Countless Chinese have been moved by Zhang Guimei's story. Why? During the past several decades, she has been devoting her life to helping children, in poverty-stricken, mountainous areas in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, improve their education. She founded a high school offering free education to girls in Huaping, a county in Yunnan. Like a "guiding star," Zhang has illuminated her students' minds. More than 2,000 girls from the school have been admitted to universities. Zhang deeply loves her students, and she loves the orphans who live in Huaping Children's Home (Welfare House). As president of the home, she has offered motherly love to and meticulously cared for many orphans during the past two decades.
"As long as I have one more breath, I will continue teaching my students. I never regret devoting my life to helping impoverished children improve their education," Zhang said, loudly. She made the remarks on June 29, on behalf of the 29 recipients of the July 1 Medal, the CPC (Communist Party of China)'s highest honor, in the Great Hall of the People (in Beijing). Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee and Chinese President, presented the award to the recipients. During her speech, many viewers noticed Zhang's fingers and wrists were wrapped in medicated tape. Later, they learned she put on the tape to cure joint pain.
Despite her poor health — she suffers from 23 diseases — Zhang, 64, has been working tirelessly to help impoverished children improve their education. In February, as she was too weak to walk, Zhang sat in a wheelchair as she received the award recognizing her as a national model fighter against poverty, during the National Poverty Alleviation Summary and Commendation Conference, held in Beijing. Xi presented the award to role models from the country's anti-poverty fight.
Pursuing Her Dream
Born in Harbin, capital of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, Zhang studied Chinese in Lijiang College of Education from 1988 to 1990. She married Dong Yuhan, an ethnic Bai man, soon after she graduated. In 1990, the couple moved to Dong's hometown, Xizhou, a town in Yunnan's Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, to teach at a middle school. However, misfortune befell the happy couple. In 1995, Dong died from stomach cancer. Soon after that, Zhang moved to Huaping (then a poverty-stricken, mountainous county). She started a new life, teaching Chinese and politics to students of Huaping Minzu (Ethnic Group) Middle School.
In April 1997, she was diagnosed with hysteromyoma (fibroid tumor of the uterus). Within a short time, warmhearted residents in the county organized fundraisers to collect enough money for Zhang to cover her medical bills. Touched by the donors' concern, Zhang made up her mind to work hard to repay the residents for the care and assistance she had received. In March 2001, supported by the local government, Huaping Children's Home was established. Zhang was named the home's president. Since then, the childless woman has offered her love to orphans in the home.
First Free-of-Charge Senior High School for Girls in China
While she taught at Huaping Minzu Middle School, many of Zhang's women students were forced to drop out of school. Zhang was aware the children's parents, who were poor and less-educated, failed to realize the importance of education. To help the locals shake off poverty and attain prosperity, Zhang realized she should improve the education level of the local girls. That inspired her to establish a free-of-charge senior high school for girls. "Girls should get equal access to education, as most of them will become mothers in the future, and they will influence the lives of their children," says Zhang.
She canvassed for support to establish the school. In October 2007, Zhang attended, as a delegate, the 17th CPC National Congress. After the session, Zhang spoke, through mass media, to the public about her long-cherished dream: To establish a free-of-charge senior high school for impoverished girls in Huaping. Within a short time, Zhang received financial support from the local government, and various organizations and warmhearted people in different regions of the country. With support from the local government, Zhang established Huaping Girls' Senior High School in August 2008. On the first day of the new school year (September 1, 2008), 100 students enrolled in the school.
Traveling along treacherous mountain paths, Zhang during the past decade has visited more than 1,600 students' families, to encourage the parents to send their daughters to school, so the girls could improve their education, to change their fates. As she suffered from fatigue and/or a fever, Zhang fainted several times during her trips to the students' families.
Given Zhang and other teachers' efforts to help the students improve their studies, all of the children during the past decade have been admitted to universities or colleges after they passed China's college-entrance examinations (CEE). In 2010, 4.26 percent of the school's students were admitted to key universities (in different regions of the country). In 2020, that rate rose to 44.02 percent; as a result, the school topped the list of Lijiang's senior high schools (in terms of the results of the examination). Soon after the results of the CEE were announced, in June 2021, Zhang received calls from many students, who told her the good news that they were admitted to their dream universities. During the past 13 years, many graduates have expressed gratitude for having received an education in the school, which paved the way for their future studies in China's top universities.
Zhang joined the Party (CPC) in 1998. She has placed a note (on a wall of her office), which reaffirms her determination to be dedicated to her career. The note also stresses the Party and the people have inspired her to make persevering efforts to pursue her dream. That has mirrored her lifelong pursuit.
Every week, Zhang, secretary of the school's Party branch, tells her students stories about Chinese martyrs, who shed their blood and sacrificed their lives for the cause of national liberation. She also leads the children in singing revolutionary songs and reading the Party's constitution and revolutionary works. Inspired by the revolutionaries, the students work harder.
While she has saved her income and collected money to help create favorable conditions for local children, Zhang has led a spartan life. Despite her poor health, Zhang lives on campus. Every morning, she clambers the stairs (in the teaching buildings), to turn on the lights for the students. When others have asked her why she has continued doing such "trifle" things, she has said she was emotionally attached to Huaping, and she has a great sense of belonging to the small county. "I have done nothing special … In fact, numerous Party members are working for the people's well-being," Zhang has been quoted as saying.
Given her outstanding achievements, Zhang has received many awards and titles, including the recipient of the July 1 Medal, the national model fighter against poverty, the Role Model of the Times, the National Outstanding Party Member and the National March 8th Red-banner Pacesetter.
Influenced by Zhang, many of the school's graduates have applied to join the Party within a short time after they have begun studying in their universities. Zhang is pleased that many of the school's former students have volunteered to work in faraway places with harsh conditions (to help the residents improve their lives), after the students have graduated from university.
"We have lived up to the Party's expectations, and have tried our best to cultivate qualified successors to the socialist cause. I hope all of my students will make greater efforts to improve their studies, so they can change their fates and help those in need in future," Zhang has been quoted as saying.
Photos by Chen Xinbo
(Women of China English Monthly July 2021 issue)
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