In China, a Light in the Cave


Every morning, the children in raggedy clothes perch on the rocky mountain ridge, waiting for a skinny figure to stumble into view.

If Yang Zhengxue makes it, there will be school. If he doesn’t, there will not.

Yang is the only teacher in this remote corner of southern China. His students live high up in a huge limestone cave, an almost prehistoric habitat without electricity, running water or any other amenity that would identify it as a home for residents of the 21st century.

He is their only bridge to the modern world.


“We don’t have a tradition for education here. So many villages in this area have no school at all,” said Yang, who treks up and down craggy peaks and through muddy fields for an hour and a half to reach his students. “If I give up, it will be the end of this school.”

It’s a heavy burden for a 38-year-old whose own education peaked at middle school. His sense of mission highlights the monumental task his country faces in educating the most populous nation on Earth.

While technically still a developing nation, China wants to project the image of a rising global power, one capable of hosting the 2008 Olympics and embracing world trade. The Communist leadership in Beijing knows that education is a basic building block that makes everything else possible.

The Communist government has made enormous strides to combat illiteracy since coming to power more than five decades ago. In 1949, the country’s illiteracy rate was 80%; it has dropped to 6.7%, according to the latest government census, in which literacy is loosely defined.


But a huge education gap persists between the wealthier coastal cities and the impoverished inland countryside. Failure to narrow the schism could have lasting repercussions on the country’s developmental ambitions.

“China’s education system is a giant pyramid. At the top is a few highly educated people, and at the bottom is a huge base of 1.3 billion who are barely educated at all,” said Zhong Dajun, who runs a private research center in Beijing. “The difference between ignorance and knowledge is the difference between poverty and wealth.”

The hardships of the cave students and this mountainous area’s historic isolation and primitiveness make it an extreme example of the unevenness of development in the country.

The spectacular limestone peaks and lush green forests surrounding the cave where the children and their families live look deceptively inviting. But life here is so poor and underdeveloped, it’s no wonder that every other teacher quit. Yang, however, still makes the arduous hike from his home several mountains away, every day weather permits. He’s been doing it for almost 15 years.


“When he arrived, there were five teachers. Now he’s the only one left,” said Wang Qixiang, 17, a former student of Yang’s.

The cave sits several hours’ walk across rocky mountain terrain from the nearest road and about five hours’ drive from Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province.

Unless one knows the cavern exists, it’s almost impossible to spot it among the endless rolling slopes that dominate the landscape. That’s why people chose to live here: It was a perfect hideaway from warlords, armed bandits and tax collectors who terrorized the country before the Communist revolution.

The 70-odd cave dwellers call their home Zhongdong, or middle cave. It’s the largest of the three natural caverns in the area and the only one hospitable to long-term residence because it goes deep into the mountainside, a kind of underground stadium.


The other two are hardly caves at all, but hang on the forested path to Zhongdong like giant archways along an emerald stairway to the skies.

Inside, however, Zhongdong is far from paradise. Two dozen shanties with plastic for roofs and straw sheets for walls squat under the cave’s porous moonscape ceiling. The air is a potent cocktail of pigsty waste and human sweat. The only source of water trickles down in tiny droplets from a crack in the darkness above.

Daylight peeks in through a thick curtain of bamboo shielding the large entrance. Most families can’t afford to buy candles, so they huddle around a campfire in the middle of the dirt floor. An eerie silence reigns except for the pounding echo of stone tools being used to press corn into flour.

Cave dwelling used to be popular in this area of Guizhou. Various poverty-alleviation programs have succeeded in relocating some residents, but others have refused to leave, usually because they worry about making ends meet outside.


Those who remain eke out a living by hawking their precious few chickens, pigs and cows to markets far below the mountains. Those too old or frail to raise livestock subsist on corn, the only crop that grows in this hilly terrain.

The 20 families who live in Zhongdong belong to the ethnic Miao minority. They speak their own tongue and don’t understand Mandarin, the national dialect.

Some adults, especially the women, have never ventured beyond the cave. There’s no television, newspaper or mail carrier to deliver information from the outside world. Not even the ubiquitous cell phone now connecting almost every corner of China works deep within these ancient hills.

The only modern appliance seen here is a battery-operated red plastic alarm clock. Twice a day, its owner lets it chirp on and on, for as long as 45 minutes. Its mandate is not so much to tell time, but to entertain, like music from a Stone Age radio.


