Comparative Social Inquiry Social Theory and Environment Agrarian Change and Environmental Transformations Ecological Economics Environmental Conflict and Collaboration

Social Sciences (Anthropology)

Assistant Professor


Dr Zachary Howlett is an Assistant Professor of Social Sciences (Anthropology) at Yale-NUS College. After completing his BA in German Studies at Brown University, he spent several years in China working as a teacher, translator and interpreter. In 2008, he entered the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University, which awarded him an MA in 2011 and a PhD in 2016. Dr Howlett has received a variety of academic honours, including a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship and a Fulbright-Hays DDRA Fellowship. He joins Yale-NUS College from the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, where he was an Academy Scholar during the 2016-17 academic year.

Dr Howlett is a political and historical anthropologist of China and overseas Chinese. His research combines interests in education and mobility, gender and family, culture and technology, and popular religion.

Dr Howlett’s book in progress is entitled Fateful Rite of Passage: The National College Entrance Examination and the Myth of Meritocracy in Post-Mao China. Many in China see the college entrance exam (known as the Gaokao) as the only path to social mobility—the only way to ‘change fate’. For tens of millions of rural-to-urban migrant families, in particular, the exam provides the only hope of full urban citizenship, including equal access to healthcare, welfare, and education. But the notion that anyone can succeed in the exam through personal virtue and hard work—that China is a “meritocracy”—is largely a myth. In the post-Mao era (1977-present), social inequality has produced large chasms in examination performance between different regions and socioeconomic groups. Dr Howlett’s book asks how and why many in China nevertheless perceive the exam as ‘relatively fair’. To investigate this question, he conducted two years of ethnographic fieldwork in a rural town, backwater municipality, and large city in Fujian Province. Immersing himself in these communities as a volunteer high-school teacher, he gained an intimate understanding of the everyday hopes and travails of ordinary students, teachers, parents, and government officials. He argues that the examination constitutes a fateful rite of passage — an event that possesses both far-reaching consequences and an undetermined outcome. As a fateful rite of passage, the exam enables participants to create existential meaning. By preparing for and taking the exam, people personify high cultural virtues, including ‘diligence’, ‘grit’, ‘composure’, ‘filial piety’, and divine favour or ‘luck’. Dr Howlett compares the college-entrance exam with China’s imperial-era civil exams (960-1904 CE)—which influenced European Enlightenment thinkers and European colonisers—as well as with high-stakes exams in other countries. He investigates the similarities between these social competitions and broader types of fateful event—including elections, trials, and revolutions. By analysing such fateful events as society-wide political rituals or ‘total social facts’, he contributes to understanding social order in China and beyond.

In addition to his current book project, Dr. Howlett maintains an active research agenda that includes projects related to (1) delayed marriage and population aging, (2) the political ecology of urbanisation, and (3) the lasting legacy of cultural interconnections


“China’s Examination Fever and the Fabrication of Fairness: ‘My Generation Was Raised on Poison Milk.’” In Emptiness and Fullness: Ethnographies of Lack and Desire in Contemporary China, edited by Susanne Bregnbæk and Mikkel Bunkenborg, chapter 1. Integration and Conflict Studies, edited by Günther Schlee, vol. 2. New York: Berghahn Books, July 2017.

Modern Social Thought
Language, Culture, and Power
Anthropology of China