JPRI Critique Vol. VII No. 6 (June 2000)
Zhang Yimou's Not One Less: Art, Propaganda, or Both?
by Sheila K. Johnson

Earlier this year, Chinese film director Zhang Yimou's latest effort, Not One Less, opened to rapturous reviews across the U.S. "A work of lyrical realism that has some of the redemptive power of Vittorio DeSica's Bicycle Thief," wrote the New York Times's A. O. Scott. "Run, don't walk, to see it," urged The Nation's Stuart Klawans.

The film begins in a poor, dusty Hebei village, where the primary school teacher must leave his charges for a month because his mother is dying. The mayor has found a substitute teacher, but she is only 13, barely older than her would-be students and herself not-quite-graduated from middle-school. But she can write the daily lessons on the blackboard in a strong, legible hand, and she is promised a 10-yuan bonus if she can keep the class going without any drop-outs during the teacher's absence.

When one of her charges leaves for the city to search for work because his mother is ill, the young substitute teacher is determined to find and bring him back. The film then moves to a medium-sized Chinese city, where we alternately see the teacher searching for her missing pupil and the boy, who is reduced to stealing food from outdoor vendors. Having been told that her best hope is to place an ad on the local TV channel, the young teacher camps outside the building's gates until one of the station's officials takes notice of her. In a fairytale ending, her story is broadcast by a soignee modern Chinese news-hen, she and the missing boy are reunited, and the two are driven back to their village accompanied by a TV crew that interviews the villagers, photographs their bleak surroundings, and showers the school with fresh chalk and other much needed supplies.

As the credits roll, we learn that most of the characters in the film are played not by actors but by the individuals whose lives are portrayed. We are also told that there are thousands of village schools in China as poor as the one we have seen, that a large percentage of rural children do drop out well before they graduate from middle school, and that supplies for such schools are desperately needed. At first blush I was tempted to say that this charming film is both artful and good propaganda. But I attended a showing in the U.S. with Suzanne Pepper, a noted authority on Chinese education, and her views were far less charitable than mine. To say that she was angry at the sweet, ïno-fault' story line would be an understatement. Even the film's director, she later observed, had defended himself against challenges from skeptical interviewers by arguing that a more realistic portrayal would never have won the approval of the powers that be.

The Story Behind the Story

What the film does not disclose is that the parlous state of Chinese rural education is in large part a problem of the government's own making. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Mao Zedong first came to power, basic education for everyone was made a high priority. Primary and secondary schools were established at the commune and village level and partly paid for by the central government. Commune production brigades made up any shortfall. Even during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which had such a disastrous effect on secondary and higher education in China, primary education in the rural areas continued to thrive. In fact, with so many city-educated young people being "sent down" to the countryside, the level of education there actually improved.

With the end of the Cultural Revolution, and particularly with the coming to power of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the focus of central government policy changed. Secondary education and universities once again became important, and there was a renewed emphasis on educational quality. This meant the rebuilding of college-preparatory keypoint schools at the primary and secondary levels, with urban schools becoming the chief beneficiaries of the new policy.

At the same time, rural economic life was also undergoing dramatic changes. Agriculture was being decollectivized and the "household responsibility" system was introduced. This meant that households could now grow and sell produce on their own plots and engage in other money-making activities. But they also had to pay more for things that the communes had previously provided-- including education. Changing policies meant changing priorities. Given the new emphasis on rapid economic growth, basic education no longer seemed so important. Governing authorities at all levels were scrambling to invest in economic construction, and funds budgeted for education were tapped as one of the few readily available sources of local "investment capital."

In fact, the single most damaging change was the devolution of rural school financing down to the village level. This reform was implemented over a decade of growing controversy, with the consequences finally reaching crisis proportions in the early 1990s. Unable to meet expenses, villages and townships in poor and not-so-poor areas alike began to default on paying teachers' salaries. Meanwhile, the miscellaneous fees paid by students' families were increased many times over in a futile effort to cover the shortfall. This, in turn, had other effects that extended far beyond salaries and fees. Teachers, unable to support themselves by teaching, began to look for other work. Some quit the profession altogether. Others took second jobs to make ends meet. Poorer districts tried to cut costs while keeping their schools going by pressing some of the older students into service as substitute teachers. Under such circumstances, classes were often missed and schools sometimes reverted to part-time schedules or temporarily closed.

