BEIJING — ONE Chinese farmer refuses to prune his apple trees, fearing that clipping off the branches will prevent apples from growing. Another rejects chemical fertilizers as useless after failing to apply them properly. Peasant women in one village typically eat 50 eggs daily for a month after giving birth, believing the diet will rebuild their health.
Despite the rich practical knowledge of China's 860 million peasants, vast areas of ignorance remain, not only in traditional subjects like math and language, but in skills that directly affect their livelihoods.
Educating China's rural population is vital to the country's modernization, and especially to breaking poor areas out of the vicious cycle of ignorance and want, Chinese educators say. Yet with limited finances available, China is being forced to rethink its approach to rural education.
Of China's more than 180 million illiterates, 92 percent live in rural areas. One third of the rural population above the age of 12 cannot read or write. These farmers must sign their names with thumb-prints and pay village scribes to fill out forms and write letters for them.
In October 1989, concerns over a persistent student dropout rate prompted China to launch "Project Hope," the country's first fund aimed at ensuring that youths in poverty-stricken areas can attend school.
The fund, run by the Beijing-based China Youth Development Foundation, offers students in poor areas the financial assistance they need to remain in school. It also builds schools in impoverished villages and offers scholarships to outstanding students.
Since its founding, the fund has received domestic and overseas donations worth more than $2.2 million. The aid has helped 30,000 rural youths return to the classroom, and build 17 "Hope" schools.
Project Hope officials say the donations are vital since the government cannot afford to increase its spending on education. At present, China's annual education spending is about $10 per capita, one of the lowest levels in the world, they say. Nevertheless, project officials concede that with available funds, they can expect to help only about 1 percent of rural dropouts each year.
Many Chinese officials and educators believe that to solve the problem of education in China's countryside, the government must make the schooling relevant.
Rural children have been offered the same courses taught to their city peers, classes that are geared to enable rural students to leave their villages for towns and cities, rather than teaching them how to be better farmers. In fact, the system only succeeds in producing a few exceptional students each year who pass university entrance exams. The rest, more than 95 percent, return home with little knowledge of farming or practical skills.
For this reason, many Chinese peasants do not support schooling for their children, even if they can afford the tuition.
"There is a saying among farmers: `Most junior high graduates who fail college entrance exams are too weak to work on the farm,' " a recent article in the official People's Daily newspaper said.
In the past five years, however, the government has begun a nationwide experiment to emphasize vocational courses in rural schools.
The experiments in Hunan, Hebei, and other agricultural provinces are the beginning of "a quiet revolution" in the rural educational system, says Teng Chun at the Central Institute of Education Research in Beijing.
The vocational courses cover scientific farming methods such as how to use high-yield seeds, fertilizers, and plastic sheeting to increase grain output.
They also train rural youths in weaving, carpentry, preventative medicine, and marketing.