I first met Rosalie almost 3 years ago. She was studying for a Master Degree in ‘Language and Culture’ at Goldsmiths University in South East London, and she was specialising in bilingual learning. In her case, she was particularly focused on the learning of both Chinese and English. She wished to draw from my experience in anthropology – in part to consider the contrasting approaches to education in both China and the UK and because of my approach to ethnography – and so we began a series of lengthy conversations that lasted until she had completed her degree.
I learned a great deal from my encounters with Rosalie. In fact, I began to realise that she was quite unlike me: Rosalie is a relatively young mother, born and raised in the city of Zhong Xiang in Hubei Province, China. She described Zhong Xiang as a ‘small city’: however, it has well over 1 million inhabitants: so, from my point of view, that makes it a rather large city! But it was the enigmatic nature of her psyche – a psyche always mysterious and unfathomable – that made her, in some deep sense, unknowable. Rosalie, though, impressed me. She struck me as a determined and resolute person – who was not afraid to come to the UK and confront the challenge of studying for a very demanding Masters degree. After successful completion of her studies (and when travel became possible again), she returned, with her 9-year-old daughter Emily and new-born son, to China. Not long after this she resumed conversations with me via Zoom. She declared that she missed aspects of the English educational ethos and wanted to continue supporting her children’s bilingual development.
Our most recent conversation returned to the theme of education. Immediately prior to this we had touched on the subject of our values – and then we moved on to consider the contribution that we had (or had not) made to society. At this point Rosalie then said:
‘The person who I think contributes a great deal to society is Zhang Guimei, a woman of Manchu ethnicity, who is a Chinese educator and the founder and principal of Huaping High School for Girls.’
I replied: ‘Rose, I have not heard of Zhang Guimei …’
To which Rosalie said:
‘She has recently been honoured in China. The school she founded is located in a poor mountainous region in Yunnan province and it’s China’s first and only free public high school for girls.’
‘But who, exactly, is Zhang Guimei?’ I asked.
And Rosalie went on to tell me something about this remarkable and inspirational woman who had done a great deal to improve the lot of disadvantaged girls: I learned that Zhang Guimei was born in 1957, the twelfth child of a family within which she endured hardship and the loss of both her parents by the time she was aged 17. However, after first working for the Forestry Bureau, she moved into the education sector; she began teaching in Huaping County National Middle School in Lijiang and was soon promoted to the position of head teacher as a result of her excellent work. But, it was in this part of China that she discovered the fact that ‘many girls just disappeared before finishing their studies.’ They were often either forced into work or obliged to marry at a very young age.
Until she had mentioned it, I not heard of the city of Lijiang nor did I have anything but the slightest idea of the geography of Yunnan province. Rosalie told me that Yunnan is a landlocked area in the South East of China and borders Vietnam and Myanmar (it’s also thought to be where the drinking of tea originated!). Then, she explained that: ‘Lijiang lies in the shadow of the great Jade Dragon snow mountain,’ and she went on to make reference to a study by Zhu (2020) who noted that the region had ‘long been influenced by backwardness and patriarchal thinking. Therefore, girls’ right to education had not been well realised.’ In response to this, and to the fact that she saw ‘destitution everywhere‘, Zhang Guimei committed herself to bringing about change; She set about the task of providing a valued and lasting education for the otherwise deprived girls. And so began her lifelong devotion to improving female education in China.
As our conversation continued I learned that, in order to raise the funds for establishing a school, Zhang Guimei spent her summer and winter holidays on the streets of the provincial capital city Kunming, asking people to donate money. However she only managed to accumulate a very small amount. Happily, though, her story became known in Beijing and her ambitious dream to start a school for girls was drawn to the attention of the public. In due course, the governments of Lijiang and Huaping county allocated sufficient funds for her to open the Huaping High School for Girls.
Again, Rosalie referred me to Zhu’s (2020) study of the development of the school and quoted him as follows: ‘At the beginning of the school’s establishment, the school faced difficulties – such as poor teaching facilities, difficult living conditions for teachers and students, and a lack of money for students’ living expenses.’ However, both through Zhang Guimei’s committed educational leadership and help from the Huaping County Government (in the form of financial assistance) the female high school students were able to enjoy a free high school education. What is more, Zhang Guimei insisted that tuition and accommodation fees would all be free.
Rosalie highlighted the fact that the school effectively challenges the current education system. Girls can enter the school based on their ‘will’ without the entrance examination. What is more, the students have achieved impressive and outstanding outcomes and Rosalie moved on to summarise exactly why she thinks so highly of Zhang Guimei:
‘It is for two main reasons that I think Zhang Guimei has made a valuable contribution to society. First, because of the school, she has dramatically transformed the life chances of many young disadvantaged girls in one part of China.‘ Then she paused for a moment or two before continuing by saying: ‘Second, she herself is an example of ‘triumph over adversity.’ She’s a tigerish woman – who insists, to this day, on very strict discipline (for example, every girl in the school has to have the same uniform haircut) but, she’s an excellent role model for girls and women; she’s not only inspirational but she also demonstrates remarkable fortitude: for example, although she suffers from a number of diseases she sustains an exceptional daily work-routine – which begins in the early morning at 5 am and lasts until 12:30 am at night.’
Rosalie told me that it was through her own studies in education that she learned about Zhang Guimei’s work – and her example was so powerful that she, too, wished (when her family circumstances permit) to work in educational settings.
I subsequently discovered that, not surprisingly, Zhang Guimei (who has long been a member of the Communist party) has received many awards in recognition of her pioneering achievements. Most recently, in 2020, she was honoured as a ‘Moving China Person of 2020’ by the China Media Group and then, in 2021, her outstanding work saw her receive the esteemed ‘July 1 Medal’ from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. In the light or her lifetime’s dedication to improving the life chances of less privileged girls these awards are thoroughly deserved. She is often quoted as saying: ‘A girl can influence the next three generations. An educated and responsible mother will never let their children drop out of school. My goal is to prevent poverty from passing down from generation to generation.’
Reference: Zhu, H. (2020) Hope for Girls’ Education in Poverty- Stricken Areas: The School-Running Experience and Process of Huaping Girls’ High School in Yunnan, China, Science Insights Education Frontiers, 6(2):653-667
Footnote: The ‘July 1 Medal‘ is a decoration of the People’s Republic of China awarded by the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, party leader and state paramount leader. It is the highest award given to the Chinese Communist Party members, constituted on July 22, 2017. The ‘July 1 Medal‘ – established by the Communist Party is bestowed on party members who have been seen to make outstanding contributions to the practice of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics.’