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Chinese minorities
Chinese minority students spent time last summer at this school in Southern China’s Yunnan province learning their native language. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz) Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz

At a middle school in a rural area in China’s Yunnan Province devoted to educating the area’s ethnic minorities, many of the students have a fairly simple career goal in mind: they want to get a job performing traditional minority dances, which would almost certainly place them smack dab in tourist venues. In addition to the traditional middle-school curriculum, the school also passes on minority traditions, like dances and shoemaking.

The school is a shining example of the Chinese government’s policies that have made minority education a priority. But their efforts haven’t been universally embraced.

Although China is about 95 percent Han, or what we think of when we think of “Chinese,” there are 56 officially recognized minorities, many of whom live in pockets around the country, often in rural villages. Yunnan province is home to 26 of these groups.

The government has increased its efforts toward minority students in recent years, investing more money in schools designed specifically for these students and even creating some free language schools where students of all ages can go during the summer and improve skills in their native tongue.

Other schools, like the Minority High School in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital city, are open to all kinds of minorities. Specific languages and traditions are not taught, but students are encouraged to maintain them. The high school, instead, is marked by having lower entrance standards than other schools in the city, as an affirmative action of sorts to make up for the fact that many minority students grow up in poor, rural areas without access to quality education. In most cases, it’s the best high school that these students are eligible to attend based on their test scores. Almost all of the students now are eligible to go on to college, something that would have been almost unthinkable even a decade ago.

In theory, these schools are an answer to a dilemma that ethnic-minority parents have long faced in a world where assimilation to mainstream culture have been the only way to get ahead. Parents often feel as though they’ve been “forced to chose between respecting their ancestors and loving their children,” said Bryan Allen, who has spent over a decade studying minority languages in Yunnan and currently runs Bestway Education, a company that prepares Chinese high schoolers to go abroad for college.

The hope is that by increasing the quality of minority schools, the government will be able eradicate this tension—preserving China’s unique cultures while also preparing students to be competitive with their Han peers in college and beyond.

Allen was more skeptical, saying that the Chinese government has been paying lip service to minorities for years and mostly views them as a tourist attraction. Government support is necessary to fix the problem, he said, but thus far support has been insufficient to have a real impact.

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Sarah Butrymowicz oversees and contributes to The Hechinger Report’s investigative and data work covering all levels of education, from early childhood to K-12 to higher education. She has worked at...

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