Left-Field Careers for Farmers’ Kids


YUNNAN, Southwest China — Zhi Zhengjiao, 17, grew up among rolling green hills full of corn stalks and tea shrubs. But despite this natural vista, other outlooks remain dull. For children like Zhengjiao, there are two typical career paths: becoming a migrant worker in the city or staying home to farm.

Zhengjiao, who has waist-length hair and bangs that nearly cover her eyes, is creative and fond of drawing. She never considered it a skill that could earn her money until two years ago, when she listened to a designer share her career experience at school, Nanjian No. 2 Middle School. Now, Zhengjiao is set on becoming a fashion designer.

Nanjian Yi Autonomous County is a three-hour drive along a rugged mountain road from Dali, the nearest city. Whereas urban parents push their children to outperform their peers, here, as well as elsewhere in China’s underdeveloped rural heartland, many see education as useless — partly for economic reasons, partly for lack of imagination. There are few role models for academic success. Zhengjiao’s mother, a farmer, only ever attended elementary school.

The career events at Nanjian No. 2 are organized by an NGO, Tumeng, to inspire students to continue their studies beyond middle school, the end of China’s compulsory education period. Children are supposed to stay in school until ninth grade, when most children are around 15 years old. But in rural areas such as Nanjian, many children start school late and drop out early. Most of the roughly 1,400 students at the school come from villages in the surrounding countryside, and more than 90 percent are Yi — an ethnic minority of about 8 million people.

Students take notes during a career-sharing event at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneStudents take notes during a career-sharing event at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying

“Students here have no idea what life is like outside of the mountains, and they think that if they can’t get into high school or college, they can always just go back to the mountain and grow tea,” says Chen Fei, a volunteer teacher at the school. Zhengjiao tells Sixth Tone that before taking part in Tumeng’s event, the only occupations she had heard of besides being a farmer or factory worker were teacher, doctor, and scientist.

Zhengjiao, now in her last grade of middle school, has signed up for art classes — which she hopes will allow her to further her education. Her mother supports this ambition. “With my grades, it’s not easy to get admitted to a high school, but after studying painting for two years, I can get bonus points as an art candidate,” Zhengjiao says animatedly. “Once I go to high school, I’m closer to my dream school: China Academy of Art.”

Tumeng was founded by Yang Xueqin, who realized the need to motivate rural students after she volunteered as a middle school geography teacher in rural Yunnan. Although it was rewarding for the Chongqing native to see her students improve, she says she felt powerless to prevent children from dropping out. When she finished her two-year stint, her class was twice as small as when she started. “They don’t know why they should study, because they lack the motivation to learn,” Yang says.

The solution was giving the children role models. “Through online videos, professionals can share their own career paths and workplace experiences with children in remote areas,” Yang explains. Beijing-based Tumeng is as aspirational as its name, which is made up of the characters for “journey” and “dream.” Since 2015, it has reached more than 60,000 pupils from all over China. Hundreds of volunteer professionals have talked about how they became archaeologists, e-sports players, programmers, illustrators, or interior designers.

Students attend a career-sharing presentation given by an investment banker at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneStudents attend a career-sharing presentation given by an investment banker at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying

Tumeng initially spread through volunteer teachers. Yang Fuqiong (no relation to Yang Xueqin) teaches Chinese at Muping Middle School in Yibin, in southwestern Sichuan province. She found Tumeng when she was desperate for a way to stir up the students’ passion for studying. “They think they have no future,” she says. “But they are so smart and full of potential.” The career planning courses have noticeably changed the students, she says: They do their homework instead of playing on their phones. “They’ve realized that being a migrant worker isn’t their only option after graduation.”

In the beginning, it proved hard to convince school principals, who saw career classes as a distraction, Yang Xueqin says. Lou Shengzhang, the principal of Nanjian No. 2, was an exception. He tells Sixth Tone that while only a few of his students have good enough grades to enroll in high school, he sees value in expanding everyone’s horizons. Even university-educated locals often choose to become civil servants purely because it’s the only high-level occupation they know. “They don’t know much about [the types of skills] society needs, and what their own strengths are,” he says.

Luo, who attended university, says that his students’ parents, mostly farmers, were initially skeptical. They thought the people sharing their stories were exceptions, and that their careers were unattainable for their own children. But Luo persisted, and parental opposition dwindled after he showed videos of Tumeng events that included a top-level wrestler from rural Yunnan and a boy from a farming family who had become a successful investor in Shanghai.

