Quest for hermitage spawns educational scheme in Yunnan

Beijing lawyer went to live like a hermit in Yunnan, but soon found herself helping local youth beat the scourges of drugs and Aids

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 5:36am

Growing up in Beijing, Li Yang was first drawn to the romantic idea of living like a hermit in the picturesque mountains of southwestern Yunnan , on the border with Myanmar. But chasing the dream opened another door for Li, now 30, and her husband, Dutch artist and linguist Dr Anton Lustig. They have started the Prop Roots education programme for children in a troubled area heavily affected by drugs and Aids.

So how is your programme going now?

We are about to finish building a two-storey house in a Jingpo mountain village in Dehong prefecture. It's a very interesting building, designed by an architect friend, mixing in features of local buildings such as bamboo. But its design was so delicate that we met countless problems in the process of building it. Sometimes construction workers couldn't read the design, sometimes they went on strike, and we were cheated several times when buying building materials. And after everything is settled, the rainy season has come. The final cost is about three times the budget. That reminds me of how difficult it is if you want to do something on your own, especially when you are in a completely strange environment.

What will the building be used for?

It will serve as our education and activity centre for local Jingpo children. And we will also bring children from big cities in during summer or winter vacations and organise some camps together. Actually our programme has already started: we're currently co-operating with Yingpan Primary School in Xishan village in Dehong, teaching English and reading and writing. The extracurricular activities also include making handicrafts that are part of local tradition, which is vanishing very fast. We don't want to give the kids too much pressure, which is already quite heavy under the examination-oriented education system. Rather, the goal is to boost their self-confidence and deepen the kids' understanding and appreciation of their own ethnicity and native land, so that they won't feel bewildered when they grow into teenagers and will be able to resist the temptation of drugs.

How bad are the drug and HIV/Aids problems in that area?

The area is on the border of Yunnan and Myanmar. It looks like a picturesque place, but in reality, drug use is really rampant there. You can see slogans about fighting drugs and Aids prevention everywhere. There are no official statistics on how many people are using drugs, because it is deemed too sensitive. But about 8 per cent of kids there have become orphans, with their parents either being jailed for drug dealing or dying of Aids. And there are many "ghost villages" up there in the mountains - it's like they were frozen at a certain moment, with all the people having left or died. The teenagers in the Jingpo mountains are easily lured into drug use because they usually feel a sense of loss and have no idea what they can become in the future.

Don't they go to school?

The education capacity is quite limited in the mountain villages. In some schools, the pass rate is always zero - meaning all students will fail the examinations. Under the examination-oriented education system, rural teachers have a lot of pressures to improve students' exam grades, but on the other hand the pay is really poor, so it is impossible to bring in good teachers. Also, the schools teach in Putonghua, while there are several local ethnic languages in use. So if a student cannot learn Putonghua well, the chance is slim for him or her to pass in other courses such as mathematics. As a result, most of the students will not be able to get into high school, and a lot drop out in middle school. At that stage, they have no idea about their future, and become extremely prone to drug use. So for a moment I thought about getting involved in anti-drug education programmes.

Then what changed your mind?

Jingpo kids are really gifted in language skills and generally in art thanks to the ethnic and ecological diversity in the region. A majority of them can speak several languages, including Putonghua, the Jingpo and Dai ethnic languages, and even Burmese. And like other ethnic groups, Jingpo also has rich arts and handicraft traditions, such as story-telling and hand-made brocade. But the region has been deemed a rural backwater since the founding of the People's Republic of China, and some people were even given "certificates for illiteracy". As a result, a lot of local people - both adults and children - still have a deep sense of inferiority, despite all their cultural and art traditions. So our thought is to help the Jingpo kids regain their sense of identity and self-esteem, so that they can dare to speak out and reach for their ideals, become more thoughtful and creative, and stand strong against the temptation of drugs.

How did you find out about of all this?

Actually my husband, Dr Anton Lustig, has spent a good part of the past two decades in the Jingpo mountains, studying local languages as a linguist. After we met in 2007, we thought it would be a good place for us to live like hermits. The scenery is fantastic, a perfect place for Anton, who is also an artist, to paint and compose. And we could also help teach local children on our own - we have already brought some friends, both from China and abroad, for some short stays and spent time with local kids to expand their horizons. But the more people and resources I brought in, the more I felt responsibilities for Jingpo children, and I started to work on the Prop Roots programme seriously after 2009.

How is the project funded?

I have to say the programme is still heavily reliant on my own savings from previous work in international environment NGOs and as a lawyer. The programme won some rewards for charity programmes last year, and got some small start-up funding, but as I said, just constructing the building has cost a lot more money than we planned. We're also in the process of applying for grants from some foundations, but it is not easy for a grass-roots programme like us. I'm also thinking of developing other channels to make the funding more sustainable. I know it will be very difficult at the beginning, struggling for survival, but I hope the funding can be settled in three years.

Li Yang spoke to Li Jing