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Illiteracy jumps in China

Maureen Fan

LIUPU, China – Last year, finally, everyone in Liupu village was able to read and write 1,500 Chinese characters, a census showed. Village leaders threw a big dinner to celebrate, presenting commemorative teacups to the last two adults to make the grade.But ask Zhao Huapu, the earnest principal of Liupu Shezu Girls School, how many people here can actually read and write, and he gives an embarrassed smile. Nearly 30 percent of Liupu’s adults are illiterate.”That’s just reality. … A lot of them can’t read and write,” said Zhao, who acknowledged that the census is based on a test that fails to measure adult literacy accurately.Illiteracy is increasing in China, despite a 50-year-old campaign to stamp it out and a declaration by the government in 2000 that it had been nearly eradicated. The reasons are complex, from the cost of a rural education to the growing appeal of migrant work that draws Chinese away from classrooms and toward far-off cities.In many cases, as in this farming hamlet in China’s southern Guizhou province, villagers whose education ended in elementary school have simply forgotten basic skills.From 2000 to 2005, the number of illiterate Chinese adults jumped by 33 percent, from 87 million to 116 million, the state-run China Daily reported this month. The newspaper noted that even before the increase, China’s illiterate population had accounted for 11.3 percent of the world’s total.”The situation is worrying,” Gao Xbuegui, director of the Education Ministry’s illiteracy eradication office, told China Daily, blaming the increase on changing attitudes toward knowledge in a market economy. “Illiteracy is not only a matter of education but also has a great social impact.”Gao’s remarks echoed concerns voiced by literacy researchers and served as a reminder of the challenges facing China’s mostly rural population.This country is proud of its traditional focus on education, as well as more recent efforts to raise standards, such as passage of a law that says every child has the right to nine years of schooling. Yet in many rural areas, such schooling remains unavailable or prohibitively expensive.In 2000, officials announced that the illiteracy rate in Tibet, the worst in China, had dropped to roughly 42 percent from 95 percent about 50 years earlier. From 2001 to 2005, China educated nearly 10 million adults who couldn’t read and write, the Education Ministry said in September. Authorities have also boasted of higher enrollment figures in primary and middle schools.Experts, however, contend that official reports are sometimes unreliable. Local officials are pressured to inflate enrollment figures, and students who are enrolled often don’t bother to show up, they say.There are also questions about how literacy statistics are gathered. In Liupu, for example, Zhao and other local leaders go door-to-door each September, asking the village’s roughly 300 families how many people are in each household and what type of education they have. Those who can show they have graduated from primary school are not counted as illiterate, regardless of whether they can actually read or write.Literacy in China is defined according to an exam taken in fourth grade. Even if villagers pass that exam, they frequently do not pursue further education. Having no reason to read and write, many forget the skills. This is especially true of ethnic minorities, rural women and young dropouts, according to researchers.”It’s undeniable that there’s a relapse, but what the number is, is hard to tell,” said Guo Hongxia, a scholar at the China National Institute for Educational Research.Hu Xingdou, a sociologist and professor of economics and China issues at Beijing Institute of Technology, suggested that the problem is related to the perceived benefits of education.”Farmers don’t see a bright future from receiving more education,” he said. “Many believe it won’t help them much in making money. They also can’t afford to send their children to university, and a university degree no longer guarantees a job after graduation.”Farmers are expected to learn at least 1,500 characters, according to state education regulations. Urban residents should master 2,000. Teachers in Beijing often tell students they need to know 3,000 characters to read a newspaper. College graduates are tested on 7,000 characters or more.In Liupu, located at the end of a three-mile-long, potholed dirt road, many of those who can’t read and write are older, homebound women. Members of the Shezu ethnic minority, they speak their own dialect and have had little formal education.Researchers say that illiteracy is not confined to older generations, an assertion borne out in Liupu.Zhao Xianghua, 15, said half of her friends can’t read. She boards during the week at a county school that charges $50 a year in tuition, but she has friends who don’t have the same luxury.”Several are already out working,” she said, “and when they come back to visit and we hang out, I can feel the distance between us.”The main test of literacy in China will be officials’ ability to follow up with students and cement any gains, said Hu, the professor, who complained that adults are often taught only how to pass a test.”It’s like planting trees to make a forest,” Hu said. “Many people plant trees, but few take care of them, and finally the trees die before becoming a forest.”


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