Chinese Ecologist Brings Children and Birds Together

Youngsters learn about nature and one another

Wang Yongchen can remember when the Chinese so revered birds as household pets that they took them on walks, cages and all.

That lasted until Chairman Mao Zedong attempted to level the hierarchies of nature along with class distinctions among his people. Birds, he said, were as good to eat as pork.

Though the days of Mao's Cultural Revolution ended 20 years ago, Ms. Wang strives to reawaken the love of nature and birds of those earlier days.

She is a well-known radio journalist who has developed a unique nature program for children. Called Hand-in Hand, the program introduces children to one another as they learn about the environment. Such work has brought rewards to a woman of indomitable spirit, criticized for being from a family of educated elites, and who was once relegated to a life as a factory worker.

"I don't want to be a leader," says Wang, a senior editor for "12 Noon," a weekly radio show broadcast on China Central People's Broadcasting Station in Beijing. "I am a bridge. I just want to do a little bit and hope that adds up to something."

Wang's nature program, now in its third year, shows city children what it's like to live in the countryside and to be honest stewards of nature. Rural children, meanwhile, get an opportunity to experience the city life of their urban friends.

"Our economy is booming," says Wang during a visit to San Francisco earlier this summer. "but we forget how poor people who live in the countryside are. City children might have enough to eat, but they know little about what really matters. They know precious little about what it's like to grow their food or to care for animals."

Wang participated this summer in the Elisabeth Luce Moore Leadership Program administered by the Institute of International Education in San Francisco that featured women from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

A schoolmaster's story

Hand-in-Hand's beginnings can be traced to a 1994 radio program Wang created around an interview with Zhu Yixun, an aging schoolmaster who lives in rural Jiangsu Province.

Mr. Zhu teaches children in the tiny village of Da Yu about nature. His vehicle for instruction is the birds, which are in plentiful supply in the poorer parts of this rural province.

Zhu shows children how to care for these creatures, and students help build birdhouses. Some of the children feed the birds with grain swiped from their families' meager allotment.

When Wang's radio program about Zhu aired, it created a flurry of interest, and many listeners wanted to help the students find a way out of their poverty.

Wang's story told how the schoolteacher had traveled penniless 10 years earlier to an international conference where he won praise for his work with children and birds, but not money.

He pleaded with people to assist his students with their bird collecting, but none of China's literati responded. In the end, he had to sell his coat to buy a return train ticket home. He was still penniless when Wang found him.

Support grew for Zhu's story, and she was inspired to create Hand-in-Hand. The program's first event took place in Beijing. The second one was held last year in a forest near China's border with North Korea.

Last month, the third Hand-in-Hand program was set in the village of Yixing, near Shanghai. There, 200 elementary-age children were invited for the opening of what Wang describes as China's very first bird park.

A visit to Kentucky Fried Chicken

For Hand-in-Hand's first event in Beijing, some 30 children, ages 6 through 11, from Da Yu village and from the capital met one another.

Accompanied by Zhu, the village children slept the first night on top of desks in elementary school classrooms. The next night, they stayed with families and experienced for the first time refrigerators and computer games. Their activities included a visit to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Ms. Wang's reporting on Zhu and the children of Da Yu won first place in a national media contest. So did the follow-up story, "Hello, my old friends," which aired one year later.

In its second year, Hand-in-Hand succeeded in bringing together 60 students and 10 teachers - trailed by 20 journalists - this time to the forest near Dan Duong, a village east of Beijing.

It hasn't been easy to undertake a project for kids in a country as vast and as tangled up in bureaucracy as China. In such situations, Wang resorts to friends in high places, and she tells the story of the bird-park proposal for the village of Yixing.

"This is quite a rich area, and the local government planned to build an animal park there, and I asked why an animal park when the birds are our friends," she says.

"I got no good answer. But when I told my friend the story, well, he's older and famous, and the local government officials were willing to take his suggestion." Her friend is Jia Zhi, the teacher of Chinese Premier Li Peng.

Despite successes like these with government leaders, memories of the Cultural Revolution linger. During that time, her parents were criticized as enemies, and banished to the countryside. Her father, a foreign correspondent with Xinghua News Agency and based in London at one point in his career, and her mother, who worked in a Beijing publishing house, had been deemed the "educated elite."

The struggle to learn English

Wang stayed behind in Beijing and was assigned to work in a typesetting plant. During that time, she remembered her father's advice that she keep learning. She secretly read books and taught herself English by listening to British radio reports. When she got caught, she told authorities that she laughed at the silly British and their silly language.

She plotted to free herself from the constraints of her life and to attend college. She succeeded, and when she graduated she took note that all nine of her friends at the factory still worked at their factory jobs - and do so today.

Wang wakes up each morning and "tells the sky 'thank you'." Her favorite pastime is using a state-of-the-art digital recorder to record nature's sounds from the seashore, village streets, and woodlands.

In addition to her work for Hand-in-Hand program, Wang also reports stories on China's unsung heroes - off-the-beaten-path pieces for the show "12 Noon."

One of a half-dozen commentators, Wang is a weekly favorite on the program that airs from Beijing, and is broadcast as far east as the Korean border and as far west as the less-populated rural areas outside of the capital.

This diminutive radio reporter, who understands the power of a broadcast that can reach 500 million people, takes pride in her work as a journalist.

"It means I can be a bridge between children and nature," she says.

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