I recently had the privilege of visiting four schools in southern Zhejiang Province and talking to students from three of them about books, reading, and learning. It was part of an outreach program organized by the local public library of my hometown, where I was visiting family in late November 2017. The library hoped a librarian’s lecture like mine would instill a love of reading into the fresh and curious minds of those students. At the end of the tour, however, I knew I was bestowed with so much more from those young people than they learned from my static PowerPoint slides.
Children in the Town of Wooden Toys
The topography of Yunhe can be compared to a dinner bowl, with its township seated at the flat bottom of the bowl, and hundreds of villages strewn over the encircling mountains that overlook the increasingly urbanized town center. One main industry of the county is wooden toys, which local factories started producing at a miraculously early period of the 1970s, before the Cultural Revolution had ended.
A wooden toy rickshaw, curtained by blue print fabric in batik style and with moving wheels. From Wooden Toy Library and Museum, a special collection curated by the local public library.
If you had imagined that children growing up in the hometown of wooden toys are blessed with all the play and fun that Pinocchio is promised in Pleasure Island, the reality may disappoint you. For long decades wooden toys were not even sold in this town, but were produced for export primarily under contract with German companies. Some of the school dropouts and middle school graduates, if they had not joined any street gang, could secure their first jobs in mom-and-pop shops and factories of every size, spinning and cutting wood, and painting and assembling rolling trains, quacking ducks, and colorful abacuses. I visited a rudimentary two-room toy shop a quarter of a century ago, where girls newly out of school worked next to mercury lamps that dried a fresh coat of paint on toys, and were warned to discontinue at least six months before they planned to have a baby. Packaged and shipped, these wooden toys eventually found their way into the homes of children living across the globe.
For children who grow up in Yunhe, wooden toys mean employment and livelihood more than anything else, not that they would not enjoy playing with them if you placed a good one in their hands. College education offers a hope for escaping the repetitive, low-paying work of stringing beads and assembling parts in unsafe factory environments. Every family is preoccupied with their children getting good grades, attending ever better schools, and being admitted into good college programs that promise good job prospects.
The best part of visiting schools was that I got to hear about children’s interests and thoughts about books and reading. In each school I asked them to talk about their favorite book titles and story characters, and to speak about the latest book they had read. First they exchanged answers with a neighboring classmate, and then I invited volunteers to share their reading interests with us all.
Fourth and fifth graders in Yunhe Central Elementary School, China, November 2017. (Photos courtesy of the Yunhe Public Library)
Yunhe Central Elementary School is the largest elementary school in the county and the best equipped one. The wooden desks and windows of the auditorium are beautifully made in the antique Chinese style, befitting even a lecture by Confucius, except that he probably would not know how to operate the computer that casts words and pictures on the gigantic screen behind the dais. After an initial moment of shyness, children started raising their hands. Journey to the West西游记, the classical Chinese folktale about the much-loved supernatural Monkey, was one child’s favorite book. One girl cited Cao Wenxuan’s The Grass House as the title she loved most, and named Zhiyue, a quiet, shy, and smart girl in the story, as her favorite character.
The saga of the stubborn Monkey King’s journey to obtain Buddhist sutra from India has been retold numerous times in all kinds of genres and formats. It is now available in pop-up books. Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven大闹天宫, adapted by Fang Suzhen方素珍; illustrated by Wang Yihan王毅汉, etc.; paper engineering by Chen Qing陈庆. Beijing: Beijing lian he chu ban gong si北京联合出版公司, 2016. (Image source)
Zhiyue (纸月, the delicate name means “paper moon”), the girl on the right, stays overnight with a boy classmate’s little sister when a storm prevents her from returning home, and regales the latter with rhymes. In The Grass House草房子, by Cao Wenxuan曹文轩; illustrated by Sonja Danowski. Beijing: China Juvenile and Children Publishing House中国少年儿童出版社, 2016. (Image source: Sonja Danowski)
The students that were the most reluctant to go under the spotlight, surprise, surprise, were teenagers from the high school. One brave soul volunteered that she loved Grimms’ Fairy Tales best. Knowing very little about what other books she had read and enjoyed, I could only speculate if the student was like me, someone who loved reading but fell through the YA gap during high school. Publishing for YA was and still is not strong in China. Young readers graduating from folktales and children’s stories are often encouraged by adults to move onto Chinese and World Classics (Dream of the Red Chamber红楼梦, The Red and the Black, and the sort), and not every teenager can make that flying leap.
