In 1968, a group of children of disgraced senior communist leaders in Beijing were exiled to Tian Zhuang, a poor village hidden deep in the reed marshes of Hebei province. They would spend years there, working and teaching among the peasants who eked out a living fishing in the maze of waterways and weaving mats from the reeds which grew in dense thickets. Nearly 30 years later, a cheque arrived in the village from America for US$3,000 (about HK$23,300) with instructions for it to be spent helping relieve the poverty of village schoolteachers. 'It was quite a surprise,' recalled Tian Zhengsheng, the 55-year-old headmaster of Tian Zhuang's school and the first to receive a 250-yuan (about HK$230) slice of the donation. 'At the time, I was earning so little, I couldn't even pay for the education of my youngest.' The money came from one of the exiled 'educated youths', now a visiting scholar in the United States and who insists on remaining anonymous. 'I still remember him; it took them a while to get used to our life of hardship. But they learned how poor the peasants are and how much poorer the minban teachers are,' Mr Tian said. The donation made in 1994 has now given birth to a larger national charity, the Candlelight Project, which is drawing attention to the plight of the nearly three million impoverished village teachers in China. Known as minban, as opposed to state or guoban teachers, they are untrained peasants but do much of the teaching in rural primary schools. They were originally the Maoist counterpart of the barefoot doctor. Hired by the people's communes and paid in work points, much of the teaching consisted of work study such as helping out with the pigs. At that time, all over China qualified teachers along with other intellectuals were being persecuted. In Guangxi province some rural teachers were killed and even eaten, and in Hebei province, teachers were sometimes beaten to death. 'They were listed along with landlords, counter-revolutionaries and bad elements. But the educated youths were never beaten because they followed Mao Zedong's instructions to go to the countryside. They were highly protected,' Mr Tian said. Two decades after Deng Xiaoping's government started to restore the education system, the mainland is still dealing with the legacy of shoddily built and equipped school buildings and underpaid peasant teachers. The mainland school system is the world's largest, with 14 million teachers and 235 million schoolchildren. A quarter of junior high school teachers lack proper qualifications and the mainland is planning to provide training for 10 million primary and high school teachers over the next five years. Most minban teachers still combine teaching with farming and the pay is small. Often it fails to arrive on time. 'Pay is sometimes five months late,' said Tian Futing, the former mayor of Baoding who is now director of a non-governmental organisation, NODEP, set up to help education in poor areas. A third of Baoding prefecture's 22 counties with a combined population of 10 million are classified as poverty-stricken. Guoban teachers earn about 500 yuan a month while minban teachers earn about 200 yuan. Daike, or substitute teachers, earn just five yuan a day. 'The salaries are too low,' said Du Yongkang, deputy general secretary of NODEP. 'They can afford enough food and clothing but anything extra like medical bills or housing repairs or some emergency drives them into deeper poverty and debt. Some can't even afford textbooks for their own children.' The organisation was set up by a number of retired officials including Shi Shoupeng, Baoding's former education chief whose younger brother was a classmate of the donor. At first they selected three poor counties, Anxin where Tian Zhuang village is found, Macheng and Qingyuan. In each they selected 40 deserving cases. 'Then we thought we should set up an organisation to help the needy in a more regular way,' said Mr Tian. They contacted Zhao Yanying, a producer at Beijing Television who produced a documentary on the rural teachers in Fuping, a remote county in the Taihang mountains. It was based on research by a Baoding teacher, Wang Binggang, who had independently filmed and investigated many cases which were subsequently highlighted in a programme called Spread The Candlelight. It refers to a couplet by Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin which, translated, reads: 'The silk worm spins silk until it dies, the candle drops tears until it goes out', and refers to the light spread by dedicated teachers. The documentary was moving and hard-hitting especially by the standards of Chinese television. It highlighted cases such as Wei Xianglan, a minban teacher who died of poverty in a broken-down house with 10,000 yuan of debts. And Yang Erzhou, whose wife divorced him because he ran up debts of 14,000 yuan looking after his aged father. And Lian Xiufang, a teacher who refused to leave her post when her husband moved to work in a county town. 'I couldn't bear to desert my students,' she said. 