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Monday, 17 November 2014 00:00

Yangjuan School at a Crossroads

Stevan Harrell sent this report from his visit to Yangjuan-Pianshui last August:

Tiantian-coverWe arrived in Yangjuan on August 25, 2014. It had been raining for several days; it let up for two days, including the first half-day we were there, and then continued to rain for the rest of the six nights and five days we spent there.

There were three groups of people visiting while we were there (in addition to Yanguan co-founder Professor Li Xingxing from Chengdu, and Yangjuan native and current English teacher Ma Fagen):
1. I was with two undergraduate students from the University of Washington (UW), Noah Baseleon-Abbot and Tiffany Fox, who will be spending the year in Chengdu. They began to carry out a survey of high-school and college students' knowledge and use of written Nuosu language. They did this with the help of Ma Xiaolan, Ma Zibo, and several other local college and high-school students.
2. My colleague Dan Abramson, a professor of Urban Planning, who works on changes brought about by the New Socialist Village Campaign on the Chengdu Plain, and also on post-earthquake reconstruction, brought with him his old classmate from Tsinghua, Tao Tao, who now owns a planning firm in Beijing, two UW students, and the Shanghai girlfriend of one of the students, who is an expert sketcher (see more of her  sketches about the trip on her blog).
3. Liang Zhun from Shanghai had with her Mr. Zhang from Chengdu University of Technology. I never really talked much to him, but he seemed very nice, and took a lot of good pictures.

We stayed for five days. Much of Fagen's, Xingxing's, and my time was taken up with the task of figuring out the list of scholarship recipients from Cool Mountain Education Fund. We had more money available to give out this year than in the past, which meant that we could be a little more generous with the college scholarships (we gave 3000 yuan to the 4-year bachelor's candidates, and 2500 to the 3-year associate degree candidates). We also gave 1000 to all those beginning high school or high-school level vocational and technical programs, and we saved some back for next year.

Yangjuan School Graduates are Doing Well

But the most heartening news is about the students. We have been blogging some of their progress: Kaitlin Banfill, who is starting a Ph.D. at Emory University, and who spent last year on a Fulbright fellowship, headquartered at Sichuan University but spending a lot of time in Liangshan, has just blogged about the success of Ma Xiaoyang (the second son and youngest child of Labbu, Fagen's 2nd uncle). Xiaoyang has just taken up a teaching job in Leibo after graduating, along with two of his relatives, from Guang'an Technical College.

Of Ma Xiaoyang's two classmates, Qubi Lisan) is teaching art in middle school in Zhaojue, and Li Musa is teaching English in a middle school in Yantang in Yanyuan. Ma Yifei, a cousin, has a job with an engineering firm in Chengdu, and his brother Ma Zibo is in the second year of law school at Panzhihua University, where he tested 7th out of 130 in his class of almost all Han students, and wants to be a lawyer. Ma Xiaolan is now in her last year of a mathematics teaching course at Xichang College. I finally got to visit her at college, with my two students. She and her classmates showed us around for a hot afternoon, and we had a wonderful time, culminating in ice cream on the shores of Qionghai. Finally, when I spoke at Sichuan Normal University (Liang Wei and Fu Chunmin were there), the real guest of honor was Li Lan, a Yangjuan graduate who is now a sophomore there.


Yangjuan School Faces a Crisis

At the same time as Yangjuan's graduates are doing so well, Yangjuan School itself is experiencing in serious decline. Enrollment was between 300 and 320 students from 2005, the first year there were six full grades, until 2010, at the time of the 10-year celebration. But then people started leaving; upper grade students stayed, but when a class of 40 graduated, it was typically replaced by a class of 15. This year there are only 80 students registered.

Some people attribute the decline in students to the poor quality teaching by "substitute" teachers, and thus indirectly the failure of the County Education Bureau to give the school enough regular, credentialed teachers. This is the principal's view. Indeed, I have sat in on many of substitute teachers' classes, and some of them are awful. This has caused test scores to drop, and many parents are moving their children to more urban schools with the latest equipment, including Internet classes taught by teachers from Chengdu (even Fagen's English classes at Meiyu Middle School have internet teachers from Chengdu).

