Editor's Note: Twenty-nine outstanding members of the Communist Party of China received the July 1 Medal, the Party's highest honor, on Tuesday. Here is one of their stories.
President Xi Jinping (right), also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, presents the July 1 Medal, the Party's highest honor, to Zhang Guimei at an award ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, June 29, 2021. (PHOTO / XINHUA)
With fingers and wrists wrapped in medicated tape, Zhang Guimei, founder and principal of the first free high school for girls in China, was presented with the July 1 Medal by Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, on Tuesday.
The medal, established by the CPC Central Committee, is the highest honor in the Party.
As long as I have one more breath, I will continue to teach in the classroom, with all my efforts, giving out everything I have.
Zhang Guimei, Founder and principal of Huaping High School for Girls
At the ceremony, Zhang, 64, said, "As long as I have one more breath, I will continue to teach in the classroom, with all my efforts, giving out everything I have.
"What I have done is what many Party members do every day, yet I have received such an honor from the Party and the people. This medal gives me great encouragement."
Although suffering more than a dozen illnesses including emphysema and benign tumors in her skull, she has never stopped her quest to help girls from impoverished families in the southwestern province of Yunnan receive higher education.
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In an interview with China Central Television in February, Zhang said she put on the tape due to severe joint pain. "If I don't put it on, I can't move my fingers," she said.
She founded Huaping High School for Girls in 2008. Since the boarding school opened, around 2,000 girls from impoverished families in Yunnan's mountainous regions have been enrolled by universities after taking the national college entrance exam, successfully rewriting their fate.
Zhang, who was born in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, moved to Yunnan in 1975. A year after her husband's death in 1996, she volunteered to teach at a middle school in Huaping, hoping to move away from old memories.
However, in April 1997, she was diagnosed with uterine fibroids. To make sure her condition did not affect students preparing for the high school entrance exam, Zhang kept teaching for three months until the students took the exam in July.
The doctors removed a 2-kilogram tumor from her. Although they asked her to rest for at least six months, Zhang returned to her post 24 days after the surgery.
Zhang Guimei checks on students doing exercises during a break on July 4, 2020, in Huaping county, Lijiang city, southwest China's Yunnan province. (CHEN XINBO / XINHUA)
Over time, she began to realize the backwardness of impoverished mountainous regions was mainly due to the lack of education, especially among girls. Many girls dropped out of school as their families believed it was useless for girls to receive advanced education, Zhang said.
She decided to found a free public high school for girls in 2002, an idea many called crazy.
With help from the Party and the local government and personal donations, her idea came into fruition six years later.
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However, opening the school was just the beginning of new challenges. Most of the first 100 students had a poor academic foundation and six of them decided to drop out of school. Moreover, nine of the school's 17 teachers resigned due to the harsh living and working conditions.
Six of the remaining eight teachers were Party members and they set up the school's Party branch.
The teachers drew the Party flag and the Party oath on the wall. Before they could finish repeating their oath on joining the Party, the teachers all cried.
"With tears in our eyes and fists clenched, we vowed to spare no efforts to send the girls outside the mountains and help them go to universities," Zhang said.
In order to prevent any student from dropping out of school, Zhang has kept a habit of visiting every student's home, which means she has to travel several hours to students' families deep in the mountains.
"An educated, cultured and responsible mother would never let her children drop out of school," Zhang said. "We need to let girls in less-developed mountainous regions receive advanced education, which can change the destiny of three generations."
At Tuesday's ceremony, Zhang said many students told her that the first thing they did after going to university was to apply to become a Party member, to follow in the footsteps of revolutionary martyrs and go wherever duty calls.