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Ms. Li says schools have cared too much about science and math. "They don't care about culture. I don't want to be part of that. The only time my parents get angry at me is when I get zero in math. I study hard for it, but I hate it."
For all the improvement, however, China spends less of its gross domestic product on education than most developing countries. Parents must pay to send their children to school. The result is a wide gap between the education available to urban kids and schools in the country, where two-thirds of China's massive population lives and incomes are low.
The muddy, midsized village of Jiuzhou is just 30 minutes by car from the broad streets and bulging, futuristic buildings of Langfang, a prosperous port city 60 kilometres south of Beijing. But in terms of development, the village is decades away.
Stacks of dried corn husks and old brick walls line the rutted road, nearly impassable in parts from recent rain. There is not much talk of radical education changes here.
Between cigarettes, middle school principal Chen Jianmin admits that he is envious of facilities in Langfang. "This is a rural area. There is a lack of resources for education."
But conditions are improving slowly, he says. The school recently took delivery of its first computers, and yes, there is classroom change here too. "Students are working more by themselves. They are more motivated," Mr. Chen says as a staff member brings him a clean pair of rubber boots.
There is a different kind of hope at the local primary school, where an unexpected visitor finds beginning teacher Fang Zhenjiang sitting under a tree in the school's leafy compound, slowly repeating out loud to herself the words from her next English lesson.
"I'm not a professional," she explains with a blush. "I've only studied English for three years. I want to be better."
Ms. Fang's dedication to her young students is inspiring. She puts up with unheated, barebones classrooms, and still strives to improve herself, for a meagre salary of the equivalent of $125 a month.
Prof. Yang says giving Ms. Fang more control would help. "Schools should be allowed to develop their own curriculum, adopted to local conditions. That's why a lot of rural students leave. They can't relate to courses dictated by Beijing."
Meanwhile, education leaders say they are determined to tackle the biggest challenge of all -- examinations. China has always relied exclusively on exams to determine a student's future, putting enormous pressure on school children. Because of the country's one-child system, the stress has become even more intense, as parents centre all their attention on little Ling or Ming.
Educators are trying to rely more on classroom work to evaluate students. Yet exams continue to be important, right down to primary school.
At Erligou primary school, parents fork out thousands of dollars to give their children extra tutoring. "We know we shouldn't do this," parent Li Shuqin says, "but we feel we must, if we want our child to do well on exams and be able to go to a better middle school."
Prof. Yang says the nationwide, university-entrance exams at the end of high school are the worst, too often leading to widespread cheating, nervous breakdowns and even suicides by distraught students. "It is going to be complicated, but the situation is so serious, it must be changed."
Still, the aspirations of many Chinese students have already been fired by the big change in their classrooms.
Qian Ruitong, 11, has just started Grade 6. Both her parents are engineers. But that is not for her. Speaking virtually flawless English, her long ponytail tied carefully with a pretty white ribbon, Ruitong talks with confidence about a career that could hardly be more different. "I love music. I want to be a singer," she says. "I think I sing very well."
Li Lingcong, the Grade 11 student who scorns robotic thinking, also sees a career for herself far removed from the sciences. "I think I will be a film director. I think a film can change people's lives. This way, I can try to change the things in society that I don't like."
Back in the village of Jiuzhou, Tian Guangrui has none of the economic advantages of her counterparts in Beijing. The shy 15-year-old lives in a small farmhouse, a 30-minute daily bus ride from her rudimentary middle school. Yet none of this dampens her ambition. "I want to be a doctor," she says quietly. "Because of SARS, I want to save people's lives. I don't expect to make a lot of money. I just want to save lives."
Dreams die hard, even in Jiuzhou. And in China in 2004, anything seems possible.