The second girl who stood up was even braver, because she made a confession with the full awareness that teachers in the auditorium were listening. What she read was mostly novels, she admitted. The Chinese word for “novel”–小说 (which translates directly as “small talk”) –almost connotes “frivolous content.” Used in this sense, “novel” could refer to works of fiction that are not considered of high literary quality. The student mumbled the word in such an apologetic tone that, as her voice trailed off, she seemed to be waiting for laughter and rebuke to fill in the silence. Fellow students who heard her did laugh, but not unkindly. “This classmate told us she likes reading novels in a tone as if she felt sorry for that.” I commented, “Never apologize for your reading choice and interest.” To my surprise, the audience broke into applause.
One of the main messages I gave students and teachers in these talks was to diversify what they read in terms of subject matter and genre. To make my point, I compared reading with eating. Chinese all believe ginseng boosts health, but no parents in their right minds would feed ginseng, and only ginseng, to their children three meals a day. We understand that our body needs a wide array of nutrition from all sorts of food. Books are like that too. Then I showed two book covers, one was Dream of the Red Chamber, which is one of the Four Classic Chinese Novels, and the other was Photoshop for Dummies. I asked which book I should read if I wanted to learn how to use the graphic design software called Photoshop. The answer that impressed me most came from a little girl from an elementary school in a mountain village, the last stop of my tour. In a confident tone she replied that we should read both titles, because each had different things to offer. “Yes, that’s right.” I confirmed, “The second book can quickly teach you how to use the tool. Dream of the Red Chamber will cultivate an aesthetic taste in you. Both help you design better images.”
A village school cradled by the mountains.
The girl’s school was in the poorest village that I visited. Every child there qualified for free school lunch. There was a high rate of broken families in this village. A third of the students, as the school principal told me, did not have mothers in their lives any more. After giving birth, these women, who came from even poorer regions through mercenary marriage, would quietly leave and disappear one day. (See Helen Wang’s interview of Mei Fong, whose book One Child points out that gender imbalance and rural bachelors are among the big unintended consequences of China’s One Child policy.)
Students in this school impressed me in more than one way. The building did not have an auditorium. Because the student population was tiny, the school principal decided that we could all fit snugly into one classroom. The students were asked to bring extra chairs in. They got to work immediately and with enthusiasm, running up and down the stairs between classrooms. Some boys and girls carried two chairs at a time. That must be why we adults all got to sit.
In each school I was given a little tour. Principals and teachers were proud to show me the new school buildings (the best facilities in mountain villages and in the neighborhood), student dorms and canteens, bulletin boards that showcased alumni’s success stories, and, at the central elementary school in town, an elegant garden with a pond and an arched stone bridge. Not a single school, however, thought of taking me to its library collection.
This flight of stone steps led to one of the mountain village schools I visited.
I found the library myself in one of the village schools. It was the morning of Thanksgiving, Thursday, November 23, when I visited. Chinese have informally adopted the holiday as an occasion for expressing thankfulness. The school was holding a speech contest on the theme of gratitude. Lacking an auditorium, children brought their chairs and gathered outside in the school playground, all bundled up against the chilly open air. Because of the difference in altitude, the temperature in the mountains was always lower than in the town. Children and adults alike kept overcoats on indoors anyway, because buildings in Yunhe have never known central heating systems.
Students from an elementary school in a mountain village. They were waiting for the start of a speech contest on the topic of gratitude while bracing the winter air out in the open.
The library room was open even though the sign on the door indicated that its regular hours were during lunch time and early evenings, for a maximum of an hour and forty minutes on school days. The room had been temporarily used to store Thanksgiving gifts donated by local businesses, to be handed out to each child at the end of the speech contest. Even though the library collection could use some organization, I was delighted to see that there was no lack of good reads. On the floor were new deliveries that had yet to be unpacked and shelved. Among them I spotted the Harry Potter series, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, as well as Maxim Gorky’s autobiographies, My Childhood and In the World.
A big area for improvement was the Recommended New Books in the Library posted on the door. They were all sound works, but were they really the best choice for elementary school students? The great majority of them were either alarmingly old or not children’s literature at all, or both.
