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Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

Supporting the Development of Female Teachers in Ethnic Villages of China

Professor Atsuko Shimbo-Kobayashi
Waseda University Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences

Teachers are technicians of the spirit

From the time I was an undergraduate student in university until today, a span of 30 years, I have consistently researched education in the remote areas of China. When I was writing my graduate thesis, I received advice from my guidance counselor to "do what only you are capable of doing". This advice was the impetus for me to engage in educational research in China by utilizing the Chinese which I had studied as my secondary foreign language.

At that time, a few researchers were able to use the Chinese language. It was rare for a researcher to directly study Chinese literature while writing their thesis. However, it was very natural for me to select China for my research theme since I had always possessed a strong interest in Asia, and since my father had studied at the military Air Force Academy at the time of the Sino-Japanese War.

The theme of my thesis was regional education with a focus on the city of Yan'an. Yan'an is part of the large area known as the "old liberated region". This region was constructed by the Chinese communist party during the Sino-Japanese War. The region is extremely poor and there are many people who cannot read or write. At the time of Sino-Japanese War, a major program to promote literacy education was being developed for people in the region. From within this program, I selected literacy education for women as my research theme. I used microfilm to read Chinese newspapers published at the time and obtained materials which were held by American universities. By spending a year research such materials, I was able to perform a full-scale literature survey, and was able to write a thesis which met with my satisfaction.

After completing my thesis, I proceed to graduate school and took an examination to qualify for foreign study. From 1981, immediately after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, I spent two years studying at Beijing Normal University. I was a member of the first class of long-term Japanese foreign students after the Cultural Revolution, and was warmly welcomed. The contents of lectures at school were strongly influenced by communist education, and certainly were not interesting. However, I learned a lot during exchanges with teachers that took place outside of the lectures.

Once, when I lay ill with a high fever in my room in the university dormitory, one of my teachers took the trouble to make udon noodles and bring them to me. The teacher said that "Doing this kind of thing is only natural for a teacher", but I was very surprised and extremely grateful. To sum up my experiences during 2 years in Beijing, I learned that "teachers are technicians of the spirit". I believe that the person that I am today is the result of how I grew at Beijing Normal University.

Repaying my debt of gratitude to China by developing female teachers

After my time as a foreign exchange student, I became a member of university academic staff and assumed a position at Waseda University in 1991. At the same time, I had the good fortune to become involved in the activities of the Soong Ching Ling Foundation of Japan, a NGO which conducts aid to China. This involvement gave me the opportunity to once again become deeply involved with China. I established a program to support the development of female teachers in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which is a region inhabited by ethnic minorities of the Islamic faith.

In the past, the Hui people lived in these kinds of spaces which were hollowed out of hillsides.

Oppression of women is extremely strong in Islamic society, and there are also many taboos regarding contact between men and women in Islamic society. There are very few female teachers in schools. Since all teachers are male, it is difficult for girls to go to school, a situation which has continued for a long time. In order to reduce school absentee rates among girls, it is first necessary to develop female teachers. As a result of repeated negotiations with the local educational administration bureau, scholarships were provided to a total of 123 female students from among all female students who enrolled in a local school for teachers. These scholarship programs took place for the 5 years from 1995 to 1999. I consider my involvement in these support activities to be a repayment of my debt of gratitude to China.

Since this program, I have continued a follow-up survey to investigate how these female scholarship students are continuing their work and what kind of lifestyles they are leading. Most of the students continue to work as teachers even after getting married. In China, there is a major economic gap between family registration in farming villages and family registration in cities. If women can become teachers, they can escape from the registration in farming villages and obtain registration in cities, thus obtaining a social status which enables them to receive a fixed income. This is a revolutionary change in their lives. Even if they get married or have children, all of these women continue to work fervently in order to protect their registration in cities.

However, the women are inevitably assigned to a remote school district and they are faced with a difficult choice. Should they leave their husband behind in the city and take their children to the place of their assignment? Or should they leave their children with their husband and go on assignment alone? The women are faced with a difficult life no matter how they decide.

The female students which received scholarship aid have become esteemed teachers. Once every few years, I visit the women to confirm their progress.

For example, one female student belittled herself because she had been born in a remote farming village. However, her way of thinking changed greatly when she received a letter from her Japanese supporter. The letter contained the following words of encouragement: "Take pride in being born in a farming village and work hard. The development and prosperity of Japan was supported by people born in farming villages." The woman graduated teaching school with a splendid academic record and now works as an outstanding teacher. I was surprised when I heard that the woman refused an assignment to the city and volunteered for a position in a village.