Locally, women often become mothers at a young age. Zhengjiao knows several classmates who are already pregnant. When she told her friends and roommates about an event at which a female pilot talked about her career, they were shocked. “They can’t imagine a girl still being single at 30 and becoming a professional pilot,” she says. Chang Ranran, a 17-year-old classmate of Zhengjiao’s, agrees that the events changed her views on what is possible in life. “After middle school, many girls get pregnant, and so we think our whole lives will just be like this,” Ranran says, referring to married life in the countryside.

Students pick up trash after class at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth ToneStudents pick up trash after class at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying

Tumeng has also expanded to cities, but because the NGO’s donors only sponsor rural programs, urban schools must pay to participate. Duan Lili, founder of Shanghai-based Career Sharing — a nonprofit organization that aims to help young people solve career problems — sees a need for career education among urban students. High-schoolers are made to choose a major, but they often don’t know what they want. “I’ve noticed that many university students are at a loss,” Duan says, explaining that many realize they are not interested in continuing in the direction they initially choose. “Their college life just passes in a blur without a particular goal,” she says.

Back in Yunnan, Ranran tells Sixth Tone that her lifelong dream of being a TV host always seemed “too far away.” In 2016, she signed up for a career-sharing event hosted by a TV personality. “I used to think of it as a glorious job that could bring an audience happiness, but then I learned about the persistent effort behind the glitz and glamor,” Ranran says.

Zhi Zhengjiao (left) and Chang Ranran look at works of art created by their classmates at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone Zhi Zhengjiao (left) and Chang Ranran look at works of art created by their classmates at Nanjian No. 2 Middle School in Nanjian Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province, March 22, 2018. Fan Yiying

Afterward, Ranran, who wears her hair in a bob to stand out from other Yi girls, made the first step toward what might become a media career by volunteering to be a host for the school’s radio station. Every day during lunch and dinner, her voice booms across campus as she delivers the latest news, plays pop songs, and reads essays written by students. “I’m not entirely sure if I will still want to be a TV host in the future, as there are many more professions out there,” Ranran says. “But at least I’m one step ahead of my peers.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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The Wedding Planner Reviving Naxi Traditions in Lijiang


YUNNAN, Southwest China — As the wedding party steps out into Lijiang’s old town square, curious tourists flock to the group, dazzled by their traditional Naxi attire. Many question whether the pomp and ceremony is a performance.

In fact, the Saturday afternoon spectacle is the real wedding of groom He Libao, 29, and bride Duan Jing, 21, both members of the Naxi, one of China’s 56 official ethnic groups. The Naxi population numbers around 300,000; most live in Lijiang, while the rest reside throughout Yunnan province and in neighboring Sichuan province and Tibet Autonomous Region.

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He Libao and bride Duan Jing are surrounded by tourists in Lijiang during their wedding ceremony.  Aug. 5, 2017. Yiying Fan

Though traditional wedding ceremonies are still common in remote villages, the custom has faded in the city of Lijiang since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when cultural influences from the Han ethnic majority began to overwhelm the area. But now, a local wedding planning company called Xihe is reviving interest in the tradition — partly at the behest of tourists.

“Tradition is like a siege,” Wang Dejiong, a Naxi folk culture researcher, tells Sixth Tone. “People outside want to get in, while people inside want to get out.”

Most Naxi people follow the Dongba faith, which teaches that humans and nature are brothers. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, at important events such as weddings, the Naxi would invite a dongba — or shaman — to perform chants. Highly respected as accomplished scholars of Naxi culture, dongba pass down their duties within families from generation to generation.

Xihe organizes around two weddings every week, including the recent Saturday ceremony, which kicks off at the Yulong Bridge, where young couples would court in the old days. Groups of Naxi boys and girls sing in praise of the bride and groom. The newlyweds then release fish into the river to show their respect for nature.

After the fish are released, the bride is carried through the center of the old town in a fringed bridal chair — followed by a wedding party of close to 50 people — to a traditional Naxi house with three wings enclosing a courtyard.

In the courtyard, a dongba presides over the “soul-binding” ceremony — the most important part of the wedding. The dongba ties the couple’s hands together and announces that they can never again be separated. Afterward, dozens of young and old dance hand in hand, wishing the newlyweds happiness and prosperity.

I was so used to my own culture — all I wanted was to escape from it.

The ceremony does not include vows, as Naxi people are shy about expressing love verbally. “We believe actions speak louder than words,” the groom explains.

“Our souls are bound together,” the bride says after the ceremony. “If I ever got a divorce, I’d feel like I lost my soul.”

