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March 4, 2010

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The spirit of brotherly love

TWO poor brothers dream an "impossible dream" of going to university - but only one can go. One sacrifices his schooling for the other. But now both their dreams are coming true. Liang Yiwen reports.

Many poor families in rural areas face a painful choice: which child should they send to university - if they can send anyone, that is - and which should stay home? Costs are prohibitive.

A moving story of two poor farm boy brothers who overcame - and are still overcoming - barriers to college is the talk of Fudan University.

It began 10 years ago when Liu Yanpeng in Hubei Province decided to quit schooling and do manual labor to send his younger brother Liu Yanbo to university.

Today that younger brother is a junior in Fudan's School of International Relations and Public Affairs. Now he is taking tutoring jobs to help his older brother get back on track and onto campus.

Back in Hubei, the elder sibling, now 30, has returned to high school, repeating the entire three years of study, courageously sitting in class with 15-year-olds and burning the midnight oil. He is in his second year and plans after his third and final year to take the national college entrance exam.

Younger brother Liu Yanbo, 22, returned Sunday from Spring Festival holiday in his hometown mountain village of Huangjiatai in Wufeng Town outside the capital of Wuhan. There he celebrated with elder brother Liu Yanpeng, encouraging him to stay in school and aim for college in Shanghai.

Liu Yanbo told his story to Shanghai Daily:

Liu was born into a family that worked hard growing corn. The father, Liu Yanding, 58, was born hearing impaired; his mother had always been in poor health.

When Liu Yanbo was born, the parents were very anxious about how they could make a living and raise two sons. College wasn't even in the picture because of the high costs and relatively few scholarships.

But Liu Yanbo was a gifted student in middle school and dreamed of college. His older brother Liu Yanpeng was also a solid student who hoped for higher education, but his younger brother was the star. It was almost impossible for one, to say nothing of two students from one poor family, to attend college.

So Liu didn't even consider taking the entrance exam and when he graduated from high school in 2000 he became a migrant worker, earning money that would help make his younger brother's college dream come true.

Many sons are competitive, especially in rural areas where family land is passed on to one son. But not in this case.

On the day he left for college, his mother told Liu Yanbo, "If you become successful in the future, don't forget that it was your brother who gave up his dream for you."

Liu Yanpeng found a job as a stone mason in Wuhan, working 10 hours a day. The work was so hard that he lost 5 kilograms in one month.

After receiving his first month's salary, Liu Yanpeng wrote to his brother, saying, "Wuhan is a very big city with many opportunities, though it's quite unfamiliar to me."

Liu Yanbo wept on reading the letter. He only had the vaguest ideas about the city but he understood that his brother was lonely and felt helpless in the strange metropolis.

"Brother, come back if life is too hard," he wrote back.

Liu Yanpeng's heart was warmed by the reply and he worked even harder to pay for his brother's college education.

The hard work paid off seven years later.

In 2007, Liu Yanbo was accepted by prestigious Fudan University. He had the highest scores among students in the town. He later received partial scholarships.

He was the first person in his village to be admitted to such a good university and the villagers were excited for him.

On hearing the news in Wuhan, Liu Yanpeng wept with joy, but he didn't even go home to celebrate because he wanted to save money.

When he entered Fudan in August 2007, Liu Yanbo realized what many other students from the countryside confronted: He may have been the best from a small town but the university was filled with excellent students from all over the country. And most of them had cell phones and laptops, while he had none. He was discouraged.

"Don't feel inferior because of your family background," his elder brother told him. "Don't lose your bearings because you were born in the farmland."

Liu Yanbo cheered up and regained his confidence.

While talking on the phone, Liu Yanpeng revealed his own longing for college. "What's it like? It's wonderful, isn't it?"

Liu Yanbo told him about the many historical buildings, the beautiful trees and grounds, and his older brother fantasized about it.

Liu Yanbo encouraged him to go back to school, which he had left long ago.

"You can apply for university in Shanghai and we can study together," he said.

Liu Yanpeng decided to give it a try - he would have to repeat three years - and in 2008 he wrote to a hometown high school, asking to be admitted. He explained he wanted to go to college and had worked for years to send his younger brother to university.

The principal was skeptical, given Liu's age and his many years away from textbooks. Liu wrote again, pressing his case.

Moved by his sincerity, the principal agreed to admit him.

Now, at the age of 30, Liu Yanpeng is back in the classroom with 15-year-olds. Every day he gets up at 5am to study and then studies later until midnight.

His savings have run out.

Now his younger brother, Liu Yanbo, has come to his assistance.

"Ten years ago, you quit school to earn money for my education. Ten years later, it's my turn to find part-time jobs support you," Liu says he told his older brother.

Now the younger Liu works as a private tutor seven times a week, earning around 2,000 yuan (US$293) a month and helping to support his brother.

"My brother gave up his dream and spent eight years to support me. He deserves a reward," Liu Yanbo says.

Now it is Liu Yanbo who sends letters to his elder brother, helping him with math problems and encouraging him to persist though it's difficult and awkward for a grown man to be around so many children.

His wish, he told Shanghai Daily, is that is that his brother can enter a Shanghai college next year. Then both will be university students with bright prospects.


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