Recommended New Arrivals
Heart爱的教育 by Edmondo De Amicis, first published in 1886.
Starring Night, Spring Water繁星春水, poetry anthology by Bing Xing冰心, first published in 1923.
The Little Guerilla Soldier小游击队员, juvenile fiction by Wang Yuanjian王愿坚.
Little Soldier Zhang Ga小兵张嘎, juvenile fiction set during the Sino-Japanese War, by Xu Guangyao徐光耀 (See Helen Wang’s post).
The Singing Cat会唱歌的猫, juvenile fiction by Yang Hongying杨红樱 (2013).
Tears of Life生命流泪的样子, juvenile fiction by Wu Meizhen伍美珍 (2010).
Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk朝花夕拾, possibly an essay collection by Lu Xun鲁迅, first published in 1928.
Rickshaw Boy骆驼祥子 by Lao She老舍, first published in 1929.
Teahouse茶馆, a play by Lao She老舍, first published in 1957.
How the Steel Was Tempered钢铁是怎样炼成的, by Nikolai Ostrovsky, first published in 1932-1934.
Les Misérables悲惨世界by Victor Hugo.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame巴黎圣母院by Victor Hugo.
And Quiet Flows the Don静静的顿河by Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov, first published in 1928–1932.
Red Crag红岩, historical fiction set during China’s Civil War, by Luo Guangbin罗广斌 and Yang Yiyan杨益言, first published in 1961.
Red Sun红日, historical fiction set during China’s Civil War, by Wu Qiang吴强, first published in 1959.
Love in a Fallen City倾城之恋, a love story set before and after the outbreak of the Pacific War, by Eileen Chang张爱玲, first published in 1943.
If You Are Safe and Sound, Then the Skies Are Blue你若安好便是晴天, biography of Lin Weiyin, a female Chinese architect, by Bai Luomei白落梅 (2011).
The Etruscan Smile爷爷的微笑by José Luis Sampedro (Chinese translation in 2009).
Reminiscing Is a Light Pain回忆是一种淡淡的痛, an essay collection by Taiwanese writers that include Long Yingtai龙应台 (2013).
I cannot help wondering if it was unhelpful recommended reading lists like this that were partly responsible for the teenager we witnessed earlier, not having expanded much beyond childhood favorites. Actually, when I asked the high school audience if they had read the Harry Potter series, many drew a blank face and shook their heads.
A Young User of the 24/7 Reading Room
A reading room run by the local public library, open 24/7 to the public – a swipe of one’s Resident’s Identity Card opens the glass door with all the magic of Ali Baba’s password “open sesame.” (Photos courtesy of Xiaoli)
In the reading room that was open 24/7 to public in town, I met Xiaoli, who had just started vocational school in the fall semester. (Xiaoli took all the photos of the reading room for me.) The room was brightly lit, welcoming and comforting with its large windows, and blissfully warm thanks to the air conditioner and relatively good insulation of the room. The walls were lined with new books in various genres for all ages, from books for children to self-help titles, literature, history, and so on. The room offered free wifi signals. Xiaoli had both library books and her coursework on the table. She told me that her parents were migrant workers from Sichuan province, having been attracted to this town by job opportunities. She moved here at a young age and grew up in Yunhe. Having not been admitted into high school by a narrow margin, she was studying e-commerce at the local vocational school but in a program that allowed students to switch to an academic track if they kept up with the coursework necessary for college entrance exams. Xiaoli liked to work in the reading room after school, explaining that it was quieter than at home. It comforted me to know a child of a migrant workers’ family could find a free haven to read and study.
I have not been able to present a neat picture of this small rural county, which defies a simplified description that would fit everything into a few adjectives easy for outsiders to process and remember—it is neither rich or poor, well-equipped or woefully lacking, developing or backwards, education-driven or lip service. If anything, I have failed to capture the full complexity of the town and its skirting villages. They have evolved and transformed at different paces as the world has hurtled forward, and they are not immune to the social and environmental issues that have come with high-speed modernisation. However, in those curious, warm, and resilient young students, who shouted words of gratitude to the crisp mountain air, who carried extra chairs for teachers and guests without being asked to, I could not help seeing hope.
P.S. I would like to set up donation of English-language picture books to the Yunhe Public Library. If you are aware of potential donor organizations, please drop me a note. Thanks!