A 63-year-old teacher and headmaster who’s dedicated her life to providing educational opportunities to young girls in a remote part of southwestern China might seem an unlikely target for feminist ire. But after Zhang Guimei — best known in China for founding the country’s first free all-girls school in Yunnan province — expressed her opposition to her students becoming “full-time housewives” in an interview, some netizens took issue with her supposed lack of respect for women’s personal choices.
Although I recognize the value and importance of household work, I worry that portraying Zhang as an out-of-step, dogmatic figure over a single remark isn’t exactly fair. More importantly, it misses the point. A fair assessment of Zhang’s stance toward full-time housewives first requires an understanding of the state of education in China’s impoverished areas.
It’s no secret that the uneven regional distribution of economic growth over the past 40 years has exacerbated the imbalance in educational outcomes between the wealthy coast and relatively poorer interior. Compounding the issue is the ongoing squeeze of local educational institutions. In the 1990s, many counties across the country were home to one or even multiple quality high schools, but cities have since siphoned off their resources and top students, pooling them into just a few flagship “key” schools.
The idea is to maximize the number of students getting into top universities from a particular region — a feather in the cap for local officials — but it has devastated previously competitive high schools at the county level. At one point, they were a viable launch pad to mid-tier universities and colleges, but now their higher education progression rates have plummeted. In one county I visited, out of 1,100 students who took the college entrance exam in 2019, just four tested into a first-tier university. A key school in the nearby prefectural center, meanwhile, boasted an admittance rate of over 50%.
A woman works in a field in Huili County, Sichuan province, 2017. Xie Pengfei/People Visual
The deteriorated state of county schools has only exacerbated the traditional indifference to secondary education in parts of the countryside. Plenty of parents in impoverished areas face the agonizing decision of whether to even send their children to high school. Per China’s education policy, parents must send their children to elementary and middle schools, but high school is neither compulsory nor tuition-free, and the increased expenses involved in secondary education can exacerbate an already-poor family’s financial burden.
While well-off families have the luxury of treating education as an investment in human capital with long-term returns, poor families worry that they might not make it that far down the line. Unable to reap the benefits any sooner, many tend to view education costs as a burden on the family’s cash flow and thus oppose their children continuing their studies past junior high. One solution is to simply marry off their daughter.
Zhang’s objection to women becoming housewives is rooted in this context. At a recent seminar held by China’s Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, one of the data sets presented showed “early marriage and childbearing” — defined as marriage before the legal marriage age of 20 for women — to be one of the top four contributing factors to dropouts in impoverished areas. Nor is the decision to get married always one that daughters in poor families get to make for themselves.
Contributing to the problem is the traditional idea of male superiority and female inferiority, which can lead poor families to deprive their daughters of educational resources. Zhang has talked about visiting families who prioritized their sons’ schooling, even to the point of pulling daughters on the cusp of taking the college-entrance exam out of class while saving money for their younger brothers to attend cram classes.
Zhang set up a free all-girls high school in part to encourage parents to continue their daughters’ schooling, giving them a shot at going to college and working in a higher-paying profession, just like the boys around them. In doing so, they could help lift their families out of poverty while gradually changing the outdated notion that men are superior to women. Viewed from this perspective, the “full-time housewife” identity represents the very gender inequality Zhang is trying to erase.
Her words proved so controversial because of two factors: a poor understanding of conditions in impoverished areas and the misapplication of urban values to measure educational practices in the countryside. It’s a common mistake. Over the past decade or so, China’s Ministry of Education has pushed for nationwide changes meant to promote what it calls “quality education.” The idea is to foster a holistic approach to education that encourages well-roundedness instead of a single-minded focus on test scores.
As a result, many county-level middle schools and their test-based teaching styles have been labeled “exam factories” in need of reform. But the prevailing problem facing county-level schools is overly lax schedules, not excessive ones. On multiple visits to elementary schools in southwestern China, I watched as children started class at 9 a.m., left for lunch at 11 a.m., then came back for three hours in the afternoon. That’s a far shorter schedule than city schools, and not because their teachers understand the importance of play in a child’s development. They don’t have the resources to teach them for longer: Their hands are full just keeping the kids in school.
That’s not to say “quality education” isn’t important. Workplaces in urban centers increasingly value qualities like self-expression and critical thinking that can’t be measured on national exams. But the top priorities in impoverished areas are understandably preventing more students from dropping out and getting them into college. If children from poor families keep falling short of top universities, then their parents will continue to see education as a bad investment. Lecturing rural schools on the need for well-rounded students or romanticizing the “full-time housewife” lifestyle — in any event a very different proposition in rural China than in a major urban center like Shanghai — simply shows a lack of foresight and understanding of China’s diverse local conditions.
Over the past 12 years, many female students from Zhang’s all-girls high school have made this leap, testing into top-ranked universities around the country. This is an incredible achievement, but one such school is far from enough. Real change will require investing more resources in beleaguered county-level schools, as well as recognizing the relationship between poverty and educational inequality. Everyone knows about the development gap, yet so many continue to use the same yardstick to criticize residents of what is in effect a parallel world. In the end, they only hurt the people who are fighting for change.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Headmaster Zhang Guimei (center) talks to students during a cleanup activity at Huaping High School for Girls in Huaping County, Yunnan province, Oct. 15, 2020. IC)