Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Foolish Old Man of Sangzao

Principal Ye Zhiping (Shiho Fukada for The New York Times)

My days writing a blog seem filled with catastrophe, war, and outrage at those who do not stand up for what is right. But when the history of last month’s cataclysmic earthquake in China is written, the story of Ye Zhiping will be remembered. Hopefully, it will not only be remembered in China.

I can’t say for sure that Principal Ye knew the story of the "The Foolish Old Man Who Moved the Mountains," but I suspect that he did, as well as the Sangzao Middle School students and their parents. This ancient Chinese folktale dates back to the Han Dynasty and is well known throughout China.

When I first read about Principal Ye, I thought of this story. I realize that the story is not ecologically sound—the image brings to my mind actual scenes of mountains in Appalachia decimated by coal mining—but I hope that doesn’t get in the way of appreciating the old tale. This is the way I remember it:

Long, long ago, an old man who lived in northern China was known as the Foolish Old Man of North Mountain. His house faced south and beyond his doorway stood the two great peaks, Taihang and Wangwu, obstructing the way. He called his children, and hoe in had they began to dig up these mountains with great determination. Another greybeard, known as the Wise Old Man, saw them and said derisively, “How silly of you to do this! It is quite impossible for you few to dig up these two huge mountains.”

The Foolish Old Man replied, “When I die, my children will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandchildren, and then their children and grandchildren, and so on to infinity. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can’t we clear them away?”

The Heavenly Emperor received a report of what the old man was doing, but he was not afraid of the old man's tenacity. Instead he was moved by the old man’s determination in the face of a seemingly impossible task and decided to help him. The Heavenly Emperor ordered the two sons of Kua’ershi to lift the two mountains on their backs and move them, one east of Shuo and the other south of Yong.

After this colossal feat, there were no more mountains between the Jizhou and Han Rivers and the foolish old man and his family were able to walk straight between them whenever they liked.

Ye Zhiping knew about the shoddy construction of at least one of the Sangzao Middle School buildings because he had been a young teacher there when the building was constructed.
"Quality inspectors were supposed to be here to oversee construction of this building," he said. "When the foundation was laid, they should have been here. When the concrete was put into the pillars, they should have been here. But they weren't. In the end, no government official dared to come inspect this building because it was built without any standards…"

"I was among the first teachers who moved into this building, and I was pretty young," Ye said. "Our awareness of safety wasn't the same as now."
Ye’s attitude changed after he became principal twelve years ago.
If I knew there was a hidden danger, and I didn't do anything about it, then I would be the one responsible," he said.
From the day he became principal he didn’t waste time. He set about to get the funds for a complete overhaul of the buildings. One can only imagine the response of the “wise old greybeards” in the bureaucracy when he sought the money for the reconstruction. The county was poor and Sangzao was only a farming village. But Ye continued to pester the officials until he got 400,000 yuan (about $60,000). From 1996 to 1999 he personally oversaw a complete overhaul of the structure.
Most crucial were changes made to concrete pillars and floor panels. Each classroom had four rectangular pillars that were thickened so they jutted from the walls. Up and down the pillars, workers drilled holes and inserted iron reinforcing rods because the original ones were not enough, Ye said. The concrete slab floors were secured so they would be able to withstand intense shaking.
There were probably other greybeards in the school who thought that the principal had more important things to do than spend his time supervising the renovation.

Ye not only brought structural integrity to the buildings; he also had students and teachers prepare for a disaster. They rehearsed an emergency evacuation plan twice a year.

On May 12, Principal Ye was in a town fifty kilometers away when the earthquake came. As he worked his way back to his school he saw the rubble to which buildings had been reduced on the way. On the day that 10,000 students were crushed by collapsing school buildings, 1,000 of them in a school less than 20 miles away, the students at Sangzao Middle School managed to evacuate in less than two minutes.
The students lined up row by row on the outdoor basketball courts…. When the head count was complete, their fate was clear: All 2,323 were alive.
Students and parents credited “Angel Ye.”
“We’re very thankful,” Qiu Yanfang, 62, the grandmother of a student, said as she sat outside the school knitting a brown sweater. “The principal helped ease the nation’s loss, both the psychological loss and the physical loss.”
These days, students are seen darting in and out of the school to retrieve books, ducking under blue tape clearly marked danger. The building looks secure enough, but not to Principal Ye. He said it has to be torn down and a new one built, not simply to withstand an 8.0 that came this time, but to withstand an 11 or 12. And he expects to be there to see that it is built right.

What was it Thomas Cahill said of history?
We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage — almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence… But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance.”
Ye Zhiping was responsible for one of those moments.

- Milo

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