'Beautiful teacher' becomes new hero

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am


Mainlanders lamenting the lack of Good Samaritans have found a champion in Zhang Lili.

The middle school teacher, 29, has received national praise and inspired widespread soul-searching in the three weeks since she lost her legs pushing two children from the path of a bus in Jiamusi, Heilongjiang province.

Zhang has been elevated as a symbol of what has been lacking in a society that many worry has grown too self-centred and wealth-driven since the economic boom began in the early 1980s.

Internet users have dubbed her the 'most beautiful teacher', a term seized upon by a state propaganda machine eager to find role models to fight against what leaders describe as a moral decline.

Such superlatives are often used to describe individuals who display laudable qualities. But it has resonated in Zhang's case, in part because of pictures that have been released of her as a pretty, smiling bride in her wedding dress.

Photos taken since the crash have shown her lying on a hospital bed, wearing a cap and gown, with a tube down her throat.

She suffered massive injuries to her back, legs, pelvis and ribs on the evening of May 8 after rushing to rescue the two children from an oncoming bus.

According to state media, the bus was stopped outside the school to pick up pupils after evening classes, when the driver - reportedly chatting with passengers - accidently caused it to lurch forward. The bus crashed into another one before careening towards a small car as two children were crossing the road.

Zhang, who is a Chinese teacher at the school, pushed one to safety and pulled the other out of the way before being struck herself.

'She was lying on the ground under the bus when I got to her, with massive bone fractures,' the China Daily quoted another teacher as saying. 'Lots of students said she had saved the others, and she needed immediate care.'

Zhang lingered in a coma for a week. When she awoke on May 15, surgeons, who had already amputated both her legs, warned that her condition might worsen and require more operations. She remains in critical condition.

Zhang's story of personal sacrifice captivated the internet, spurring tens of millions of microblog posts. Sympathetic citizens opened their wallets to help pay for her treatment, donating nearly 10 million yuan (HK$12.2 million) as of Thursday, according to the Jiamusi Charity Federation.

'She has pushed other people to be alive while pulling herself [towards] death,' one internet user said. 'I pray for Zhang Lili and wish her to recover early.'

Another user wrote: 'Although you have lost two legs, you leave us the most beautiful thing for humans - a strong, brave and kind heart.'

Some contrasted her actions to those of 18 passers-by who failed to come to the aid of two-year-old Xiao Yueyue, who was struck twice by a van in Foshan in October.

The incident - caught on surveillance video - drew international attention and reignited a debate about whether China was losing its compassion and whether the lack of a so-called Good Samaritan law was encouraging people not to help fellow citizens in need.

'We have read a cascade of negative news about the cold or dark side of society,' said Xia Xueluan , a sociologist at Peking University. 'Zhang Lili has offered a glimpse of the light of goodness for the public.'

Xia said the sensation surrounding Zhang showed that Chinese society still appreciated 'true, kind and beautiful' figures.

The symbolism of Zhang's sacrifice was not lost on central government leaders or state-run media, which ran numerous stories lionising her and detailing the detention of the bus driver deemed to be at fault.

Health Minister Chen Zhu said the government would spare no effort to make sure Zhang got the best medical treatment available, China Network Television reported. Similarly, State Councillor Liu Yandong swooped in last Sunday to pay her a visit.

Liu gave Zhang a get-well card and an MP3 player, praising her as a 'a hero of our era'.

'Your heroism has moved all the Chinese people and you are worth the title of a noble teacher and a role model for all teachers,' Liu said, according to the Heilongjiang Daily. 'Your bravery and your sacrifice have served as a profound lesson for the Chinese people and all members of the public should learn from you.'

Kissing Zhang's arm, Liu said: 'You can call me elder sister and I will look after your business for ever.'

But some internet users complained that Zhang should have been looked after better before her injury. CCTV, for instance, said Zhang was only a contract teacher, not a permanent one, like most of her counterparts. As such, she was not included in the medical insurance system and she is paid just 1,000 yuan a month.

Hu Xingdou, a professor with the Beijing Institute of Technology, took issue with efforts to glorify Zhang, like People's Liberation Army solider Lei Feng in the 1960s, as some kind of saviour or saint.

'You can't rely on a few moral models to keep a society's morals from declining,' Hu said. Encouraging good behaviour required regulations to restrict the power of authorities and discourage people from committing bad deeds.

Experts say a Good Samaritan law would go a long way to help ensure the rights of people compelled to act in a selfless way.

'Without these regulations and laws, people will continue their spoken campaign to 'learn from models', but will never turn it into action,' Hu said.