Allow Rural Children to Appreciate Their Own Culture and Have Respect to Where They Come From

Half a month ago, the article This Screen May Change the Destiny aroused a heated discussion. It reflects the public concerns on the resources for rural and urban education, with a high expectation that they share the resources equally. Unfortunately that is not the case.

In recent years, organizations like Hujiang Education, Teach for China, Adream Foundation and Zigen have dedicated to promoting the development of rural education in China. Among them, Zigen started from financial aid, to policy advocacy, to curriculum formulation, and to building Green Eco Schools. The history of Zigen provides a civil perspective of the evolution of Chinese rural education.

It was almost 30 years ago when Pat Kwei-Ping Yang first met Yang Shengying, a girl from Miao village, Leishan County, Guizhou Province. This little girl, a first grader then, is now 37 years old. She seats the director of the Women Center in Maoping. If she had not attended school, she wouldn’t be where she is today.

Yang Shengying was not alone. Over the past 30 years, nearly 120,000 girls and orphans received aid to attend school. Pat Yang, one of Zigen’s founders, changed her own track of life as well. She kept coming back for 30 years!

On December 15, 2018, a forum to celebrate Zigen’s 30th anniversary and to promote sustainable development was held in Beijing. In the conference, Pat Yang called out loud many names – government officials, college professors, NGO workers on the front line, and “Zigen girls” like Yang Shengying. Their paths were intertwined and they collectively witnessed the educational evolution in rural China. However, there was not much nostalgia for them that day. They focused on the current rural education problems, and the possible ways to solve the problems.


Zigen Fund was founded in USA in 1988 by a group of overseas Chinese from Taiwan and Hong Kong, Pat Yang was one of them.  In 1995, China Zigen Rural Education and Development Association (referred as China Zigen hereinafter) was registered in the Ministry of Civil Affairs of China.

Luo Yixian, editor in chief of China Economic and Social Forum, remembered clearly the scene he first met Yang. It was on the airplane from Beijing to Guiyang in the summer of 1988. Pat Yang looked typically an overseas visitor – dressed in bold colors, with 7-8 pieces of luggage, all filled with clothing she brought from New York to donate to the poor Guizhou villagers. Luo encouraged her to visit Tongren. The trip from Guiyang to Tongren took one day and two nights. “We traveled over mountains and rivers until finally we saw the Miao villages, still lit by kerosene lamps. This was the beginning of Zigen’s involvement in education and poverty alleviation in rural China.”

貴州 – 榕江高扒小学

Starting 1986, the rural schools and teachers had been benefited in many aspects, (thanks to a law on compulsory education), including more autonomy, fund raising, nine years in school, higher pay to teachers. However, in the poor areas, the wretched plight was still obvious — not enough infrastructure, too many children out of school. In 1988, Yang found out that a town of 50,000 residents were not even equipped with a public library, and the so-called culture station had no personnel, no facilities, no books. She fell in dead silence. Ten years later, Luo paid a visit to US, he saw many chic and well-stocked rural libraries, that was when he fully understood why Yang was speechless.

More surprising to Yang was the fact of girls dropping out of school. Many schools had girls in first and second grades, but not in any grade higher. “In a poor village I saw girls taking care of their brothers and sisters at home, doing farm work and house chores. I asked them if they wanted to study at school, their tears came down immediately!”

After that incident, Yang did not think of the library project any more. Zigen decided to support girls to school, which became one of its most important achievements the past 30 years. Girls aged between 6 and 12 could receive financial aids to attend school as long as they wished to. Starting from 12 villages, girls of all ages began their first grade study. Some of them even brought their younger siblings over, later, girls in the neighboring villages joined also. They were as good students as they could be.


In the 1980’s and 1990’s, education was the main concern of NGO’s. They mobilized financial resources, domestically and abroad, to arouse the the whole society of the value of education. Among them, the most influential one was “Project Hope”,  launched in 1989. Thanks to Zigen, the local enrollment rate for rural girls has maintained at 85-100% regularly. By 2018, Zigen reached to 120,000 cases in more than 3,000 schools in 12 provinces. In contrast, the Project Hope reached even farther. By 2017, it had collected 14.04 billion yuan in donations, supported 5,748 million students in need and helped build 19,814 Hope primary schools.

With the rapid progress of urbanization in China, out-migrating to work from rural areas became a trend. In May 2001, the State Council had instituted this new policy to adjust the school locations nationwide, known as “removal and merging of smaller schools”, it was in favor of larger scale schools, because rural population decreased, it was easier to manage less schools, and the financial burden was lower. In addition, another policy of “Two Exemptions and
One Subsidy” was in, it meant tuition and fees waived plus financial aid to cover room and board. Both policies placed a profound impact on the rural education.

According to the China education statistic records, an average of 63 primary schools, 30 teaching centers (for 1st and 2nd graders), and three junior middle schools disappeared every day in rural areas from 2000 to 2010. The policy was called off in 2012, in that year, Zigen reported its research on the impact of the policies. In this report, Zigen pointed out that the cost of children attending school was 4-10 times higher than before even the education itself was free. After merging, children aged 6-7 had to travel far to study, some kindergarteners were sent to boarding schools. For young children, girls in particular, the trip was very difficult and their safety was not guaranteed. The more serious problem was the missing of a family/school/community integrated learning environment for rural children in their early childhood.

