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China’s Disappearing Rural Schools: Teacher Keeps School Open for Two Students

In a rapidly urbanizing China, small rural schools are slowly disappearing. This teacher keeps his school open for two remaining students.

Manya Koetse

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In a rapidly urbanizing China, small rural schools are slowly disappearing. As children move out to the cities with their parents, some schools – once lively village institutions – have now become empty buildings. In the mountainous region of Youyang County, one teacher keeps his school open for two remaining students.

A typical People’s Daily “warm China” (#温暖中国#) Weibo story recently featured a teacher from a village in the Chongqing region who multitasks at his school for the two students that are left in the mountainous area. The story was initially published by the Chongqing Morning Newspaper on January 13.

Mr. Yang cooks for his students during lunchtime.

Yang Jinhua (杨进华), 54 years old, has been working at the village school in the Youyang county – southeastern Chongqing – for 35 years. As there are less and less children in the area, Yang is now working at the school all by himself; he fulfills the tasks of teacher, concierge, and cook for the two students that are left.

“I would do the same if there’s just one child left,” he told the Chongqing Morning Newspaper.

Ringing the school bell for the two students left on this remote village school in the Chongqing region.

According to the Chongqing Newspaper, Yang’s teaching career has seen many ups and downs. There were times when there were over 100 students at the school and only three teachers. But all that has changed now.

The story received ample attention on Chinese social media recently, where many netizens praised the teacher for his good work.

Teacher Yang and his two pupils.

The story about Yang and his two students, heartwarming as it is, represents a much bigger societal issue; that of China’s disappearing rural schools. The small schools in remote areas that are still around, also referred to “sparrow schools” (麻雀学校), are struggling to keep their doors open.

 

“63 rural primary schools, 30 learning centers and 3 middles schools closed on a daily basis.”

 

In 2001, the Chinese government launched a reform campaign for rural schools across the country as a result of the country’s rapid urbanization. It entailed the closing of remote village schools, shifting the focus to centralized county or town schools.

In 2013, China.org reported that rural schools were closing at an alarming rate in the decade following the reforms, when 63 rural primary schools, 30 learning centers and 3 middle schools were closed on a daily basis.

Due to the mass closing of village schools, some students from the more remote parts of China’s countryside had to walk for hours to reach the most nearby school, often making it unsafe or even impossible for village children to travel to and from school (Lam 2016, 82).

While many children dropped out of school, and when centralized schools were getting overcrowded, the government halted the plans to shut down small village schools in 2012 – but thousands of schools had already closed, while those that survived were struggling to stay open.

The lack of students is not the only problem for China’s ‘sparrow schools’; there is also a lack of good teachers, as those who are qualified often rather go to a central school than a remote village one.

As for Yang: he started working at the village school when he was just 18 years old. Throughout the years he has taught himself how to be a teacher by reaching out to experienced teachers from other schools, and by ordering books on education and preparing himself to be a good tutor. By now, with over three decades of educational background, he has become an experienced teacher himself.

 

“Amidst the giant rush to the city, many rural places in China are becoming more isolated and empty.”

 

Amidst the giant rush to the city, many rural places in China are becoming more isolated and empty. This process has started since the beginning of the post-Mao era, when agricultural production went up after farmland started to be partially privatized.

A surplus of rural labor and an increased labor demand in the cities caused a huge flow of peasants moving to the city to look for jobs there, leaving rural schools practically empty as children go with their parents who leave to work in other provinces. In 2015 alone, nearly 169 million rural workers migrated to cities.

But there are also those children who are left behind by their parents to go to school. China’s hukou or ‘household registration’ system – that is assigned at birth based on one’s community and family – makes it hard or even impossible for migrant children to be accepted at state schools in the cities where their parents work.

Here comes the catch: even if parents choose to leave their child behind under the care of family members for the sake of their education, their journey to school may be too long or dangerous to undertake. When families do not have the means to let their child attend boarding school in a nearby town, they soon become drop-outs.

 

“We simply cannot guarantee the quality of education here, but at least this is much better than letting these kids herd the sheep.”

 

The hyped story of Teacher Yang and his two children comes at an important time, as the Chinese Ministry of Education is expected to release guidelines this year on new standards to govern the levels of funding allocated to rural schools (Caixin 2016).

The problem of China’s disappearing rural schools has been going on for years, and has become a vicious cycle. Even if village schools stay open, the lack of students and teachers is negatively influencing all parties involved.

