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A Frenchwoman's holy mission in China

XINHUA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE July 3, 2002, Wednesday

LIUZHOU (GUANGXI), July 3 (Xinhua) -- In the Rongshui autonomous county of ethnic Miao group in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Francoise Grenot from France is on the lips of local folks.

With the help of Ms. Grenot, 1,100 needy school-age children from Danian and Liangzhai townships, both in Rongshui, 300 km from the world-famous scenic city of Guilin, have been able to attend classes for six straight years with completion of 11 new village schools.

Grenot developed a keen interest in China at the very young age. Upon her graduation from middle school, she went to study Chinese at a university in Paris and obtained a Master of Arts degree there.

She later became a tourist guide with an international travel agency in Paris and began to lead tourist groups to China back in 1989, spending over a half year in China annually.

In those days, she traveled high and low around China and fascinated by its abundant sources of tourism and folklore. She took many photos of all scenic sites she traveled to, and jotted down all she came across.

To introduce more French people to China, Grenot, who married a Chinese young man and gave herself a typical Chinese name of "Fang Fang", also published on an irregular basis a magazine in French introducing things about China to French nationals.

Grenot got to know Rongshui Miao autonomous county in 1997 via voluntary French workers with Doctors Without Borders, which has set up medical centers in Guangxi's remote, outling mountainous areas inhabited ethnic groups including ethnic Miao and Dong locals.

In summer that year, Grenot set out alone from Guilin city for Danian township which lies deep in the enclave mountainous regions. One everning, she reached a mountainous village, where she encountered a serene, Utopian world -- a small limpic creek flowing along the densely-wooded mountain valley, raised wooden huts on the exotic slopes, while cooking smoke drifted in thick evening smog.

"The landscape here is so enchanting that I cannot help to feel it is the very ideal place I have long been dreaming for," recalled Grenot of her first impression of this charming mountainous area dwelled by ethnic Miao people.

Soon Grenot returned to Guilin, quitted her job as a tourist guide, packed up all her belongings and returned to Danian township and became a Chinese language interpreter for local residents and workers at centers operated by Doctors Without Borders there.

While traveling far and wide among villages scattered in the mountains, Grenot has been engrossed by the unique, imposing scenery, yet she was shocked to find many school-age girls out of school simply because of poverty and they had to herd cattle, sheep or even cut timber for cooking fuel instead.

Such problems haunted her dreamworld even when she was hired to work for the French section of the Beijing Foreign Languages Press Publishing House several months later, so she made up her mind to do something real.

In the summer of 1998, Grenot appeared suddenly in the office of the township government of Danian and told local authorities her decision to help out needy school-age children and send them back to school.

In addition to giving 11,000 yuan (1,300 US dollars) to support the schooling of 132 children there that year, Grenot returned to Danian with friends from France when the new semester began in September.

Under the impact of Francoise Grenot, who is now capable of speaking the dialects of both ethnic Miao and Dong people, some 800 French friends have joined the endeavor to bring back school dropouts of ethnic Miao and Dong groups.

Local residents have returned Grenot's benevolence in their own way. They no longer take her for a foreigner but a member of their own community, calling her "Ms Fang Fang" in Chinese and often warmly inviting and ushering her to their homes.

Elegant landscapes and unique lifestyles have made Grenot, who is now divorced, decide to settle down in Danian Township. Its township government has provided Grenot free of charge with a plot of land for building her own resident wooden hut with distinct French features.

When her lovely suspended wooden hut was finally finished in February last year, local villagers all came along, singing, dancing and drinking self-made alcoholic beverages to congratulate Grenot on the completion of the hut.