When he was a lonely, fatherless third-grader, Zhang Zhanliang’s teachers were a source of comfort. They took him into their homes for meals and stitched up his ragged clothes.
Today, Zhang, 45, is the principal of a remote Chinese village school in the southeastern province of Jiangxi. Inspired by the kindness of the teachers of his youth, he cooks for pupils whose parents work away from the community, offering a source of much-needed comfort.
“The children don’t lack money – they lack the company of their parents,” The Beijing News quoted Zhang as saying.
In September, Zhang set up an oven made from an old barrel on the playground and made his first meal for the children.
Four months later, his hot after-school meals have not only become a reliable source of nutritious food and a fun event for the children, they have made him a Chinese internet star.
Videos documenting the meals posted on a video-sharing website by a student teacher at the school have won more than 180,000 followers. Each video under the “Happy Little School” subject heading has got hundreds of thousands of views.
Thousands of viewers have “liked” the videos and hundreds more have left supportive messages.
A teacher since 1993, Zhang first taught at a private school in Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province in eastern China. But he quit because he felt he would be more use working in a rural community where children were often being raised by their grandparents while their parents worked in cities.
Working with some of China’s 7 million “left-behind” children at the Huangni Primary School in the Yujiang district of Yingtan, also allowed Zhang to repay the teachers of his youth for the love and care they showed him.
Zhang told The Beijing News that he frequently missed classes after his father died, but rather than punish him, his teachers took care of him.
When Zhang came to the rural primary school, its enrolment was down to 25 students. It had been emptied as migrant workers took their children with them.
It was the smallest school in which Zhang had ever worked.
Moreover, his rural pupils were less confident and had weaker learning skills than the private school children he had taught in the city, according to the report.
Zhang said cooking for the children allowed him to spend more time with them and give them the attention they were missing.
What is clear is that mealtime with Zhang became a happy group event.
“Every day they came to me and asked what we would have today,” Zhang was quoted as saying. “They always hugged me or huddled me. They were very happy and I am very happy that they trusted me.
The principal and the pupils bonded over the joint effort it took to prepare the meals. “More importantly it made up for the love missing when their parents were away,” Zhang said.
Zhang buys his ingredients every morning and starts preparing the meal at about 2pm so it will be ready when school is over, around 4pm. The principal, whose salary is 4,500 yuan (US$655) a month, pays for the food from his own pocket, about 80 yuan (US$11.64) a day.
Viewers of the videos and others inspired by Zhang’s effort tried to donate money to the cause but Zhang turned them down, saying donations would make things complicated and might make the children feel uncomfortable.
“I have enough money and I don’t smoke or drink,” Zhang said. “My wife supports me very much.”
The videos show children helping Zhang prepare the meals.
In one, the children walk to a field to dig up sweet potatoes and later gather around Zhang as he places the cut vegetables in the steamer. When he finally lifts the lid, they applaud with excitement.
More than 90 videos have been uploaded, many of them showing the children pouring seasonings or ingredients into the pot or playing in the playground while Zhang cooks. The climax comes when they queue up for food and enjoy it outdoors.
Among the typical meals are steamed pork ribs with sticky rice, noodles with beef and mushrooms, seaweed soup with steamed buns and noodles with pork and liver.
He produced the meals in modest conditions, washing the potatoes in a river and cooking with water pumped from underground.
Starting the fire always captures the children’s interest and they run to collect dried leaves or branches. Those who behave well were rewarded by being allowed to help Zhang start the fire by blowing on it.
“It’s very pleasant to be with lovely children and also to be contributing to society by teaching them to be a better person,” Zhang was quoted as saying.
“Rural children are raised by their grandparents and they need guidance.
“I hope I can [fill] them with knowledge so they can leave school with confidence and receive higher education in the big cities.”