City "How much do I need to earn in order to live comfortably in the United States?" Obviously, you are going to receive two very different answers to this question and both are entirely correct depending on what you had grown accustomed to in your country of origin as well as where you will be living in China. In other words, there is a considerable effect of socioeconomic class on the perception of income viability and adequacy. Westerners who were raised in poor and working class families tend to report the greatest degree of satisfaction with their salaries as well as overall living and working conditions in mainland China.

Among foreign teachers who comprised the lower SES groups in their countries of origin, the general consensus seems to be that 4,000 to 4,500 RMB per month is manageable IF you do not have ongoing debts to satisfy back home (e.g., school loans and credit cards) and you are comfortable living in a relatively simple fashion (meaning you are satisfied eating at small, family-owned restaurants and don’t have the need for many Western electronic devices and "Western groceries").

Some teachers do manage to save up to one-third of their salaries per month by living frugally, but keep in mind that Western manufactured technology, e.g., cell phones, computers, reliable Western-made DVD players, etc., tend to cost as much in China as they do back home. In addition, you can plan on spending up to three times more than you would pay back home for the luxury of purchasing those same items in China. For example, a 33.9oz (961g) tub of Folgers Coffee, available in the States for $9.99, sells for $24.09 (165 yuan) at Oliver's, a Western grocery store in Guangzhou. A May 2009 purchase of an authentic Canon compact camera (SD880/IXUS 870-IS), also in Guangzhou, came to 2050 yuan (USD $300) or 41 percent of a typical English teacher's starting salary of 5,000 yuan per month in the same city.

In terms of income viability, what it all boils down to is how willing and able you are to live as if you were Chinese. Foreigners who make regular trips to the Western grocery store for “luxury items” such as Cheddar and Blue Cheese, bacon, Equal (artificial sweetener), olives, heavy cream, and spices, etc. will be parting with no less than 1,000 to 2,000 yuan per month for that privilege due to both punitive import taxes and the law of supply and demand. Those who cannot tolerate eating cheap Chinese food at small family-run restaurants two to three times a day, every single day of their lives and seek refuge inside of these all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner buffets at 4- and 5-star hotels will spend anywhere from 88 to 500 RMB per meal for that "culinary respite."

Do the math: if you spend an average of only 50 yuan per day on food and beverage (and that’s cutting it very tight unless you are willing to eat very simply or cook at home most of the time) that comes to a total of 1500 yuan per month, or one-third of your monthly salary at 4,500 yuan, just for food (and now ask yourself, what percentage of your monthly income did you spend on food back home?). If you are into the bar scene and make that a regular ritual, you can easily add an additional 500 per month to the budget (and that is extremely conservative). Cigarette smokers can add an additional 200 to 800 per month depending on brand and, of course, how much they smoke. If you have to pay for your own utilities (and most do), as well as Internet and other utility costs (household and drinking water) you can easily add a minimum of another 500 to the monthly total. If you need monthly maintenance medications for hypertension or diabetes, add in another 300 to 500 per month to that figure as well and even those who are frugal with their cell phone usage seem to spend no less than another 100 yuan per month (usually much more). One older teacher we know, who runs his three air conditioners around the clock during the summer months in order to remain comfortable, hands back no less than one-third (1200 to 1500 yuan) of his salary to the building management every month for that “luxury.”

In 1985, the average per capita income of a Chinese citizen was $293 USD per year: Today, it is well over $2500 (or approximately 1500 RMB per month) and it is not unusual for recent college graduates to report monthly starting salaries of 3,000 yuan (even outside the three major international cities and as indicated in the above table of starting salaries in the city of Suzhou). In 2008, China’s rate of inflation hit an 11-year high as consumer prices rose 8.7 percent from the previous year with food prices contributing 23.3 percent to that increase (Bradsher, 2008). In fact, grocery staples such as milk, eggs, bread, and butter (if you can find it) cost more in China than they do in any American city. Despite the rapidly escalating cost of living in China, the salaries of foreign English teachers have remained remarkably static over a period of many years and, at many universities, have even decreased over the past three years in response to Beijing's appreciation of the renminbi.

You can query 1000 foreign teachers already in China about whether your salary will be enough to live on comfortably (and you might receive as many as 1000 different and conflicting replies) but, in the end, only you can answer that for yourself based on the realistic information that’s been provided above. When contemplating whether or not a meager foreign English teacher's salary of 4,300 to 6,000 yuan per month is sufficient, ask yourself how many creature comforts (you now take for granted back home) you are willing to forego in order to accommodate and subsidize your life in China.

Here's another way of looking at this question of income viability: Imagine moving into a one- or two-bedroom cold water flat, selling your car (so as to eliminate car and insurance payments), eating exclusively at home or at streetside food stalls, and running only the bedroom air conditioner at night during the summer (as typically you are only provided with one air conditioner in the bedroom). Obviously, if you made all of these personal sacrifices, you would enjoy far more discretionary income back home than you currently do. However, if you are unwilling to make these types of sacrifices in your country of origin, it is highly unlikely you will be comfortable doing so in a developing country where the stress of day-to-day life is considerably greater.

My conclusion, based on the experiences of dozens upon dozens of teachers I have interviewed, is that foreigners who led "middle-class" lives in their native Western countries will find themselves living paycheck-to-paycheck on a salary of 4,000 to 5,000 yuan per month and, on several occasions, will have to go into their personal savings from home to subsidize their existence if anything unexpected occurs (or if they need or elect to make a purchase above normal living expenses)—unless they are willing to make significant changes in lifestyle. The best case scenario is that you will not be able to save any money.

While it is true that many Chinese do manage to save enough money to eventually buy an apartment and a car on combined family incomes of 10,000 to 15,000 yuan per month, keep in mind that they live very frugally and will typically spend no more than 15 to 20 yuan per day on food (by cooking and eating at home and subsisting on a diet mostly comprising rice, vegetables and a minimal amount of meat or fish). Teachers who moonlight at other schools during the week (and many do) are doing so because they need the extra money as a safety net (or to travel with) and not because they can't get enough of oral English teaching. In fact, one public university in Guangzhou that once offered me a position at 4500 yuan per month not only advised me that I could moonlight, but specifically informed me that I should expect to as, by their own admission, a salary of 4500 was insufficient for maintaining a comfortable "Western" existence in that city (and this was back in 2004). In 2010, maintaining a typical middle-class existence in Guangzhou would require no less than 8,000 yuan per month (and that assumes the use of public transportation).

If your primary purpose in teaching abroad is to save money and you are a degreed and certified teacher with at least three years of experience, you should focus your job search exclusively on international schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, where salaries will be comparable to and even better than what you could earn back home. In the alternative, you might want to consider other countries such as South Korea, or, even better, the Middle East instead. Those with teaching degrees, certifications and considerable experience can easily earn a minimum of $2,000 U.S. per month in South Korea and perhaps two to three times as much as that in the Middle East (although not everyone can acclimate to life in a Muslim country). It has also been reported that salaries in Taiwan are significantly higher than those in mainland China, but the cost of living is also higher, housing tends not to be included in the remuneration package, and there are more opportunities to spend your salary there as well.


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