Another reason is demographic and economic. The population of Yangjuan and Pianshui has declined by about a third in the last five years, with people moving out to Baiwu and Yanyuan, and some families choosing to have only two children, even though the policy allows them to have three.

administrative-mapA third reason is that after the bitterly fought election for Village head (I think it was in 2011 or 2012) between Ma Guohua, the current head, who comes from Yangjuan, and a losing candidate from Pianshui, most Pianshui parents took their children out of Yangjuan school and put them into Baiwu Comprehensive Scbool in the nearby town. So most of the remaining students are from Yangjuan and the neighboring village of Mianba.

For families who choose not to enroll their children at Yangjuan, The typical pattern now is for the parents to go work somewhere (construction is much favored over factory work, because it pays better) while the grandparents rent a cheap room in Yanyuan (some are available for as little as 100 yuan per month) where they live with and cook for the 1st to -3rd grade children. Starting with the 4th grade, the students can board at the Yanyuan schools, but some continue to live with grandparents anyway. Here is a link to the article I wrote with Aga Rehamo (Ssyhxatmop) about this general situation.

I should point out that the decline in student numbers is not just a Yangjuan phenomenon. All the other village schools in Baiwu Township have either closed altogether or severely curtailed their operations— For example, Baoqing, which had four grades when we visited there in 2006 or so, is now down to one.

Yangjuan school is also in a budgetary crisis. Fewer students means less support, which means the facilities deteriorate (leaky roofs are the main problem; the grounds still look beautiful), which means that parents are more likely to pull their students out (or not start them in the kindergarten), which means that enrollment declines, and the downward spiral continues.


Possibilities for the Near Future

I had endless, interesting discussions about what the future of the school might be. Right now, it won't close altogether. But there are a series of possibilities:
1) It could continue as a 6-grade school, with an infusion of outside funds. There are possible sources, but we don't know yet whether they will come through.
2) It could be taken over by the County as a regular school, losing its "minban gongzhu" status (民辦公助 -A state-subsidized school run by local people). This would solve the financial and facilities problems, and potentially might solve the problems of not retaining permanent teachers. But I see it as unlikely.
3) It could become a 2- or 3-year village school, serving 6-9 year-olds before they are old enough to go to Baiwu or elsewhere.

I haven't decided what I think about these possibilities. But I want to reiterate Yangjuan's situation is representative of the fate of small rural schools altogether. Even the 9-year comprehensive school at Baiwu, which now has a lot of modern facilities, has seen its elementary school enrollment decline from 1400 to 700 in the last few years (though the middle school enrollments have been steady).

There is another, more remote but very interesting possibility. When I was in Taiwan before traveling to Liangshan, a former student, now a nursing instructor at a local university, wanted to introduce me to her sister's husband, principal of the elementary school at Cajiao in the valley above where we did our fieldwork near Sanxia (a district near New Taipei City). That school has very few local students, because almost all families have moved out of the mountain areas. But the school (which has beautiful buildings and grounds) serves ecologically-minded Sanxia urbanites (a phrase I could not have imagined using when I lived there in the 1970s) who want to send their children to a school in the peaceful countryside where they can learn about the environment and get intensive teacher attention in small classes. People I discussed this with were excited about this as a possibility a decade hence. It seems far-fetched to me now, but 60 college students seemed far-fetched when we started Yangjuan school in 2000.

So we are at a bit of a crossroads. Li Xingxing will be retiring when he turns 65 in January, and he wants someone else to take over the Chengdu responsibility for the scholarships. He is suggesting one of the younger researchers in his institute, but nothing is decided. For my part, I can continue, but I'm inclined to start transferring some responsibility to some of the younger members of the Cool Mountain board; right now Kaitlin Banfill seems like a strong possibility, eventually. She visits Liangshan regularly, and her Ph.D. work will continue the investigation of Nuosu college students and their careers. She speaks pretty good Nuosu, in addition. 


