China Geography

Happiness Village, Sichuan

China Geography

Loiuse Charles reports on a project to help build a school for a rural Sichuan village. The article first appeared in SACU's China Eye magazine 2008.

China! A wonderful country rich in culture and history, where splendid palaces and temples are filled with beautiful porcelain, paintings and priceless treasures. But it is also a place where conflict has taken its toll.

Following many years of turmoil and isolation, came reform and opening up late in the 20th Century. In recent years development rapidly took place along the eastern seaboard. Magnificent cities rose from farmland creating employment and prosperity for its people. However, this prosperity has not reached many of the remote rural communities in the South Western regions of China. For them, life can be extremely harsh. This is especially true of the Yizu ethnic minority group living in isolated mountain communities of the Liangshan (Great cool mountains)Yizu Autonomous region of southern Sichuan. Theirs is an animist society, rich in culture and traditions. A fierce, proud and dignified people they have seen their traditional way of life replaced by poverty.

Their homeland is a place of great natural beauty full of striking contrasts. Majestic snow capped mountains soar upwards from the rich flood plains where pristine wilderness grows. Crystal clear water tumbles from great heights to form streams that eventually join tributaries of the mighty Yangtze River. Until recently the Liangshan was a forgotten place and had been to some extent "left behind" in the economic transformation that is modern China, but now its people are being pushed towards modernity, slowly and reluctantly.

Jo Charles, an English woman who has lived in China for many years first visited the region in 2001, when she was on holiday from work as the counsellor at an international medical clinic in Beijing. Jo had studied Chinese art at SOAS in London and was also fascinated by Tibet and its ancient culture. While on her way to Tibet she had to wait in Chengdu for a few days while her visa was being processed. The manager of the small hotel where she was staying was Tibetan and one morning asked if she had visited the Yi ethnic minority of the Liangshan, as they too had a long history and fascinating culture.

Deciding to see for herself this ethnic minority of whom she had never heard, she planned a side trip of three days, packing just enough clothes into a small suitcase, to see her through. In the end Jo stayed seven weeks, travelling through many isolated villages on ancient, rust bucket buses that choked and creaked up terrifying steep corrugated and potholed dirt tracks that at that time were the main transport links between the larger towns.

Jo was shocked and saddened by the level of extreme poverty she observed in the small towns and villages through which she travelled. Believing that she must do something to help these people no matter how small, she approached the prefecture education department and offered books and pencils for the children in some of the villages she had seen. She was thanked for her generosity and was told "Miss Jo, if you really want to help, would you build us a school?"

At that time Jo wasn't certain she wanted to build a school. It wasn't her plan at all. However after much persuasion she agreed to go to the village of Huo Pu, two hours by road from Xichang, to see the situation for herself. Appalled, she was confronted by two rammed earth structures that were being used as classrooms, both of which were in dreadful condition and in danger of collapse. Large jagged cracks split the walls, chunks of the roof were missing and outside, the walls were being propped up by spindly tree trunks. In each structure, one tiny window allowed light to penetrate the gloom, there were no blackboards, and rickety, splintered planks served as desks and chairs. No teachers wanted to work there and it was known locally as the 'Pig Pen'. How could she say no and walk away?

Since then, Jo has left her work in Beijing and now lives for most of the year in Xichang, the county seat of the Liangshan. She established the Charles Foundation for Children in Need as a legal entity in 2002 to aid and facilitate the education of underprivileged minority children in the Liangshan. Education for girls is important to Jo as it is customary for many minority cultures in remote rural areas to deny girls this opportunity. These cultures are changing rapidly, and what was once seen as traditional gender roles where education for girls was not considered important, are no longer valid.

Since its inception the Foundation has raised funds to build eight new schools and refurbish a further two. Our latest project, Happiness Village school will be the 11th. The Foundation also sponsors, supports and cares for over 200 at risk children, enabling them to be safe and receive an education. These children are orphans, those who have been abandoned, or are those from single parent families, mainly widows.

In February 2008 Jo was asked if the Foundation would help build a new school at Happiness Village and was told the remarkable story of a young man called Bu Ha. Perched on a slope at the foot of the mountain, Happiness Village is located at the end of the track, a distance away from the other villages in a river valley. The river that once tumbled strongly is no longer there as a dam has stopped its flow. The only sign of its existence is a dried up river bed.

The occupants of the village moved here from the high mountains 15 years ago, and settled on this previously unclaimed land. In the beginning the villagers found the stony earth unsuitable for farming. Slowly they cleared the land of its enormous boulders and rocks, creating fields in which to grow corn and potatoes. They built themselves tiny rammed earth dwellings, with small yards that were enclosed by the rocks they collected from the river bed. Because the community had not obtained government permission to move it did not receive any support from the government and the people were considered stateless.

