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Shandan Bailie School

Shandan Bailie School

Throughout its existence the New Zealand China Friendship Society has had a special relationship with the Shandan Bailie School, founded by Rewi Alley in 1944 – sending teachers, equipment and other support to help this school live up to the ideals of its founder.

Part of the old Shandan Bailie School c.1947
Part of the old Shandan Bailie School c.1947


The School’s history

The new Shandan Bailie School of Agriculture,Forestry and Animal Husbandry opened in 1987
The new Shandan Bailie School of Agriculture,Forestry and Animal Husbandry opened in 1987.

When their school in Shaanxi Province was threatened by the Japanese advance, Rewi and George Hogg plus the 60 or so students packed up and trekked to the old derelict city of Shandan on the edge of the Gobi Desert. There Rewi rented some old temples and turned them into classrooms and workships, and appointed George Hogg as headmaster. From the beginning the school was helped by New Zealand friends, who later formed the New Zealand China Friendship Society.

In July 1945 tragedy struck when George died of Tetanus after stubbing his toe while playing basketball with the boys. He was buried just outside the South Gate of the town and Rewi took over as Headmaster.

Shandan Bailie - School Entrance
The entrance to the school

He named it the Shandan Bailie School after his friend, the American missionary Joseph Bailie, who had very enlightened ideas on education. The timetable allowed for “half-work, half-study”. In the mornings half the school was engaged in practical tasks, while the other half had formal lessons. In the afternoons the two halves switched over.



Shandan Bailie School - Rewi Alley Teaching
Rewi Alley explains the workings of the internal combustion engine.

An amazing variety of practical skills were taught. There were pottery kilns, paper-making, glass-blowing, spinning and weaving of cotton and wool. There was a leather section, where the hides were scraped, leather polished and dyed and jackets and shoes made. They had a flour mill and they made sugar from beet. There was a farm where they ran sheep sent from supporters in New Zealand. They had a coal mine and a power plant which provided electricity to the whole complex.


Students use homemade water wheel to irrigate fields.
Students use homemade water wheel to irrigate fields.

The students were illiterate peasant boys (and later girls) who were trained to become useful technicians in a backward country which needed their services badly.

Rewi gathered around him a number of foreign teachers with particular skills which they could pass on to the students. Quite a few came from New Zealand, including Bob and Barbara Spencer, a doctor and nurse who were sent out by the aid organisation CORSO. They set up the school hospital which was the only one for hundreds of miles and took many outpatients every day who had often travelled great distances.

There was a transport section with more than 20 trucks purchased from Gung Ho, which travelled as far away as Chongqing and even the coast, and earned good revenue for the school. The machine shop had a machine-tool section, blacksmith’s shop and foundry which used local iron-ore, coal and scrap iron hauled up by truck from Lanzhou.

On October 1st 1949 the Peoples Republic of China was proclaimed in Beijing but there was still fighting in the Shandan area between the retreating Nationalists and the Communists. It was a very dangerous period but the teachers and students had a few rifles and guarded their school. When the Communists arrived Rewi handed over the trucks with senior boys and a New Zealand teacher, Max Wilkinson, as drivers to help the victorious PLA (Peoples Liberation Army).

By this time the Bailie Schools had trained thousands of young people in the skills which were now urgently in demand and they soon found useful work all over the country. In 1952 the Shandan school was transferred to Lanzhou to become the Bailie Oil School. Shortly afterwards a great earthquake hit the Shandan region and almost every building in Shandan was destroyed.

Headmaster Ni Caiwang points to an artists impression of the newly competed Shandan Bailie School
Headmaster Ni Caiwang points to an artists impression of the newly competed school

When he was well over 80 years of age he conceived a plan for a new Shandan Bailie School. This time the aim was to meet the present-day needs of the region.

West Gansu is still one of the poorest parts of China, largely because the peasants have not been able to keep their farming in balance with nature. Deforestation and overgrazing by goats and sheep have caused erosion and the advance of the desert.


Rewi’s idea was for a school where the young people could be trained in modern techniques and at the same time, learn to preserve the land.

Shandan Bailie - New School
The new Shandan Bailie School

With the support of the Gansu government and friends from overseas, including the New Zealand China Friendship Society, a new school was built and opened on April 21st 1987, the 60th anniversary of Rewi’s arrival in China. The NZCFS was represented by New Zealand teacher, Tom Newnham, whom Rewi had invited to teach at the school.


Several other New Zealanders soon followed,including the Powley family in 1988, and Karen Wilson in 1989-90. NZCFS has continued the tradition of selecting and supporting suitable qualified New Zealanders to teach at Shandan to today, with over 12 serving since 2000 alone. To view this position go to English Teacher for Shandan Bailie School

The New Zealand China Friendship Society has also organised other aid, such as a container of materials in 1987, scholarships to students ( view 2005 Scholarships presented to Shandan Bailie School), and projects in Shandan county with SBS support.