'One month later, I received 250 yuan and burst into tears. I went to inform my husband and the tough man also wept. Later, he said he was so grateful to the donor because the money salvaged our sweet home.' The publicity brought a flood of donations and enabled the founders to register under the China Charity Federation which functions under the aegis of the Ministry of Civil Affairs. 'Most of the donors were not rich people. Ordinary people sent us 100 or 200 yuan,' said Mr Tian, opening a folder stuffed with letters and receipts. Workers in Brunei sent money, a retired teacher in Guangzhou posted clothes, as well as big donors like Ericsson and Japan's International Cultural Friendship Association. 'This year we gave all minban teachers 500 yuan each before Spring Festival. Many of them gathered together in a spectacular and moving occasion.' The movement has been given an added boost by the success of Zhang Yimou's latest film, Not One Less, a critical look at the life of a daike student in another corner of Hebei province. 'It is very truthful, it shows the true hardships of minban teachers,' said Tian Zhensheng. A younger teacher, Tian Hezhuang, said: 'It shows that society cares about us and that is a great boost to morale.' Just a month ago he received a donation of 5,000 yuan from private entrepreneurs. Like others he fell into poverty with debts of 3,000 yuan while trying to help his father who first became sick, poisoned by a coal stove, and then suffered a stroke. A teacher for 15 years, he earned 250 yuan a month while his wife earned 100 yuan a year by weaving reeds into mats. 'Knowing my difficulties, the leaders and my colleagues used to help me, gave me money every year to buy clothes and a pair of shoes. I like my job no matter how I am paid but now I feel gloriously honoured,' he said. The village school's classrooms still lack the most basic equipment, even proper blackboards. Among the 20 teachers is Tian Xiaoduo, one of the substitute daike teachers who after four years earns just 140 yuan a month. The village party secretary, who like everyone else is called Tian, said he struggled to meet the state's ambitious targets. In 1988 Beijing made nine years of education compulsory. The village, with 500 children, only just managed to ensure six years of education in 1995. In many parts of Hebei province, attendance rates fall sharply at about ages 12 and 13. Tian Zhuang village's problems are symptomatic of an education system that is now entirely privatised. The state education budget is skewed towards funding university education and the rest is concentrated on a minority of designated 'key' institutions - just 7,000 primary schools out of 640,000 and 5,200 middle schools and 96 colleges. These are invariably in urban areas and serve the offspring of the Communist Party elite. The mainland spends less on education than almost any other developing country, despite repeated promises to raise spending to four per cent of gross national product. In the past 10 years, Beijing has tried to support rural education by launching charity programmes such as the Hope Project which is now being phased out. In general, county governments have resorted to levying taxes and fees. Tian Zhuang village demands an annual 50 yuan tuition fee and the textbooks cost 100 yuan a year. Elsewhere, fees can be far higher with parents obliged to contribute 'donations' or 'construction fees' running into thousands of yuan. Even so, across most of the mainland, qualified guoban state teachers are owed back wages totalling billions of yuan. Making up the shortfall requires cutting administrative overheads and sacking up to half the officials involved. 'There are way too many of them, you could sack half, even 70 per cent of them and it wouldn't make any difference,' said Wang Binggang. Education departments are now struggling to meet a new goal set by Beijing, the phasing out of minban teachers by the end of 2000 although this will involve doubling their salaries. Minban teachers can qualify for higher salaries by serving for 15 years even if they only have primary school education. Or they can pay 8,000 yuan to attend a teacher training course stretching over two years. Few can find the money to do this or even want to. If they qualify, they change their status to that of a salaried official - and they are no longer entitled to village farmland. That way, they will depend on receiving state wages when even now they are not receiving minban salaries on time. When, in 1995, Baoding started the process it had 30,000 minban teachers out of 300,000 and now has just 1,000. Yet in reality nothing has changed. Most have either been relabelled as daike or as 'local government state teachers'. A United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) report published this year found the number of minban teachers had dropped from nearly two million in 1994 to about 800,000 last year, and the number of daike posts had risen sharply and totalled 842,000. Even if a retraining programme can be put into practice, the organisers of the Candlelight programme doubt that change will be anything but slow. 'After you train people, they don't want to live in poor remote areas and they will not stay in teaching if they are not paid,' said Mr Shi, Baoding's former education chief. 'But at last people are becoming aware of the real problems.'