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Tribute paid to teacher who brought music to the mountains

Updated: Apr 7, 2022 China Daily Print
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Deng and her young charges sing at the first Malan Children's Music Festival in Fuping in 2013. [Photo by LI XIUQIN/FOR CHINA DAILY]

Deng Xiaolan, 79, prepared children to sing at opening of Beijing Winter Olympics

During Qingming Festival, children in a village deep in the Taihang Mountains in northern China paid tribute to their "grandmother", who taught them music and fine arts, bringing them to the stage for this year's Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing.

For the past 18 years, Deng Xiaolan, 79, who died on March 21 from a stroke, worked as a volunteer teacher in Malan village, Fuping county, Hebei province.

Born in 1943, Deng was raised by local farmers until she was 3. In 1970, she graduated as an engineer from Tsinghua University in Beijing.

She told villagers her work as a volunteer teacher was to repay them for raising her during the toughest stage of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).

Liu Kai, headmaster of Xiaxue Center School in Fuping and leader of the Winter Olympics chorus, said: "After they heard that Deng had died, all the children burst into tears. It didn't seem real."

In the afternoon on March 19, Deng fainted as she watched a performance stage being constructed in the village. She was taken to hospital in Beijing, 280 kilometers away, but never regained consciousness.

In Beijing on Feb 4, some six weeks before her death, 40 children from Malan, aged 5 to 11, sang the Olympic Anthem in Greek at the opening ceremony of the Winter Games in the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest.

Deng's family members wrote in her obituary, "It is the greatest comfort to us that she left at this 'highlight moment' of her life."

Colleagues said that Deng told the media she had to some extent realized her dream in bringing the children to a world stage.

Her father Deng Tuo, 52, who died in 1966, was editor-in-chief of Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Daily, which was published from December 1937 to July 1948 and was the predecessor of People's Daily. Her mother Ding Yilan was a correspondent for the newspaper and later became one of the two radio anchors for the broadcast of the founding ceremony of the People's Republic of China on Oct 1, 1949.She also became a director of China Radio International.

In autumn 1943, 19 villagers died helping reporters and editors from Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Daily withdraw to the mountains during a raid by the Japanese army. Ding Yilan gave birth to her daughter in a cave at this time, entrusting her to the care of local villagers.

After Deng Xiaolan's parents took her back three years later, they often reminded her never to forget the farmers in Malan who gave her a "second life".

Deng Xiaolan teaches a girl to play violin in Malan village, Fuping county, Hebei province, last year. [Photo by LI XIUQIN/FOR CHINA DAILY]

Deeply touched

Deng Xiaolan always kept two seals with her-one was a gift from her father that bore the inscription "a native of Malan village", while the other was from her mother and bore the words "a descendant of Malan village". She regarded the village as her home where her life began.

A visit to Malan with her mother in 1997 for research on the history of the newspaper her father headed touched Deng Xiaolan deeply, as she saw just how backward the village was.

However, Malan's inaccessibility shielded the newspaper during the Japanese occupation and also isolated the village from the outside world. After her visit, Deng Xiaolan began thinking about ways to help Malan.

During Qingming Festival in 2003, she and other offspring of staff members at the newspaper paid their respects at the martyrs' tombs in Malan, when more than 20 primary school students were organized to sing the national anthem during the ceremony.

To her dismay, Deng Xiaolan found that only one or two of them could sing the anthem-but out of tune. As a result, she decided to bring music to the mountains in the hope that it could help inspire children.

She told the media that children living in the mountains are like "wild ponies, with their purity and clear eyes". She also told villagers that she wanted to teach the children music and fine arts in the hope that they could leave the mountains and discover the outside world.

When the villagers told her the children were not gifted, Deng Xiaolan said they simply lacked opportunities. According to Chen Yetian, headmaster of Malan Primary School, she often told him that a childhood cannot lack music.

After retiring in 2004, Deng Xiaolan, who learned music as a child, went to the village to teach the subject. When she founded the Malan Band in 2006, friends in Beijing donated instruments to the village, including drums, keyboard, piano, flute, clarinet, accordion and violin. Deng Xiaolan and her family donated 40,000 yuan ($6,284) to renovate the village primary school.

Sun Jianzhi, one of two teachers at the school, who worked with Deng Xiaolan for 18 years, said she was always busy performing a wide range of tasks. "She was a woman of action, not empty talk," Sun added.

Thanks to the donations, children in Malan had musical instruments they had never seen before. They were initially cautious about playing them, marveling at the sounds they produced.

Deng Xiaolan encouraged the children to embrace music, teaching them to play the instruments in the hope that their "melodious sounds" could resonate in their hearts and the mountains.

The villagers said she told them that life without music was boring and that she wanted children in the mountains to have a better existence.

She taught them to sing and to play the violin and piano. When the Malan Band was founded, the children had no musical background and were unfamiliar with the instruments.

The children played the instruments and sang beside the Yanzhi River in Malan. Their fingers blackened with mud, they mastered songs known worldwide, which echoed deep into the mountains.

In 2006, the band was renamed Malan Flower Children's Chorus, and two years later Deng Xiaolan brought the lineup to perform in Beijing's Zhongshan Park-the first time the children had left the mountains.

In August 2013, supported by the Fuping county government, she launched the Malan Children's Music Festival. More than 20 bands and singing troupes from Beijing were invited to perform on a stage built in a valley near the village, attracting audiences of more than 3,000.

In 2015, Deng Xiaolan raised funding for the design and construction of a three-story building on a mountain slope overlooking the village, naming it "Music Castle".

Xi Qingru, an 11-year-old primary school pupil and a member of the chorus for the Winter Olympics, said she will never forget performing on stage in Beijing.

"In our isolated village, Grandma Deng was like a beam of light, inspiring and encouraging us to pursue a better and more meaningful life," she added. "After I grow up, I want to follow in her footsteps and teach children in the mountains to sing."

Deng talks to children while attending an event in Fuping in July. [Photo by LI XIUQIN/FOR CHINA DAILY]

Instruments donated

Over 18 years, Deng Xiaolan taught more than 200 children in Malan and nearby villages, with many of them going on to attend college. She donated nearly 500 musical instruments and some 1,000 books to Malan.

Many of her former students who are now studying at college expressed their grief online over her death.

Niu Yanhua, a neighbor and good friend who cleaned up Deng Xiaolan's room after her death, said the teacher never cared about good food and beautiful clothes. Her room was full of plans for stage construction and Malan's tourism development, along with music scores, books and documents.

"Collecting her belongings together was a heartbreaking experience. They are proof of her commitment to the village and her noble personality," Niu said, tears in her eyes.

Sun Zhisheng, Party chief of Malan, said: "After the Winter Olympics, Deng focused on preparing for the next children's music festival. Her death was so unexpected. She left all her care and love to Malan. She was our closest relative ever."

Some years ago, when businesspeople sought to open a mine in mountains near the village, Deng Xiaolan stepped in to stop them, taking a lead in building roads, planting trees and repairing drainage ditches, Sun said. She also encouraged villagers to develop ecotourism by using the natural beauty of the river and mountains.

Liu Niansheng, Deng Xiaolan's nephew, said his aunt was warmhearted and loved children. "When she worked, she served the country, repaying her own benefactors after she retired," he said.

Inspired by her spirit, some of her friends will continue to help the village in the future, Liu added.

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