When school is a hobby - bored professionals seek nocturnal fun

Night schools, community-college-turned-retiree hangouts, have become a self-improvement staple for millennials and GenZs.

Photo provided to Jiemian News

Photo provided to Jiemian News

By ZHA Qinjun


After leaving the office, Xiaomeng hopped on the subway for an hour-long ride to her guqin lesson. When she arrived, the room was already filled with people, almost all young professionals, who would spend the evening learning the traditional musical instrument.

Xiaomeng is four lessons into a 10-session beginners’ course and has been enjoying every moment of it.

“I had wanted to pick up a hobby. Then I saw a night school and thought wow it looked fun!” Xiaomeng said. “I think it is a great way to try different things and find what I like the most. I can’t afford to do it elsewhere.”

Besides guqin, she is enrolled in a few other courses. Each course costs 600 yuan, less than what exclusive yoga studios charge for a single hour.

Qiu Ya, the teacher, was surprised at her students’ enthusiasm. “Five or six years ago, hardly anyone knew what guqin was,” she said. “The sound gives such serene vibes. In today’s fast-paced, stressful life, people need a break.”

Too popular to survive

In big cities around China, young professionals are discovering night school. Originally started by the government in the 1980s to provide college degrees to blue-collar workers, the institutions later became a hangout for retirees seeking to learn new crafts. Now it is quickly adapting to the younger crowd by offering trendy subjects, such as wine tasting, pastry making, and illustration. In Shanghai, when the fall season opened for enrollment, 65 million people competed for 10,000 spots, crashing the website.

“The Djembe course was so popular. I refreshed the webpage for quite a while before finally a spot came up,” said Chen Yang. She had just finished a beginner’s illustration course at the Shanghai Night School and was shopping around for a new skill. “I saw acappella singing, hardpan drum, silversmithing, and Japanese dyeing. I want to try them all but the locations of some classes are too far from me.”

Many students are drawn to the low prices offered by these subsidized government schools. Demand threatens to strain the institutions, but private players are already circling.

Some are established art studios offering cheap night classes to beginners, in the hope that some of them will advance to pricier courses. The added hours also allow them to recoup some rent. But the majority that started recently are run by young enthusiasts no different from the students. 

The grand tour

Vicky Zhang, a PR professional, moonlights as a night school headmaster. Instead of offering a range of courses each dedicated to one subject, her course takes students on a grand tour of trending genres. “I conceived the idea and set up our social media on the same day. In less than a week, we had more than a thousand inquiries,” she said. Over 90 percent of the people interested were young women in their late 20s.

Only a few dozen signed up, however. The only space she could rent at a reasonable cost is in an industrial park where her own office is located, in the remote suburbs of Beijing. To keep the pricing competitive, she charges 50 yuan per session for a course limited to 20 people, occasionally adding extra fees for material costs. This barely covers instructor pay. “From a financial perspective, it’s a money loser,” she said. “It’s like running a charity.”

“It’s not a money-making machine. Night schools are extremely labor-intensive. At first, when it was me alone, I worked 16-hours days,” said Geng Cheng, who is based in Chengdu.

His night school was born from the meetup groups he ran. The dozens of friends who regularly get together to play board games and sing karaoke are also his earliest students. It took only a matter of weeks, however, for the community to balloon to two thousand. Zhang quickly found himself overwhelmed by logistics.

The young enthusiasts’ night school dreams soon confronted the harsh realities. Zhemeng woke up one day to find her school’s Xiaohongshu account deactivated. Someone –a competitor, she reckoned – had accused her of harassment, a nuisance that took her offline for a few days. Finally having a pause from the whirlwind, she realized she hadn’t even thought about acquiring the necessary licenses or vetting the instructors.

Old ways are the best ways

Hastily established schools are encountering growing pains. Providing sought-after courses in convenient locations at reasonable prices is difficult without scaling up. However, scaling up also entails grappling with operational hurdles such as managing a large following and overseeing a growing team.

Government-run schools, on the other hand, have something the startups lack. Students flock there to be awed by the masters – a national bridge champion, a principal singer at the National Peking Opera Company, a pastry chef at an acclaimed restaurant. In an age when self-improvement is all the rage, master classes will never lose their allure.