Home Institution

Connecticut College

Publication Date

Spring 2005

Program Name

China: Yunnan Province - Language and Cultures


“Our village, Namu”. The children, some hesitant, others eager, all proud, bring forth pictures they have drawn of their hometown. In the children’s minds and through the crayons provided them, flowers sprout up next to streams, and birds fly in the sky. Almost every drawing includes a home with semicircle interloping plaster tiles for the roof. Fish swim in the rivers and a few suns contain smiley faces. First impressions of visitors to the town or school , may be similar. The pavement street leading from the village to the larger city abruptly stops and turns into dirt road at the blue and yellow gate to the town. As if whoever oversaw the construction felt it no longer necessary not worth the areas money to add concrete to a place few people would go. Down a dusty road, past intermittent shops selling candy and sugar cane vendors lies a school much like any other in China. Outside lies a concrete square, rising from the middle, like a monks freshly placed stick of incense in ashes is China’s flag. To the left is a chalkboard covered in drawings in passages of guitar players and singing praises of the country done by the older students in multicolored chalk. In the back right corner are the toilets, no doubt crawling with maggots and the piles of trash lit on fire once daily to impede the growing load. Then, at three stories by far the highest building in town, lies the school building. If you entered the school and walked straight, staring at the valleys mountains and hidden fields, it would be behind you. A white and sea green formation of three floors, each consisting of four classrooms supplemented on it’s side by a strip of rooms containing the teachers office and forgotten drum sets. If it is a Monday through Friday at 7 45 am, one will undoubtedly hear the unison voices of different classes, seemingly speaking in round as they do their morning reading and one will know the school day has begun. Namu is a village in Yunnan province, Southwest China. The village is located about a half an hour away from Mangshi, lies near the Myanmar border and boasts some of the hottest temperatures in the country. It is a village of roughly 3000 people, most of all of whom are farmers who earn between one and three thousand kuai each year, roughly 125 to 375 US dollars. About 99.9 percent of whom are of Dai ethnic minority descent, one of the 56 ethnic groups of China and one of 26 located in Yunnan. According to China’s 1990 census, the total Dai population numbered 1,025,128, which places them as China’s 20th largest ethnic group1 . The Dai are considered to be descendants from the same ethnic group as native Thailand's, though, according to the people themselves, their dialect and written language are very different from that spoken in Thailand. Dai people are perhaps best known for their water splashing festival which takes place in April. Dai songs and dances, like many other Chinese ethnic groups, can be seen at tourist areas and on the Chinese New Year TV special. The Dai of Namu describe themselves as a clean-loving and warm hearted ethnic group. Namu residents are kind to guests and the woman bemoan the sexual inequality that still exists, pointing out traditions such as women having to hang their skirts to dry on a lower rung then men’s clothes. Dai culture can be observed and understood quite well in Namu as the area is the largest Dai village in all of Dehong. Namu, in many ways, resembles the children’s drawings. There are a multitude of plants and animals, most notably butterflies and giant spiders, and the sunsets on the distant hills are spectacular to watch. The families are, for the most part, kind and inviting, always offering tea and meals and the local specialty; watermelon. Nearly all activities are 1 as found in Blum, “China’s Many Faces”, 76. conducted in Dai and most of the women wear traditional circle wrap skirts (tongqun) and bamboo hats. Namu, however, has a side that does not exist in the drawings and that the children themselves talk about only when questioned. There is a girl who got married and gave birth at thirteen who’s baby now can walk on her own, though the girl would still only be in eighth grade had she continued on with her studies. A mute boy with clear mental disabilities was “quite a talker” until he became sick with fever and his family could not afford to take him to the cities hospital until it was too late for his brain to recover. The small streams that run through the town collect the trash and feces of the community as many houses toilets and small bamboo fixtures that open up into the river. Yet Namu elementary school school is overrun with bright, energetic children whose voices rise in a multitude of rounds during morning reading time and whose dreams and aspirations vary as much as any other learning institution. Their parents work hard in the fields each day in part to pay for their education and, as they themselves describe, for a better way of life. Children discuss how they would like to be Olympic Ping-Pong champions, doctors, dancers, teachers, airline pilots and army soldiers. They speak of the places in China and around the world that they would like to visit and the houses they would like to build. They talk of wanting to attend high school, even college, and many rate their studies as the most important things in their life. There are many dreams in Namu village. Not many of the children’s original dreams, however, come true. Though few can protest to carrying the same profession she dreamed of when she was seven, many have followed the same course that they expected to all their lives. In Namu, however, Children start to drop of school as early as the first few weeks of first grade, as did one nine year old encountered, and, though the numbers are small, they continue to do so throughout elementary school. Though the Chinese government has now made a regulation that all children must attend school from first to ninth grade, not all of the students from Namu do so. Though exact figures could not be obtained the school’s principal estimated that around sixty percent of students complete middle school. The prospects for high school, which is not mandatory nor automatically provided by the state for children wanting to attend, are even worse. The principal guessed that around thirty percent of the children who graduate middle school will go on to attend high school. This would mean that, in a class of forty students, twenty four will graduate from the ninth grade, and seven will attend high school. Another teacher at the school estimates even lower. She claims that every year there are perhaps one or two students in each grade that can attend a regular (pubian) high school while a handful of others attend vocational (zhouzhuang) school. It is a very rare occurrence when anyone attends college, only one former Namu elementary student could be thought of currently attending university. Thereby, despite of their hopes, most children will end up living in Namu their whole lives doing farm work. Others might go to Mangshi to wash hair, fix cars or kill pigs. This is not to say, by any means, that Namu is an unacceptable place to live or that farm work is somehow less desirable or dignified than any other profession. The fact remains, however, that very few students in Namu hope to become farmers like their parents when they grow up. Nearly one hundred percent answered that they would like to go on to Middle school and most also state they would like to go on to high school and college. Yet of the forty children who said they wanted to obtain a higher education, at most, seven of them will be able to do so. What happens to these dreams and aspirations? What is it in the children’s lives that make them change their hopes or what obstacles block their way to succeeding? What problems exist in China’s education system, within China’s rural countryside and specifically for Chinese minorities that are making these children “succeed”2 on a disproportionately lower level than Han?


International and Comparative Education


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