In 1838 during the Qing Dynasty, Wu Qi (Wu Xun) was born in Liulin Township, Shandong Province, China. Wu Qi showed a strong interest in reading from early childhood. However, the family was too poor to buy his books. At the age of eight, his father died and the family became even poorer.
After his father’s death, Wu Qi often accompanied his mother when she went out begging. At the age of 15, Wu Qi went to work for a relative. He appreciated the job and worked diligently every day. In return, he was often beaten and received no payment for his work.
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Two years later, he left to work for the wealthy landlord Li Yusheng. He was offered an annual wage. One day, Wu Qi wanted to take some money home to his mother. Li Yusheng deceived him assuming he was illiterate and took out a forged account book saying: “You have taken a few hundred on a certain day of the month, and you have taken more on a certain day. In short, you have run out of wages.” In extreme anger and shock, Wu Qi argued for his money. Li Yusheng had other servants beat him severely, then threw him out of the house.
Wu Qi fell asleep in a broken temple. Three days later, he seemed to become crazy and kept talking: “It’s better to beg than to work for others. I am a beggar, but sooner or later, I will build a Yi School (free school).” That year, he was 21 years old. He became a beggar.
While Wu Qi was begging for food, he was still working for money to build a Yi School. He knelt on the ground for children to ride on his back for money. He even entertained others for money by eating scorpions, snakes, or bricks. When he got good food, he sold it, saying: “It is not good to eat well; building the Yi School is really good.” He kept saying “Yi School” so that eventually people nicknamed him “Yi School.”
At the age of 31, he had saved some money. Looking to earn interest on it, he asked a gentleman, Lou Junling, to manage the money for him. However, because he was a beggar, Lou Junling was unwilling to help him at the beginning.
Wu Qi knelt at the entrance of Lou’s house for a day and a night until Lou agreed to manage the money for him. The success of having money generating more money motivated Wu Qi to work harder to get more. For the sake of earning the money, he did not care about dignity and family, but sometimes he was extremely generous.
In 1875, there was a severe drought that caused many people to die of starvation. Wu Qi took out his savings and bought about 4,000 kilos of sorghum grain to help those affected.
Wu Qi accumulated more and more money, but Lou Junling could not help him to build the school. In 1886, Wu Qi handed over all of his money to another gentleman, Yang Shifang, to achieve his goal. In 1887, two wealthy landlords in the Liulin Township donated land to help him realize his dream. That winter, Wu’s first school was finally completed. To reach this day, he had been begging from the age of 21 to age 50.
Wu Qi used the property rental of 15 acres of the donated land for the school operations. He personally invited two officially recognized and famous scholars — Cui Wei and Gu Zhongan — to become teachers. The school was oversubscribed with more than 50 students in two classes.
One day, Wu Qi found that the students had arrived, but teacher Cui Wei had not entered the classroom. He walked into Cui Wei’s bedroom, and with tears knelt in front of the bed. Cui Wei woke up and felt very ashamed of himself and was never late again.
Sometimes, when he saw students not being diligent in the classroom, or absent from class, he squatted in front of the students and persuaded them with tears in his eyes: “If you do not study hard, how can you face seeing your father. If you do not study wholeheartedly, you will be too ashamed and embarrassed to meet your mother and will lose face.”
Wu Qi’s name changed to Wu Xun
In 1890, Wu Qi founded the second Yi School. Shandong Governor Zhang Yao appreciated what Wu Qi had done, and ordered that both Yi Schools enjoy the benefit of tax exemption and did not have to comply with the servitude obligation. In addition, Zhang Yao donated 200 pieces of silver to the schools and bestowed on Wu Xi the new name of Wu Xun.
In the spring of 1896, Wu Xun founded the third Yi School, which is now known as the Wu Xun Experimental Primary School in Linqing City, Shandong Province. In April 1896, the 59-year-old Wu Xun fell ill. He lay quietly in the penthouse of the school and smiled on hearing students’ reading. On April 23, Wu Xun departed to another world with a smile on his face.
Ten years later, the Qing court declared Wu Xun’s actions to the National History Museum and made a memorial for him, calling him “Righteous Beggar.”
Wu Xun’s Yi Schools were also acknowledged abroad. He was included in the World Education Dictionary and named “silent educator” or “civilian educator.”
Translated by Jean Chen and edited by Helen