Academic Pursuit of a Middle-aged Chinese Farmer

Cheng Youbao, a 40-year-old farmer in Jiangsu Province, was busy catching eels in a pond near his village when informed of having been admitted into Yunnan University for a postgraduate course.

The news spread quickly among the Xinghua villagers, who never expected to see one of their own venture forth for a master's degree.

Cheng is just one of millions of middle-age or even aged Chinese who will have the opportunity as of this year to realize their dreams of higher education, as the central authorities announced to allow people of all ages to take the national college entrance tests early this year.

Previously, only "unmarried people under the age of 25" were eligible to take the exams, according to the Ministry of Education.

When Cheng received his admission letter from the Humanities Department of Yunnan University, he shouted, "Finally, I made it!"

Cheng's attempt to get into college actually began in the early 1980s. At the age of 19 he took the entrance exam and failed it. But his hope never wavered.

Luo Zhenhong, a 54-year-old villager, said, "Youbao has a strong will. Every winter morning, he read books aloud on the ridge of the fields and I see his hair always covered with a thick layer of frost."

Through diligent study, Cheng completed all undergraduate courses and passed examinations for English majors of Nanjing Normal University in 1995.

Cheng's success is not an easy one. Although he owns a 0.23- hectare farm, he made ends meet by catching finless eels with rough baskets which brought an extra 500 yuan to 600 yuan (about US$60) each year.

His drawn-out schooling led to plenty of frustrations: His family's electricity and water were once cut off when he could not afford 100 yuan for upgrading the power system. Books and application fees for exams consumed a large portion of his income. Cheng got through his rigorous study with the help of a mentor, Hu Zhuanglin, a professor with Beijing University, who has long offered free tutoring to Xinghua villagers. Whenever Hu was abroad lecturing, he made sure colleagues were available to help Cheng with any questions that cropped up in his studies.

Cheng is fortunate. This year, over 460,000 Chinese applied for postgraduate courses, but only 160,000 were accepted by universities, according to the Ministry of Education.

(People's Daily 08/26/2001)

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