As the quality of the teaching declined and supplies dwindled, at the same time that school fees were being increased, school drop-out rates naturally increased as well. When expenses became prohibitive, rural families were less inclined to pay the fees of daughters than of sons; therefore drop-out rates were usually higher among girls than boys. In the poorer districts, the school attendance rate for girls is only 20 to 30 percent. In 1992, according to official figures, the number of children in China who had never attended school due to the poverty of their parents was estimated at 1.28 million.

Project Hope

By the late 1980s the Chinese central authorities were hearing from the provinces that education-- particularly rural education-- was in deep trouble. At the 1988 and 1989 annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, delegates from all over the country spoke out forcefully about the problems education was facing. A new Compulsory Education Law had gone into effect on July 1, 1986, but the law's stated objective of a universal nine-year education (that is, through junior middle school) was dismissed by the delegates as impossible to achieve. On Teachers' Day, 1993, Director Zhu Kaixuan of the State Education Commission acknowledged that the "amount, duration, and scope" of the arrears in teachers' salaries were "unprecedented in more than 40 years since the founding of the new China."

One solution offered by the central government in 1989 was to create Project Hope. This charitable foundation solicited contributions from urbanites in China and overseas specifically to help pay the school fees of poor rural children who would otherwise be unable to attend school. By early 1996, it was said that Project Hope had raised 700 million yuan (about US $87.5 million) and had helped 1.25 million children with their school fees. Still, that number represented only about one in ten of those seeking assistance. By 1996, the foundation had also shifted its focus to concentrate on building schools rather than assisting students, since it was learned that monitoring where the funds went at the grassroots level was often difficult and those in greatest need were not necessarily the chief beneficiaries of aid. There were charges of corruption and missmanagement.

Nonetheless, Project Hope continues to function, and Zhang Imou's film may well be intended as a fund-raiser for the cause. In late 1999, the charity issued statistics claiming to have received a total of 1.78 billion yuan (US $222.5 million) over the past decade. The funds had been used to establish 7,550 schools and help 2.2 million drop-outs return to school. The charity also has a sister organization called the "Spring Bud Plan," run by the All-China Women's Federation. It is aimed specifically at helping poor rural girls attend school. Also established in 1989, Spring Bud claims to have received 220 million yuan (US $27.5 million) in donations and helped 750,000 girls during its ten years of work.

Private Schools

Another interesting development (or perhaps one should say "regression") in Chinese education is the private tutor school or sishu. Sishu enjoyed a controversial existence throughout the first half of the 20th century in China as rural (and urban) communities stubbornly resisted the form and content of modern schools. Instead they established sishu with their classical Confucian primers and old-fashioned rote-memory teaching methods. These private tutor-run classes defeated all efforts to eliminate or at least modernize them and remained the bane of education reformers right up until 1949. The basic sishu idea was nonetheless adapted by the Chinese Communists, first in Yan'an during the 1940s, and after 1949 in the development of locally-run village schools before collectivization and centralized control were established. Now, after twenty years of experiments with devolution, the old tradition has revived amidst the dislocations created by rural school reform.

One of the reasons for the growing popularity of the new sishu is that they are cheaper than the fees being demanded by the government's schools. One survey in Zhenxi county found that whereas regular schools were collecting about 350 yuan (US $44) per year per student in cash for tuition and miscellaneous fees, the sishu charged only between 120 yuan (US $15) and 180 yuan (US $22) per student annually. The sishu also follow the ancient custom of taking cash payments from those who have it, while accepting farm products or other payments in kind from those who do not. Yet tutors in the private schools in Zhenxi, who averaged 30 pupils each, could earn a profit, or take-home pay, of about 2,400 yuan a year, which was more than double the annual salary of regular primary school teachers in the area. When the sishu were established in the area surveyed, 1,500 public school drop-outs immediately enrolled and 50 tutors found remunerative employment. Together these pupils and tutors demonstrated both the popular demand for an affordable basic education and the inability of regular schools in that vicinity to provide it.

The most basic problems of trying to provide education in the rural communities of China are, of course, not unique to China. But the immediate reasons for the recent disarray in China's rural education are somewhat different than elsewhere because they derive directly from the reform process itself. It is ironic that the very same educational, economic, and financial reforms that since the late 1970s have brought such benefits to China have also produced such negative consequences for rural education. That is perhaps the main message of Zhang Yimou's latest film.

This article was prepared with the assistance of SUZANNE PEPPER, a Hong Kong-based American writer. She is the author of, among other works, Radicalism and Education Reform in 20th Century China (Cambridge University Press, 1996; revised paper ed., 2000), and the three education chapters in The Cambridge History of China, Roderick MacFarquhar and John K. Fairbank, eds., volumes 14 and 15 (Cambridge University Press, 1987 and 1991).


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