Zachary M Howlett

Social Sciences (Anthropology)

Assistant Professor


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Assistant Professor Zachary M Howlett is a sociocultural anthropologist who focuses on education, marriage, and migration in China. After completing his BA in German Studies at Brown University, he spent several years in China working as a teacher and translator. In 2008, he entered the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University, which awarded him an MA in 2011 and a PhD in 2016. Asst Prof Howlett has received a variety of academic honours, including a Jacob K Javits Fellowship and a Fulbright-Hays DDRA Fellowship, and was an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies.

Asst Prof Howlett’s first book is Meritocracy and Its Discontents: Anxiety and the National College Entrance Exam in China (Cornell University Press, 2021). It investigates the wider social, political, religious, and economic dimensions of the Gaokao, China’s national college entrance exam, as well as the complications that arise from its existence. Each year, some nine million high school seniors in China take the Gaokao, which determines college admission and provides a direct but difficult route to an urban lifestyle for China’s hundreds of millions of rural residents. But with college graduates struggling to find good jobs, some are questioning the exam’s legitimacy—and, by extension, the fairness of Chinese society. Chronicling the experiences of underprivileged youth, Asst Prof Howlett’s research illuminates how people remain captivated by the exam because they regard it as fateful — an event both consequential and undetermined. In Meritocracy and Its Discontents, he contends that the Gaokao serves as a pivotal rite of passage in which people strive to personify cultural virtues such as diligence, composure, filial devotion, and divine favour.

Asst Prof Howlett’s second book project, tentatively titled “Bare Branches and Ghost Brides: Transforming Families in Twenty-First Century China,” investigates the social, economic, and political causes and effects of falling birth and marriage rates and rapid social ageing in contemporary Chinese society. He focuses on the experiences of educated rural-to-urban migrant women, an under-researched group, to illuminate the implications of these tectonic demographic changes for family structures, political power, and social stability in China.


Meritocracy and Its Discontents: Anxiety and the National College Entrance Exam in China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, April 2021.

Peer-reviewed Book Chapters:

“The National College Entrance Exam and the Myth of Meritocracy in Post-Mao China.” In Making Meritocracy in China and India, edited by Tarun Khanna and Michael Szonyi. London: Oxford University Press, Forthcoming.

“Tactics of Marriage Delay in China: Education, Rural-to-Urban Migration, and ‘Leftover Women.’” In Gender, Education, and Global Delays in Marriage, edited by Marcia C. Inhorn and Nancy Smith-Hefner, 177–99. New York: Berghahn Books, 2020.

“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, 15-34. New York: Berghahn Books, 2017.

Modern Social Thought
Anthropology of China
Technology and Culture
Language, Culture, Power
Marriage and Kinship
Anthropology of Education