Peng Jing reads a world atlas with her students in Minning town, Ningxia Hui autonomous region, last year. CHINA DAILY
A 'pairing assistance' program has seen hundreds of college graduates volunteer to teach children in isolated, underdeveloped areas. Zhang Yi reports from Beijing with Hu Meidong in Fuzhou.
A recent hit TV series has inspired students from Xiamen University in Fujian province to join their predecessors in a cooperative project spanning more than 2,000 kilometers. It ranges from the hospitable south coast to the Gobi Desert in China's arid Northwest.
Minning Town tells the story of residents of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region who migrated from uninhabitable areas and built a township from scratch.
The settlement－its name a combination of the short forms of Ningxia and Fujian ("Min" for Fujian and "Ning" for Ningxia)－embodies the long-standing mutual assistance program.
Since the 1990s, a national strategic plan for cooperation between the eastern and western areas has seen groups of volunteers travel from Fujian to the inland region to provide "pairing assistance".
Since 1999, the program has seen some 250 students from Xiamen University volunteer to teach in Ningxia's poorest areas for a year.
Traces of Fujian are easily found in Minning. For example, the downtown buildings have red triangulated roofs with swallow-tailed ridges that give a flavor of the architectural style in the south of the coastal province.
Peng Jing recalled her first impressions of Minning as a recent graduate. "Sometimes, I felt like I was still in Fujian. It was all so familiar," she said.
She and her peers arrived in the town in July to provide a two-week after-school hobby club for local children during the summer break.
To her surprise, many parents were waiting for them at the school gate on the night they arrived, hoping to enroll their children in the club. "I didn't realize we would have such a big impact," she said.
"When they hear us speaking Mandarin, storekeepers and taxi drivers immediately know that we're from Fujian," she added, noting that so many people from the province have arrived to offer support that the locals easily recognize the accent.
She said her life as a teacher in the inland region is not too hard, thanks to sealed roads, constant running water and electricity, and supermarkets that carry a full range of goods. As a bonus, the school buildings support multimedia teaching equipment.
Zhang Xiuli with some former students in Haiyuan county. CHINA DAILY
Watching the TV show took Zhang Xiuli, the university's first volunteer teacher in Ningxia, back to 1999.
That was when she spent a year teaching math and physics to the 13 seniors at Sanhe Middle School in Ningxia's Xiji county. She had graduated from Xiamen University with a bachelor's in biology and distinction as the top student in the major.
When she returned to Xiamen, she undertook graduate study and has worked at the university ever since.
The 46-year-old has an old group picture in which she looks even younger than her Ningxia students.
When her daughter questioned the appearance of Minning Town's main character, a 20-something grassroots official who looked much older than his years due to his rough, suntanned skin, Zhang simply replied that the area's tough living conditions were reflected in the faces and attitudes of the local people.
The yellow dust that permeated the air in the TV drama reminded her of the local people with their strong accents and the days when sand filled her hair.
"It was all dirt roads; our bus didn't have full glass windows, so when we got off we were covered in sand," she said, recalling the three-hour trip from the downtown to the school.
To welcome her, the school principal, who spoke in heavily accented Mandarin that was difficult to understand, took her to the town's only restaurant for a dish of stewed chicken and potatoes as a treat.
"I later realized it was a luxury," Zhang said, adding that most days people only ate potato noodles.
The county is located in the Xihaigu region, which was once so badly plagued by severe drought and a poor environment that the UN dubbed it the "least fit place for human settlement in the world" in the 1970s.
Zhang's shampoo was no use at all as there was only enough water to drink and people had to line up to collect it in iron buckets.
"It took a long time for the water to become clear after the sand settled. I had to add orange-flavored powder to stop it from tasting so bitter," she recalled.
The hardness depicted in the TV drama has impressed audiences.
For example, a family was shown as having just one pair of pants that were only worn when someone left the house; potatoes were the only food; a seriously ill villager was shown longing for vegetables; and even after the mushroom industry was introduced to help boost incomes, local people had no idea how to cook the fungi they grew.
Peng Jing shows her students a Mobius Strip in Minning town. CHINA DAILY
In Zhang's school, the upper and lower parts of the wall of the one-story building were made from bricks, while the middle course was made from soil.
Inside, the only facilities were a blackboard that had turned white due to overuse and some old wooden desks and chairs.
Despite the harsh conditions, Zhang's hardworking students helped her keep going.
The high cost of electricity meant they used candles to study at night, and each candle was shared between two people to save money.
"One day, when I was closing my dorm curtains to sleep, I saw some students outside my window, using the dim light to read," Zhang said. After that, she only closed the curtains when absolutely necessary.
Ye Nan, who volunteered to teach in Ningxia in 2005, was moved by his students' simple aspirations, as they didn't dream of becoming politicians or business moguls.
Rather, one boy said he wanted to learn Mandarin so he could communicate with the outside world and help develop his hometown.
"Those children were like the unknown grass in a mountain gully. Every time I saw the tenacious grass in Xihaigu's barren land, I felt that the kids were struggling with the hope of life," Ye said.
Peng, who is teaching in Xihaigu's Haiyuan county, said the volunteers provide much more than traditional tuition, offering language, art and science classes to enrich campus life.
In the wake of the TV series, many students from Xiamen University have contacted her about the volunteer project, she said.
In the essays her students wrote about their hometowns, she was happy to see the great changes in their lives.
In the past 20 years, volunteer teachers from Xiamen have raised 10.7 million yuan ($1.65 million) for local children through various methods and contributed to local public welfare projects.
Zhang, the first teacher, has visited Ningxia three times since 1999, bringing businesspeople who donated funds. "I see life-changing achievements, but each time I visit I still treat myself to a bowl of potato noodles," she said.
Yang Jie in Fuzhou contributed to this story.