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Tough lessons

By Li Yang | China Daily | Updated: 2013-09-02 16:10

Tough lessons

Zhang Xianyuan has been devoted to the grassroots pedagogy in an arid county in Gansu province for 10 years. Photos by Li Yang / China Daily

A teacher's devotion to a secluded desert mountain range is changing one of the country's poorest communities. Li Yang reports in Dongxiang, Gansu.

Zhang Xianyuan says much has changed in the 10 years since he arrived as the only teacher in the three adobe structures that served as Dachai Primary School in Gansu province's Dongxiang autonomous county. Dongxiang's 260,000 people dwell in China's fourth largest Muslim community, which ranks among the country's poorest. Most people are illiterate and can only speak the local language.

They've been secluded in the arid mountains since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The school is an "education point" - a basic grassroots pedagogical unit developed for children in extremely remote areas.

Zhang came to the school immediately after graduation and experienced difficulty adapting to the forbidding natural conditions and unitary ethnic culture.

Dongxiang education bureau's deputy director Tang Kai explains: "The children's social and filial education is taught in the Dongxiang language and according to religious customs. Pinyin is quite difficult for them. It takes about four years to teach them to communicate in simple Chinese. Most can only learn to write a few Chinese characters a year."

But Zhang doesn't regret his career choice.

"Religious doctrine means most of the girls will never leave the county or even their own villages," he explains.

"But if they work hard, they can learn Chinese and hold the key to the outside world."

The average age of his 34 students is 13, since younger kids couldn't travel far from home to attend classes."They sing children's songs in the same tone they read the Quran," Zhang says.

"It's the most melodious sound I've heard. It represents small souls screaming for better lives."

Zhang teaches Chinese, arithmetic, painting, music and physical education. He remains the school's only teacher, aside from occasional volunteers. The school serves five villages.

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