A bunch of straw in hand, 12-year-old Wu Qunmin sat at a wooden desk in a poorly-equipped classroom and worked on a little horse made of straw.
Along with some 20 classmates, the Miao ethnic and grade five primary school student was learning a new skill in an experimental fine art class at the Shidong Township Primary School, in Taijiang County of the Qiandongnan Miao & Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Southwest China's Guizhou Province.
On their desks were not the usual pencils and sheets of paper, but sewing kits put in bamboo baskets the youngsters borrowed from their mothers.
All the students were working attentively, with some straw, cotton threads and colorful cloth patches. They were encouraged to create their own works, with reference to their daily lives.
Having never tried this before, Wu did not find it so easy to bind the straw together with slim cotton threads. Minutes later, she became nervous and slowed down.
At that moment, teacher Chen Lei, whom Wu does not know, stopped to help her.
"You are doing fine. Just hold the straw tighter like this. You see? OK, keep going," Chen said.
Chen is a Tujia ethnic and fine art teacher from Baiyan Village Primary School, in Jishou, Hunan Province.
After all the students finished creating their own works, Chen invited each of them to show and explain his or her pieces to the rest of the class.
The subjects ranged from real life animals, birds, insects, farming tools, to human figurines and mythical beings such as dragons, butterflies and phoenixes with human heads, that the youngsters are familiar with from local festivals, folk handicrafts and fairy tales.
Although some pieces were made in a simple way and others far more complicated, each student was praised by the teacher for their "wonderful and unique" creations.
"In my classes back in Hunan, I just hope that my students can develop their instinctive love for fine art and let their originality flow. I just watch them and give them some guidance when necessary," Chen said.
So, all the children are happy when it is time for the fine art class. "For them, it is time to play and create," Chen said.
Chen is bringing happiness and fun to students here in Shidong Township.
Chen's class was a demo case, staged on July 17 at the Shidong Township Primary School, for local fine art teachers and their counterparts from Beijing and the provinces of Hunan, Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Guangdong.
An hour before the class, Wu and her classmates met Pan Taojiu, 87, and her daughter and daughter-in-law, all local folk artists who showed their paper cutting and embroidery skills to the students.
In another classroom was a small exhibition of drawings by students from Shidong Township Primary School and colour photos displaying samples of the "artworks" created by primary school students from Xiangxi Tujia & Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Hunan Province.
After the class, a workshop on fine art education at primary level was held for the teachers and also attended by some folk and ethnic art scholars and researchers of fine art education, from Beijing, Tianjin, and Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province.
All the activities were part of "Dandelion Action," a three-year program for after-school fine art education for underprivileged children living in urban areas, as well as for primary school students in remote, poor regions and ethnic compact communities.
Initiated by the Commission for Children's Art Education under the Chinese Artists' Association and financed mainly by the Ford Foundation of the United States, the non-governmental project aims to integrate folk and ethnic art essence and the most creative fine art education, while preserving intangible cultural heritage, according to He Yunlan, the director of the Commission for Children's Art Education.
In mid-2003, she launched the program in Xiangxi Tujia & Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Hunan, along with Xie Lifang, head of the Hunan Provincial Children's Art Palace and a chief coordinator for part of the "Dandelion Action" program in Xiangxi.
Late last month, similar exhibitions, demo classes and discussions were also carried out for local teachers and students in other villages of the Qiandongnan prefecture in Guizhou.
For quite some time, the lack of funding in education, trained art teachers, practical textbooks, and effective teaching modes, plus harsh living conditions, have made it impossible for primary schools in rural areas, particularly in remote areas, to implement decent art education, which is compulsory according to China's laws on primary education, said Zhai Mo, an art professor with the Beijing-based National Research Institute of Chinese Arts.
"Previously, I only had picture drawing lessons, with a simple pencil and sheets of white paper," said Wu Qunmin.
For Wu and most of her classmates from the village school in this mountainous region, it is a luxury to own a colour pencil, not to mention the various learning materials, such as watercolor painting brushes, and painting pigments, available only for their counterparts in urban primary schools, said Zhang Xuebing, a fine art teacher at Shidong Township Primary School.
"My students are unfamiliar with the teaching and learning materials listed in the textbooks, such as metal flip-tops, foamed plastics, paper containers for milk products," Zhang said.
"Therefore it has long been a big headache for me to follow the textbooks to teach the class."
Chen Weihe, a professor with Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, said: "The problem is, most existing textbooks and teaching plans for fine art classes are compiled by teachers and researchers who live and teach in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai or in the provincial capitals.
"That means the compilers do not know what the teachers and students at grass-roots level really need for their fine art classes."
Paradoxically, teaching materials such as mud, straw, bark and leaves can easily be found and are ignored in rural areas, whereas for city students who need them, they are in short supply, Chen said.
Easy to follow
The "Dandelion Action" program has helped to settle doubts in educators' minds, and has offered an easy-to-follow teaching mode for fine art education in these regions and ethnic areas, said Zhai.
Since its inception in 2003, the program has expanded to include activities in many other places, including Changsha in Hunan Province, Ankang and Yixian in Shaanxi Province, Jiujiang in Jiangxi Province, Fuchun and Wuxi in Jiangsu Province, and the South China city of Shenzhen.
The program features a series of interactive workshops, academic seminars, and lectures given by art scholars, professors, and folk artisans, and exhibitions of children's art.
"The demo class and the workshop are indeed useful and thought-provoking. I am thinking about developing my own curriculum, which complements the fine art textbooks," said Zhang Xuebing.
To the organizers' delight, the program enlightens primary school teachers from cities, too.
"In the face of pop culture and lifestyles flooding in from Western countries, many of the younger generations in Chinese cities have a dwindling awareness of their cultural identity, a phenomenon that worries me a lot," said Luo Zhen, an art teacher from Beijing Dongcheng District Children's Palace, a non-government art education organization in Beijing.
"Exposing them to both traditional or ethnic and Western cultures can help the kids shape a balanced outlook of the world they are living in," Luo said.
"The feasible, sustainable and practical education mode advocated by the program can be applied to fine art lessons for urban students, too," Luo added.
However, learning about folk and ethnic arts and culture does not necessarily mean the students must learn the craftsmanship as the teachers or veteran folk artists have shown them, said Wang Wei, a fine art teacher at the Beijing Haidian District Qinghua Donglu Primary School, an experimental school mainly for children from migrant workers' families in western Beijing.
On the contrary, they should be encouraged to create their own works, drawing inspiration from both the centuries-old folk and ethnic arts, and from their daily life experiences their impressions of local festivals, costumes, architecture and handicrafts, and even the images they know about from TV cartoon programs, TV commercials, and comic-story books. Wang tries to merge traditional Beijing folk culture with the content in the textbooks mainly about Western art.
Xie Lifang, whose team have made successful trials in fine art classes at primary schools in Xiangxi Miao & Tujia Autonomous Prefecture, concluded that the program has gained success in three aspects.
"First of all, it makes the classes more attractive for students and easier for teachers to carry out. Second, it helps the kids build up a genuine respect and pride for their own cultures. Third, it helps the young, ethnic students build self-confidence and tap their creative potential," Xie said.
(China Daily August 18, 2005)