Zhang Song the Chinese lad is from a remote township in Zhuxi County. He joined the class at the beginning of the second term of high school because of his outstanding performance in the exams. Year 10 students are placed in differing classes depending on their grades. One class is dubbed Super-Fast, five classes Fast, and the others Average. Zhang Song is in one of the five Fast classes.


His Dream


He impressed me in his first talk to the class. Standing on the platform, he went ahead tentatively, shy and timid. When he was done, I raised a number of questions. I asked him what the name of his township was. He said that the town was so insignificant that it could not be found on a Chinese map. Then I commented that his hometown must be rustic with fresh air and trees everywhere. He responded to my comment this way, “Teacher, my hometown is ugly. People there are extremely poor.” When asked about his dream, Zhang Song said that he was to earn billions of yuan so that his family could live a life of ease. The boy must have been racked by the gap between the affluent regional capital and the abject poverty of his rural community. Before he was dismissed, I said jokingly that in the summer holidays I would backpack to his home village.


The Family Roots


As the term progressed, I dug out more about the boy mainly by reading his English journal entries. His village nestles in an isolated corner of the county, where Hubei Province and Shaanxi Province border each other. The family roots, however, are somewhere in what is today’s Huanggang City. Huanggang was called Huangzhou in ancient times. It is located in the southeast part of Hubei Province. Zhang Song’s granddad migrated to this part of Hubei from Huangzhou in the 1940s due to the wars (the war against the Japanese and the civil war between KMT and the Communists) then. His granddad and his granddad’s two brothers relocated to the mountains in the area, where they built their new homes. They made a living by farming and hunting. In the mountains of Greater Shiyan, a lot of families are not natives. Throughout Chinese history, Chinese peasants migrated here mainly to escape war and fighting on their ancestral land. Warlords and bandits overran farming communities easily on the plains. Access to the mountains, however, was difficult, and therefore people dwelling way out in the boondocks were sheltered from conflicts and wars, which would otherwise have ravaged them just like those in other parts of the country.


This migration has left behind an interesting linguistic legacy. Most folks in this area speak a dialect close to the Henan variety, but the vernacular in Zhuxi is very much the variety heard in southeast Hubei Province. It surprises many that people in Zhuxi curse and swear the same way as their cousins in southeast Hubei.


Even today, Zhang Song’s granddad still keeps a hunting rifle at home. He used to shoot a lot of wild animals with it, but rarely has the gun been fired since Zhang Song was born. Occasionally the granddad takes out his firearm, oils it and polishes it. Once or twice a year the elderly man goes on a hunting trip into the mountains, gun on shoulder.




The Zhang Family are charitable, like the Samaritans. In the village they helped a neighbouring family over the years. What they did is highly commendable.


The neighbouring household was headed by the father, who did not manage to find a spouse until he was in middle age. Then a matchmaker introduced a woman to the man and they started a family. The woman was way younger than the man though it was her second marriage. She had lost her first husband to disease.


For many years, the new family saw no child coming, so they adopted a boy with a disability from another hamlet. The boy was not able to speak clearly; neither could he walk or jump normally. Although the family of three were beset by hardships, love abounded among them.


Some years ago, the father was doing a thorough cleaning for the approaching Spring Festival when he missed his footing and fell off the ladder. The man got critically injured. Zhang Song happened to be home at the time. He witnessed the accident. There was blood all over the neighbour’s head when Zhang Song rushed over at the alarming cries next door. Zhang Song’s father and granddad managed to carry their neighbour over to the local infirmary. Unluckily the man died there later, either because the injury was fatal, or for a lack of equipment or expertise at the infirmary. Hospitals in remote Chinese towns still fall far short of national standards.


After the man perished, his wife and their disabled son had difficulty maintaining themselves. It was Zhang Song’s family who helped them through thick and thin. When they could not make ends meet and ran out of food supplies, the Zhangs gave them corn and wheat though they themselves were not well off. When they were in an emergency, the Zhangs never failed to come to their rescue.


When Zhang Song was in primary school, the local government put the needy family, the woman and his disabled son, into the Old Folks’ Home, located at the township. Very soon after they moved in, the woman died at the Home, leaving alone the disabled son in the world.


After Zhang Song finished primary school, he left his home village for the township, where he attended middle school. Knowing his former neighbour was a resident at the Old Folks’ Home there, he paid a visit to the man sometimes. On his first visit, the ex-neighbour recognised him and was more than glad to meet Zhang Song. When they were neighbours back in the hamlet, Zhang Song had played and chatted with him a lot.


In a few days, the summer vacation will start. In his English journal, Zhang Song told me that in the holidays he would go and see the neighbour again.


Access to Uni


Over the years I have worked with a lot of teens whose families are quite like Zhang Song’s. They come from the farming communities in Greater Shiyan, eager to make their lives better through education. In most cases, their dreams come true. I have no prejudice against children from well-off or privileged families, but being able to help someone in need is of significance to me because of my own family background and roots.


In recent years, the student population has changed very much. The percentage of teens from underprivileged peasant families is falling where I work. A more common sight in the classroom today is smartly dressed and well-fed teens, who snack, text and game. The school’s recruiting policy has to a large extent contributed to this change, with the leaders attempting to build the school into a national best. They claim that funds have to be raised by enrolling teens from wealthy families. Another cause of the change is that more and more Chinese peasants no longer hope to send their kids to uni. To keep a child in uni is too expensive for them, and vocational education is an easier, quicker and more practical approach. In the past few years the central government has implemented favourable policies to expand vocational education, offering grants and scholarships to those who choose to attend a vocational school.


Throughout history, China has found its roots in its rural communities. It is well known that a lot of Chinese leaders, scientists, and doctors across all the social strata came from a Chinese village somewhere. They ascended the ladder from the bottom to the top rung.


Some may say urbanisation has been transforming China. Consequently, the rural population is dwindling, resulting in migrant workers from rural China raising their kids in a city. But these kids are no urbanites in a real sense. They are not allowed to sit the university entrance exam where their parents work and live. They have to take the trouble to go back to their native city in their home province to take it.


Whatever the causes of the change, we should not close our eyes to the fact that the future backbone of the nation will be faced not only with urban China but with rural China as well. Therefore we should not have today’s peasant kids’ right to uni curtailed or denied. We should provide it or facilitate it where it is jeopardised.


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