Yu Minhong (44) will never forget watching his father, a peasant and carpenter, collect bits of waste brick and stones and stack them up in the small courtyard of their rural home. What use was all this rubble and debris? The day Yu saw his father transform the stones into a small pen to shut in the pigs, hens and ducks, he was taken aback. At that time his family couldn't afford to purchase bricks.
Yu says his father's practical determination and foresight have influenced his whole life. "If you have a map in your head you can always turn stones into a building. If a pyramid was dismantled, it would just be a pile of stones. If you live your life without an aim it's just a heap of days."
Yu Minhong, or Michael Yu, epitomizes the rags to riches trajectories of those who have been able to grasp opportunities in rapidly changing China.
He said his father's patient stone-piling lesson had influenced him at three critical junctures of his career. He piled up days and days of hard work to eventually secure admission to university after two failures; he made a collection of English words so he could become a university English teacher and he started his own English training school.
Yu's training school which is based on the obsession for studying English has since helped hundreds of thousands of Chinese students get into US universities.
The company, New Oriental Education and Technology Group, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in September, the first private education company to achieve that feat. Yu is thought to be China's richest teacher with about 2 billion yuan (US$250 million) of assets.
"I'm not excited at the news. It's not a miracle but a natural result of our efforts over the past 13 years. It's just a milestone along the way. There's still a long way to go. We have to walk straighter for many more people are watching us now," Yu explains.
The bespectacled and smiling man enjoys encouraging students with Martin L. King's line from his speech "I Have a Dream." He made it a credo for the New Oriental schools. "We will hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope."
Founded in 1993 the New Oriental has grown from a class of only 30 students to China's largest private education service provider with more than three million student enrollments. It has a network of 25 schools and 111 learning centers in 24 cities as well as an on-line network that has attracted 2 million registered users.
Clearly teaching English can make people rich in China.
Like many of his peers Yu wanted to pursue an American Dream in the late 1980s but failed repeatedly to obtain a visa.
Stymied in his American ambitions he started to cash in on helping others fulfill their American dreams. He quit a stable job as an English teacher at Peking University and started up a business to help students develop their English skills.
Yu's company no longer only teaches English. His business has extended to other foreign language training, preparing students for tests, primary and secondary school education and software as well as on-line education. "Instilling a certain spirit in students is as important as giving them a skill," Yu says.
Yu is trying to inspire students by inviting high achievers - including moguls from real estate, the dairy industry or advertising - to talk about their individual road to success.
"We are committed to training a new generation of business and community leaders, empowering students to achieve their potential, build self-confidence and develop a global vision encompassing both traditional Chinese values and modern thinking," Yu says.
While he encourages students to try various paths to success Yu would never call himself successful.
"A career must always develop and so must a man. You can never call a living man a success it's only when he goes to his eternal rest that a judgment can be made," Yu says.
"My next aim is to build New Oriental into a model for China's private education," adds Yu sporting a crew cut and casual wear in his office in northwestern downtown Beijing.
Private education is not new in China. Confucius is said to have started the tradition of private education in the 6th century B.C. and Chinese entrepreneurs are building private schools to cash in on a national obsession with learning.
Today these private schools come in all shapes and sizes, from small primary schools run by idealistic retired teachers to fully-fledged accredited vocational colleges with thousands of students.
But many went bankrupt after failing to deliver both profit and good education.
Yu, however, is not afraid of failure. "Ups and downs are part and parcel of a career. Falling over is not a problem. What you learn in the process is invaluable it can help you start over," Yu says. "The private education industry in China is still poorly organized," he adds. .
Yu attributes his school's success to its quality teachers and unique enterprise culture. "We recruit talented teachers and grow them in various ways including funding them to study abroad. Besides academic qualifications, all teachers must be passionate, inspiring and humorous when they interact with students," Yu says.
"Any successful enterprise has a unique formula. New Oriental's formula includes its tenet of inspiring the students, a humorous teaching style, emphasis on the culture behind the language and prolonged study of exam techniques," says Xu Xiaoping, a popular teacher in New Oriental.
"The encouraging and humorous teachers here give me the courage to pursue my studies," writes New Oriental student Chen Zhiming on the school website.
Yu encourages teachers not to repeat themselves. "If a man you are chatting with over dinner is telling you the same stuff he told you five years ago then I don't think much of his life."
Soft-spoken Yu does not like to repeat himself. A tractor driver in his home village Yu told himself he did not want to drive a tractor all his life. This frail-looking man has had to wrestle with hardship during his life.
Childhood poverty, two failures in university entrance exams, a year sick leave while at university, repeated refusals of his overseas study visas and later he was almost killed when his path crossed that of some dangerous thieves.
"These ordeals make me treasure every minute of life and be ready to help others," he says.
Confucius, Chinese philosopher and education founder, is one of the thinkers Yu appreciates, along with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. "Confucius had so much social responsibility that sometimes it weighed on him," Yu says.
"I don't have much social responsibility of course," Yu says, "I started private education to make a living. But as the company grows, responsibility accrues. For me social responsibility means serving the students with all your heart."
Yu admits frankly that his high-speed career has meant heavy pressure and sleep deprivation for years. He still tries to find time to enjoy hobbies such as reading, writing, traveling and some "dangerous sports" like horse riding and single-board skiing.
"I yearn for the idyllic life of intellectuals in days gone by - writing, reading, traveling and drinking with friends," observes Yu.
Even as his Chinese dream takes shape before his eyes he still dreams of going one day to the US. When he retires he hopes to study philosophy or literature at an American university, exploring different cultures.
What special talents did Yu have? When he was a student, he was good at sketching Chinese and world maps with clearly marked provinces and countries. He dreamed that one day he would visit all those places. He also boasts a remarkable sense of direction which often makes him the guide when he visits new places with his friends.
The students and teachers enjoy making fun of Yu who has become a kind of guru in the New Oriental schools. Stories, genuine or false, circulate among classes to help students stay awake.
When asked what Yu's favorite hobby is students answer "telegraph poles - just like dogs!" Yu has happy memories of the early days of the school when he would post advertisements on telegraph poles.
Another joke concerns Yu's supposed weakness in accounting. When his school earned 100 yuan on its first day of operation, Yu gave teacher A 40 yuan and teacher B 40 yuan and said "the rest is mine. The rule will not be changed."
The teachers thought Yu was very gullible. However, when the school went on to earn 1,000 yuan a day, Yu still gave teachers A and B 40 yuan each and said, "the rest is mine and the rule will not be changed."
Galloping on the back of a racing horse in the Beijing suburbs is one of Yu's favorite methods for relieving tension. But while he is fond of horses Yu tells China Features that he feels temperamentally closer to the slow-paced and good-tempered camel.
"A camel can walk a long way in difficult conditions. Running a career is similar to a trek through the desert. Career success means walking from one oasis to another. It calls for camel-like perseverance and a good sense of direction," says Yu.
(Xinhua News Agency October 30, 2006)