Li Cuili: Promoting rural reading, making glimmer sparkle and shine

Updated: Nov 25, 2020 Women of China Print
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Li Cuili, a rural woman from central China's Henan province, has spent years building not-for-profit reading rooms in the countryside, giving a lot of people in rural areas the chance to discover the world of reading.

Waiting for readers

"My grandfather loved telling stories and my father loved subscribing to books and newspapers. In my childhood, I had stories and unfinished books around every day," Li said, adding that she'd had a dream of being a writer since she was a child.

In 2005, Li opened a store in the village that had a stable income, and she wanted to do something about local children's education.

Li emptied the store's most conspicuous liquor shelves, and made more than 200 books from her collection available to the villagers for free borrowing. She also bought more than 300 second-hand books with 1,000 yuan ($147) from her savings.

Then, she began to wait for her readers.

Reading is sweet

In order to encourage reading, Li told the children that whoever borrowed books would be rewarded with a piece of candy.

"I was 'coaxed' by the reward," said Li Mengjie, a 19-year-old college-bound student who was one of the first group of readers of the reading space. "At the time I was just in primary school and I heard that one could get candy as long as they came here to borrow books. I didn't expect it to be true."

"Reading is sweet!" Children rushed about the village spreading the news.

To drive them to immerse themselves in reading, Li Cuili came up with another idea: those who gave right answers to questions about the book would be rewarded with pencils or erasers; if a child wrote a review, they could receive a notebook.

For adults, the prizes were changed to towels or toothbrushes. Meanwhile, Li Cuili tried to create a reading atmosphere via giving out newspapers and writing wonderful notes from the books on the blackboards.

"At first, I read for the candy, but later I was lost in the books. I read 'The Autobiography of Marie Curie' three times," Li Mengjie recalled.

Now the reading room's register book is filled with readers' borrowing records.

'Freak' comes again

To collect more books, Li Cuili tried everything she could think of - looking in waste recycling, raising money online, searching among used book stalls and waste stations, and buying along the street.

However, some people didn't understand her. A year later, Li Cuili raised many books, but she had become famous due to her "weird behavior," which had attracted the attention of the media. In 2014, Li Cuili's family was quoted in the local media saying that she had also become a pioneer and public-welfare campaigner for rural reading promotion.

More and more charity institutions and caring people began to contact her. Cultural departments continued to provide the latest books; a bookstore owner gave her dozens of extra books when she made a purchase. A Shanghai charity organization donated three tons of books at once.

The problem of sourcing books was finally solved.

Building a school in reading rooms

In 2015, when Li Cuili was invited to Beijing to participate in a private library forum, she knew it was the first time that anyone had opened civilian-run libraries in the countryside.

At that forum, a remark inspired her a lot: "The learning in a library counts for more than a library in school." So, Li Cuili started to offer more educational activities in her reading space.

"At the beginning, I just wanted to provide villagers with a space for reading. Afterwards, a children's center was set up to organize kids to read and do homework," Li Cuili said, adding that now volunteers are invited to give micro-classes regularly to spread knowledge on childcare, mental health care and fraud prevention.

Diverse activities were also held to enrich children's leisure hours, which included speaking contests, craft work using old materials and scientific experiments. Every time Li Cuili would take down the details of the activities.

A single spark can start a prairie fire

Li Cuili gave her reading rooms the name Weiguang, meaning glimmer. "At some moments, I felt that I did something tiny but meaningful," she said, "because a single spark can start a prairie fire and glimmer can be gathered to sparkle and shine."

Li Cuili was surprised to see some store operators from other villages turning to her for help to install book stands in their groceries. She began to develop co-operative reading rooms, and distribute books for free, further promoting reading in rural areas.

The "zero threshold" book-borrowing model was extended to 27 partners including supermarkets, hotels, clinics and kindergartens, with the recipients reaching more than 300,000 people.

Inspired by Li Cuili, more and more people have injected new vitality and strength into rural reading promotion.

A 69-year-old rural doctor donated all his professional books; a retired teacher and Party member tutored children in their homework; a freshman had spent eight years assisting Weiguang's activities.

In 2017, at the legislative deliberation forum on the Public Library Law of the People's Republic of China (Draft), Li Cuili put forward a series of ideas such as "sharing the resources of public and private libraries."

Thanks to her dedication, Li Cuili was awarded many national honors such as the Most Beautiful Volunteer and a role model in library business. She was also given the May 1 Labor Medal of Henan Province.

"Thank you for opening the door to a more spacious world." Before going to university, Li Mengjie came to the reading room again to express her gratitude. Here she had read her first ever fairy tale book.

Li Cuili's story inspired many people to join her. Once she wrote in an unpublished collection of poems: "Let hearts warm hearts, and let glimmers light up another."

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