Another China...

by on Monday, 28 June 2010 Comments

Already 5 years of expatriation in Shanghai! When I left my little village in the Provence, I didn’t think I would melt so easily into this megalopolis. Of course the first months had been filled with questions and hesitation but with the passing days and the encounters made, I can say now that I love this country and the mystery that it still possesses to me.

The Miao Mountains
Once, as I participated in a tea-party organized by the French-speaking circle of Shanghai, I had the chance to meet volunteers from the association called “Couleurs de Chine” (Colors of China) which aims to sponsor a school for little girls in the Rongshui district of Guangxi province.

This mountainous region is characterized by its rice terrace fields and plantations of fir trees. In order to subsist, the families also farm pigs, cows, poultry and river carp but many peasants still have barely enough food to live on.

Every day women wear the traditional costume made of a dark blue woven cotton (dyed several times with indigo); the clothes are enhanced with embroideries that are transmitted from one generation to the next, thus carrying on the memory of the Miao people.

The roofs of the wooden houses are covered with black tiles or fir bark panels. One or several wells supply each village with drinkable water. Far from the cities and their racket, days peacefully go by in these secluded hamlets, protected by the surrounding mountains.

The other side of the picture
AUTRE-CHINE---photo-3---Petite-fille-et-son-frereMagical landscapes, smiling faces, melodious chants, sparkling colors… these are the common images of the Guangxi province but behind these clichés, there is also another reality. If you travel more attentively, you might be surprised by the number of old people going around with young children or you’ll see at the bend in the path a little girl carrying on her back her baby brother hardly much younger than her, or this other kid carrying on a yoke heavy baskets full of manure…

In theory, school is free and compulsory but it remains out of reach for many children, so most of the women are illiterate. The incomes of the families do not always allow them to pay school fees and when parents have to choose, they give priority to their sons[1]. Furthermore, only a few schools are left in the countryside because of the government’s policy of recentralizing them.

Gaoliang, a hamlet of 900 inhabitants, counts 124 pupils divided into 4 classes of primary school and 1 kindergarten class. Mr. Pan, a school teacher, explains to us that “Some children have to walk through rice fields and mountains paths three hours everyday to go to school and come back, whatever the weather… but without education, we are worth nothing”. He tell us this while accompanying us to the chief of the village. And the reality of this part of the region is merciless: some ‘touts’ tell peasants’ children that they can work in the textile factories of Guangdong and earn in a month what their parents make in one year; teachers with tenure, graduated from university cannot set up in these remote areas because they do not speak the dialect; some children drop out of school because it is too hard to walk such long distances, sometimes even carrying their siblings on their back; and parents have to live far from their children to find a better job, and so on.

The story of a woman
Fascinated by this ancestral culture, Françoise Grenot-Wang, also called Fang-Fang by the locals, dedicated herself to protecting the traditions. In 1990, she and a few friends created “Couleurs de Chine” whose original aim was to promote in France the culture of ethnic minorities of China. Very rapidly, this purpose took on a humanitarian dimension. In 1998, when Fang-Fang settled in Guangxi, none of the girls were sent to school. In 2001, thanks to the association and to numerous sponsors and donors, 1200 children were sent to school; in 2010 more than 5600 children now benefit from the support of “Couleurs de Chine”.

In December 2008, Françoise was on the eve of leaving for Paris where she had planned to celebrate Christmas with her family, when a fire broke out in her big wooden house. And this fire that she feared so much finally took her away.

Deeply saddened by Fang-Fang’s disappearance, friends, donors and sponsors sent supportive messages from China, France, Indonesia, the US, Australia and Brazil. In her memory and in the name of all the children, the association had to go on.

AUTRE-CHINE---photo-4---Cours-de-recreationDo you believe in miracles?

Marine Vitre, a young French woman, started to work for the association in October 2008 but she didn’t have the chance to know Francoise personally as the accident occurred one week before their meeting. When she was aware of the disaster, she went on-site ahead of schedule. Warmly welcomed by the local authorities and the villagers, Marine has now settled down in Danian. Her enthusiasm has already won the peoples’ hearts and the local authorities also have committed to carry on their support. Do not let yourself be taken in by this woman’s frail appearance; she proved her strong character and firm will by keeping the course of “Couleurs de Chine” in the right direction. One can say that she is an exceptional woman!

This is ‘My China’
Here are some of the many encounters I have had the chance to make since I arrived in Shanghai. Far from the Bund and its glitters, at the bend of the alleys, in the shadow of a block condemned to destruction, just lift up your head and you might meet the eyes of someone and start a wonderful story…
(Photos by Ann.S)

 


[1] Ethnic minorities in China benefit from a special law which allows parents to have a second child if the first-born is a girl. In fact, many families have more than two children, usually non-declared.

Read Anne Segura's original article in French

 

Anne Segura

French photographer and designer living in Shanghai

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