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Literacy Classes Change Farmers' Fate
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The expression of "knowledge changes one's fate", a popular slogan of China's educational promotion campaign, not only caught farmer Wang Gaping's attention, but also helped motivate him.


"Being able to read and write, I think, will bring me confidence and courage," said the 35-year-old man from Sancha Township in northwest Gansu Province.


Thanks to a wide-ranging literacy campaign, Wang, a farmer, has learned more than 300 Chinese characters and he is beginning realize that he has controlled his own destiny. "When I learn more I might try to seek my fortune in cities," Wang said.


Wang comes from a deep rural region. His land is in the county of Zhangxian, an impoverished, mountainous region some 300 kilometers from the capital city of Lanzhou in Gansu. Wang used to hide his embarrassment over not being able to read or write. He could not even distinguish the Chinese character of men from that of women that hang outside public toilets.


Despite his progress and new-found confidence Wang still needs more time and effort in order to reach national standards for literacy. The standard requires a rural resident to be able to read 1,500 characters, while an urban resident needs to know 2,000 characters.


In the country's underdeveloped west region about 9 percent of the population over the age of 15 remain illiterate, 5 percent higher than the national average.


The country launched a literacy campaign targeting the west in 2004, where education had lagged behind the nation. Its ambitious goal was to eliminate illiteracy by 2007.


With less than two years to go in the campaign, Wen Panxi, a provincial education official, honestly admits that illiteracy remains high in 19 counties in Gansu and that it's going to be tough to meet the target.


Literacy campaigns have become increasingly important in the rural areas since the release in October of the central government's far-reaching plan to invigorate China's countryside. More than 75 percent of those who can't read or write live in the rural areas.


"Farmers will play an essential role in building the new countryside, and basic literacy is an indispensable part of their competency, "said Wen, adding that most of those who can't read are now scattered in extremely remote areas of the province.


He said Gansu province is now aiming to cut the illiteracy rate below 5 percent by 2007. The central government has provided western regions with more than 30 billion yuan (US$3.7 billion) for education, part of which is being used to fight illiteracy. The country also expects future generations will not be so nearly handicapped with poor reading and writing skills as its nine-year compulsory education program now reaches 95 percent of school-aged children.


In Farmer Wang's town there are 12 schools offering free evening literacy classes during farmers' slack seasons. The local government provides textbooks, notebooks and pens free of charge, a township official said.


There are 12 men and 31 women in Wang's class. Zhang Xiaofang has been attending class for four years.


"My entire family support me. My husband and father-in-law take care of my two daughters when I'm as school," said the 30-year-old woman.


She now can read most of the captioned dialogue that appear on every television program in China and she has no difficulty filling out a bank form for her savings account.


Before she started taking classes she "had to ask others for help because the form seemed like a sealed book," she said, adding that she plans to spend two more years attending literacy classes.


Zhang also hopes to venture to the big city someday.


(Xinhua News Agency February 24, 2006)


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