On Weibo, some criticize the existence of schools like that of Yang: “With only one teacher, although I applaud him, nobody can guarantee the quality of his teaching,” one netizen says.

Others see these school in a different perspective: “We simply cannot guarantee the quality of education here, but at least this is much better than letting these kids herd the sheep. At the very minimum, they can enjoy some sort of education and will not be illiterate.”

“The media is misleading,” another person says: “So many of these schools have already been torn down. The editor [of this article] would not even think of letting their child attend a small village school like this. These children are part of a society that is going through enormous changes, and the fact that they are educated like this is shameful (..) – instead of only praising the teacher, we should perhaps also advise him not to just place emphasis on himself.”

But many disagree with this view. One post-1990 netizen from Chongqing (@于杨鱼羊) writes: “My uncle also was a teacher for over a decade (..) and he put all of his energy into his students (..) Without having him, I would have since long dropped out of school to start working, and would have been lost in the waves of migrant workers. If it weren’t for him, I would not be where I am today.”

“There are many ways to take within education, but taking the way of education is always the best way,” another person writes.

Perhaps the students of Yang indeed are amongst the ‘lucky ones’, as bittersweet as it may be. Different from many children their age, they receive the full attention of their tutor and are able to attend school while still being close to their family.

Teacher Yang makes sure they get home safely; he personally walks them back to their house every day after school. It is one of the perks of attending a “sparrow school.”

– By Manya Koetse
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References

Lam, Sara G. 2016. “From Rabun County to Yonji County: The Foxfire Approach and Community-Based Education in Rural China.” In Hilton Smith & J. Cynthia McDermott (eds), The Foxfire Approach Inspiration for Classrooms and Beyond, 73-83. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Sheng Menglu and Li Rongde. 2016. “Battered by Closures, Rural Schools Await New Guidelines.” Caixin Global, Dec 14 http://www.caixinglobal.com/2016-12-14/101026544.html [15.1.17].

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

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    Marisa Vosloo

    January 23, 2017 at 9:02 am

    I have just seen a documentary on CGTN about this admirable teacher. He loves his students, and he is teacher, father and grandfather to them. What a wonderful person he is!

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About Lipstick King’s Comeback and His ‘Mysterious’ Disappearance

After Li Jiaqi’s return to livestreaming, the ‘tank cake incident’ has become the elephant in the room on social media.

Manya Koetse

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Earlier this week, the return of China’s famous livestreamer Li Jiaqi, also known as the ‘Lipstick King’, became a hot topic on Chinese social media where his three-month ‘disappearance’ from the social commerce scene triggered online discussions.

He is known as Austin Li, Lipstick King, or Lipstick Brother, but most of all he is known as one of China’s most successful e-commerce livestreaming hosts.

After being offline for over 100 days, Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) finally came back and did a livestreaming session on September 20th, attracting over 60 million viewers and selling over $17 million in products.

The 30-year-old beauty influencer, a former L’Oreal beauty consultant, rose to fame in 2017 after he became a successful livestreamer focusing on lipstick and other beauty products.

Li broke several records during his live streaming career. In 2018, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.” He once sold 15000 lipsticks in 5 minutes, and also managed to apply 380 different lipsticks in another seven-hour live stream session. Li made international headlines in 2021 when he sold $1.9 billion in goods during a 12-hour-long promotion livestream for Alibaba’s shopping festival.

But during a Taobao livestream on June 3rd of this year, something peculiar happened. After Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced an interestingly shaped chocolate cake – which seemed to resemble a tank, – a male assistant in the back mentioned something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”).

Although Li Jiaqi and the others laughed about the comment, Li also seemed a bit unsure and the woman next to him then said: “Stay tuned for 23:00 to see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be in this position.”

The session then suddenly stopped, and at 23:38 that night Li wrote on Weibo that the channel was experiencing some “technical problems.”

But those “technical problems” lasted, and Li did not come back. His June 3rd post about the technical problems would be the last one on his Weibo account for the months to come.

The ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件) occurred on the night before June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen student demonstrations. The iconic image of the so-called ‘tank man‘ blocking the tanks at Tiananmen has become world famous and is censored on China’s internet. The control of information flows is especially strict before and on June 4, making Li’s ‘tank cake incident’ all the more controversial.

But no official media nor the official Li Jiaqi accounts acknowledged the tank cake incident, and his absence remained unexplained. Meanwhile, there was a silent acknowledgment among netizens that the reason Li was not coming online anymore was related to the ‘tank cake incident.’

