Chen is among the millions of students in rural areas who quit school each year without completing high school. Although there are no official statistics, studies by various research institutions say one in three students in villages – some 3 million teenagers on average – quit school every year before earning a high school diploma.
Boys and girls in rural areas start leaving school at a much younger age than their peers in more developed regions. From 2007 to 2013, almost half the students in poor areas in the central and western parts of the country had left school by grade nine, a study published in December by the Rural Education Action Project (REAP), which involves the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Stanford University and several Chinese universities, found. The researchers, who studied 50,000 students, found something even more alarming: by grade 12, nearly two-thirds dropped out.
The 2010 census showed that 78 percent of the country's school-aged students lived in the countryside, and the research report said that "if dropout rates continue as they are today, increasing unemployment and widening inequality could hinder economic growth and stability on a national scale."
Nearly half of the dropouts REAP surveyed said they quit to find work so they could "broaden their horizons and enjoy new experiences." Another 30 per cent said they chose to leave because "everyone else is doing it."
Chen said that like many of his classmates he was bored in the classroom and did not see how his studies were helping his future.
"Some dropouts are pushed hard by teachers but they can't pass exams," said Hu Yongqiang, who left a school in rural Shaanxi when he was in grade nine. "So they run away."
Middle School Woes
Experts say rural junior middle schools – which cover the seventh to ninth years of school – are one of the biggest problems in the country's education system. Stark inequalities in the distribution of resources have led to this failure, said Wei Jiayu from the New Citizen Program, a non-profit group focusing on rural education.
The government spent an average of 900 yuan more each year on a student in an urban middle school than on a rural student, government data from 2013 show. A few rural junior middle schools with better teachers and facilities, like science labs and libraries, have higher university admission rates, but many others "are just a waste of time," Wei said.
A lack of qualified teachers in rural schools is one of the main turnoffs for students, an education official in the Qinba Mountains area of Shaanxi said. The REAP study found that teachers' qualifications were linked to their students' dropout rate. In schools where less than 30 percent of the teachers had a university degree, students dropped out at twice the rate compared to schools with more qualified staff.
Most dropouts are students labeled by teachers as poor performers, said Liu Chengbin, a professor of sociology at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in the central city of Wuhan. Many teachers tend to pay more attention to students with strong academic records the others, said Liu, because the amount of funding a school receives from the government is linked to exam scores.
"(Students' scores) are related to teachers' performance assessments and salaries as well," said a teacher from the Qinba Mountains area.
Some teachers even tried to persuade students who did poorly on tests to quit so average test scores would stay high, said Shi Yaojiang, a professor of education at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi'an.
And the problems continue into high school. Beijing spent more than 28,000 yuan per high school student in 2013, compared to nearly 6,900 yuan per student in the southwestern province of Guizhou and nearly 5,500 yuan in the poor central province of Henan, research by the education information portal eol.cn in 2015 found.
Tens of millions of rural workers have moved to urban areas in recent decades, but the country's system of household registration, or hukou, makes it difficult for them to send their children to good schools in cities.
Migrants often have no choice but to leave their children in rural areas to be educated. A lack of parental supervision compounds many students' difficulties in rural schools, experts said.
Some 60 million children are left in China's villages to be raised by grandparents or relatives, official data show, and educators say this is contributing to problems keeping children in school. "(The high number of) dropouts is the result of long-term problems," said a high school teacher in the Qinba Mountains.
The REAP study also found that nearly three-quarters of rural children showed some signs of psychological trouble. The figure was just under 6 percent for students in cities.
Over 13 percent of children left in villages by parents quit school by their eighth year of school, researchers found, but only 8.6 percent of those who were raised by their parents in rural villages chose to drop out.
Researchers are concerned about the career prospects of those who have not completed their schooling. Scott Rozelle, a Stanford University professor who co-directed the study, said that as the country looks to shift from low-end manufacturing to services and value-added industries, the growing number of less-educated workers will be a burden on the economy.