By Stevan Harrell, Professor.
Insight from Yangjuan, China.
Thus far in 2012, I have taken several trips to China as part of my work as head of the Cool Mountain Education Fund, a non-profit organization working to support education in Nuosu Yi communities in China. The Cool Mountain Educational Fund works to increase enrollment of graduates from Yangjuan Primary School, way up in the Cool Mountains of southern Sichuan, in middle school, high school, college, and trade schools. To do this, we provide scholarships to all qualifying students.
In April of this year, I was joined by Sichuan University Students and UW exchange members Zhang Yin and Huang Wenlan for a 3-1/2 hour bus ride through lush and drizzly Sichuan countryside, on a freeway so smooth I could write in my field notebooks on the ride, to Deng Xiaoping’s hometown of Guang’an, where we arrived around noon to find Yangjuan graduates Qubi Lisan, Ma Xiaoyang, and Li Musa waiting for us at the bus station; we hopped a city bus to the College, not far out of town, where we had lunch at a little restaurant outside the campus gate, and caught up with the students’ doings.
All of the boys are in three-year credential programs, studying to be elementary teachers. Lisan wants to teach English, Musa early childhood education, and Xiaoyang art. They had all recently passed their first-year qualifying examinations with no trouble, and the next hurdle was a test of pronunciation and grammar in the Standard Chinese language known as Putonghua (ordinary speech) in China and Mandarin outside. They had gained an enormous amount of confidence since I had known them back in their middle-school days, and it seemed to me they were going to be a credit to their ethnic group and their village. In addition, studying to be a teacher is, I think, not just a matter of job security, but a way of giving back to the community and the schools that had enabled them to come this far.
After lunch, we toured the campus, dominated by a statue of Deng Xiaoping on a high pedestal. The boys said several times that it was too bad we didn’t have more time; they would have liked to go with us to Deng’s birthplace, which is now a local museum, which they have visited twice already. And rightly so; if it were not for the visionary program of reform that Deng set out for China in the 1970s and 80s, it would have been very unlikely that Xiaoyang, Musa, and Lisan would have been able to go to college.
Still, for Xiaoyang’s family in particular, college expenses are almost prohibitive. Lisan’s and Musa’s fathers are both township officials, so they are not feeling the economic pinch of college as acutely as Xiaoyang’s family is, though our scholarships still help. But consider that these boys have expenses, including tuition, room and board, food, and transportation home for vacations, that amount to about 11,000 or 12,000 yuan (between $1,700 and $19,00) per year. Xiaoyang’s father Labbu, whom I have known for a long time, is an ordinary farmer in Yangjuan, though endowed with special skills in the old Nuosu art of felt-making. In recent years, he and his older son Muga have been traveling to big cities, including Beijing, to work on construction projects. Together, they can probably net enough to cover Xiaoyang’s college expenses in a half-year’s work, but of course they have other expenses as well. Muga was seriously injured three years ago by a falling crowbar, but he is now back to work. Xiaoyang told me that his father had insisted that Xiaoyang come along to Beijing last summer and work construction with them. It was incredibly tiring, he said, much more so than the farm work he has been doing after school and during weekends and vacations since he was a little boy.
As my old friend Scott Rozelle, a Stanford economist, argues, one of the biggest challenges facing China in the next decade will be the ability to keep its working-age population employed, given that its labor costs are rising and that the multinational businesses that have turned to China as “the world’s workshop” in the last 20 years will soon be taking their business elsewhere, to places where wages remain cheap. When this happens, China will need to have a workforce educated well enough to make them worth the $10 an hour wages that they will be demanding.
This coming wage crisis, he said, is exacerbated by the fact that China’s social and economic inequality is rising: the latest estimate of the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality ranging from 0 for the most equal societies to 1.00 for the most unequal, is .50, very high by world standards. He emphasized that the countries that have “graduated” in the last three decades from middle-income status (where China is now) to high income status–including Taiwan, South Korea, Portugal, Greece, and others, have all had Gini coefficients below 40, and most of them below 35. China’s is not only high, but increasing, and the biggest factor in the increase is the widening gap not just between cities and countryside, but also between rich rural areas (mostly in the coastal provinces, but also in certain inland places such as the Chengdu Plain) and poor rural areas, which contain about 22% of China’s population. And one of the biggest elements of the inequality between rich and poor rural areas is in education. Whereas over 40% of elementary graduates in China’s cities now attend either four-year colleges or state-accredited junior colleges, in the poor rural areas, the ratio is only 2%. In other words, a child graduating from the sixth grade in a poor rural area has only one-twentieth the chance of attending school enjoyed by her urban counterpart. If she is going to have a job in China’s future high-wage, high-skilled economy, we have to increase her chances of getting a higher education.
