An NGO that looks at spiritual development, not just exams
Li Yingqiang talked to Priscilla Jiao
Li Yingqiang (pictured), 31, is co-founder of the Transition Institute in Beijing and co-founder of the China Rural Library, a grass-roots non-governmental organisation that has promoted civic education in rural areas since 2007. With its nine rural libraries across the mainland, the group provides opportunities to children in the countryside struggling in an exam-oriented education system.
How did you get started on the China Rural Library?
I graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics in Nanjing, Jiangsu , in 2001 and worked at a telecommunications company in Jinan , Shandong , for two years before taking up postgraduate studies in economics at Peking University in 2004. While studying in Beijing, I began working part-time with a couple of grass-roots social and economic institutes and worked at an economics magazine until 2007. A few months after I co-founded the Transition Institute, my colleagues and I started to work on the library project. We consulted friends and experts to compile a list of 1,500 core books before establishing the first library. The first collection of 2,000 books was set up in my home town's Qingshi High School, in Qichun county, Hubei , in November 2007 using donations from friends who cared about public affairs and civic education.
Why did you set up rural libraries?
It was not an idea out of the blue. If I were still a child, I would be the target reader for the library. I grew up in a village where spiritual life was extremely deficient and studying was so dull in the examination-oriented education system. In my primary school, I had only one extracurricular book, Journey to the West in traditional Chinese, left by my grandfather.
Youths should be capable of making their own decisions when growing up, an ability that is difficult to acquire but that can be learned through reading and social experience. So I really hope to provide some resources to children. Our goal is not just that children can read books; they must be good books. The books we select offer positive power, trigger curiosity about the world and imagination and widen the horizons. We buy books at discounted prices and receive donated books and bookshelves from people. Each library should have 3,000 to 5,000 books when it starts up.
What do you think of the state of book reading among children in the countryside?
Children are so curious; hundreds of them queued up to read or borrow books after the first library was opened. Nowadays, there are more channels for children to get books, but at the same time, there are far more bad publications in the market. Reading bad books is worse than reading nothing. Only a minority of junior high school students own one extracurricular book because they are still not encouraged to read these books and have little access to bookstores selling these books.
What difficulties did you come across during the project?
Preparing for the third library was the most difficult. It took very long to find a school that was willing to collaborate with us. I felt so frustrated because I was like a ball being kicked back and forth by schools. Many people said it was a great idea, but for the longest time no one actually offered practical help. You need to find school principals who share the same idealism for education and care for growing children, people who not only look at grades but also spiritual development.
What do you think of the development of such libraries?
We see our libraries as a grass-roots education project, not simply a place with books. We organise activities including movie time, reading sessions, summer and winter camps and writing contests.
Rural libraries have been developing very rapidly since 2008, especially with the social elite following a trend in contributing to the construction of their home towns. Many organisations that run rural projects have begun paying attention to children's reading. But very few teachers encourage students to read extracurricular books in the exam-oriented education system, which is an obstacle for the development of rural libraries. There is still room for us to develop and we are here to provide a chance for rural children to read good books. We don't actually welcome government backing because we don't want to turn reading into some kind of compulsory study load for students.
What are your plans for the future?
We plan to run our libraries long term. At least 2 million yuan (HK$2.3 million) must be invested for each library to run for 20 years, including books and librarians' salaries. We now have a clear development mode. We plan to open two or three libraries next year and to hire more librarians - at least two for each place. We also plan to run a few libraries in one county so as to share resources and lower costs.