It has all been worthwhile


Finally, I want to sum up what I think we have accomplished by building the school and supporting the graduates. As I said in my talk at both Southwest Nationalities University and Sichuan Normal University, if we were starting today, building a school in Yangjuan would be a huge waste of time and money. The Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping administrations have taken rural education seriously, to the point where free education through middle school is easily available to anyone in Yanyuan (I can't speak for more remote areas of Liangshan, but I want to visit and find out more). But we made it available to Yangjuan, Pianshui, and Mianba children about 8 years sooner than it otherwise would have been, and this has not only provided opportunities for education and employment for ordinary villagers, but has nurtured, everyone agrees, a positive attitude toward education and a possibility of education as a life course and a route of social mobility alternate to migrant labor. In other words, people who had the opportunity to study at Yangjuan have leapt ahead half a generation in becoming educated, and the community in general values education greatly, as a means of mobility to be sure, but I also think for its own sake. Our original dreams of community-based education, an educated community of farmers who revere their own as well as the Chinese literate tradition, did not happen, but I think it was a dream based in the realities of the mid-90s, not in the realities of the 2010 decade. We need to be adaptable and change with the times.


Photos by Liang Zhun, drawing and map by Tiantian 


Wednesday, 25 July 2012 14:11

Last Fight, Last Hope

After capturing and presenting the atmosphere at night in the Huaguang community - one of the last mainlanders village left in central Taipei-, here are the voices and faces of its last residents. This old community retains the mood and traditions of old Times. Its inhabitants, civil servants from the ministry of Justice, mainlanders' families and others Taiwanese, have been living here for more than 50 years. By the end of 2012, this community will be demolished to give way to a financial center called "Taipei Wall Street". The residents are claiming for Justice and decent solutions.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012 20:22

The San Ying Tribe Still Resists

The San-Ying aboriginal community (so named because of its proximity to a bridge connecting the San-xia and Ying-ge districts of New Taipei City) - consists mainly of Amis tribe aboriginal migrants from Hualian and Taidong who have set up a community of illegal houses next to the Dahan river. After the community was demolished by the then Taipei County government (Taipei County was renamed as New Taipei City in December, 2010) they set up a campaign in an attempt to save their community, which was then backed by sympathetic cultural and social campaigners. On the 17th January 2009, to thank their supporters, and in celebration of the Taipei County Government's decision to postpone further demolition, they held their first end of year (the end of the Chinese New Year) dinner for those who had helped in the struggle against the demolitions.


The fourth such celebratory dinner held in 25th February 2012 was opened with a dance led by members of the aboriginal community, then two teams were formed, the red team, consisting of San-Ying aboriginal residents along with San-xia Junior High School students, and the white team, made up of famous bands, in a contest modelled after the annual NHK Japanese New Year's Eve music show Kōhaku Uta Gassen (lit. Red and White Song Battle). The atmosphere was surprisingly light-hearted and amiable, and there was little of the anger and rage that had been expected. There were excellent performances by the white team, made up of singer Deserts Chang (張懸), Wu Zhining, son of the poet Wu Sheng (吳晟), the rock band Sorry Youth (拍謝少年) and singer A Bei (阿焙).

The young men of the San-Ying community formed a K-pop style boy band especially for the occasion, calling themselves the 'Sailai Boys' (from the Amis word for acting proudly), coming on stage from time to time, sometimes with mock 'erotic dances' and sometimes dancing dressed as construction workers. The middle ages men dressed up as the 'Sanba Dance Troupe' (from 三八 the Mandarin slang word for 'bimbo' or 'catty'), and with no concern about looking like idiots, they performed sexy dances to the crowd's great amusement, attracting the screams and catcalls from the audience.



The protest party provoked writers including Chu Tien-hsin (朱天心), Chen Xue (陳雪) and the founder of the 248 Farmers' Market, Yang Rumen, to donate books and rice to the celebration. Prior to the event the San-Ying community had collected lots of second hand goods, as prizes for a raffle, awarded to some of those who voted for one of the two teams.

The film below shows the San-Ying Aboriginal Community celebrating with their supporters, the band at the start are the Sorry Youth, then the leader of a similar protest movement, from the Shisi Zhang area of Xindian who are also faced with demolition, led the audience in song.

(Click on "CC" button for the subtitles)

Video for readers in China

Text and Video by Zijie Yang / Translation by Conor Stuart


Monday, 21 November 2011 17:43

Giving Urban Aboriginals a Chance

Victoria Aboriginal Friendship Centre (VAFC), Victoria City, Vancouver Island

The Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society is a charitable welfare organisation with a specific mission to support the needs of 'Aboriginal people making a transition to the urban community. It aims to be holistic and cultural, providing social services; support in health, education and recreation, family support and maintenance of traditional values. Since Taiwan also has a significant urban Aborigine population, this was also an excellent chance for our students to see how successful the First Nations people have been in reconciling their dual identities in the city? Are the urban aborigines maintaining and even reviving their culture in this global city? How extensive was the support compared to that in Taiwan?

