Mountain girls reach new educational highs

In the mountains of Yunnan Province, Zhang Guimei has been working to free girls from the dual yoke of poverty and traditional values for more than 20 years. Zhang's goal is to guide all girls in the mountains to college, but time is short for her.

ZHANG Guimei. All Photos by CAO Linhua.

ZHANG Guimei. All Photos by CAO Linhua.

By CAO Linhua


For Chinese high school graduates, July is a time of great rejoicing. The results of the national college entrance examination will be through soon. Good or bad, a long languorous summer lies before them, and beyond that a once-in-a-lifetime journey into the great unknown.

This summer, a girls school in Yunnan Province raced to the top of the test-results league. All 159 girls who took the test won college places. 

ZHANG Guimei, founder and headmistress of the school wasn’t too happy. “I expected more students to go to Tsinghua or Peking universities,” she grumbled. 

Zhang was in her early fifties when she founded the school in 2008 and has lived there with the girls ever since. She looks much older than her years. She stalks the school like a wizened elf and loudly addresses anyone who crosses her path. Her school has sent more 1,800 girls to college. Clearly, this is no ordinary school.

Before talking to us, she swallowed a handful of pills: Madame Zhang is dying. 

Zhang Guimei pouring her TCM into a glass of watermelon juice, which according to Zhang, makes the bitterness of the medicine go away.

Not for girls!

"Most of these girls would hardly have been in school at all, let alone heading for the best colleges in the land without Zhang,” said YANG Yuhua, former head of the local education bureau. 

Huaping, if it is known at all, is known for mangos and coal mines. High in the mountains, it is a grindingly poor place. Families don’t give much thought to higher education, and when they do, they rarely think about their daughters. There is profit is marrying girls off or sending them to factories, but not to universities.

In 1996 when Zhang arrived in Huaping, there was barely any town to speak of, just one muddy street. Recently widowed, Zhang was almost content with the everyday misery.

Born almost as far from Huaping as it is possible to be in China, in Heilongjiang Province in the far northeast, Zhang lived in the historical town of Dali in Yunnan from a young age. She married a teacher and soon became one herself. Zhang loved to dress up and walk stroll on the shore of Erhai Lake with her husband. 

When cancer took her young husband, Zhang still saw him everywhere. Dali, the only home she knew, became an endless source of despair, so she took the first job she was offered and fled. 

There is no geographical solution to an emotional problem. In Huaping, far from being the respected and much-loved professional she had been in Dali, Zhang was incompetent and uncaring. The school even questioned her teaching qualification. Other teachers just saw a bitter woman who didn’t talk to anyone. 

In 1997, events took a dramatic turn when doctors found a tumor in Zhang’s womb. After contemplating suicide for months, the realization that she might actually die struck her like lightning. 

“When the doctor told me my time was up, I was forced to disagree,” Zhang said. 

The staff of her school, so dissatisfied with her professionalism, did all they could to raise money for her treatment. Zhang knew that if she lived, she had a considerable debt of kindness to repay.

Small-town teachers barely scrape a living. A lot of them quit and head for the cities to make a living. Zhang volunteered to fill in whenever she was needed. Huaping declared Zhang a model teacher, but she didn’t care much about titles, medals or ribbons. 

Nor did she care what others had to say about her teaching methods. She is a harsh taskmaster to all students. She teaches strictly to the test. If something will not appear in the test, then it is not necessary to learn it. Relevance is everything. 

Zhang once took over a wild class that had driven many teachers away. “Those class-skipping punks became tame as sheep in front of me,” Zhang said. 

Every night, she slept at the door of the dormitory. “Anyone who wants to sneak out at night had to walk over me,” she said. The students were too scared to even go to the toilet and took to peeing from the windows. From this class of trouble-makers and reprobates, Zhang somehow propelled 25 students into college. 

“That was when we stopped questioning her methods,” said Yang. 

Zhang could not fail to notice how girls would just disappear from class: One day they were there, and the next they were not, including some of her best students. When she went to see them, she always heard the same story: poor families do not waste money on girls.  

Bridewealth is the only wealth these families will ever see, and when no bride price is forthcoming, it's off to a distant factory to send home a regular wage. Poverty ruins everything, and Zhang was powerless to help girls with tuition fees to pay. 

Dramatic turns of events

Always straight to the point, she told Yang “I want a free girls school,” and wrote to the local government. No matter how many officials or inspectors came to chat about the idea, the answer remained a loud and resolute "No!" 

Word spread. Zhang simultaneously became a troublemaker and a laughing stock. So she filed another application. 

“You have won many honors,” a town official said. “Why ruin your legacy? You can’t have a free school.”

“I’ll be dead someday and all those so-called honors will be gone,” she answered. “But what the girls learn will last. That is my legacy.”

With the government unwavering, Zhang appealed to the public. She set up a stall in the street and started knocking on doors. No one believed in her. They called her a fraud and set their dogs on her. She never gave up and kept on raising money. After five years, she had amassed 10,000 yuan (US$ 1,500), a far cry from what she needed to build a school.

Then, in 2007, Zhang took her case to Beijing, where her shabby appearance caught the eye of a Xinhua reporter who told her story to the whole nation. 

Zhang came home from Beijing with the party secretary of nearby Lijiang in tow. He declared: “The school must be built. Every single one of you will be sacked if the school is not here next year.”

The classroom building of the girls school Zhang Guimei founded in Huaping, Yunnan Province.

In September 2008, Zhang welcomed the first batch of 96 girls to her school. The county gave her two million yuan and demolished a public toilet to make space for the school. Zhang employed 17 teachers, but life is harsh in the mountains and three months later, only eight remained. She spent anything she earned on the students, and in 2011, the first cohort took the college entrance exam and all won places.

Final term

But cancer is getting the better of her. She still gets up at 5:30am every morning and wakes the students up 30 minutes later with a loudspeaker. She hobbles up to the fifth floor then back down again, checking every classroom. All students study until midnight. They have ten minutes for lunch. 

ZHOU Yunli is a teacher at the school. Back in 2008, she was among those first 96 girls. “Zhang gave us a chance to escape the mountains, something we could never have imagined without her. 

"I have seen people on the internet saying that harsh methods crush creativity,” she "but without this school, and without Madame Zhang, many girls, including me, would have been married off to anyone who could afford us."