In the film Not One Less (1999), a thirteen-year-old girl is asked to be the long-term substitute teacher in a small Chinese village. The teacher tells her that when he returns, if he finds all the students still there, he will pay her ten yuan—less than two American dollars.
When one student, Zhang Huike, stops coming to school, Wei Minzhim, the thirteen-year-old substitute teacher, follows him to the city.
There are several themes in this movie. The most powerful to me was the value of an education and not losing face. If Wei loses Zhang, she will fail the responsibility the teacher gave her. To succeed, she must keep all the students and teach them.
This film reveals one of the greatest cultural differences between the United States and China. More than 2,000 years ago, Confucius taught that an education was the great equalizer and the key to leaving poverty behind.
Today, many Chinese and other Asians still believe this with a passion, and this belief may explain why the on-time high school graduation for Asian-Americans in the United States is the highest when compared to all other racial groups. Culturally, the value of an education may be seen in that high school graduation rate.
On-time high school graduation rate in the U.S. by race for the 2009-10 school year
Asian/Pacific Islander = 93%
White = 83%
Hispanic = 71%
Black – 66%
In the United States, teachers are often blamed for the lower graduation rates of Hispanics and Blacks, while in China parents take the blame. This is another significant difference between China and the United States. In China it would be unthinkable to wage war against the nation’s teachers for children who don’t learn. Instead, parents, who cared, and teachers would work together to do what they could as partners.
Zhang Yimou was the director. He says, “Chinese culture is still rooted in the countryside. If you don’t know the peasant, you don’t know China.” Because of this, there is a strong message in this movie about the urban–rural divide, which is being addressed as China sews the nation together with high-speed rail and electricity.
This a powerful movie about children, education, and poverty that shows the challenges China faces in lifting the lifestyles of almost eight hundred million Chinese, who don’t live in the cities. The challenge is to do this without losing the cultural values that flow through Chinese history like a powerful river.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
His third book is Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé, a memoir. “Lofthouse presents us with grungy classrooms, kids who don’t want to be in school, and the consequences of growing up in a hardscrabble world. While some parents support his efforts, many sabotage them—and isolated administrators make the work of Lofthouse and his peers even more difficult.” – Bruce Reeves.
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