Top of the class

A 38 year-old goes to primary school and impresses teachers

Top of the class

You can read; next stop, Harvard?

As the proverb states: “One is never too old to learn.”

Yan Gao is taking the phrase literally. Unable to read and write, he has resolved that it is never to late to go back to school too.

To that end, the 38 year-old from Yunnan has recently enrolled in local primary school classes, with 7 and 8 year-olds.

Yan told Spring City Evening News that when he was a child his family lived in a remote mountain village and could not afford to send him to school.

Although illiteracy is fairly common among his rural peers, Yan was sufficiently ashamed of his condition to act.

“Due to my poor calculation ability, I suffered losses in business; due to my inability to read, I didn’t know my driver’s license had expired, and my motorcycle was impounded by the police,” Yan told the paper. “I don’t want to talk about any more of these things now because it makes me very sad.”

In 2005, Yan told his wife he wanted to go to school. She was at first dismissive of the idea, thinking it a whim. But Yan persisted. And finally last year, he convinced her to let him enroll in Western Union County National High School.

“We thought he wouldn’t last long, so we agreed and didn’t ask for money. We did, however, tell him not to affect other children’s normal school life,” said the Principal Li Yuping.

So Yan now sits in the back of the classroom. But Li told reporters that he is very respectful to teachers and always completes his homework on time. “I haven’t drunk since going to school,” Yan says proudly, too. That’s because his evenings are now occupied with preparing for the next day’s school work.

According to the Ministry of Education, the nation’s literacy rate has improved from 20% in 1950 to more than 90% today.

Still, like Yan, some have missed out on the tremendous improvement in standards.

Schooling can also be expensive, even though primary education is nominally free. Primary schools are financed almost exclusively at a village or town level, and some rural areas are short of money. As they are not allowed to charge for tuition, they impose “miscellaneous fees” instead.

In one school these included a book fee, a materials fee, a substitute-teaching fee, an electricity fee, and even a coal fee for colder days.

This can add up to $20 to $35 a year, a challenging amount for those struggling on subsistence incomes. In some of the poorer rural regions, where families are permitted to have two children, parents must choose who, if any, goes to school.

But Yan’s wife is now fully supportive of her husband’s scholastic efforts.

It seems a primary education is having an impact in other areas too. She told the paper, “In the past he often lost his temper on me and scolded me, but now he doesn’t do that anymore.”

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.