“She likes the sound,” said Wang Hongguang, 54, gesturing to his wife as she sat on the doorstep of their home cradling their infant granddaughter.

The dozen children growing up here have never tasted ice cream or owned a toy. They can’t communicate with strangers who don’t speak their dialect, so they express their affection through song.

The national anthem is the only one in Mandarin they know well. Ask them any question, and they’ll sing it in response: “Arise the people who don’t want to be slaves. Let’s forge our flesh and blood into a new great wall.”

The children sport one set of dirty clothes season after season. Some don’t own shoes. Hunger is constant. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are often rolled into one bowl of cornmeal with salt. Even the cats in the cave scurry around starving. They’ve run out of mice to catch, and there’s little leftover food to throw at them.


In this desolate environment, school is the ultimate luxury.

In the 1980s, the government built a one-room brick house inside the cave to spare the youngest children the long trek to the nearest school outside the cavern. Those who make it through the first two grades can move on to boarding school below the mountains, if their parents can afford it or if they get financial help from the government.

Last semester, local officials built a slightly bigger school below the cave entrance, giving the children access to natural lighting and two classrooms.

But many parents still can’t afford the dollar a semester it takes to enroll their kids. The average income for cave dwellers is $60 a year.


“The country has a nine-year compulsory education system, but no one can force the children here to go to school,” teacher Yang said. “A lot of girls want to go, but their parents say no. The lucky ones finish first grade. The adults think it’s a waste of money.”

The new school has 43 students and two grades--first and second. The children’s ages range from 6 to 14. There are 15 girls in the first-grade class and only two in the second grade.

Yang teaches the two classes simultaneously. The first-graders repeat after him, reciting the story of a country bumpkin going to the big city. As they carry on, Yang hops over to the other room, telling second-graders to flip to the chapter in their threadbare textbook on how to weigh an elephant.

Yang performs the same juggling act as he teaches math, art, music and physical education. To outsiders, his efforts seem haphazard. To these deprived youngsters, they are life-changing exercises.


“I teach them basic things like marching together, turning right, turning left,” Yang said. “Without these simple steps, they will never be able to adjust to life in a real school.”

After making less than $13 a month for 15 years, Yang finally got a raise last year that boosted his state-paid salary to $75 a month. That makes him the richest man in the area and the subject of great envy.

Still, most parents are grateful for his presence.

“He’s teaching here because nobody else wants to,” said Wang Fengguo, 40, whose daughter went to the cave school. “Every semester a new teacher comes and goes. This place is too remote. They can’t get used to it.”


Yang grew up in the Zhongdong area. His family also lived in the cave for a time. The children have become part of his life. He knows all their stories.

There’s the 9-year-old boy whose mother was recently kidnapped and sold as a bride in another part of China. The 14-year-old first-grader whose father died and whose mother doesn’t want her in school. The 7-year-old girl who doesn’t like to talk; her mother, who is deaf and mute, went job hunting with her husband in the city and they never returned.

They are some of the lucky ones. After the new school was built, Yang took on students from nearby villages. They must walk two hours of mountain path each way to get here. Lunch for them is a cold potato, if anything at all.

“These children have no idea what the outside world is like,” Yang said. “I wish I could teach classes in my house. That way they could watch TV and see that not everyone in the world lives like primitives.”


Instead, he pays some of the children’s tuition out of his own salary. “I tell their parents if they can learn to read and write they can find a job away from the cave and make more money,” Yang said.

Yang’s parents were illiterates who grew up in the cave. He was the first son of eight siblings, and his family was too poor to send him to school. When he was 10, he sneaked out to gather medicinal herbs in the hills and sold them for the 6 cents it took to enroll in school.

He became the most educated person in his village. His father was his first pupil.

“He didn’t know how to keep track of our corn harvest,” Yang said. “I taught him how to read numbers and count to 10,000.”


When the cave needed teachers, Yang earned the highest score on the qualifying test and got a job. His dedication earned him a spot in the Chinese Communist Party, a great source of pride for this farmer’s son.

But that has not made his frustrations go away. Official corruption keeps most financial aid from reaching the children. Poor oversight allowed shabby construction of the new schoolhouse. It leaks water and is in danger of collapsing.

Going back to the cave is hardly an option. The school inside is too small, and some residents have a habit of chopping up its desks and chairs to burn as firewood.

But the learning continues, as long as there is one teacher standing.


“I’m never leaving,” Yang said. “This is my hometown. These children need an education. I have to persist no matter what.”