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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.

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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

  1. 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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China and Covid19

‘Hard Isolation’ is Shanghai’s New Word of the Day

In line with a new ‘hard isolation’ measure, the entrances of some Shanghai residential buildings were fenced up.

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While some Shanghai households have already endured weeks of isolation, a new word was added to their epidemic vocabulary today: ‘hard isolation’ or ‘strong quarantine’ (yìng gélí 硬隔离)

The word popped up on Chinese social media on April 23rd after some Shanghai netizens posted photos of fences being set up around their community building to keep residents from walking out.

“New word: hard isolation. Shanghai is rotten to the core,” one commenter wrote.

The word soon turned into a hashtag page where people started commenting on the issue of fences being placed around residential buildings, voicing concerns on what a fence around buildings would mean for fire safety, especially after online rumors suggested that there had been a fire at one community in Pudong on Saturday night.

An official document regarding the ‘hard isolation’ measure was also shared online on Saturday. It is dated April 23, 2022, and its source is the Pudong New Area Office for Epidemic Control.

The document states that in line with the guidelines for the city’s epidemic prevention and control, the division between areas or zones that are in certain risk categories should be ‘optimized,’ with those in the high-risk category requiring a ‘hard isolation.’ Security guards should also be on duty 24 hours a day at the entrance of the buildings.

Earlier this month, Shanghai adopted “3-level control measures” after its initial phased lockdown. It means that local areas will be classified as “locked-down,” “controlled” or “precautionary,” based on their Covid19 risk.

“Could we also put fences around the homes of Shanghai leaders?”, one person suggested, while others posted images from the Walking Dead to mock the situation.

In the hope of Shanghai soon tackling the Covid situation, not everybody disagreed with the decision to fence some buildings or communities in the Pudong area: “I don’t disagree with it, as long as there is always someone there to open the fence in case of fire,” one person stated.

Although having a fence around their building is currently not a reality for most in Shanghai, the online photos of some communities seeing their buildings being fenced up is a reason to worry for some: “It’s been 40 days, and now they start hard isolation? This actually scares me. Before we know it, it’s June.”

One Weibo user asked: “Why is it possible to implement this hard isolation now? Was this created by the same persons who also implemented the rule to separate children from parents at isolation sites?”

“I truly can’t imagine why some people thought this is a good idea,” others wrote.

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

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China and Covid19

‘Voices of April’: The Day After

“The best way to make videos go viral is by censoring them.”

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On April 23, a day after the video ‘Voices of April’ briefly took over social media before it was censored, the trending topic of the day is a hashtag related to new Covid cases reported in Shanghai.

Shanghai reported higher Covid-19 cases and deaths on Friday than the five days prior, which showed a daily decline in new cases. Shanghai reported a total of 23,370 new cases (including 20,634 asymptomatic ones), the municipal health commission said Saturday. A related hashtag by Xinhua News received over 910 million views on Weibo on Saturday (#上海新增本土确诊2736例无症状20634例#).

Although the hashtag was initiated by state media to inform about the Shanghai Covid situation, netizens started using it to criticize Shanghai’s handling of the crisis, with more commenters questioning China’s zero-Covid strategy. Similarly, other state media-initiated hashtag places also became online spaces where Weibo users vented their frustrations earlier this month.

Besides the ongoing online criticism and vocal disagreement with China’s Covid handling and policies, there are also many who express shock at the recent crackdown of any form of protest or criticism regarding the situation in Shanghai.

“‘Voices of April’ has been shutdown all over the internet, I’m simply dumbfounded,” one person said about the popular video that contained real recordings of events that happened during the city’s lockdown.

“If you still can find the video anywhere, forward it,” another person writes.

Besides Voices of April (四月之声), there have also been other videos over the past week that are meant to expose the mishandling of the Covid situation in Shanghai.

One of them is titled Farewell, Language (再见语言), another one is Shanghai Late Spring (上海晚春).

Farewell, Language (再见语言) is a 42-second sound art video by artist Yang Xiao (杨潇), who used over 600 commonly used propaganda phrases from Chinese official channels and randomly broadcasted the audio in the community where he lives.

The anti-epidemic workers just continue their work and do not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary at all. The video shows how this kind of language has been so normalized that for most, it has just become background noise in their everyday life – without even noticing nor critically assessing its meaning or logic anymore.

The Shanghai Late Spring (上海晚春) video is a compilation of video footage from the Shanghai lockdown, showing people struggling to get food, violent altercations between anti-epidemic workers and residents, people living in deplorable conditions in quarantine centers, and more (link to video).

The video uses the song Cheer Up London by Slaves, its chorus being:

You’re dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead
.”

One Weibo commenter responded to the video in English, using a text from Les Misérables: “Do you hear the people sing / Singing the song of angry men / It is the music of a people / Who will not be slaves again!” The phrase “do you hear the people sing” was also used by other social media users to address the situation in Shanghai and the censorship of related topics.

“The best way to make videos go viral is by censoring them,” one commenter replied.

Read our previous article about ‘Voices of April’ here.

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

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

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