Written by Dominique Carrier

 

Rural Chinese Education Through Film And Words

North American moviegoers have recently been introduced to Zhang Yimou with his two wuxia pian epics Hero and House of Flying Daggers. However, art house aficionados have known the films of the Chinese auteur for quite some time. Ju Dou was brought to American shores by the protests of Woody Allen, Marten Scorsese and Steven Spielberg against the banning of the film in its native land as it was considered politically dangerous by portraying the lead female character rebelling against male authority. After concentrating his cinematic efforts on the Cultural Revolution period, but before achieving his poetically lush vision of traditional sword fights, Yimou explored contemporary settings and new thematic avenues. In 1999 he directed Not One Less, a film exposing the educational system of Mainland China. Thematic similarities to Ha Jin’s short story In the Kindergarten make Not One Less a worthwhile recommendation.

              Both stories focus on a female protagonist in a traditional school setting; In the Kindergarten portrays a young student overcoming her homesickness, dealing with a bully, and getting back at her teacher. Much like the short story, the film makes quite a biting social commentary of the education system in rural areas of China. Credibility is achieved by inducing the documentary factor into the fiction; the director chose non-professional actors who even retained their real names. Wei Minzhi is a thirteen year old farm girl who becomes the substitute teacher for a month in a small village when the regular teacher must go away to visit his ill mother. From her first day, she displays a strong standing-up-for-herself attitude as she points out a missing piece of chalk (one for each day she is teaching) left for her to use. She also asks the Mayor to acknowledge her payment of 50 Yuan for the month of her teaching. Wei Minzhi's strong will foreshadows future events where she displays her aggressive attitude with endearing underlying innocence. As she chases down both the Mayor and departing teacher, Mr. Gao, she is promised an extra 10 Yuan payment if all of the students remain in school when he returns. All of them. Not one less.

              At first she is almost like her students, completely adrift without knowing what to do or how to; she transcribes on the blackboard grammar lessons from her handbook, goes outside and waits for the children to copy and learn on their own (which they obviously do not ). One day, an unruly troublemaker student leaves town in order to go look for work to help pay his family’s debt. With her new goal to find and bring him back, she incorporates math into her lessons and figures out with the students how much she needs to pay for her bus fare to the city. The determination of Wei Minzhi is shown to us with a naive single-mindedness. Her reluctance to give up only cements the honesty of her intent. The supporting cast give a free and seemingly unscripted performance well beyond their years and experience. After working a day at a local quarry, they decide to spend the extra money earned on two Coca-Cola cans for the whole group, many of the children tasting the commercial liquid for the first time. Inevitably, the scene puts the viewer into the realistic depths of the level of their poverty.

 

            The short story by Ha Jin portrays a similar feeling of coming of age. Shaona, the five-year-old protagonist, learns a great deal while staying at the boarding school. However, her realizations come from her own actions and interpretations, not from the standard curriculum. From the time a child is very young, everyone— parents, teachers, other children—tries to teach him or her something. The things others say don't always make sense to a child; sometimes the message gets horribly scrambled in translation. Children are further confused when parents, teachers, and other children offer wildly different opinions on the same subject. In both stories, the schools are merely settings. What the characters are taught and what they actually learn in the end is quite different. Ultimately, the determination of Wei Minzhi to go look for the missing child in the city, and the way Shaona dealt with her teacher both made them grow as characters and develop in general awareness and actions.      

 

Works Cited