“Ice Boy” and Education in Impoverished Rural China


SEATTLE — Imagine a child walking miles over rough terrain in below freezing temperatures simply to get to school. While this might seem like an image out of a past century, it is the modern-day reality for Little Wang, an eight-year-old boy from Yunnan province in China. Wang, dubbed “Ice Boy” by the Chinese press because of the icicles that form in his hair during his daily commute, is representative of the larger issue of education in impoverished rural China. Students living in remotes areas often receive substandard educations compared to those living in urban zones.

Urbanization in China Leaves Rural Students Behind

Although Chinese education was originally designed to be meritocratic, with a thousand-year-old history of standardized testing, in recent years the cards have become stacked against disenfranchised students. Chief among these are rural students. In less than three decades, the ratio of rural students attending Peking University, one of China’s premier institutions of higher education, decreased from 30 percent to 10 percent. This trend continues across the country and has roots in the history of education in impoverished rural China.

After the population shift into larger cities caused by China’s economic reawakening three decades ago, certain rural districts saw a large reduction in population. In 2001, the government reacted to this demographic shift by ordering the consolidation of under-attended rural schools. In 15 years, it closed more than 300,000 village schools. This trend created the long commute that students like Little Wang have to undergo. Some students have been known to scale mountains on their way to and from school.

Rural Boarding Schools Unable to Solve Education Issues

To avoid these long journeys, about 12 percent of rural students attend boarding schools. The students are mostly children who live far from local schools or have parents working away from home. Some rural schools, like those in Guizhou, receive less than 50 percent of the funding that schools in larger cities like Beijing receive. Consequently, students at these rural boarding schools perform worse on assessments than their peers who live at home.  

Besides receiving a poor education, students at these rural boarding schools live in squalid conditions. One study found that students boarding at these schools in western China were on average shorter than their peers, likely a result of the school’s poor food and board services. Another paper from the Chinese University of Hong Kong revealed that students at these schools often suffered from mental health issues related to homesicknesses and poor school conditions. According to a head teacher one of these schools who was interviewed by The Economist, “if a family can avoid sending a child to board, it will.”

All of these issues are compounded by historical underfunding for education. Until about a decade ago, all students had to pay for school, a cost poor rural villagers struggled to afford. School districts are usually run by local governments, and even now, many do not wish to “waste” surplus tax revenue on rural youth who are likely to migrate into urban zones instead of remaining in their hometowns. As a result, urban students are seven times more likely to attend high school than rural ones. The unequal funding has created a large education gap.

Technology Critical to Improving Access to Education in Impoverished Rural China

Reacting to the publicity around the issue of education in impoverished rural China, the national government launched a program in 2015 to improve rural teachers’ salaries and living conditions. This is considered a major part of China’s 2020 development goals. The national government has also taken the initiative in offering vocational training to rural students who do not attend high school. While in general, local governments have done little to address the poor conditions of rural boarding schools, NGOs like Project Partner fund the maintenance and renovation of these schools.

More creative solutions are also being explored. Schools like Lumacha Primary School in Gansu province, which has a total of three students, have begun using streaming technology to connect their students to others across China. Initiated by the national government, this innovative use of technology could improve education in impoverished rural China without resorting to long commutes, boarding schools or large amounts of funding.

Despite the challenges, there is hope for education in impoverished rural China. The issues with commutes, boarding schools and funding are all solvable. Even “Ice Boy”’ eventually received the aid he needed. A local youth league donated money to improve conditions at his school and his family personally received an outpouring of public support.

– Lydia Cardwell
Photo: Google


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