Filmed and edited by C. Phiv, subtitled by Vica Zhuhan

"The Victoria Aboriginal Friendship Centre was a social work centre of sorts, providing support for various issues often encountered by the First Nations population. For example they provide child-raising counseling for mothers, to avoid a situation where the government doesn’t recognize them as suitable parents and takes over childbearing responsibilities. They also provide services for the same young Indigenous people who had been forced away from their parents as children and were now trying to return to society as adults. This included a halfway house in which they were provided accommodation and a family setting, to give them encouragement. Finally there was also support work from community elders."
Ibu Isliduan (Department of Indigenous Languages and Communication, National Dong Hwa University, Bunon Nation)

"...Mr. Bruce Parisian described to us their bitterness that the local Indigenous people are forced to leave their communities for the city in search of jobs. It struck me, because the same situation also happens in Taiwan. This centre was created by a group of less than ten Indigenous peoples. But they still managed to raise huge funds from civil society and the government. I really admire their efforts, and I think we can learn a lot from them."
Rimuy Watan (School of Nursing, National Yang-Ming University, Atayal Nation)


Photos: Top: Richard Chen Down: Shu-ching Hsueh

Wednesday, 19 October 2011 16:39

A Virtual Game that I Play for Real!

By Ni Ming, edited by Chen Yujun(Raining), translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart, artwork by Arvid Torres

I don't think I would survive without online games. I've enjoyed playing all kinds of computer games since I was little. In first year of university, all the guys in my class were playing ‘World of Warcraft’, so I decided to start playing it too. At one point I was playing for 8-10 hours a day, which would normally give me a headache and make me feel a little queasy because of the 3D gameplay. I had to sprint to the toilet all of a sudden.

The world of online games is like a microcosm of society. One needs to invest a lot of time and money in it. There are even people who arrange to go online every day at a certain time like punching a time-clock. As each team is made up of different characters with different classes, someone will be in charge of inflicting as much DPS (Damage per second) as possible, others heal, and others still tank, so if you are missing a team member it is impossible to continue with a quest. For the most part I undertake quests, play PvP (player vs player), or purely wandering around inside this other dimension made up of a fusion of technology and beauty. At times, when playing instances with randomly selected strangers as team members, I would be on the verge of tears from the pressure, although I also had good experiences. As the more challenging parts of the game need cooperation and communication between team members, if you make a mistake it can lead to the death of the whole team, so when you make a mistake it is hard to avoid feeling frustrated, that you have let everyone else down.

However, not everyone's attitude to the online game is the same, not everyone takes it as seriously as others. As well as this, due to controls set in place by the CCP on the mainland, if mainlanders want to play the latest version of World of Warcraft they have to find a way to use the servers for Taiwan and Hong-Kong, which means the servers are overburdened. Differences in culture, habits, and ways of talking inevitably cause friction between players. For example, one time when our team were in the middle of a game, one member of the team suddenly stopped responding, I was stunned, after a quite a long while someone said, "He runs a store, he's with a customer...". Everyone commits a lot of time and money to play, but this guy just abandoned the game without even a word to his team members! It leaves you speechless. As well as this kind of thing, there are quite a lot of strongly worded political arguments conducted between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese players, which destroy the experience of the game for many people, leading some of the game's older devotees to stop playing altogether. Although the simulated world of the game is not so far from the real world in terms of how people interact, in the game gender is not important except in appearance, it all depends on the skill and style of the player, this makes the game's reality different from real life. Although it is not easy to tell a player's real gender, in the world of the game, girls often play male characters and male players often play as pretty girls, which is pretty interesting (although because male players are the majority, when people come across a female character they will often assume that the player is male).