During Li’s long hiatus, fans flocked to his Weibo page where they left thousands of messages.

“I’m afraid people have been plotting against you,” many commenters wrote, suggesting that the cake was deliberately introduced by someone else during the livestream as a way to commemorate June 4.

Many fans also expressed their appreciation of Li, saying how watching his streams helped them cope with depression or cheered them up during hard times. “What would we do without you?” some wrote. Even after 80 days without Li Jiaqi’s livestreams, people still commented: “I am waiting for you every day.”

On September 21st, Li Jiaqi finally – and somewhat quietly – returned and some people said they were moved to see their lipstick hero return to the livestream scene.

Although many were overjoyed with Li’s return, it also triggered more conversations on why he had disappeared and what happened to him during the 3+ months of absence. “He talked about a sensitive topic,” one commenter said when a Weibo user asked about Li’s disappearance.

One self-media accountpublished a video titled “Li Jiaqi has returned.” The voiceover repeatedly asks why Li would have disappeared and even speculates about what might have caused it, without once mentioning the tank cake.

“This cracks me up,” one commenter wrote: “On the outside we all know what’s going on, on the inside there’s no information whatsoever.”

“It’s tacit mutual understanding,” some wrote. “It’s the elephant in the room,” others said.

Some people, however, did not care about discussing Li’s disappearance at all anymore and just expressed joy about seeing him again: “It’s like seeing a good friend after being apart for a long time.”

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by @karishea and @kaffeebart.

 

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More Than Just a Visit: Explaining the Chinese ‘Cuànfǎng’

‘Cuànfǎng’ became a popular word on Chinese social media and in official Chinese discourse this year. But what is it?

Jin Luo

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Since Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the word ‘cuànfǎng’ has been all over Chinese social media to refer to this controversial visit. But ‘cuànfǎng’ is more than just ‘visiting’ alone. Jin Luo explains.

It was a sleepless night for many Chinese people when U.S. House Speaker Pelosi flew to Taiwan on August 2nd of 2022. A new Chinese word created in recent years, cuànfǎng (窜访) appeared in the official statement that was issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 11 pm that night, and subsequently it appeared all over social media.

Meanwhile, a pop song released more than 30 years ago titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (“今夜你会不会来”) suddenly became a Weibo hot topic before it was taken offline. What is this word lost in translation, and why did people suddenly get nostalgic over an old romantic song?

 
Cuànfǎng: A ‘Sneaky Visit’
 

Here is the original wording in Chinese and the official translation to English from the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the evening on 2 August:

In disregard of China’s strong opposition and diplomatic discontent, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region” (“美国国会众议长佩洛西不顾中方强烈反对和严正交涉,窜访中国台湾地区.”) The word ‘visited’ in Chinese that is used here is “cuànfǎng” 窜访.

While the English verb “visit” is a neutral word by itself, the Chinese “cuànfǎng” 窜访 has much stronger connotations. According to the Wiktionary, the word is a derogatory, officialese way to say “to visit.” But it is not an easy word to translate, as there is no direct equivalent in English, and both the literal and implied meaning of the word need to be understood.

Cuànfǎng is actually a compound word: cuàn 窜 refers to fleeing, escaping, hiding, or running away; fǎng 访 refers to inquiring, seeking, or visiting.

Cuan as a compound character (Sohu).

To make matters more complicated, cuàn by itself is also a compound character. It is written as ‘竄’ in traditional Chinese: the top radical ‘穴’ means ‘hole,’ and the lower part is the character ‘鼠’ which means ‘mouse.’ The character, having the shape of a mouse hiding in a hole, therefore has the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘escaping.’

The origins of the character ‘cuan’ explained, image via Sohu.com.

The mouse or rat is an animal that is more often associated with negative things in Chinese culture. They are often considered sneaky, dirty, running around everywhere, and able to reproduce quickly. With mice so often carrying a negative association, cuàn ‘窜’ also refers to a kind of hiding and escaping that is negative or objectionable.

The second character fǎng 访 is a neutral word that simply means “to visit.”

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley captured the underlying meaning of this word in writing: “The Chinese word used in the official statements for ‘visit’ — cuanfang — connotes a sneaky or illicit encounter, not an aboveboard meeting.”

 
The Evolution of Cuànfǎng
 

Although it is a relatively new word, cuànfǎng already existed before the Pelosi incident and was not created in light of this controversial visit.

