Orphan’s Essay Sets Off Debate About Poverty in China

In just over 300 Chinese characters, the 12-year-old girl’s homework assignment told a story filled with enough tragedy to rival a novel. It was not fiction, though. It was the true story of how her father died four years ago, and how she then watched her mother become gravely ill. And it has set off a debate about the persistence of poverty in the midst of China’s rapid economic growth.

The girl and her mother traveled to the city of Xichang from their mountain home in the southwestern province of Sichuan for treatment. “We didn’t have any money, and she didn’t get better,” the girl wrote. After several days, they returned home. When they arrived, the girl made some food for her mother, but by the time it was ready, her mother had died.

“Our textbook says there’s a place called Sun Moon Lake,” the girl wrote. “That’s the tears of a daughter who misses her mother.”

The essay was written by Muku Yiwumu, an ethnic Yi girl who lives in Puxiong Township in the Liang Mountains of southern Sichuan. A volunteer teacher took a photo of the homework assignment and posted it online. The painful, simply told story soon spread widely on the Internet, a medium the girl was hardly aware of, according to one Sichuan newspaper that interviewed her. It was often shared with the hashtag that translates as “The Saddest Essay.”

The details of the girl’s daily life filled many readers with sympathy and surprise that, while China’s fast-growing economy has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, some still struggle to survive.

Yiwumu’s 16-year-old sister and 15-year-old brother have left the village in search of work. After her mother’s death, Yiwumu cared for two younger brothers, ages 10 and 5, but the two have since moved to Xichang, about 100 miles away over mountain roads, to a school run by the Sichuan Suoma Charity Foundation. Yiwumu has stayed in the village, where she lives with a younger cousin who is also orphaned, a representative of the charity foundation, who would only give his surname, Xu, said in an interview.

When Yiwumu is not in school, she cares for the family’s pigs, farms their potato field and watches after her cousin and grandparents, who live nearby. Under Chinese law, because she is an orphan she receives a monthly subsidy of 678 renminbi, or about $109 dollars, according to a report in the Beijing Youth Daily.

“What they are lacking isn’t money, but care,” Huang Hongbin, director general of the Sichuan Suoma Charity Foundation, said of the children, the news portal Sina reported.

The girl’s story has drawn donations estimated at 920,000 renminbi to charities in the area, Sina said.

It has also prompted criticism that the government should do more to help impoverished areas, particularly at a time when Beijing is investing in major projects, such as the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the ruling Communist Party, responded that the government had put far more into efforts to alleviate poverty in the Liang Mountains in recent years than it has earmarked for the 2022 Games.

The article went even further, saying that the reason some parts of the mountainous region were not developed was not a lack of government concern, but the stubbornness of its residents.

In poorly developed areas of the mountains, “there’s a common trait,” it said.  “Some people have a tradition of bad habits, reject modern civilization and don’t think of moving forward. In such places the state invests great amounts, but it still doesn’t help.”

Mr. Xu said that Yiwumu knew little about the debate her essay had set off, and that the volunteer teachers had decided it was best not to discuss it with her.

“We hope she can just go to school and study as usual,” he said. “Our volunteer teachers’ focus is teaching. We hope we can change the children’s lives through education.”

Mr. Xu added that criticism of people living in the district ignored the harsh environmental challenges they face, and that the girl’s essay was not intended to be a complaint about poverty, but rather an expression of grief after the loss of her parents.

“Few people have come here, so all they have is their imagination,” he said. “The government has done lots of work here. There are lazy people in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, too. It’s the same everywhere.”

“So you can’t see the issue in a one-sided way and say the entire Liang Mountains area is like that,” he added. “Lots of people there attach great importance to education and work very hard. But their geographic conditions prevent them from getting rich.”

Text: The New York Times  AUSTIN RAMZY August 6, 2015

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