On the whole, the current World of Warcraft is very diverse, although this diversity comes hand and hand with the problems mentioned above. People still organize player get-togethers, arrange to meet in the real world and make friends but the game lacks the sense of community that it once had. This is also true of the internet in general, due to changes in society, it has become less and less safe, and it is impossible to go back to simpler times. My experience of online gaming has influenced my value system, because it is real experience, even if it occurs in a simulated world, it is still an extension of the real world.


Thursday, 30 July 2009 03:24

Zhongliao Village after 921 Earthquake

Every Taiwanese can recall the earthquake that shook the whole Island of Taiwan, one night time nine years ago. On that night, more than 2000 people lost a family member or had their house destroyed.

Nantou County was the area the most severally hit by the natural disaster. Some parts of the mountains disappeared to make place for a new landscape.

Mr Liao who was living in Zhongliao Village, Nantou County thought he was very lucky to survive the earthquake with his wife. Unfortunately, this was not the case for many people living in the neighbourhood. In front of this distressing situation, Mr Liao decided to build ‘Longyan Community’.

The association started by giving free lunch boxes to the people in need. Since 1999, they distributed more than one million lunch boxes.

As most people living in Zhongliao Village are old people and children, the head of the Association Mr Liao, decided to open free class activities in the community and free access to a computer room…a doctor also comes to the village once a week.

Now, more and more people living in Zhongliao Village work for the community, combining their efforts at the service of others.

When I was staying at Longyan Community, I was amazed to see the point to which the combined efforts of the community, could create an atmosphere of healthy life and hope after the earthquake trauma.

To me, Longyan Community is a model example of mutual aid for Taiwanese Society.

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Tuesday, 30 September 2008 01:53

Sustainable architecture by the people for the people

Hsieh Ying-chun was born in Taichung, and grew up in Hualien. After he graduated from Tam Kang University, he devoted himself to the practice of architecture, and received many awards for high tech factory building and public building designs. Soon after the 921 earthquake took place, Hsieh Ying-chun went into the Thao’s tribe in Nantou County where the damage was most severe and conducted the collaborative rehabilitation with the Thao people, an ethnic group with only 300 people left. Hsieh has founded “Atelier 3” in Nantou’s Thao’s tribe and set up his way of practicing sustainable architecture. In recent years, Hsieh has promoted the idea of collaborative building in the Hebei, Henan, Anhui, and Sichuan provinces in China and is continuing to promote his idea of “collaborative construction” and sustainable architecture.

Hsieh Ying-chun thinks that sustainable architecture has three main axes: Social culture, Economy and Environment. It has to be conducted through simplified construction methods, open buildings, and establishment of an economically self- sufficient construction system, which is done by exchange of labor. Also he implanted the concept of environmental protection and Green building to the villagers, helped to construct self-consciousness and cultural diversity in tribal communities, and established local micro-economy units such as cooperatives.

“’Less architecture and more humanity’. This is one phrase I’ve always said. In another words, I tend to practice the simplest and least unadorned architectural style, so that the meaning of culture, society, and community can permeate into the space. It also means to “empty” architecture, and let Humanity, Spirit, and Nature retrieve their prominent position.

Throughout all these years promoting construction solidarity in Thao community and other 921 earthquake aftermath areas, and also practicing sustainable architecture projects in China in recent years, we always insist on our ideas and principles of sustainability. To build sustainable architecture, we not only need to consider technical problems of green architecture, but also the complicated mechanisms of society, culture, and economy lying beneath. It sometimes seems inevitable to give up tradition in the modernization process. However, in the process of rapid change, can we maintain the holistic thinking and arrangements of the whole environment, the society and the culture, like our ancestors did?

I always remember one time when our fellows were staying in tents to pass the winter. A Thao “Ina”(the respectful form of addressing elder women in Thao language) came, carrying an “ancestor spirit basket”(which is a representation of Thao’s religious belief) in her arms, murmuring the name of the ancestors, walking like this all the way into the community. The recently built bamboo houses were still green, and we could smell the fragrance of bamboo in the air. It was when the rehabilitation of the Thao Tribe was almost complete and the Thao families were just moving in that I realized for the first time how genuinely useful I could be to others as an architect.

I’m very grateful to the friends who support us in all kinds of ways!”

Read Hsieh Ying-chun's statement

{rokbox size=|544 384|thumb=|images/slideshow_en.jpg|}media/articles/HsiehYingchun_ENG.swf{/rokbox}


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