The Baiwu Valley where Yangjuan School is located is, of course, part of a poor rural area; the whole county of Yanyuan is an officially designated poverty county. So it is really noteworthy that of the 34 children who graduated in Yangjuan’s first class, in 2005, 15 tested into four-year or junior college programs, and 12 of those are attending college right now. In other words, Yangjuan graduates have a record of college attendance comparable with children from an urban elementary school, far, far better than could be expected from a school in a poor rural area, let alone one in a poor, minority rural area.
How much of this is due to our efforts is a matter for us or others to research. But the preliminary conclusion is that we are, indeed, doing some good.
In August, I returned to China, where I spent five days from August 21 to 26 meeting with former Yangjuan Primary School students, their teachers, and parents, consulting with dear colleagues Li Xingxing and Jacques Duraud and, as a climax, awarding increased scholarships to 23 current college students and over 70 high school students, as well as giving token congratulatory awards to this year’s sixth-grade graduates who are proceeding to middle school this week.
I arrived in Chengdu a little after midnight on the night of August 20th-21st, and didn’t get to bed until almost three, yielding a less-than-comfortable prospect for a long drive to Yangjuan the next day. I met Li Xingxing outside the Sichuan University gate at a little before 11, and we set out to try to get to Yangjuan the same day. This would have been impossible just a few months ago, before the opening of the final link in the freeway between Chengdu and Xichang completed the trans-continental superhighway from Beijing to Kunming, but now it seemed possible.
Anyone who has had the privilege of riding in Li Xingxing’s car knows that he doesn’t dally at the wheel, and so it was no surprise that, just four hours and ten minutes after we got on the freeway on the outskirts of Chengdu, we were at the Xining exit outside Xichang, for a brief pit-stop including a snack of hard-boiled eggs and salty crackers. The freeway itself is worth commentary, for which see my post about this engineering marvel. We left Xichang a little before 4:00, and were at Ma Fagen’s house, where we stay in Yangjuan, at exactly 7:00. Counting the time on the surface streets before we mounted the freeway, it was less than eight and a half hours door-to-door, compared with the previous 10 hours on the train and up to six hours in the car, or two days if one drove the whole way.
It was cloudy and drizzly the whole time we were in Yangjuan, with the exception of one lovely moonlit evening, which dissolved back to rain before dawn. This made for a lot of mud on the village roads and lanes, and very limited opportunity for the hiking I usually like to do when I’m there. But the real business of the trip was scholarships, and I’m happy to report that this important part was highly successful.
Since our funds, generous as our donors have been, were not sufficient to give quite as much aid to both high-school and college students as we would have liked, we made an on-the-spot decision to concentrate on college students, and to give 3000 yuan (a little over $500) to each of the three students who are now enrolled in four-year, bachelor’s degree programs, and 2200 yuan (a little less than $400) to each of the who are either in three-year, vocational and technical programs, or in the special college-preparatory classes offered to ethnic minority students after high school. This left only token awards for the 82 high-school level students, including four in 5-year, post-middle school nursing programs, 10 in three-year, high-school level nursing and vocational programs, and 68 in regular high schools. We gave 600 yuan ($95)–a little extra congratulation and incentive–for students starting high-school this year, and 400 ($65) for those continuing in high school level programs. Finally, we were encouraged by local leaders, including Yangjuan Primary School Founder Prof. Ma Lunzy, Baiwu Administrative Village Head Ma Guohua, and the Yangjuan teachers, to give small congratulatory prizes of 200 yuan each to the 38 students who graduated from Yangjuan this year and are starting middle-school this week.
