40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up

Dance a passport out of poverty for Yunnan children

Since 2016, a group of volunteers has come together to teach traditional dance to the children of Naduo, one of the poorest villages in Yunnan. Called Rainbow Project, the group hopes to lift minority children out of poverty through the arts.
Primary school girls of Naduo village in Zhela county of the Wenshan Zhuang and Miao autonomous region of Yunnan in their traditional dress as they prepare for an ‘apprenticeship ceremony’ a day before they were to set off for school in Kunming.
Primary school girls of Naduo village in Zhela county of the Wenshan Zhuang and Miao autonomous region of Yunnan in their traditional dress as they prepare for an ‘apprenticeship ceremony’ a day before they were to set off for school in Kunming.ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG
Little girls from neighbouring Liuyan village in Zhela county lugging freshly-plucked ragweed and other vegetables down from the mountain.
Little girls from neighbouring Liuyan village in Zhela county lugging freshly-plucked ragweed and other vegetables down from the mountain.ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG
Girls from Naduo village smiling as they hold out their fresh admission papers into Kunming Art School, one of the most prestigious dance academies in the province.
Girls from Naduo village smiling as they hold out their fresh admission papers into Kunming Art School, one of the most prestigious dance academies in the province.ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG
An aerial view of Naduo village in Zhela county of the Wenshan Zhuang and Miao autonomous region of southern Yunnan province.
An aerial view of Naduo village in Zhela county of the Wenshan Zhuang and Miao autonomous region of southern Yunnan province. ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG
Project co-founder Mdm Zhang Ping (in white), a dance choreographer, takes a group photo with some of the Naduo village children a day before they are to leave for Kunming city, the furthest most of them have ever travelled.
Project co-founder Mdm Zhang Ping (in white), a dance choreographer, takes a group photo with some of the Naduo village children a day before they are to leave for Kunming city, the furthest most of them have ever travelled.ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG

YUNNAN - With arms interlinked and laughing as they kicked their heels to the rhythm of a three-string lute, the dozen young maidens of the Yi minority group showcased their traditional ethnic dance, an art form that had nearly disappeared in their small mountain community.

The performance was a kaleidoscope of neon colours as the girls swirled around in an expanding and contracting circle, their intricately embroidered jackets and headdresses that were each handstitched at home proudly on display as village elders watched on.

But the brave smiles of those like Zhang Yuqian, 12, masked apprehension, as the dance item was part of a ceremony that marked a new chapter for the next generation of remote Naduo village, which in the Yi dialect means "paddy fields hidden behind the mountains".

Yuqian, together with 54 other children, would travel nearly 350km the next day - the furthest she would ever be from home - to begin her schooling at Kunming Art School in the provincial capital of the same name, and would not see her parents for the next six months.

"I'm worried that I may not fit in in the city, but I'm also happy because it shows that Teacher Zhang and Teacher Guan's instructions have not been wasted," she said.

The two teachers are choreographer Zhang Ping and ballet teacher Guan Yu with the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy, who in 2016 began the Rainbow Project. This is a ground-up initiative that seeks to lift minority kids in Yunnan's Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, of which Yuqian's Naduo village is a part, out of poverty through the arts.


Little girls from neighbouring Liuyan village in Zhela county lugging freshly-plucked ragweed and other vegetables down from the mountain. ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG

Despite having no organisational or government support, the couple are an example of how private Chinese citizens have effectively mobilised themselves in volunteer work that complements Beijing's top-down poverty alleviation efforts.

Last year (2017), the couple raised funds to send four children from Naduo village to Kunming Art School, after the quartet passed its rigorous entrance exams following weekly dance lessons with volunteer teachers from local schools.

Naduo, a village of 200 people, was in 2013 designated one of the 17 poorest villages in the mountainous region. Its 20 poorest households each have a monthly income of 1,075 yuan (S$212).

Despite the odds, the students did well enough that the school and its affiliate, the Yunnan Art School, offered another 51 scholarships this year, said Ms Zhang.

"We knew we couldn't handle everything ourselves, but as we soldiered on more people asked if they could volunteer with us, and today the project has more than 80 volunteers, including the six instructors that make the five-hour drive to Naduo every week," she said.

Like the villagers of Naduo, Mr Guan is struck by the swift transformation that has taken place across rural China in the last two years.

Since the government made full poverty alleviation a key measure for achieving a moderately prosperous society by 2020, in Naduo, dirt roads have been cemented over, while mud shacks have been turned, nearly free-of-charge, into multi-storey, granite-tiled houses.

Chronic power and water shortages are now a thing of the past, and the village even has solar-powered street lamps and basketball courts.

There is also marked improvement in rural medical services: the Zhela township today boasts 3.13 hospital beds per 1,000 people, just above the national average of 3 per 1,000, while social insurance fully covers every household, ensuring they meet a minimum living standard.


Ke Mei, a 12-year-old from Naduo village, memorising her speech before she goes on stage at the ‘apprenticeship ceremony’ meant to prepare the children for life away in Kunming city. ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG

"On my first visit in 2016, we had to trek almost an hour into the village as thick, muddy roads meant cars could not pass," Mr Guan recalled.

"The country has done a good job in poverty alleviation when it comes to the hardware. But the software, such as in education, will take longer, which is where we're working closely with the township and county government."

There are no records of anyone from the village ever completing a degree or diploma. The traditional career path, after completing secondary school, is that of a migrant worker working a low-paying service or manufacturing job in one of the nearby cities.

 

While there was success among the first batch of students sent by the Rainbow Project to the city, there were some problems as well.

There were a few instances of truancy, which was eventually traced to difficulties adjusting and homesickness, said Mr Guan. The attractions of city life, such as ordering takeout, also meant they were not as thrifty as they could be, he added.

"There were issues that we initially did not foresee, such as when I saw their report cards and they had failed their computer classes," he said. "I asked them why they didn't study hard, and it was only then that they said 'teacher, we had never seen a computer before, and don't even know how to turn them on'."

Wang Shiyi, one of the four, also recalled how her classmates poked fun at her for being darker-skinned, and shunned her and the other students from Naduo after they found out their studies were sponsored.

"The city moves at such a fast pace unlike back home, that sometimes I miss the simple life I had of picking mushrooms and grazing the cows," said the 14-year-old.

Such issues of social dislocation will become more acute as China continues its urbanisation push, with the hope that a greater urban population will fuel a new, domestic consumption-driven economy. By 2030, the target is for its cities to be home to one billion people, compared to some 839 million today.

The country can learn a few lessons from the Rainbow Project, which this year organised an "apprenticeship ceremony" for the new batch of students.

Apart from showcasing their dance chops, the ceremony saw the children pen their aspirations and make solemn pledges to work hard. It also told them there was a network of adults in Kunming that they could depend on if they ever needed support or just a listening ear.

"Through this project, and this ceremony, the children have come to know that the arts can also be a pathway out of poverty, but they also realise we are doing this as volunteers," said Mr Guan.

"The hope is that they realise we shouldn't depend solely on the country's resources, and that they will also become change agents in their own homes."