Gu Jiabin was sitting in a container house in a village in Dali, Yunnan last weekend. (Ti Gong)
A dozen 20-square-meter shipping containers, fully outfitted as homes, are sitting on the banks of scenic Dianshan Lake in suburban Shanghai, waiting to be transported to impoverished inland villages to accommodate volunteer teachers.
One has already been shipped 3,000 kilometers to a remote village in Yunnan Province.
This unusual project is the brainchild of Gu Jiabin, a Shanghai citizen and founder of the charity "Love in de City." The aim is improve living conditions for urban teachers willing to go far from home and work in impoverished remote villages.
"We hope this will help villages attract and retain volunteer teachers, and make the teaching experience more enjoyable," Gu said.
The idea came to him after he visited a village school in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, where he learned that one woman volunteer left after only two weeks of teaching because she couldn't take a bath.
"If teachers are indispensable to these villages, then the villages need to help urban volunteers cope with the basic living conditions in backward areas," said Gu, a 45-year-old former real estate businessman.
In China, government and non-governmental groups organize volunteers to teach in remote villages as part of a national effort to pull underdeveloped areas out of poverty. Education is considered a key plank of the campaign.
Teachers spend months, even years in the villages, often making a critical difference to the future prospects of children from poor families.
The furnished containers have a bed, writing desk, kitchenette and bathroom. Glass doors and skylights provide daytime lighting.
The project uses a winning design from a contest last year of six young interior designers.
House-building experts told Shanghai Daily that plumbing for the containers shouldn't be too much of a problem, even in backward rural areas. They applauded the installation of air conditioners because many remote villages bake in the summer heat.
A 42-year-old IT engineer surnamed Hong, who lives in Guangzhou, once worked as a volunteer teacher for a year in a mountain village in Yunnan.
"In my first few weeks there, I bathed in a brook with snow-melt water from the mountains," he said. "When I could no longer stand the freezing water, I had a hot bath in a villager's home once every two weeks."
Hong said he doesn't doubt the self-sacrifice that many teachers show when volunteering for these hardship postings. "Many people who are willing to teach there are fully aware of the disadvantages and prepared for them before they go."
But, he added, the container homes will really make a difference for city people used to modern hygiene standards, especially women volunteers.
Gu said a furnished container costs 100,000 yuan (US,500), with 15,000 yuan going to transport costs.
So far, the charity has pledges for 50 containers.
To drive down the transportation cost, some containers in the future will be manufactured and outfitted in factories nearer to destinations, he said.
This year about 20 of the containers will be transported to villages in Yunnan and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.