Zhi Yueying: Nurturing children in the mountain

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Village teacher Zhi Yueying was loudly applauded at the national poverty alleviation commendation conference in February 2021, when she was honored for her contribution to poverty alleviation through education.

Over the past 40 years, she has been teaching at Niyang Primary School and a learning center in remote mountainous Baiyang Village, in Zaoxia Town, Fengxin County, Yichun City, Jiangxi Province. Zhi has helped more than 1,000 children rise above the tough life in mountains and pursue a bright future. She also sponsored more than 20 students from impoverished families to complete their studies.

Mountain Trekking to Work

Zhi was born in Nanchang City's Jin-xian County in May 1961. When she was 17, she began to study in the predecessor of Jiangxi Agricultural University. Inspired by her uncle, a man dedicated to working for the people, she returned to her hometown and became a primary school teacher after graduation in 1980. At that time, she received a letter from her classmate Cai Jiangning, asking if she would consider a post at a primary school where he worked in the mountains. As Zhi trusted Cai's recommendation, she took the recruitment test, was successful and joined the school's teaching staff.

When Zhi told her mother about her decision, things didn't go well. Her mother threatened to disown her if she made the move, putting Zhi in the unenviable position of choosing between her job and her mother. Ultimately, despite her family's disapproval, Zhi set off on her new teaching venture to Niyang Village Primary School, perched on a mountain at an altitude of 1,000 meters, more than 200 kilometers from her home, and 45 kilometers from the closest town.

As the school is located in such an inaccessible location, transportation to Niyang Primary School was virtually impossible at the time. Students and teachers climbed the mountain to school on foot. Zhi and her colleagues had to carry their textbooks, teaching materials, and other supplies up the mountain on their backs and trek more than 10 kilometers. In addition, a shortage of food in the remote area in the 1980s was also a problem. Zhi had to grow vegetables to survive. It was under these difficult circumstances that she started her education career at the age of 19.

Education Brings Change

Zhi's young students often cheered her up with sweet offerings of wild flowers, local fruits and boiled eggs when she was sick. While during the holidays, villagers brought offerings of their own meager food supplies.

This affection from children and villagers had reinforced her dedication to her work. Whenever there was severe weather, she always accompanied each of her students home, and was treated as family by her students.

As a dedicated teacher, Zhi paid much attention to persuading each family who didn't allow girls to attend school to make sure every child can receive an education. She even helped pay the children's tuition with her RMB 20 monthly salary in the early 1980s, even though she had to borrow money when she couldn't afford food.

In 1982, Zhi married her long-time friend and former classmate Cai Jiang-ning. In the same year, she received an assignment to teach at the then new Niyang Forest Center Branch School. As the school was 50 kilometers further along the mountainside, it meant leaving her husband to live in the sparsely populated area under trying conditions.

In the evenings, with the sounds of wild animals outside, Zhi lived alone in a former classroom to prepare lessons and check students' homework. In order to keep her there, local women in the surrounding villages would take turns to keep her company at the school, children would bring her home-made food, and villagers would invite her to have a meal whenever she didn't go back home to visit her husband on Sundays. All of these acts of generosity and care deeply moved Zhi and made her more determined to bear the hardships and keep teaching in the mountain.

Perseverance Builds Hope

Zhi's high standard of teaching helped her to secure a promotion to headmistress at the primary school, managing five other teachers and hundreds of students.

The confidence placed in her made her regard the school as her own home. She tried by every means to add new equipment to the school so that the children could have the same educational resources as their city peers. In a bid to save money in her budget, Zhi did much of the labor around the school herself and even used her own money to buy materials.

In 2005, the severe tropical typhoon Talim lashed Zaoxia Town. On the way when Zhi accompanied her students back home, she accidentally slipped down a steep, wet slope and fell into the valley, which terrified the children. Regardless of the mud and blood from her injuries, Zhi climbed up the path, pacified the children and continued accompanying them back home.

Sadly, in 2006, Zhi was diagnosed with high blood pressure, which resulted in her losing the sight in one eye.

Concerned about her advancing years and health, local education authorities decided to transfer her to a school with better facilities down the mountain. At the same time, Zhi received an earnest invitation from local villagers to teach at Baiyang Village, the most remote village in Zaoxia Town. Her family again opposed, but she won their support after insisting that she couldn't leave the children without a teacher.

In the summer of 2012, local education authorities decided to replace the dilapidated school structure in Baiyang with new buildings. Zhi got up early and kept busy teaching the children, taking care of the construction project, and cooking for the workers. She even brought her husband to help at the school in the whole summer.

Zhi said that she was offered many job promotion opportunities, but refused every time. She is optimistic, always saying, "I will work as long as I can." Her dedication at Baiyang Village has resulted in the village school being named the best in Zaoxia Town, a fitting tribute to the work of the dynamic woman who villagers call the "Iron Lady."

Deep Regrets

Looking back at her life, Zhi said although she has a deep connection with the children in the mountain, she regrets having spent so much time apart from her own family. "In 2016, on the 80th birthday of my father, my mother told me on the phone that they had prepared a special meal. As I couldn't be there, I burst into tears at that moment. I wanted to go back home to celebrate my father's birthday, but was concerned that no one could replace me to teach the children, and that I couldn't return to school the same day."

Zhi said that her efforts in the mountain take up her entire time, leaving her no time to look after her own two daughters. "For so many years, I have neglected my daughters. I can only beg for their forgiveness, because I cannot leave the children in the mountain, as they are my children, too," she said.

Zhi has always regarded the school as her home, the children as her own, and villagers as her family members. She is happiest around the children and hopes that more dedicated young people can contribute to rural education and help the students improve themselves and achieve their dreams. "This is an important aspect of rural vitalization," she said. 

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