I myself visited the location of her volunteer assignment. It was a truly remote village, and it took many hours of driving on a rough mountain ride before I arrived. I asked the women why she had chosen to come to such a remote area. She replied "I was able to become a teacher thanks to the help of many people. I want to repay this debt by working my hardest in a farming village." The first day that the women reported to work, she was greeted by all members of the village and the children happily cried out "Our teacher is here!"

Given strength by the efforts of Hui women

The NGO activities provided me with the impetus to conduct full-scale research regarding education of the Hui people. Upon checking the literature in libraries at Waseda University, I was surprised to discover that a veritable mountain of Hui literature was contained within the Islamic collection of our university. Prior to World War II, there was an "Islamic boom" which occurred in Japan against a background of Islamic political maneuvering which was occurring in mainland China. At this time, a government organization named the Greater Japan Muslim Association was established. A certain person involved in the Greater Japan Muslim Association donated a large amount of literary material to Waseda University. In this way, I was blessed with an ideal research environment, and education of Hui Muslim women became my primary research theme.

A lesson conducted at a women's madrasa which is part of a mosque.

Elementary schools and junior high schools in China are free due to compulsory education. However, school fees are very expensive from high school and onwards, and children from poor families often do not attend school. However, female students among the Hui people are offered a second chance by a "women's madrasa" that is established as part of the mosque. These women's madrasas are made possible through donations, so the school fees are very inexpensive.

At women's madrasas, the Arabic is studied thoroughly over a period over 3 to 4 years. Therefore, the women can achieve independence as an Arabic interpreter if they work hard. Recently, a huge wholesale market has been established in Yiwu City of Zhejiang Province. This market deals in inexpensive products similar to those sold at 100 yen shops in Japan, and people come from all over the world to purchase these goods. In particular, a large number of merchants come from the Middle East, so there is a high demand for interpreters. A woman can receive a substantial salary if she can become an interpreter, but in exchange she is forced to work in a location far away from her home. Even so, women interpreters work their hardest.

Women work hard to acquire knowledge and skill. They acquire employment far away from home and become independent. I was able to see this process from up close, and I myself was even involved in the development of these women. It makes me extremely happy to speak with these women and to watch them as they grow and develop, and I gained much strength from them. I am truly happy to have encountered such a wonderful research theme.

From aid to exchange-lessons learned by Japan

Ningxia Hui children. Their clothes have become clean and tidy compared to the past, but their innocent and carefree expressions remain unchanged.

China has undergone extreme change in the past 20 years. This wave of change is sweeping across even remote areas. When we first began our aid program, the children's clothes were in rags, some of them were not wearing shoes, and their hands were jet black due to lack of water. Nowadays, the children's appearance is clean and tidy. They secure their hair with cute pins and use stationery that features children's characters.

There are still many severe problems in China with children who are poor and cannot go to school. However, I recently feel hope that a future will unfold for these children if they work hard. Whenever I visit China, I am always impressed by the beauty with which students walk. Students walk with good posture and at a fast pace. They look full of confidence. In comparison, I am worried by the appearance of Japanese students, who walk with poor posture and drag their feet. I feel that educational problems in Japan may be even more serious than in China.

I have been involved in aid activities for a long time. However, I feel that the future does not call for aid but rather for exchange. I have taken Japanese students enrolled in my seminar to China and had them work as volunteers. Young people possess great power, and the children in China are delighted. One young girl gave her treasured card to a Japanese student. The student who received this gift was overwhelmed with emotion and became teary-eyed.

With students enrolled in a seminar of the School of Education.

Several years ago, I held a symposium entitled "Empowerment of Ethnic Women during Globalization" at Waseda University. I invited a female teacher who had received aid to speak at the symposium. More than anything, the hearts of the audience were touched by the women's hard work and devotion to children as a teacher. The audience listened with tears in their eyes. I felt as that I had been shown the essence of a teacher, an essence that Japan has lost long ago.

Globalization will continue to advance in the future. The major point of interest is how ethnic groups like the Hui will protect their own culture and survive among the money-worshipping values of China. I believe that this process will reveal the true nature of teaching and learning, things that we Japanese have forgotten.

Professor Atsuko Shimbo-Kobayashi
Waseda University Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences

Born in Ishikawa Prefecture. Completed the Doctorate Course in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Tokyo in 1987. Also in 1987, assumed the position of Research Associate at Kyoto University's Institute for Research in Humanities. From 1991, served as Assistant Professor at the Waseda University School of Education, and then became Professor in 2000. Her specialty is social education. Major themes of her research on China include literacy education, education of ethnic minorities, and the history of education in occupied territories. Her major works include "Lifelong Learning and Community Education" (co-written), "Ethnic Conflicts in Education" (co-written) and "Social Education Facilities and Community Centers of the World" (co-written).

WASEDAWASEDA UNVERSITY Research Promotion  http://www.waseda.jp/rps/