In that report Yang described the ideal early educational environment. She believed rural children should live with tender loving parents, learning from parents how to behave, learning farming knowledge, learning work ethics, learning local crafts, embroidery, weaving, carpentry and such. At slack time, children would catch frogs, fishing, swimming……They also could participant in the village activities, learning folk songs and Yanker dances in the north, learning reed-pipe dances and traditional duets in some Miao ethnic areas. They learned the history of their villages from elders. The child, being exposed to many aspects of traditional lifestyle, would gradually form basic values and habits of his own, which would lay a good foundation for a comprehensive development later in his life.

In the past decade or two, this scene became hard to replicate the way it used to, in many rural areas in China. Meanwhile, the lack of family education led to quite a few problems in rural education.

In December 2018, there was a conference on village school administrator planning. Various participants, Gao Jipin and Yang Huijun, just to name two, expressed their concerns that many rural children could neither perform farm work, nor perform house chores, those born by the river side could not even swim, and these are not random cases! On top of the general problems rural schools faced — not enough teachers, poor building conditions and insufficient funding, most principals in the conference felt that the lack of family education as well as the lack of guidance in life became a threat toward the rural education.


Zigen worked hard to reduce the impact from rural school removal/merging. Between 2006-2009, with support from teachers, parents and local education bureau, Zigen successfully kept two primarily schools open, located in Hebei and Shanxi provinces respectively. Zigen took over the financial responsibility, and managed to delay the closure of more than 10 assistant teaching positions. Zigen did tons of work on publicity and advocacy, it definitely placed somewhat influence to the public and to the policy makers at all levels, deeply and continuously.

After that policy was called off, Zigen turned its focus to enhance the content of rural education. What does rural education offer?

Yang sometimes misses the countryside when she visited rural villages in Guizhou the first time. People were really poor, but families were intact. Grandparents, parents, children, the whole family stayed together and the village itself was intact as one. Villagers looked forward with confidence, they loved the scenery, green mountains and blue waters, hoped they could improve their living there. In those remote villages, Yang often heard children would want to grow up a village doctor, a teacher, then return to change their hometown. But the villages changed over the years, so did the people. Young villagers were gone, left the aged behind. They no longer had self confidence and self respect, they felt they were poor, out-dated, and incapable to make changes. Yang mentioned to the Southern Weekend reporter that she most regretted to see the local culture of thousands of years being disappearing rapidly, “such as the beautiful and colorful singing and dancing, embroidery, environment-friendly farming, not to mention the traditional values of diligence, frugality, filial piety, respect to elders, respect to heaven and earth……All replaced by the value of commercial consumption culture.

Certainly the education contents contributed to the above situations, the current curriculum is mostly about cities and other textbook knowledge, it talks very little on rural parts. The textbook was advanced though, the 2nd/3rd graders learn at a similar level as the middle school students in US.

Prof. Liu Tiefang of Hunan Normal University, believes that as a consequence of education being focused in urban cities, the education policy and mainstream courses are inevitably more city oriented. Aiming at elite universities like Peking University and Tsinghua University is a strong goal of much value. In this mode, village students inadvertently give up, either actively or passively, the hidden value of rural life.

In addition, the boarding elementary school system kept children away from their parents very young, and left their countryside life style behind. They spent most time in a closed learning environment, accepted a single goal, read textbooks, memorized textbooks, answered questions on the homework sheet, prepared for test. All these efforts were to get good grades to enter high schools, then, eventually to enter colleges in the future.

But, is the academic performance the only purpose of education? Yang commented on promoting education with Internet technology, “It is certainly very good, but its purpose is worth rethinking. The “high scores” atmosphere may leave children little self-confidence and less self-esteem, how would they know their self-worth?”

Zigen’s understanding of rural education emphasizes on primary education. Other than the knowledge from textbooks, local history, geography, environment and culture all serve important parts. Above all, it needs to cultivate children’s social responsibilities, to do something for their hometown, “If rural children themselves do not appreciate their own culture, have no self respect, how can one brag about rural revitalization and brag about sustainable development?”


In 2013, in cooperation with Beijing Normal University, together with a number of rural teachers, Zigen spent three years to complete a manual, Building a Sustainable Rural China Together: Teacher Training Manual. It includes the topics of health education, environmental education, rural education and gender education. “We ought to ask local artists to teach children those soon-to-disappear songs, dances, arts and crafts; ask the elderly to tell folk stories, so children learn to know their own hometown. In the meanwhile, local teachers need to broaden their horizon and realize what the essence of education is. In the long run, they will provide rural students with more comprehensive and healthier support. This is what an educator is for.”

With 30 years of experience in rural education, Yang, from US to China, is now delivering a number of speeches on Education for Sustainable Development, hoping the idea may become mainstream in China. “People are the most important factors”, Yang told Southern Weekend, “We have to teach children to know their villages, to conserve environment, and to pass down their own rural culture.” In her view, only with such concepts and actions, rural education and rural revitalization will get a better potential to develop. “I really hope more educators will put the idea into practice. For rural China, it is really important.  Not enough was done yet.”

In recent years, rural school principals began to sense the changes. To name one, government, market, social organizations, universities, and research centers had combined their forces in supporting rural education. Other supports include various platforms generated by information technology, reconstruction of rural education, curriculum study and faculty enhancement. The principals are looking for more support from communities and organizations like Zigen. Many organizations, Zigen included, look forward to the changes from principals.

To some extent, despite of many difficulties, the concept “rooted in the local rural community” is being accepted by more and more rural schools and by people of concerns. Today, “how to cultivate talents needed” moves itself to the top challenge of China’s rural education tomorrow.

Translated by Min Chang

Edited by Lotus Zhao


Write a comment:


Your email address will not be published.

© 2019 Zigen Fund 滋 根 基 金 會 | For Grassroots Development of China