Last year, students in Patty Smith’s class at Hamilton International Middle School in Seattle took part in a gift exchange with youngsters at a remarkable school in western Yunnan province, China.
The residents of this mountainous region, Dechin County, are primarily Kham Tibetans. They are traditionally farmers and herders and devout Buddhists. Over the last two decades their ancestral way of life has been threatened by a number of factors, most recently the economic boom that has swept its way across China. Tibetan language and arts are not required in public schools and the culture has been at risk of becoming extinct.
It’s a harsh reality that many village children simply cannot afford to go to school at all. Though education is free through 9th grade in China, many either have to work to help support their families or lack the money to buy necessary books or school supplies.
In 1997 a villager named Aniu decided to open a school for children from extremely poor families. Aniu himself has never been to school for a single day but even though he can’t read or write Tibetan, he is a great artist. A major performer in local ceremonies, he is a master of the oral Tibetan tradition. He has traveled to the Chinese regions of Yunnan and completed a pilgrimage all the way to India.
With no funding and little support, Aniu sold his own family assets to hire a teacher and buy school supplies. The lamas from a local monastery gave him the use of a room. In the fall of 1997, Puli Tibetan School started with three children and one teacher. After ten years, Puli is now home to 55 children and six to seven teachers.
Puli accepts children from families with an annual income less than $300. In addition to free education, the school also provides free room and board, school supplies, basic medical care, and traditional clothing. Besides the regular curriculum taught in public schools, children at Puli also study Tibetan language, arts, herbal medicine, and dance.
Ms. Smith’s class at Hamilton became interested in Puli School through Spring Cheng, founder of Mystic Trails, a non-profit organization which supports Puli in several ways. The Seattle students donated clothing and supplies to their Tibetan counterparts and raised money for a cash donation used for special dance costumes. In return, Puli students sent the middle school class samples of the traditional Tibetan woodcarvings they have learned to make. The two schools hope to maintain the cultural exchange.
For more information about Puli Tibetan School, please visit www.mystictrails.com.
Contributor: Spring Cheng
Photos: Spring Cheng