China honours education pioneer who lifted 1,800 girls out of poverty

A handout photo. Zhang Guimei (left) with one of her students.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The founder of China’s first and only free public high school for girls – in a poor, mountainous region in the country’s southwest – has been honoured as an inspirational role model in this year’s Touching China awards.

Zhang Guimei, 63, was in visibly poor health when she accepted the award on Wednesday, prompting a wave of sympathy and support on Chinese social media.

The awards, which recognise wisdom, bravery and tenacity, are presented annually by state broadcaster CCTV. Also among this year’s 10 recipients was Xie Jun, chief designer of BeiDou’s third-generation satellite.

Zhang was hailed as a hero during the awards ceremony for her extraordinary achievement in building and operating the High School for Girls in Lijiang’s Huaping county in northern Yunnan province, one of the country’s poorest areas.

The years of hard work and mental pressure have taken their toll on Zhang, who is battling 23 illnesses including emphysema, cerebellar atrophy and skull osteoma.

She was helped from her chair to the stage, where two small children presented her with the award. Her fingers were wrapped in pain-relieving tape. “I cannot open my palms and move my fingers without these tapes. With them, I can move a bit,” Zhang explained to the ceremony’s host Bai Yansong.

A handout photo. Zhang Guimei's taped fingers attracted the concern of awards ceremony host Bai Yansong.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“I eat more than 10 kinds of pills in the morning, and at noon I have to take five kinds of Chinese herbal medicine,” she said, in response to a question from Bai.

“Let’s have a promise – in the coming 10 to 20 years, let us know if you need help,” Bai said. “Will I break it?” Zhang replied, doubtful that she would live that long. “You are giving your life [to this school],” he said, to which she responded “That’s what I want”.

Zhang, who is childless, said the school was her home and all the students were her children. Since its foundation in 2008, the school has changed the fate of more than 1,800 girls from impoverished families – preparing them for university which paves the way for professional careers which would otherwise be unobtainable.

With an average elevation of 1,160 metres (3,800 feet), Huaping – more than 2,000km (1,240 miles) from the capital Beijing – is one of China’s poorest areas. Just two months ago, the local newspaper Yunnan Daily reported the success of alleviation measures to lift its residents out of poverty.

Zhang, who was born in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, was 17 when she moved to Yunnan with her father in 1974. A year after her husband’s death in 1996, she volunteered to teach at Huaping Centre Middle School, and became director of the county’s orphanage in 2001.

She soon learned that most abandoned children in the district were girls and, while boys were encouraged to continue their education, their female classmates were not.

Nine years of education have been compulsory for all children aged 6 to 15 in China since 1986, but while there are free high schools in a few Chinese cities – notably Zhuhai, in the southern province of Guangdong – many of Huaping’s girls were leaving school early to marry or earn a living.

Zhang believed strongly in the maxim that an educated woman can help three generations and was determined to provide free high school education for the girls of Huaping. “When a woman is educated, how would she abandon her child? My intention was to stop this vicious circle of uneducated mothers and children,” she said, in a CCTV report.

For five years, Zhang battled to raise funds. Despite carrying with her all her identity documents and copies of certificates and honours she had received, most people she approached called her a swindler. All she had to show for her efforts was 10,000 yuan (S$2,050).

The turning point came in 2007, when Zhang was elected as a party representative to attend the Communist Party’s 17th National Congress in Beijing. While there, she told a reporter that she wanted to build a free high school for girls. At last, her voice was heard.

A year later, around 100 girls from poor local families came to live and study at the new school. Three years later, they all passed the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or gaokao , and went on to university.

Zhang persisted for the next 13 years – in contrast to most rural teachers in China, where 45.5 per cent give up because of the poor environment, low salary and lack of respect, according to a study by Wuhan University.

In 2018, Zhang was sent to hospital for treatment after fainting at the school. Her deteriorating health convinced her that she would not survive and she asked the authorities to pay for her funeral in advance.

As a pioneer in the promotion of free, quality education for girls, Zhang has often been subject to criticism – especially for her “tiger mom” requirements, which include a ban on entertainment, endless homework, strict schedules and identical haircuts for all students.

A handout photo. Zhang Guimei at the school she built and founded in one of China's poorest areas.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

In October, she attracted further controversy when she said women had to be tough on themselves and not depend on men for their livelihoods. “Women need to be self-reliant. Do not trust these men.”

But there was only goodwill for the educator on Chinese social media after her appearance on CCTV to accept the award.

“Hope she can take care of her body and hope more such free high schools for girls can be built in China,” one commenter said on the social media platform Weibo.

“This is no longer a matter of respect for work … she is definitely a well-deserved model of the times,” said another Weibo user.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.