NANNING – A primary school in southern China has raised eyebrows online by issuing an unconventional reward to its best-performing students — live carp.

Photos and videos have circulated online showing pupils from Jiangchuan Primary School in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region cheerfully holding up the fish and award certificates, stirring discussions about rural schools’ ingenious practices to motivate students from impoverished families.

The school in Sanjiang Dong autonomous county said over 140 students received the carp and sachets of jelly for their outstanding performance in the just-concluded final exam.

Principle Liao Xiaohua said the carp, symbolizing wealth and courage, were meant to hearten students and their financially constrained families.

“We used to issue notebooks and pencils as awards, but the parents were barely impressed,” he said. “This time, students can bring back the live carp, so their whole families can have a feast and share their joy.”

In Chinese legends, a carp turns into a dragon after jumping over the “dragon gate” in the Yellow River. The story is often used to encourage children from deprived families to climb up social ladders by studying hard. The Chinese word “fish” is also a homophone for “abundance” and a symbol of wealth.

All 856 students in the school live in a nearby community built to accomodate those who have just been relocated from poverty-stricken mountain areas as part of the country’s anti-poverty campaign.

Liao said the pupils began studying in the school five months ago. Though “their living and learning conditions have been greatly improved,” the school is still working to help them acclimatize to the new environment.

“Life had been hard for the students, so we hope the prizes can cheer them up,” Liao said.

The carp amazed both the students and netizens. “It looks cruel on the part of the fish, but remember this is a remote mountainous area where poverty is the main problem,” said one comment on China’s microblogging site Sina Weibo. “Hope the kids will all turn into dragons one day,” said another.

Keep students in class

It is not the first time a rural school created a buzz in China with their innovative rewards. Earlier this year, another primary school from the same county rewarded pupils with slabs of pork at the end of term, both to improve their meager diet and to encourage them to come back after vacation.

Keeping impoverished rural students from cutting school has been a highly emotional issue in China, which has a long education-centered history. It is a theme that appears in many literary and screen works from Zhang Yimou’s 1999 film “Not One Less” to Liu Cixin’s sci-fi short story “The Rural Teacher.”

Wu Xianfan, deputy head of the county’s educational bureau, said the underdeveloped county is home to many “left-behind” children, who often stay with grandparents as their parents seek better-paying work in cities, and those who leave schools early out of financial problems. The local government has been working to strengthen the bonds between schools and student families to keep students in class.

“We now pay more attentions to inner motivation,” Wu said. “In the past, some schools rewarded cash to students, who spent it without letting their guardians know. Fish and pork, in contrast, are more likely to be shared with their guardians, so the whole family can feel the joy of the kids’ success in school.”