Touching hearts in a remote land

Du Huaidong (right)

Du Huaidong (right)

Zhao Jihui

Zhao Jihui

Wu Xing

Wu Xing

Zhang Qingqun

Zhang Qingqun

Zhu Jun (right)

Zhu Jun (right)

WANGYAL Tsering, an eighth grader at the Shanghai Experimental School in Tibet’s second-largest city Shigatse, harked to the words of 11th-century poet Su Shi in writing a tribute to a teacher from Shanghai.


“Men have sorrow and joy,

They part or meet again,

The moon is bright or dim

And it may wax or wane.”

— “Prelude to a Water Melody”


In an essay entitled “My Teacher,” written to Shanghai teacher Zhang Qingqun, the young lad also said, “Sir, this might be what you’ll say on the day you return to Shanghai — a day that will inevitably come although none of us want to see that. I cannot pay you back with money, so I will give you instead my best scores on the final exam.”

The essay brought tears to Zhang’s eyes when the boy read it aloud.

Shanghai teachers sent to Shigatse under China’s policy of “pairing advanced cities with backward areas of the nation” don’t stay in Tibet for more than a year or two, but they become like family to many of the students they teach.

Zhang is from Shanghai Tongji No. 2 Middle School. He volunteered to go to Tibet when he heard about the program and arrived in Shigatse with other teachers last summer. This month, he will return home to his wife and two children.

“I prepared a gift for each of my students in Shigatse and feel sad that I have to leave them,” he says.

His students have nicknamed him “Zhang San Zhen,” or “Zhang of three truths.” It’s a reference to a famous martial arts master depicted in literature.

“Most of the students’ parents speak only Tibetan, so it’s hard for me to communicate with them,” Zhang says. “But they know my sincerity and I treat them with all the warmth of my heart.”

Zhang not only helps students with their studies, but he also counsels them on personal problems. One girl named Pema Dronlha was among the top students in his class. When she suddenly became complacent and slacked off in her studies, he took her aside for a heart-to-heart talk.

“Her scores were down and she was sad because she thought I wouldn’t like her anymore,” Zhang tells Shanghai Daily. “I told her that every student needs to work to the best of their ability, and that effort is more important than special attention, and as she improved, I praised her.”

Her esteem grew and her performance improved considerably, he says.

Zhang is not the only popular teacher from Shanghai.

Zhao Jihui, the coach of the school’s girls’ soccer team, is affectionately called “A Dzi La” by his students. The name comes from a Tibetan expression used to show one’s surprise because Zhao often points out weaknesses in their game performance in a surprised tone.

“I take it as a sign of their acceptance of me,” Zhao says. “I like the nickname.”

He is an athletics teacher from Shanghai Tianlin No. 3 Middle School and came to Tibet last year.

His first task was to assess the physical fitness of students. The results showed the girls in worse shape than the boys, so Zhao initiated a sports team for the girls.

“The school didn’t have enough sports equipment for all students at that time,” he says. “The kids sometimes had to bring their own basketball or soccer ball to school if they want to play. A few girls joined in with the boys, but most of them just stayed on the sidelines.

The girls’ team was formed last September, drawn from eighth and ninth graders. The team trains four times a week.

But Shigatse’s average elevation of 3,800 meters plays havoc with the lungs. Training can bring on pains, so it has to be adapted to climatic conditions. Even shouting instructions to the team can leave Zhao short of breath.

One of the main lessons he teaches the girls is teamwork, a concept new to many of them. He has enjoyed such rewarding success that he signed up to stay in Shigatse for an additional year. He also plans to take his girls’ team members to Shanghai for some matches with Shanghai students.

Strides in healthcare

Being healthy is as important as being educated. That’s why Shanghai’s aid project in Shigatse also includes a medical component.

Wu Xing is one of 23 medical team members dispatched to work at Shigatse People’s Hospital last year. He is a neurosurgeon from Huashan Hospital in Shanghai.

During his time there, Wu says he has operated on more than 70 patients.

His first week in Tibet, which was supposed to be devoted to acclimatizing to the high altitude, was interrupted when a patient suffering a serious brain hemorrhage was admitted to the hospital and no one else was available to help him.

He was a Tibetan in his 50s, who has a history of high blood pressure, a common ailment in high altitude.

Surgery on the man lasted three hours, Wu tells Shanghai Daily. It was a quick indoctrination of what lay ahead.

Wu was instrumental in bringing intracerebral brain surgery to Shigatse for the first time and helped train local doctors in the intricate procedures. As a result, deaths from brain trauma at the hospital dropped by nearly half.

Dr Zhu Jun from Shanghai General Hospital’s hematology department is another of the medical team sent to Shigatse. He has focused on high-altitude polycythemia — an increase in the number of red blood cells. The condition is made worse by hypoxia and smoking.

“Those suffering high altitude polycythemia often have headache, dizziness, breathing difficulties, nausea and skin discoloration on the face and hands,” Zhu explains. “The traditional local treatment has been oxygen inhalers and medicinal herbs said to invigorate blood circulation.”

Zhu introduced “red cell apheresis” — a medical technology of letting blood pass through an apparatus that separates out part of the red cells and returns the remainder to the circulation system.

One patient wrote, after the treatment, “I have received some medical treatment in the past, but it didn’t work. Now I feel relief from the headache and dizziness that plagued me for years.”

Another Shanghai expert, Dr Du Huaidong from the Eye and Ent Hospital affiliated to Fudan University, recalls a Tibetan father who came for help

“My 19-year-old son suffered from an ulcer in his pharynx,” the man says later. “We went to a hospital two years ago, but the doctor didn’t take it very seriously. The ulcer worsened and my son had trouble eating. I brought him here and the treatment from Dr Du cured the problem right away.”

Now the hospital is applying for the grade-three ranking — the highest level in China’s three-tier medical assessment system. A new hospital building complex is under construction and is scheduled to open in October.

“We are aiming to raise the local life expectancy from 68 to 70 years and reduce death rates of both newborns and pregnant women,” says Zhang Hao, vice president of the hospital.

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