West China Story (西部故事) is a philanthropy project – it aims to support poor students in rural parts of Western China by helping them finish their study and connect with the outside world. In order to earn the sponsorship, students have to become a blogger and publish their stories on westchinastory.com. The project was initiated by Town and Talent Technologies as part of the effort of “Caring for China’s West (關懷西部).” At the end of 2010, LittlePo Adventures had an initial contact with the project coordinator and has decided to support the cause via donations and leading volunteer expeditions.
I first learned about West China Story by reading the book, Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China written by James Fallows. The book is a collection of articles originally published on The Atlantic. When I co-led a 4-week China trip for the Global Service Learning project of the Lakeside School, it was one of the two books we read and discussed1. I enjoyed Fallows’ book very much. He demonstrated sincerity and deep understanding towards China’s systems, events, land, and people. He narrated and analyzed many issues with an open mind and compassion. While many articles gave me a refreshing angle to look at an existing issue, one article echoed in my mind and called for my action. The article is called “How the West Was Wired,” and you can read it here online as well.
The reason I feel so connected to this story is threefold: 1. Western China is astonishingly beautiful. I always think it’s the place to visit. 2. The project was initiated by two Taiwanese who are also alumni of National Taiwan University. 3. I have witnessed some of the harsh living conditions in China’s West. Most importantly I can relate to the desire of the rural kids to finish their education from my mom’s childhood stories.
Western China consists of alpine landscape and expansive deserts including the high peaks of the Himalaya and Taklamakan Desert with the rest of the landscape occupying highlands of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau (雲貴高原), Tibetan Plateau (青藏高原), and Loess Plateau (黃土高原). In the west of China, travelers are destined to awe the beautiful scenery: continuous mountain ranges, serene alpine lakes, amazing sand dunes, steep canyons etc. Many martial art movies have been drawn to take scenes here, such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Dragon Inn etc. The immense landscape naturally creates a desolate yet romantic atmosphere.
When the regulations prohibiting travel from Taiwan to China finally thawed, visiting northwestern China was the obvious first step for me and I eventually retraced the Silk Road. Many people were surprised by my choice because I was always fond of Chinese literature and was deeply drawn by the falling flowers, spring rains, and stone bridges depicted in many timeless poems. But, while western China might have been less talked in records, it stimulated better and wilder imagination within me. Since then, I have kept going back to western China and I still have many to-visit destinations, including northwest Yunnan, Qinghai and Tibet. I have also started a research on the Tea Horse Trail (茶馬古道).
Western China is a perfect playground for adventurers but on the flip side it translates to harsh living conditions for the locals. Northwest China is used to be where criminals were sent. Some of the cities along the Silk Road have had their glories and transformed to touristy spots nowadays. However, it does not take too far of a hike from the busy clamorous streets to discover a poor family crammed in a tiny house made of mud burning coal and animal waste for heat. In China, when there is land, there are people. Many locals in Western China still live in a traditional way of which they rely their survival on the land; however, the land is already over-exploited and many natural disasters keep taking tolls on the environment.
Kenny Lin (林光信) and Sayling Wen (溫世仁) were classmates in the Department of Electrical Engineering of the National Taiwan University from 1966 to 1970. Wen stayed in Taiwan after graduation and became very successful in the electronics industry. Lin went to the United States, earned a doctorate, eventually became a US citizen. Separately they visited Gansu province, witnessed the hardship of life on the dry land, and made a similar determination to bring modernization to western China.
In 2000, a new company called “Town and Talent Technologies” was born. The premise was to connect a thousand villages and develop ten thousand talented people (千鄉萬才). Their initial efforts were economically successful – the isolated villages were connected to the outside world and as a result young villagers were able to land factory jobs in the eastern part of China. However, Lin faced an ethical dilemma resulting from sending villagers away from their homeland while many of them weren’t even prepared for the different social-economical climate in the east. Since 2008, the company took a reversed strategy to use Internet to create local jobs, and has set up programs in schools in western China to train students to use computers.
