IN the windswept village of Yangjiaguo on China's desolate loess plateau, 50 young students still strain to read textbooks in the darkness of a cave classroom.
Their teacher, Bai Guiling, still struggles to teach two classes from one blackboard mounted at the back of the cramped earthen cave carved from a bluff half a century ago.
But today, Mrs. Bai and her students can look forward to a bright, one-story brick schoolhouse.
Inspired by an article about Bai's cave classroom that appeared in the Monitor April 27, 1992 (``Lessons From a Cave Classroom,'' p. 14), a group of Chinese-Americans in the United States has raised more than $10,000 to build a brick schoolhouse for the children of Yangjiaguo.
The group, Friends for China Education (FFCE), was organized by a retired librarian, Lin Yi-wu, after she read the article and contacted teacher Bai. FFCE's goal now is to build a school in China every year.
The group is unusual in that its members have no personal links to Yangjiaguo village. Overseas Chinese often contribute to building schools and temples in their home villages but rarely give as generously to strangers in China.
As a former educator in China, Ms. Lin has long sought a way to improve conditions for teachers there, especially those in poor rural areas where illiteracy is rampant.
Lin got her first glimpse of China's rural poverty in 1958. As a young teacher of French at Beijing University, Lin and other scholars were exiled to a poor mountain village to promote Mao Zedong's drive to set up communes.
There, she watched as peasants stripped of their private plots swarmed to communal mess halls for three meals a day, while the commune's vegetables rotted in the fields and piglets died by the roadsides. The official illusion of bounty quickly faded as farm output plummeted. Over the next three years, some 20 million rural Chinese perished in a nationwide famine caused by Mao's quixotic movement known as the Great Leap Forward.
Denying the truth, local officials forced Lin to paint huge propaganda slogans on the village's mud walls declaring the campaign a success.
``Communism is a heavenly paradise! The people's commune is the ladder!'' read the giant characters Lin brushed on dilapidated walls.
Aided by overseas relatives, Lin escaped from China with her husband, Dr. Wu Hung-sen, in 1961 and emigrated to the United States. But Lin would never forget her experience in China in the 1950s.
``The Communists opened my eyes to the reality of rural China, but they shut out any opportunity to help in my own way,'' Lin says.
TODAY, through FFCE, Lin has found a way to help rural Chinese her ``own way.'' After a successful fund-raising dinner, greeting-card sale, and garage sale, the FFCE has surpassed its goal of collecting $10,000 for the Yangjiaguo school, its first project. More than 100 people so far have contributed to the school fund through a local church.
The group has also encountered difficulties, however.
Lin so far has failed to attract broad support for FFCE from Chinese-Americans. The reason, she suspects, is the strong Chinese tradition of giving to the home village and a coinciding lack of interest in impersonal gifts.
``We Chinese should transcend the boundary of the ancestral home,'' she says.
On the other hand, the FFCE is hampered because it cannot fall back on a web of trusted relatives and other personal connections to guarantee that its funds will be spent wisely. Lin has worked hard to find impartial observers to monitor the project. But Yangjiaguo is located in Shaanxi, one of China's poorest provinces. The temptation for corrupt local officials and others to try to skim off the school money is great.
Nevertheless, the project is moving ahead. The government has set aside a 3,500-square-meter (4,200-square-yard) site in Yangjiaguo for the new school. Villagers will donate about $500 for the schoolyard wall, toilets, and electrical installations; students will provide about $630 from income they have earned by farming land belonging to the cave school. And Bai will give $160 of her savings for the school's gate.
* Friends for China Education, P.O. Box 7202, Gainesville, Fla. 32605.