Zhang Weiqiang squirms in his chair.
Asked what he wants to do when he grows up, the 14-year-old hesitates. He knows what he doesn't want to do."I don't want to farm," he says.
But who will plant his family's land?
"My little brother," he says promptly.
His little brother was not there to answer for himself, but odds are good that he also is not interested in the low-paying, backbreaking work of tilling the fields.
China's new generation has new expectations. Of seven teenagers interviewed at Gaobei Junior High, all had dreams, however modest, of doing something better than their parents. These students, aged 13 to 16, reflect the changes affecting rural China.
Gaobei's peasants have worked the land since the Yue Kingdom during China's iron age. But teenagers today no longer want to be peasants.
The old order is crumbling fast, and rural schools, never very strong, are struggling to cope with new demands.
A look at this country school in Gaobei, whose name means "north of the marsh," gives a glimpse of a problem China's leaders face: If no one wants to plant rice, who will feed 1.1 billion people?
At the moment, Gaobei is worrying about other things. It faces a labor shortage in its factories. A typical village in the prosperous coastal province of Zhejiang, Gaobei, (population 12,054) is in the midst of an industrial boom. Its peasants work in village-run factories year-round, except during planting and harvest.
In the past two years, Gaobei has set up seven new enterprises.
"The factories keep coming to us, asking for workers," said Chen Xingqi, principal of Gaobei Junior High. To meet demand, the school is sacrificing a cherished communist ideal: equality. This January, for the first time, it will divide its senior class into two. The poorer students will learn technical skills and go straight to work. The brighter ones will concentrate on passing the senior high entrance exams.
"I hope I can go to senior high," said Shi Yamei, a shy 16-year-old who loves English. The odds are not great. Only half of Gaobei's 324 students will make it. Fewer still will go to college. Asked how many of the seven students interviewed will go on to senior high, Chen thought a moment and said sadly, "Four."
Flanked in front and back by canals, Gaobei High is reached by crossing a graceful stone bridge. Through the airy windows, students can daydream or stare at ducks splashing in pristine ponds.
Gaobei High did not exist 20 years ago. Until recently, it had few resources.
Last year, the village plowed some of the profits from its booming factories into a new two-story building.
Like many rural schools, it does not have enough money for a library or new lab equipment. Nor does it pay its teachers well.
To scrape by, some teachers grow their own vegetables and grain. This year, the village government helped by paying each teacher an extra bonus.
Living in the country has its advantages. For dissection classes, biology teacher Chen Dagang said, "We just tell them to go to the fields and catch some frogs."
On a recent morning, second-year students sit at scarred wooden desks, reciting English words like "book," "bike" and "hello."
Their new teacher, Li Chafang, tries not to look nervous. "They like to tease me," said Li, who is wearing a purple pantsuit. At 21 and fresh out of teachers' college, Li is nearly as young as her students.
Boys sit beside boys, girls beside girls. Their teachers teach math, physics, chemistry, history and geography in the boisterous local Zhejiang dialect. Only Chinese language is taught in Mandarin, the refined dialect of the north. Some of the students have no intention of going beyond three years of junior high.
This month, China reported that more than 40 million school-age children have dropped out to work.