We want to give special thanks to Yangjuan Primary School founder Benoit Vermander and his co-worker at the Taipei Ricci Institute, Jacques Duraud, for their generous help in finding funds to meet the ever increasing needs of our scholarship program; this year they raised over a third of the money that we were able to distribute to our scholarship students. We also want to thank those who have committed to sponsoring particular students with full college scholarships: Beverly Bossler and James Tsui; Rachel Meyer, in memory of Liu Vuli (Lili); Alicia Robbins and Nina Robbins; Margaret B. Swain and Walter Swain; and Cheung Siu-woo.
Every year, it takes a lot of effort on the part of local people, including Principal Sha Kaiyuan and the teachers of the Yangjuan School, village officials and parents, CMEF board members–particularly Prof. Li Xingxing and me–and the indefatigable Ma Fagen, to determine exactly who is eligible for scholarships. We always require new recipients to show their acceptance notices from their college or high school in order to receive our funds, and we go over the list of continuing recipients with local people to try to eliminate the rare case of someone not attending the school he or she originally intended to attend. Then, of course, we need a careful record of the proceedings.
This is more difficult than you might think. There is no functioning computer or printer at Yangjuan school, so we need to go to the nearby town of Baiwu to print the list so we will have a hard-copy record and a place for students or their parents to sign for the receipt of their scholarship money. This year, we were scheduled to present the scholarships at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, and didn’t finish the list until about 11:00 in the morning. Ma Yifei, one of our second-year vocational college students, was around and had his family’s motorcycle available, so we asked him to go to Baiwu with a USB-drive to print the list and make a couple of photocopies.
30 minutes or so later, he returned with the news that the print shop couldn’t open the .docx file, and asked me to convert it to .doc. I did that, and off he bounced on the muddy road again. Another half-hour plus, and he was back with the news that they still couldn’t open it, and the best thing would be for me to give him my laptop to take and connect to the printer there. That I was unwilling to do, but I did pop the laptop into my backpack and hop on the back of his motorcycle to see what I could to in person. The ride was bumpy, but he went slowly enough that we didn’t crash, though I did have to get off a time or two in particularly muddy stretches. When we got to the print shop, we tried several things, but it turned out that my laptop lacked the software for their Lenovo printer, so still no luck. Fortunately, another shop up the street had a more modern setup, and we printed and copied the list with no problem, and got back to Baiwu in time for Ma Lunzy’s arrival, a quick bowl of noodles, and the scholarship ceremony.
This story is best told in pictures, all courtesy of Li Xingxing.
First, there is always speechifying before we hand out scholarships:
One mother was very happy to get her child’s award:
Teacher Ma Jinyin signs for an illiterate mother while her son and teacher Ma Zipo look on:
The final event was a celebratory feast, for which families each contributed a little money. This reduced their scholarships by about 10%, but it’s something we have discussed with them many times before. In Nuosu culture, the obligation to reciprocate for a favor or present is not only socially enforced, but felt very heavily emotionally. My friend Ma Jyjy explained it to me: if you give us something major, like a scholarship, and we don’t reciprocate for the gift, “hxiemat jie ap jjip,” “our hearts will not settle,” in other words we feel anxious, unfulfilled, apprehensive. So there was an ox, a sheep, and four chickens that night for all to enjoy. The ox ran away, but they caught it a little short of the village of Gangou, and it was duly brought back, slaughtered, butchered, and served. A good time was had by all. We’re still hoping that next time we can persuade them to forget the ox and just have a nice meal of mutton and chicken. We think it will be plenty to show their gratitude.
Stevan Harrell joined the faculty of the Institute for Comparative and Foreign Area Studies (later to become the Jackson School) in 1974, and has been a member of the China studies faculty ever since. He is now Professor of Anthropology, Professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, Adjunct Professor of Chinese, and Adjunct Curator at the Burke Museum. He has written extensively on family, demography, religion, ethnicity, education, and environment in Taiwan and Sichuan.
Steve and his students helped build Yangjuan Primary School in 1999-2000, and founded Cool Mountain Education Fund in 2005, to help graduates of Yangjuan go on to middle school, high school, and college. If you would like to read more about the Cool Mountain Education Fund or find a way to become involved in its work, please take a look at its website, which can be found here.