From the lucky few to the many poor: one family, one pair of trousers

Matilda just emailed me with some snaps from her trip to the poor countryside of China, which she was telling me about over a coffee the other day. These are taken in a village in Hebei province, which surrounds rich Beijing. Matilda was in a small group of students from Beida (Peking University), bringing clothes, books, book bags and suchlike to kids whose poverty will likely deny them the opportunity to study at PKU or compete fairly for a better life for their kids.

I tend to write on this blog about one of the most privileged set of young guys and girls in China: Beida is a (the? the. bug off Tsinghua) top university here, providing the top opportunities. So I always appreciate a reminder that a few hundred miles away there is a kid like the one Matilda holds above, whose parents can’t afford the schooling which could get her into a good university. These scenes are typical of this widespread poverty in rural China; it’s about the same as the village in Qinghai I have taught in myself.

The home Matilda is in above has no electricity. They have never seen a foreigner. The kid has never seen a car. The family can only afford one pair of presentable trousers for five people … when someone needs to go out they take the trousers, while the rest stay at home in underpants. There’s a contrast for you as sharp as the kitchen knife below. One world, one dream … one kid taking his holidays at a summer camp in Yale, one kid who can only dream of it.

Matilda, who is from a well-off family in more southern Jiangxi, was struck. She wants to return to the countryside after she finishes her degree in linguistics and education. She would teach for one year in which she is paid 400 yuan (£35) a month, before beginning to try and crack it as a writer. She tells me – whether talking about the teaching or the writing I’m not quite sure – “I have been a consumer all my life. Now I want to create something.”

What I find interesting isn’t the crushing inequality (old hat for China, with the brief exception of the Mao era), it’s the new generation of young Chinese who really care about it – enough to take a sidestep from their ambitions to help. I’d hazard a guess that Matilda’s parents, in the rush of new opportunities in the late 70s and 80s, didn’t give as much thought to China’s poor who weren’t otherwise connected with them, as Matilda does to this trouserless kid.

If this piques your interest, check out the ‘Go West’ project which in 2003 started sending volunteer college graduates to the poor Western countryside, for the experience and the chance to contribute. Read about it in the Washington Post or Xinhua. Below, more pics from Matilda:


  1. Thanks! Alec! I don’t know how to describe my feeling. I am happy that you can take interest in China and write about all kinds of things from China . If someone read your articles , he can see a more real China. But i still would like to say, China is a new old nation that needs time to grow up and develop. Therefore, we need to be aware of her lacks , at the same time we know her good merits.

  2. Thank you! You often write very interesting articles. You improved my mood.

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