This meant that their children were unable to attend school in the nearby villages, so the only choice was for them to be sent away to stay with relatives in larger towns where they could receive an education. One of those children was a boy called Bu Ha. During one long, summer holiday, in the year he completed class 9, Bu Ha became troubled, knowing the little children of the village were working for their families, instead of learning. He decided to start a small class, in a cowshed for 6 children and began to teach. The community supported him in his endeavour, and at the end of the summer, Bu Ha did not return to school, choosing to remain in the village to continue his lessons.

Gradually the number of children grew and the cowshed became too small. So Bu Ha went to demolition sites around the county asking for any unwanted bricks and wood so he could build a bigger school. With the aid of the villagers Bu Ha built a basic little school on the barren flood plain no one else wanted. He chose this land for its flatness and space where the children could play.

Today the little school still stands and now has 262 students and 6 teachers. Deeply impressed by Bu Ha's story and what one man could achieve Jo arranged to visit Happiness Village, a two and a half hour drive from Xichang, in Mian Ning County.

It takes two and a half hours to reach the village from Xichang. At first a new highway threads its way along the beautiful An Ning River Valley. In summer carefully tended fields of rice and barley wave gently in the breeze and trees with budding fruit provide shelter from the hot sun. After travelling for nearly two hours, Mian Ning township appears out of the fields. It is a bustling centre of government and commerce where new offices and apartments are being built. Leaving the town, prosperity slowly dissolves and poverty begins to rear its ugly head. Roads that once were smooth deteriorate into corrugated nightmares of large, deep potholes. Veering off, a rough dirt track twists and turns, bumping and jarring along the dried river bed is the way to Happiness Village.

Villages dot the sides of the valley, their rammed earth dwellings and meticulously farmed fields shaping the landscape. Men, women and children of the villages toil in the fields. Wound around the women's heads are turbanish hats of orange, red and green, making them appear like bright bobbing flowers in a sea of brown. Old women wear traditional head gear of thick black rope, braided through their hair. Young girls carry little babies closely on their backs as they bend down to harvest the crops. Their handmade clothes, were once brightly embroidered, with fiery colours of the earth or pastel shades of dawn but now are threadbare and worn.

Arriving at Happiness Village, Jo was greeted with the wide smiles of Bu Ha and the villagers. On closer inspection of the little school she noticed no glass in most of the windows, and the doors were nailed together planks of wood. The desks and chairs were all in a poor state of repair and the rest just sheets of wood propped up on bricks. There is no lighting or heating so that in winter with temperature averaging below zero and the chill wind whipping through the valley, it would be almost unbearably cold. Bu Ha told Jo they had no money for new books or equipment. Although the village has now become a legal entity and the villagers given identity cards, the status of the school is that of a private enterprise and it does not receive any form of assistance from the Education Department of Mian Ning County. Believing that Bu Ha and the community at Happiness village would benefit from, and greatly appreciate a new school, Jo conducted a feasibility study into its construction. The main concern was that the existing buildings are constructed on the flood plain, and although no flooding had occurred in the past 100 years, Jo was not prepared to take a risk with the safety of the children. The two young men who first approached Jo to help the village, Ah Fu and Jue Fang, are both Yi and hold senior positions in the Prefecture government. They are personable young men who care for their people and have offered to assist the Foundation with this project. With the assistance of the Headman and village elders, a block of land situated on higher ground some distance from the flood plain was identified as the most suitable location for the school. A purchase price of RMB18,000 was agreed by all parties concerned. A meeting was held with the Director and two Vice Directors of Mian Ning County Education Department; the headman, accountant and two village elders of Happiness Village; the engineer of the construction company; and the Charles Foundation. The outcome being that owing to central government regulations, the education department is unable to financially assist in the construction of the new school at Happiness village. However, in the spirit of friendship and co-operation, they are happy to offer other support such as teacher training and provide some classroom equipment, and any assistance we may require.

The engineer is to employ some of the young men of the village as apprentices so that they can learn some of the basic skills involved in construction. While the villagers have offered their assistance, we would like the company to employ some of them as labourers for the project. This will benefit the village financially. The school will be a reinforced steel and brick two-storied structure, built on a solid foundation and able to withstand earthquakes. There will be a large, concreted playground with seating areas and a small garden. The school will be surrounded by a high brick wall. There will be seven classrooms for students from classes 1 to 6, plus a kindergarten class. A Teacher's room is to be included, and accommodation for six teachers will be incorporated into the design.

When completed, it is estimated that 400 children will attend the school, with a higher number estimated in the future. This is a large project for our Foundation and the costs considerable. Construction commenced on the school in October 2008. However due to the high costs the amount of RMB500,000 (about £42,000) still needs to be raised. Any donation made no matter how small will be received with heartfelt thanks from The Charles Foundation and the community of Happiness Village. If you would like to help or would like more information you can contact Louise Charles, The Charles Foundation, London either by telephone on 07519 286667 or by e mail at

If you would like any further information please visit our website Charles Foundation .

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2009 reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine, Issue 20, 2008

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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