Since the word’s first appearance, translators have had some difficulties in properly translating the term into different languages.

Research papers in translation studies and international relations in China suggested that cuànfǎng is a “new derogatory term invented in recent years, specifically for the purpose of maintaining national security and unity, and condemning and exposing the national separatists” and “demonstrated the big wisdom of Chinese diplomatic discourse users; vividly described the image of the separatists, that they go on the run sneakily, just like thieves and mice” (source, in Chinese).

Other sources interpret it as “the unjust, improper visit conducted in order to reach hidden political agenda, to agitate and peddle the separatist ideas,” and:

1. You went somewhere where you were not supposed to go;
2. The visit was not accepted or welcomed by the (Chinese) government;
3. The purpose is to shake justice and create conflicts
” (source, in Chinese).

Cuàn was mainly meant to add an emotional aspect to the term and shows the contempt of the person who uses it.

Image via Wainao.

The word was first prominently used in Chinese official discourse when the Foreign Ministry in 2006 referred to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Israel. Since cuàn has the meaning of fleeing, it is especially suitable when referring to political dissidents who went into exile overseas.

Since then, it has been used again for further visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries (US 2014, Mongolia 2017), as well as for Rebiya Kadeer, Lee Teng-hui, Shinzo Abe, Joshua Wong, and others.

Although it is clear that the term is not only applied to Chinese dissidents, it is generally applied to those who conducted visits that were perceived to be hostile towards China, with Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit serving as a clear example.

Since the Dalai Lama has been living outside of China and conducted numerous visits to other countries, cuànfǎng was previously mostly used in this context until Pelosi’s visit, which ended up being good for more than 80% of the search results of cuànfǎng on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

If cuànfǎng is a word with such strong emotional connotations, why was it simply translated as “visit” in official English-language documents? Some say it is because of the mere difficulty to translate this word, while others say it is the routine sanitization of English translations by the Foreign Ministry.

David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research based in Washington D.C., said that the external goal of Beijing can be different from the internal goal towards the nationalist domestic audiences, and that “more accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”

At this point, it remains up for debate whether this is a linguistic constraint or a political choice.

 
Tonight, Are You Coming or Not?
 

While the term cuànfǎng has been widely used in official discourse, it has also become a popular online word. Chinese netizens seemed to be as passionate as the Chinese Foreign Ministry – and perhaps even more so –  in condemning Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and demanding radical countermeasures.

Chinese netizens were watching the entire event unfold with mixed feelings – on the one hand, there was a strong sense of patriotism and anger, on the other hand, the massive attention to the event also turned it into something that was almost as exciting as a celebrity drama.

On that specific evening of Pelosi’s nearing arrival in Taipei, Chinese netizens were doing two things: watching real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight, and listening to a classic pop song released in 1991 titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (今夜你会不会来) (video). Back in the previous century, Hong Kong singer Leon Lai expressed the emotions of someone waiting for his lover to arrive in this melodic song, singing:

“你是否愿意为我停留

Would you be willing to stay for me

今夜你来告诉我

Tonight, you tell me

你是否愿意陪我走过我的梦

Are you willing to accompany me through my dream?

我的所有

My everything

(Chorus)

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

如果你的心已经离开

If your heart has left already

我宁愿没有未来

I would rather not have a future

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

别让我所有的等待

Don’t let all my wait

变成一片空白

Go all in vain

 

In the middle of the uncertainty about whether Pelosi would come to Taiwan or not, this song served as entertainment for netizens and became a “collective carnival” of people jokingly applying the song to Pelosi, turning her into a ‘mysterious lover’ that might or might not show up. (Later, some were unable to play the song anymore, although it remains unclear if this was due to geographic restrictions or because the song was actually taken offline by censors.)

“Taiwan has been preparing for your cuànfǎng ‘sneaky visit’, are you coming or not tonight?” some netizens wrote, combining the title song with the cuànfǎng term. In doing so, Pelosi became both a ‘sneaky mouse’ and ‘mysterious lover’, both a target of condemnation and subject of fun and banter.

All jokes and cuànfǎng references aside, Pelosi did end up realizing that visit, and its aftermath, including a second Taiwan visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, has had a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations that were already strained before the move.

Will there be more cuànfǎng to Taiwan? It’s likely not an issue of if, but when. For next time, at least we’ve got cuànfǎng covered.

 

By Jin Luo 

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay

 

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.
 

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