A DIRT road now winds its way through the pines and rhododendrons to the hilltop grave of Cornish missionary, Samuel Pollard, who founded a missionary station in Weining county, in the wild and remote mountains between Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. 'We were slaves before he came, he taught us everything,' said Tao Yumi, who 60 years ago was a pupil at the school Pollard established among a tribe known as the Flowery Miao. The retired teacher was overcome with emotion on his first trip back to his ruined old school. 'Words cannot express my feelings,' he said. When Pollard first arrived there in 1904, he found a people trapped in slavery to the Yi tribes and overwhelmed by poverty. Together with Francis Dymond, he converted them to Christianity, invented an alphabet for the Miao language and taught them to read and write. As Pollard wrote of the Miao in his diary: 'Directly a door was opened they trooped in begging to be taught. They began at five o'clock in the morning and at one o'clock some were still reading.' Pollard was one of the heroes of evangelism which sent missionaries to the most inaccessible corners of China. By chance he came across a people who begged him to help them and who were willing converts. For nearly half a century, English missionaries ran a school and hospice at Stone Gateway 2,100 metres above sea level until 1950 when the Communists expelled them. Now after nearly half a century of neglect, the work of Pollard and others is being recognised. In July, the Communist authorities restored his grave and that of Heber Goldsworthy, another English missionary, and declared the site a national monument. For the first time this autumn, a group representing the Friends of the Church in China were allowed back to Stone Gateway. 'We were taken very much by surprise in finding the two graves at Shimenkan [Stone Gateway] restored and particularly at the beautiful little ceremony prepared for our group,' said Maggi Whyte, one of the group of sons and daughters of Methodist missionaries who visited. 'Small girls presented flowers to us and it was unexpectedly thoughtful.' They learned that during the Cultural Revolution the chapel built in 1905 was burnt down and the graves destroyed. Christianity was suppressed and the Pollard script ignored. 'It was an exhilarating experience, especially when we learned there is a re-evaluation of missionary input going on,' said Mrs Whyte. 'We are delighted by this restoration, it is a wonderful thing,' said Ken Parsons, the son of Harry Parsons, who worked with Pollard. Mr Parsons grew up in Stone Gateway but left in 1950. Now living in retirement in the Isle of Wight, he never went back to his childhood home but is still in touch with the Miao. 'They still use the script,' he said, in a telephone interview. 'And now I am trying to adapt it so that it can be used on computers.' It is extraordinary how much has changed in little more than a single lifespan. Eighty years ago, when Pollard died at the age of 51, the locals still practised cannibalism. 'After a fight, the warriors who are killed on either side are opened and their hearts removed, perhaps also their tongues, and these are cooked and eaten,' Pollard recorded in his diaries. The mountains he travelled through were so wild he frequently came across wolves, wild boars and tigers. Much of the region was beyond the control of the Chinese state. Tribes now known as the Yi minority, ruled an independent kingdom called 'Babu Land'. They were constantly at war with one another and built fortified villages and huge defence towers called the 'eyes of the earth'. At some point, the Yi forced the Miao to work their lands. The Miao occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder and a landlord, or tu mu, would mount his horse by stepping on the back of a stooping Miao. Pollard described the Miao as 'a people who could not be further oppressed'. The tu mu would sell the Miao women as slaves or wives and frequently tortured the men. The Miao not only lived as destitute serfs under the tyranny of the Yi, but were also terrorised by wizards. 'They are a haunted people; they imagine that evil spirits wait opportunities to do them injury,' Pollard wrote. Pollard not only stripped away the power of these wizards but encouraged the Miao to destroy what he called the 'brothels', where the young Miao of both sexes congregated at night.' Above all, Pollard was able to raise the social status of the Miao by teaching them how to read and write when even most Han Chinese were illiterate. He invented a special alphabet for the Miao people, adapting Braille, Pitman's shorthand and Roman characters. He then translated the New Testament into Miao and had the first bibles printed in Japan. Pollard baptised 10,000 Miao and before the mission was closed, about 800,000 Miao converted to Christianity. Of these more than 60 graduated from universities. Until a few months ago, Stone Gateway and the rest of Weining county was closed to foreigners. It is not hard to see why. It is still one of the poorest areas in China without a single paved road. The peasants still live in the same mud and straw huts, tending tiny patches of land among the steep mountains. Each minority wears its own distinct gaily embroidered clothing and the Miao women dress in the same striped flounced skirts they did in Pollard's day. The Yi landlords have gone, many beaten to death during land reform in the early 1950s, but the Miao seem as poor as when Pollard first met them. Locals say up to 80 per cent of the population do not earn enough to feed and clothe themselves. In Weining county's capital, the streets are as thick with mud as they were in Pollard's day and local officials are as hostile to foreigners. 'You cannot come here and look at the churches without official permission,' a member of the public security office said. Locals say nearly all the village Miao still practise Christianity and worship in chapels rebuilt since 1980. But these days only seven per cent of school students are Miao. 'It was better before the revolution, now the children of the Miao cannot afford to pay the annual school fees of 2,000 yuan [about HK$1,850],' said one graduate. 'Many believe that there is no point sending their children to school if they just have to go back to the farm afterwards.' Like other impoverished parts of China, locals believe central government subsidies are pocketed by corrupt local officials. 'We don't have roads here but all the local officials have bought themselves expensive foreign jeeps,' said a local Han Chinese. Stone Gateway was once much bigger as this description by Pollard suggests: 'The 10 acres [four hectares] of barren hill-slope are dotted with many white buildings, some built of stone and others of brick and earth.' Today little remains. The local party secretary has moved into the handsome house occupied by Goldsworthy, who was murdered by bandits in 1938, but the house Pollard built is now a ruin. So too is his school and on the site where the chapel once stood, the local authorities erected a shabby new school. Few if any of its pupils are Miao and the teaching is in Han Chinese. 'There is a sort of crisis,' said 69-year-old former teacher Wang Dechen, who together with Tao, remembered what it was like when they were pupils. 'The authorities don't stop us practising Christianity or using the Pollard script but they don't support us either.' During the Cultural Revolution, Mr Wang was forced to do manual labour and was beaten up but he said the Miao continued to pray secretly in their homes. Pastor Huang Juiying, who looks after 90 parishes in the Zhaotong district, says the villagers still read the Bible using the Pollard script but the young people are not taught it at school so it could disappear. Those that manage to escape the remote and impoverished villages, often do so at the price of assimilation. 'Miao who live in the towns tend to speak Chinese, wear the same clothing as everyone else and only about 20 or 30 per cent go to church,' said Wang. Until now the state has not printed any books using Pollard's alphabet but there are signs the policy is being reversed to try to raise literacy levels. One school in the region teaches the script a few lessons a week, while Pollard's life story and his diary are translated and published in Chinese. Yet so far it looks as if the Miao have fared worse under the Communists than in the past. Even though the Communists smashed the power of the Yi landlords, the local party secretary is free to behave as dictatorially as the tu mu did. 'We have our own power here and can do what we like,' the official in charge at Stone Gateway said after arresting and detaining my two elderly companions. He had them locked up and interrogated for more than two hours accusing them of breaking the law by taking foreigners to Pollard's grave. Perhaps Pollard's influence, however diminished by the 80 years since his death, still threatens the authority of the local elite.