The company also started a program called West China Story to connect younger kids (middle and high school) in remote areas with the outside world. Students basically apply for a work study grant (800 rmb a year) to cover all the expenses in school. In return, they have to publish blog articles and photos taken from a shared camera on the website. Most of the blog articles are about their school lives, friends, and families. Their living environment is usually revealed by their stories. For example, I read about a kid who lives with grandparents because the parents are far away for work, and another kid who often cooks for her dad who is occupied by labor intensive work shifts. Some kids worry about what the future is going to unfold; some kids still express a positive attitude.
When I was born in Taiwan in 1975, Taiwan was still under martial law issued by the Chiang Kai-Shek government who lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong. Throughout my elementary school and middle school, the textbooks were censored. I was not too naive to believe that our government was going to fight back and save the fellow Chinese people who were suffering from communism. But I enjoyed Chinese literature and felt connected with Chinese history and culture. I did often wonder what the lives were like in the other side of Taiwan Stairt. I honestly think the so-called One China policy is ridiculous and I claim my nationality Taiwanese. However, there is no way that I can ignore the people who live on the land which I have studied and been taught to care for since childhood. I have visited China many times and have had interactions with many local people. Underneath the political propaganda, at the people’s level, don’t we all share the basic desire: food, shelter, family, friendship, dignity?
In January 2010, I took my mom for a week tour in Guilin and Yangshou. We took a ride on a bamboo raft down the Li river. We saw a few cows wander at the bank, a flock of ducks wade in the water. I described some phenomenon I observed in China to my mom. My mom said, “you know, it’s just like Taiwan when I was a kid.” I have heard many of my mom’s childhood stories. She was born in a farmer’s family, and as a young elementary school aged girl, she had to help with the farm work, take buffalos to a local river for a bath, pick up eggs in the morning, take care of younger siblings. My grandparents didn’t want to let her continue school once the mandatory 6-year education was finished. She had to fight really hard to go to school. She wanted to escape from her isolated village badly. She was determined to raise her kids in a city so all of them could get an advanced education. She told me my dad’s family (his mom and 5 other siblings) shared a small room about 150 square feet when they moved to Taiwan from Hong Kong when my dad was a teenager.
I never witnessed the living environment my parents experienced when they were young, but I did witness how my mom saved every single penny and how determined she was to push me and my brothers to excel in school. When I was in middle school, I sometimes visited my classmates at their home and every mom was doing some sort of small-scale manufacturing work at home for extra income. Nowadays Taiwan is fairly modernized, we do have other issues. However, the challenges most people face are no longer survival. China is way larger than Taiwan, and yes their economic influence can not be ignored, they are a rising power, and Shanghai is probably more modern than any other urban area in the world. However, the gap between urban and rural areas is increasing and the distribution of most resources are usually skewed and favored to urban residents. One reason Lin wanted to help the western kids because he thinks at the very least the kids deserve a fair competition.
Western China is vast; most of the land is either at high attitude or dry and sterile. Yet a quarter of China’s population lives here, which is roughly the entire population of the United States. Western China is also where most of the minority groups live. That means on top of the challenges brought by harsh living conditions, there are potentially other deeper issues. Kids here deserve a fair chance. At the bare minimum, they should have the opportunity to finish school.
Before the end of 2010, I established contact with the coordinator of West China Story, Mr. Tang. I expressed interest and commitment to provide assistance. I also learned that many schools in western provinces of China (currently the list includes Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Ningxia, and Hebei2) are in need of connections with the outside world. For example, they welcome sponsors to visit the students and schools and western volunteers to teach English lessons etc.
LittlePo Adventures will support the cause by the following methods:
- For every active journey taking place in China, LittlePo Adventures will donate 1% of the income to sponsor students of the West China Story project.
- LittlePo Adventures will lead volunteer expeditions to explore the pristine landscape of western China and carry out service projects in schools to help students acquire new skills and first hand interactions with the outside world.
If you empathize with the cause and would like to sponsor a student in western China independently, you can find a list of students who have applied for a grant here. Outside of China, you can donate online via Give2Asia. If you are in China, you can wire money directly to the student’s bank account.
- The other book was Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop. ↩
- Technically, Ningxia is not a province but an autonomous region; Hebei is not located in western China geographically but the situation in the villages is similarly desperate ↩