INTRO It was beyond Suonan Jiacan’s wildest dream that one day he could make his way out of the hut in the dumpster he lives in, and have a chance to study in school. Having learnt Thangka art for the past 7 years, the 20 year-old boy has earned bread for his family and covered the costs of treatment for his sick mother.
Suonan Jiacan is not the only one changing his life. For 10 years a private charity school has been providing free education and art training to poor children and orphans in Banma, a rural Tibetan region in west China. While free compulsory education is delivered in public schools, most young people here see little chance of employment.
Winding through mountains and grasslands, a 14-hour’s jarring bus ride leads to Banma County, southeast of Qinghai Province, west China. “There’s amazing scenery here, but there’s no hope.” Staring at the mountains through his window, Tang Qiong puts down his unlit cigarette. The 30 year-old man couldn’t find a job and stays at home doing nothing every day, “I wish I could start my own business, but I have no money.”
Listed as a national poverty-stricken county in 1984, Banma is still one of the poorest counties in west China today. Most of its 25,600 residences live on rearing yaks on the 4000-meter-high plateau, the average annual income of local people is 2,100 RMB (339 USD).
Banma has the lowest employment rate in southeast Qinghai. Due to limited arable land, subsistence agriculture dominates local economy, and there are few job opportunities. Education level has become a key factor of moving away from farming in rural China. As the result of imperfect curriculum setting, young people in Banma find themselves lacking vocational skills when they search for employment, poor mandarin skills being another barrier.
When Tang Qiong entered the local public school at eight years old, his parents believed that knowledge could bring their son a better future, or at least he would find a job and earn more. For the Banma locals who depend on livestock for their live hoods, it is difficult fund further senior high schooling. Compulsory education is all the schooling that most local children receive. Tang Qiong spent nine years in school, but his parents’ hopes seem to have been in vain.
After China passed its “Compulsory Education Law” in1986, the country has striven to increase the coverage and enrolment of its free 9-year compulsory education. But while more school age children, both urban and rural, are gaining education; educational inequality between urban areas and rural areas is growing.
The subjects that Banma students learn in primary school and junior high are limited to basic Tibetan, Chinese and Mathematics (also called culture courses). Little vocational training is included in the curriculum, local young people can’t rely on compulsory education to get jobs and they often can’t afford further schooling or training in vocational schools. Most return home and help with the farm work, becoming farmers like their parents and grand-parents before them.
In addition to public schools, there are a few private schools in the area established also providing free education. Most of them are charity schools operated with charity donations or enterprise sponsorships instead of governmental funds. Banma Tibetan Charity Art School, which was founded in 2003, is one of them. The Charity Art School provides free education and accommodation to orphans and poor children who can’t attend public schools. It also takes in students from neighbouring Sichuan Province and Gansu Provinces. Among its students, 60% are orphans and 20% are children from single-parent families.
Early morning in the charity school is filled with the sounds of birds’ singing, cool breeze and children’s noisy recital of their Chinese textbooks, an uncommon sound on the plateau.
Public schools in the Tibetan autonomous region are officially required to teach specially designed textbooks, which are simpler than standard textbooks used in cities. The policy is designed to help rural students learn better, but it actually results in lowing local students’ learning competence and exam skills. Upon its establishment, Banma Tibetan Charity Art School decided to use standard textbooks instead of the Tibetan version, in an attempt to raise the quality of its education. It worked. Despite the typically underdeveloped state of education in the area, the school excels in unified examinations compared to local public schools. Between 2005 and 2012, the school was ranked first in the county for four times and twice in Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, an area double the size of the Netherlands with 69 primary schools.
Besides culture courses, the Charity Art School also provides vocational training to some of its students. In May 2006, an art class was set up, for students interested in traditional Tibetan art to learn Tibetan Thangka, carpet weaving, embroidery, incense making or wood carving. The art class developed into an art school neighbouring the culture school in 2013.
Instead of learning standard textbooks and taking entrance examinations for high schools, students of the art class spend 6-7 years training to be skilled art workers, some of them hold dreams of becoming art masters. With the skills they acquire, students can gain employment as Tibetan art teachers or workers in local Tibetan art and craft factories. The school also regard its Art Class as preserving traditional Tibetan art.
& DILEMMAS However, the existence and development of the school is not without problems.
The school gets every penny from charity, and suffers from financial hardship as it burdens the costs of free schooling and accommodation, as well as providing stationary, clothes and medical treatment to all of its 350 students.
Few qualified teachers are willing to work in poor rural schools, which can only offer low wages. The monthly salary of hiring a Thangka teacher from Lhasa, Tibet reaches 8,000 RMB (1,292 USD), much higher than the average income of local people. The Banma Charity Art School has a shortage of teachers, it started with only three Thangka teachers from Lhasa. Then the school employed nine of its first graduates as art teachers. “The school is like my family. It raised me and it taught me.” Says Ni Xie, sitting in front of his half-finished Thangka. He was a children from a single-parent family and grew up in the school, “The school changed our life, now it needs us and we want to repay.”
However, the teachers are paid only 1,500 RMB (243 USD) per month, much less than the salary of teachers from outside the region. For some teachers who have worked in the school for a few years, they feel it’s now time to move on and leave the school complaining that they could earn more with the skills they have.
Ci Tai, brother of the school founder and also the headmaster, has run the Charity Art School for 10 years. In the past decade he has faced many challenges in management, but the biggest concern came from the local government. Aiming to provide better education facilities and improve the educational attainment of poor rural students, China’s State Council implemented the Rural Primary School Merger Program in the late 1990s, merging remote rural primary schools into centralized village, town, or county schools. The number of primary schools in rural China has fell by 50% between 1999 and 2009, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Other rural private schools were shut down because of charity corruption scandals or unlicensed operation. When a black Santana visited the school on a cold drizzling March morning, out came two government officials saying that the school was to be taken over by the government in accordance with state policy, Ci Tai couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Compared to local public schools, the Charity Art School has better facilities and accommodation compared to local public schools, it excels in examinations and there were never any scandals. Ci Tai believes that the government wanted to take over simply because the school was doing so extraordinarily well. It would raise the image of the local government if it were a public school. After months of discussion, the government gave up the bid to take over the school, instead making it into a private governmental-administrated school.
With 30 years’ fast economy growth, China has quickly become the second largest economy in the world, overtaking all but the United States. However, rural western China don’t seem to benefit too much from the rapid development. People there still suffer from poor education, high unemployment rates and still live their lives similar to their grandparents. Education has been found to be the biggest factor in reducing inequality in rural China in the last decade. The situation seems better in terms of the rising enrolment rate, which has been cited as the major indicator of education in rural China by government papers, media reports and most researches. The missing fact is that improving rural compulsory education coverage would be pointless if the education failed to prepare rural students for employment. The existence of charity schools like the Banma Tibetan Charity Art School reveals the need for better curriculum setting in western rural China. The students in the Charity Art School consider themselves to be lucky as they believe that they are learning to change their lives, while more rural population are still struggling for education and employment, waiting for changes to happen.
Plateau Dream is an individual multimedia project for IMMJ 2013 Program created by ZHANG WEI. The project features a charity school in Banma County, Golog, Qinghai Province of West China, which teaches its students traditional tibetan art. Story of young learners of tibetan art chasing their art dreams is also told in the project.
IMMJ student, Chinese videographer/multimedia journalist based in Beijing.
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