The large-scale mainstreaming of disabled children in education in China was initiated with the launching of a national policy called ‘Learning in Regular Classrooms’ in the late 1980s. More than thirty years on, and little is known about disabled children’s daily experiences in regular schools due to a lack of research that foregrounds their voices. This paper reports the main findings from an ethnographic study conducted in 4 state- funded primary schools in Shanghai involving 11 children labelled as having ‘intellectual disabilities’, 10 class teachers and 3 resource teachers. Data were collected through participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and child-friendly participatory activities, and thematically analysed to identify patterns in practices and beliefs that underpin the processes of inclusion and exclusion. The research found that the child participants were facing marginalisation in many aspects of school life with rather limited participation in decision-making. The exclusionary processes were reinforced by a prevailing special educational thinking and practice, a charitable approach to the disadvantaged in a Confucian society, and an extremely competitive and performative schooling culture. The findings address the need to hear disabled children’s voices to initiate a paradigm shift in understanding and practice to counterbalance deep-rooted barriers. The paper concludes with suggestions for future research.