The Teacher's Day on Wednesday is doomed to be bittersweet for the Chinese: as students and parents in big cities ponder over what gifts should be offered, those in quake-shattered provinces are pouring out thanks for their beloved teachers -- some of whom died while protecting the youngsters.
Beijing pre-schooler Luan Jiaqi began preparing handmade greeting cards for her teachers a full week before Teacher's Day. "I know this special date because mum is a teacher and she has received many cards, too."
Teachers at Luan's kindergarten are allowed to accept only handmade cards and could be fired if found to have accepted expensive gifts.
But gifts ranging from flowers and cakes to pets and skin care products are prevalent at many Chinese schools. Parents have been discussing what gifts to be offered in reward for the teachers since several weeks before the holiday.
In a latest show of extravagance, a Shanghai father said his idea of a decent present for his daughter's three teachers was a tour to Japan over the week-long National Day holiday starting at the end of this month.
His idea was attacked shortly after it was reported by a Guangzhou-based newspaper. Some said he was merely showing off his wealth and, if not stopped in time, could set a very bad example for children, while others felt he would put the teachers in an embarrassing situation.
But be it a handmade card or an expensive tour, parents and students who have offered the gifts simply wish to express their affection and heartfelt gratitude for their teachers.
Most teachers, particularly primary and secondary school teachers, are under immense pressure in China, where competition is white-hot for children who wish to get into the best schools and universities and eventually, the best jobs.
With the high expectations of students and parents, many teachers work long hours to make sure every student is getting along, leaving their own children under the care of grandparents or domestic helpers.
The teaching profession has therefore been one of the most respected in China since the time of Confucius (551 B.C.-479 B.C.), a great philosopher and educator who was honored as "teacher of all teachers".
According to an online poll, jointly sponsored by China Youth Daily and Chinese news website QQ.com, 78 percent of the 91,000 people surveyed agreed teaching was still the most respected profession, but 85 percent of the respondents thought it was one of the toughest jobs.
The poll also covered more than 51,000 teachers, 80 percent of whom work more than eight hours a day, with 26.2 percent working more than 10 hours.
Nearly all the teachers surveyed said they worked under pressure, which mainly comes from the students' report cards and long working hours. Some also complained of a comparatively low income, as in many Chinese cities, the teachers' income is lower than ordinary office workers.
But all the city teachers stopped complaining when the Nanfang Weekend based in Guangzhou devoted full pages early this year to a marginalized group of about 450,000 people who are half teachers and half peasant farmers in China's impoverished rural areas.
In the northwestern Gansu Province, some of these rural teachers are paid less than 100 yuan (14 U.S. dollars) a month because they were never trained as teachers and are not formal employees, though nearly all are devoted to the job and some are even the only teacher in schools in sparsely populated villages.
Li Zixi has taught in a mountain village of southwestern Guizhou Province for 13 years. Until two years ago, his annual income was 182 kilograms of maize the villagers collected for him because the makeshift school in Jinxiang Village of Luodian County even had no classroom, let alone cash to cover his salary.
For 11 years, Li taught in a small room at the village official's home, writing with twigs on the ground and walking 90 minutes on the zigzagging mountain roads to carry drinking water for his students.
In 2005, Li and his wife sold the only pig in their sty to buy textbooks and stationery for the students. That year, his story was told across the province and the local government finally included him in the payroll. He now gets 600 yuan a month and promises to stay at the job for life.
"I owe a lot to my teacher. He's the backbone of our mountain village," said Bai Xuewu, Li's former student and now a senior high at the county's best school. "I'd never had a chance to go to school if not for him. Now I'll work hard and get into a university."
Thanks, mourning for saviors
When the 8.0-magnitude earthquake toppled classrooms in southwest China's Sichuan Province on May 12, many teachers risked their own lives to protect students.
The Ministry of Education rewarded more than 200 teachers on Monday for their heroic deeds. Several teachers on the list were dead and unable to receive the honor. Many others felt uneasy and homesick on their first trip to Beijing.