In a remote hillside schoolyard, a group of first-grade girls is immersed in play. When a teacher calls them for lunch, they scamper to line up for big bowls of rice and vegetables. Squatting in small groups to eat, they have more food before them than they've ever seen in a meal.
Unlike their parents, illiterate subsistence farmers scattered on mountain peaks along the China-Burma (Myanmar) border, these girls have food every day. They are also learning to read and write Mandarin in a brand new school building, they have clean clothes, and they will always know how old they are.
The children - members of the Lahu, one of China's poorest and most isolated ethnic-minority groups - are acting out a bold experiment in Chinese education.
Spurred by concerns that significant gaps in wealth between majority Chinese and the country's minorities could fuel social unrest, the Chinese government has tried to provide comprehensive education for minority children. Though minority groups constitute less than 4 percent of the population, they occupy more than half the country's landmass, particularly in crucial border areas.
But state funding for minority education is unevenly distributed. Lacking resources, and facing a poor, indifferent public, local officials often claim progress where there really is none. And even in areas that do receive aid, some question the long-term impact on families, schools' treatment of native language, and the issue of assimilating children into a larger group.
To others, however, the choice is obvious. Su Chen, deputy mayor of Muga, near the city of Lancang, and herself a Lahu, sees educational opportunities as essential to the future of her people. "We need to be more educated, cultured, and civilized," she says. "We need more science and education."
The Lahu effort got under way with a grant from the New York-based Ford Foundation. Though under intense pressure to meet Beijing's demand for reform, the regional leader in Lancang, the county seat of the Lahus in Yunnan province, lacked the resources to comply. So Teng Xing, an education specialist at the Central Academy of Minorities in Beijing, stepped in with a Ford Foundation grant and a fresh idea.
With an uneven crew cut and muscular build, Professor Teng looks more like a construction foreman than one of China's foremost authorities on minorities. Teng, who is Chinese, spent more than 20 years researching minorities, including the Tibetans and Uighurs. He wanted to apply his research to find a solution to the Lahus' poverty.
So he gathered 45 5- to 7-year-olds from the poorest families among the 10,000 Lahus living around Muga. Because Lahu society is matriarchal, and because boys traditionally have more educational opportunities in poor regions, he chose only girls. They live at the school, visiting their families only on holidays. The $15,000 grant will pay for their education, room, and board for six years.
He Jin, education coordinator for the Ford Foundation in Beijing, explains that the foundation wants to assist China's most disadvantaged group, its minority women. And, Mr. Teng explains: "This will give these girls a chance to focus on studying without worrying about having enough to eat. Lahu women are the leaders, and the hope is that these girls will become intellectuals and cadres, and move their people forward."
After six years, the program will be evaluated to see if it has succeeded. But it is already raising key questions about what constitutes success.
Peng Yunhua, one of the three teachers responsible for the girls, says there have been major problems already: most significantly, the strong bond between the girls and their parents.
"The girls have never left their parents before, and everyone's having problems adjusting," she says. "Whenever the parents come down from the hills to see the girls, they all cry. The girls have tried running away many times. Five girls have already been replaced, after their parents came to beg to take them home."
But Teng stands firm on his policy of isolating the girls, even though it may seem cruel. He says it is to protect them from their surroundings, which will defeat their progress.
The Lahu village of Fumeng illustrates what he means. Located a two-hour hike up a slippery trail from the school, its poverty, isolation, and fatalism have conspired to mold a mentality indifferent to education. Schooling for one year costs $50, while the per-capita income is only $15. And though officials have waived tuition to encourage students to go to school, parents who have never ventured outside the village don't see the point of teaching their kids a few words of Chinese, since they, too, will become subsistence farmers.
Ms. Peng, who is Chinese, so far has had difficulty communicating with the students, who speak only Lahu. From Day 1, their classes have been held only in Chinese, breaking with the tradition in local schools of teaching in Lahu until Grade 3.
"We Lahu people need to learn to speak Chinese, and just because we can speak Chinese doesn't mean we'll lose our culture and language," says Muga's Lahu mayor, Li Xinguang. "We need to communicate with the outside world, learn to farm better, and attract more investment."
Teng warns against speculating too early about the cultural effects of the Lahu girls' program. "The Muga people ... need to learn both Chinese and English, need to learn more ideas, but also protect their own culture," he said in an opening-day speech at the school. But, he added, "People need to eat first. Then they can think about cultural identity."