Why Jihan Can’t Read
China has vowed to beat illiteracy and claimed
victory, but experts say the truth is more troubling.
BY SARAH SCHAFER
China has pledged time and again to wipe out illiteracy, which makes the story of Zhou Jihan quite awkward. Not because she has yet to master her Chinese characters, but because there are still many millions of Chinese struggling like her to learn to read and write as adults. That’s a shame Beijing would prefer you did not read about.
Zhou, now 36, grew up in a poor family in a remote village in western China. Because even the local primary school charged high fees, Zhou’s parents made what the whole family considered an easy choice: Zhou’s brothers went to school, and she and her sisters stayed home to work on the farm. “I never went to school once in my childhood,” said Zhou. “We followed the tradition of paying more attention to the boys of the family than to the girls.” She’s proud to have memorized more than 1,000 Chinese characters, but must learn 500 more to be considered literate. But Chinese authorities had promised more than painstaking progress.
In 2000, the Chinese government announced that it would wipe out illiteracy among adults as well as ensure free nine-year compulsory education for children by 2005. In 2002, state media reported great strides: the illiterate share of the population had fallen from 22.3 percent in 1992 to just 8.7 percent. That was the last time Beijing released official figures on illiteracy. But in April, the state-run English-language China Daily announced that illiteracy had returned to “haunt” the country. The article quoted a top education official, Gao Xuequi, saying at a conference that the number of illiterate Chinese had grown by more than 30 million from 2000 to 2005, creating a “worrying” situation.
(Newsweek International, June 18, 2007:28.)
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