A teacher, a horse, a few books and an old piece of blackboard were all it took to secure a basic education in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region some 60 years ago.
Many senior citizens still recall how during their childhoods a teacher would ride on horseback from one pastureland to another to teach the local children.
Half a century ago, an estimated 90 percent of locals were considered illiterate. When officials and reporters visited, they would need to bring a posse of interpreters to help them communicate with the people, whose cultures were localized to a high degree.
Today, the country's nine-year compulsory education scheme has more or less closed the illiteracy gap across the region.
"Compared with some other developed provinces, education has been especially significant for Inner Mongolia," He Chengbao, vice director of the region's education department, said.
"Just imagine how it all started with simple stools and horsebacks."
An 80-year-old herdsman from Abaga Banner, Xilingol, was moved to tears when all the county's children finally gained access to schooling.
"I did not cry when I fractured two of my ribs in the old days, but I cannot help crying when I see my boys taking lessons in clean and bright classrooms," he said.
Back in the 1950s, around the time when the People's Republic of China was founded, more than 130 scholars and professors from Peking University and Nankai University came to Inner Mongolia, heralding the start of a new era for education in the region.
Education for Inner Mongolia's minorities, who account for about a fifth of the region's population of almost 24 million people, is considered a major development project.
Yang Jing, the region's chairman, said the region's education system had been restructured to enable widespread access to schools. Middle schools have been established in banner and county level areas, while primary schools have been set up in towns. Schools are no longer found in villages.
A boarding system has been introduced at all schools to accommodate children who live in remote areas.
"Such adjustments have greatly improved the quality of education, though boarding has increased students' costs, so we decided to give subsidies to poor students from rural pasture areas," Yang said.
"With 1 yuan per student per day for primary and junior middle school students, they almost do not need to spend any other money, as far as I know."
Xilingol League, which is situated in the middle of the region, has spent more than 22 million yuan to provide educational allowances to senior high middle school students from pasture areas.
However, foreign language teaching has long been a weak point of the education system.
The Inner Mongolia Normal University, established in 1952, is considered the flagship institution for the region's education system.
The university's affiliated middle schools have taken the lead in rolling out lessons in three languages: Mongolian, Chinese and English. Since 2001, the language classes have been part of the curricula of all key schools for minorities.
Inner Mongolia currently has 1,900 middle schools and primary schools, compared with a mere 381 in 1947. The region also has 36 colleges and universities.
He Chengbao said the education level of minority groups is now higher than the regional average.
(China Daily August 3, 2007)