Mu Zhengwu’s father was too ashamed to borrow money, so his mother searched for and found a creditor willing to lend 300 yuan (about $50) at 2 percent monthly interest for Mu’s annual school fee.
He enrolled at the No. 9 Middle School on the outskirts of the city of Anshun in 2001. He boarded there, living on steamed rice and pickled vegetables with a weekly budget of 10 yuan ($1.50). Malnourished, Mu came down with tuberculosis after one semester. With burning lungs, he returned home to recover before resuming school the following fall.
Teachers at No. 9 resorted to corporal punishment because the mostly rural kids there ‘‘were too naughty, and there were many distractions in the city, such as billboards, arcade games and pranks,’’ Mu said.
Believing that education was his way out, Mu set his sights on the city’s best high school: Anshun No. 2. Well-off families could buy a slot there, but for Mu, testing into it was the only option.
But he was at another disadvantage. At Mu’s middle school, some teachers didn’t even speak standard Chinese, let alone have proper credentials to teach English, Mu said. Without money for tutoring, a computer or study aids, Mu simply pored over his English textbooks.
‘‘Every night, I recited the textbooks under the lamppost on campus. I would be up until 1 or 2 a.m.,’’ Mu said.
Mu Zhengwu was admitted to Anshun No. 2 in 2005, joined by only one of his 40-plus Tiaohuashan peers.
He recalled the stares on his first day of high school, when his mother accompanied him to register dressed in an embroidered cotton dress with a waist sash — a traditional costume out of fashion for decades.
He was behind urban classmates in his studies as well. Mu moved off campus so he could avoid its mandatory power turnoff and study a few extra hours per night. ‘‘Compared to city students, we must work twice or three times harder,’’ said Mu, who had to help with farm work on weekends.
Mu’s high school expenses were more than 10,000 yuan ($1,500) per year. China’s compulsory education does not cover grades 10 through 12, and their tuition rates are the world’s most expensive on average, according to Stanford’s rural education program.
His middle brother again stepped up. Mu Zhengwen was earning several hundred yuan a month in a tire factory, and he gave his younger brother about 100 yuan ($15) per week.
To do that, he skipped breakfast, avoided socializing and bought new clothes only when old ones wore out. When his sweetheart learned of these obligations, she backed out of their marriage plans, something he says he never regretted.
‘‘Everything I have done for my brother, I have done it willingly,’’ he said during a late-night interview at a pastry shop near his current job, at a textile factory in the eastern city of Hangzhou. He spends 12 hours a day overseeing deafening mechanized looms on a muggy floor.
He has a wife now, and a son. But tears filled his eyes when he spoke of his own interrupted schooling.
‘‘I blamed my parents. Why did they have a third child when it was enough for them to have two?’’ Bending over, he wept silently for a while.
Mu Zhengwu remained diligent at Anshun No. 2. In 2008, he scored 605 in the ‘‘gaokao’’ college entrance exam, far above the 566-point requirement for China’s tier-one universities. He was accepted by Chongqing’s prestigious Southwest University of Political Science and Law. Had he been a Beijing student, he would have landed in the even-more-prestigious Tsinghua or Peking universities.
His annual expenses in Chongqing were about 15,000 yuan ($2,450). Mu took out student loans. His parents borrowed money from relatives and even fibbed to the government to take out a small agri-business loan.
He still had less money than his urban peers, and it took time to adjust to campus life.
‘‘By the end of the freshman year, everyone in my class had a laptop computer, except me and another rural student,’’ Mu said. ‘‘The gap between the rich and the poor was so shocking that you naturally started to hate the rich.’’
The percentage of rural students in college is growing because China has encouraged the growth of independent and polytechnic colleges and lowered the threshold for admission. But scholars say students in these new schools pay twice or three times more in tuition, receive inferior education and end up with less-competitive diplomas.
The top schools still overwhelmingly favor local, urban students. At Shanghai’s Fudan University, for every 10,000 eligible applicants from Shanghai, the school chose 117. For every 10,000 applicants nationally, the school chose two, according to a study by legal scholar Zhang Qianfan.Continued...