The ceremony venue is also the headquarters of wedding company Xihe, founded by Naxi woman He Yumiao — who is not related to He Libao. The company’s name means “joyful crane” in the Naxi language; Naxi people worship cranes and consider the sacred birds to be a symbol of a blessed marriage, as cranes are faithful to their mates. Once one dies, it is said that the other will starve itself and die for love.

Since its establishment in 2008, Xihe has arranged traditional Naxi wedding ceremonies for more than 1,000 couples in Lijiang. Wedding packages start at 6,999 yuan (around $1,050), and the ceremony lasts about one and a half hours.

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He Yumiao stands outside her company Xihe in Lijiang, Yunan.  Aug. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying 

He Yumiao, now 38, was born and raised in a Naxi household with three generations living under one roof. “I was so used to my own culture — all I wanted was to escape from it,” she tells Sixth Tone.

After graduating from high school, He Yumiao moved from Lijiang to Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital, in 1997 and worked at the city’s Naxi minority village tourist site as a performer. It was there that she wore traditional Naxi attire for the first time. Every day, she answered questions from tourists hailing from all over the world who were interested in the Naxi way of life. “It was overwhelming to see that they cared about my culture, which I took for granted every day,” she says.

A couple years later, He Yumiao moved back home to Lijiang and became a tour guide in the old town. In 2006, she met a Singaporean couple who had come to the city on their honeymoon. They were enamored with the local culture and asked whether she could arrange a traditional Naxi wedding for them. At the time, she knew didn’t know much about the ceremony — nor were there many examples in the city that she could follow — but she was determined to try. With the help of elderly locals, she organized a Naxi wedding in just a few days at Lijiang’s Black Dragon Pond Park.

It was then that He Yumiao decided to devote herself to preserving the Naxi wedding tradition. “I finally found where my heart belongs,” she says. “Folk customs are critical to an ethnic group, and a wedding celebration is of the utmost importance because it reflects the values of the [Naxi] culture.”

Tradition is like a siege. People outside want to get in, while people inside want to get out.

Naxi couple Li Jixing, 35, and He Dong, 38, stumbled upon the Singaporean couple’s wedding ceremony while they were strolling in the park, discussing their own wedding plans. Though they had heard elders speak of traditional ceremonies, it was the first time they had witnessed one for themselves. “I had never seen such a happy and glorious wedding in all my life,” Li tells Sixth Tone. The couple watched the entire ceremony and asked He Yumiao to arrange a similar one for them. “We always wanted a traditional wedding, but we couldn’t find a wedding company that offered such a service,” He Dong, Li’s husband, says.

The couple held their wedding ceremony in 2007 in their courtyard at home. Because He Yumiao’s business hadn’t officially launched yet, the ceremony was simple and brief. “But at least we had a ceremony,” He Dong says; otherwise, they would simply have had a banquet with family and friends like most couples of their generation.

After He Yumiao launched Xihe, she didn’t book her first wedding until six months later, when a transnational couple from Scotland and central China’s Hubei province asked her to arrange a wedding ceremony in Lijiang that brought together Naxi and Western customs. Photos of the ceremony posted online brought her many new customers.

But for the first five years of running her business, He Yumiao was frustrated that most of her clients were tourists, while many Naxi people paid little attention to their own traditions. “Locals would rather pay thousands of yuan to have a Western wedding at a church,” she says.

She credits tourists for helping to turn the tide. “The tourists have made Naxi weddings trendy and fashionable, which piqued locals’ interests,” she says. Now, half of her clients are locals, as more and more Naxi young people have begun to take pride in their traditions.

Yet the romance of the Dongba ceremony continues to draw many outsiders. Yang Cailing and her husband are both Han but have lived in Lijiang for the last decade. Though they had a Western wedding in 2012, Yang always felt something was missing. She decided she wanted a second wedding after finding out that the Naxi language had no word for divorce.

“At first, [my husband] was against the idea because he thought it would be like a performance for tourists in the old town of Lijiang,” Yang laughs. Meanwhile, she hoped the ceremony would spice up married life, which had begun to feel dull after a few years. The 31-year-old persuaded her husband to have a Dongba ceremony in January, and one month later, she found out she was pregnant with their second child.

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Yang Cailing and her husband hold a traditional Naxi Wedding in January 2017. Courtesy of Yang Cailin

He Yumiao started her company mainly out of curiosity, but she has since developed a deep sense of cultural responsibility. “We are probably the last generation of Naxi people to be raised in our local culture,” she says. “If I didn’t do something to save our wedding ceremony traditions, who would?”

But cultural researcher Wang still has doubts about the tradition’s prospects. “Naxi minorities are sinicized and tend to worship anything foreign,” he says. “It’s hard to revive the tradition, but at least [He Yumiao] is doing something.”