Last Tuesday at an event to mark the hundredth anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party (CPC), an old lady in a loose-fitting cotton suit stepped up to the podium to make a speech. Her fingers wrapped in plasters, Zhang Guimei spoke about the decades she has spent in Yunnan province helping poor, disadvantaged girls to get an education, and how female education is the best route out of multi-generational poverty.
Why is she in the news?
Zhang, 64, was in Beijing to receive the July 1st Medal – a new award for outstanding members for the CPC. She was one of the 29 “ordinary heroes” to be honoured, including a former trade unionist, an actor, a welder and a Xinhua journalist.
“The early years were difficult,” she explained. “The Party spirit sustained me.”
Zhang was previously little known outside her adopted province of Yunnan. But since her appearance alongside Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, millions of people have been reading about her challenging life, strict teaching methods and Party credentials (she says her favourite novel is Red Crag, which tells the tale of Communist Party agents fighting an espionage battle against the Kuomintang).
A lifelong educator
Zhang moved to Yunnan over 40 years ago and married a local man. Her husband’s death five years later saw her devote her life to bettering the life of local girls deprived of a decent schooling due to poverty.
She still runs an orphanage and a secondary school for girls in a remote part of the province. Although her methods are strict, families are said to plead for their girls to be admitted, going as far as feigning poverty to get a place for their children.
Zhang says that the results speak for themselves – she takes girls with minimal or non-existent middle-school educations and helps them to pass university entrance exams in just three years. For the past 13 years, 1,954 students have graduated from her school, the first and only one of its kind in the country.
“To educate a girl is to change the destiny of three generations. A cultured, responsible mother won’t let her daughter drop out of school,” she declared.
The People’s Daily was effusive in its praise of Zhang, describing her as “like a lighthouse, who encourages more educators to stick to their original intention and light others on the road of building a dream”.
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