The Chinese saying “万般皆下品，唯有读书高 (Wànbān jiē xiàpǐn, wéi yǒu dúshū gāo)” means there is nothing more valuable than education. Despite society’s emphasis on education, not all areas in the country have equal access to it.
According to research from 2008, most rural families live below the poverty line with a net income of $100. High school tuition is $160 before fees for three years. Thus, most rural families cannot fund their childrens’ education, trapping children in the cycle of poverty.
Zhang Guimei has been trying to change things for rural women. She sought to do so after seeing the double standard.
Parents encourage boys to further their education, but encourage girls to marry and start work young. Providing education to these girls would empower them to pursue the jobs they want.
In doing so, they would no longer have to rely on their husbands’ support.
Zhang spent her summer and winter vacations from 2002 to 2007 on the streets asking for donations to her school. Five years of efforts only yielded 10,000 yuan, about $1,500.
Few people believed in Zhang’s vision to elevate young women’s lives. Some even called her a swindler.
But in 2008, she founded the first free high school in Lijiang’s Huaping county in northern Yunnan province. And in 2011, all 100 of her students passed the college entrance exams, proving naysayers wrong.
It was a challenge to get all of the students to pass because many students had poor academic performances. On top of that, more than half of the teachers resigned in less than a year.
If that is not impressive enough, some of her students went on to attend prestigious Chinese universities.
But this trailblazer’s disciplinary actions and ideologies have stirred controversy. First, Zhang banned entertainment and required identical haircuts for all students.
She dictates various aspects of her students’ lives to ensure that they put all their energy into their studies. People call her 虎妈 Hǔ mā or “Tiger Mom.”
Second, she said this: “Women need to be self-reliant. Do not trust these men.” She provides young women with education to not have to rely on their husbands and be housewives.
To see her students become her nightmare feels like a slap to the face. Critics view her prejudice towards homemakers as disrespectful towards women and anti-feminist.
But, Zhang’s controversies are a blip when one considers all the women she has helped escape the cycle of poverty, early marriage, and lack of education. She does this all while battling several illnesses and crippling pain daily.
She does not plan on stopping until her last breath. She hopes her work inspires other counties to establish free high schools for women. If she can do it, others can too.