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