BEIJING — Many things about Wang Fuman’s life have changed since he became an international sensation a year ago. Then, he was an 8-year-old who had to walk for an hour in a thin jacket from his grandmother’s mud hut to his freezing cold, poorly resourced school. His father was working far away, and his mother had deserted the family.
Now — a year after his teacher posted a photo of him arriving at school with his head covered in icicles, a photo that went viral and earned him the Internet name “Ice Boy” or “Snowflake Boy” — Fuman has a new house, a warmer school and his mom back at home.
Despite the change in circumstances that the moniker brought him, Fuman still likes to be known by his real name.
“’Snowflake boy’ is just a nickname,” the 9-year-old said in a video shared this week by a newspaper in the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming. “In my hometown, my classmates treat me as an ordinary person, and I think of myself as an ordinary person. If I were treated as a star, I would feel awkward.”
Fuman was one of the 61 million “left-behind” children, youths who are left in their poor hometowns while their parents seek work in the big cities.
Fuman and his older sister, Fumei, lived with their grandmother in a mountainous region of Yunnan province, in southwestern China. To get to school, he had to walk three miles in temperatures as low as 16 degrees Fahrenheit (-9C).
Once he got there, the school had no heating and little in the way of educational resources.
That all changed after that photo that his teacher posted showing Fuman with ruddy, wind-chapped cheeks and frozen hair. His hands were also chapped and covered in chilblains.
The photo starkly illustrated the poverty in which many Chinese families still live, despite China’s rapid economic gains of the past few decades. More than 30 million Chinese people live below the national poverty line, subsisting on less than $360 a year. Yunnan is one of the worst-affected provinces. The central government is seeking to lift these people out of extreme poverty by 2020.
After the “snowflake boy” photo went viral, Ludian County received a deluge of donations and government aid.
Local foundations launched a charity drive to help children from poor families stay warm in winter. They raised $47,000 within a week.
His school, Zhuanshanbao Elementary, has been equipped with proper heating and new teaching facilities. It now has a science lab, art room and computer room, where students have access to digital textbooks. Clothes and sports equipment were donated, too.
Each classroom has two heaters in it now, and as a result, Fuman doesn’t have chilblains on his hands this year.
Fuman’s father was given a job at a construction site in Kunming, 250 miles from Zhuanshanbao. He can earn almost $600 a month there, and it is close enough to allow him to return home three times last year.
"Our lives will get better and better from now on,” his father, Wang Gangkui, told the People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper. “Compared with the mud walls and muddy roads in the past, we are better sheltered from the wind and rain now.”
During the week, however, Fuman lives in the student dormitory, which has new thick quilts and mattresses for the 73 students who live there, and they are given medicine to prevent frostbite. The school cafeteria has also been upgraded.
“Our classroom is very warm now. I usually stay in the school so I do not have to go home every day,” the boy told China Daily this month, adding that he wanted to study hard and become a police officer so he could “take down bad people in the world.”
Shortly after he shot to stardom, Fuman went on three-day tour of Beijing with his father and his 10-year-old sister. They visited a top police-training college, the People’s Public Security University and the city’s SWAT headquarters. The SWAT officers taught the children combat skills, and they tried rock climbing and touched a real gun.
“The real gun was a lot heavier than my toy guns,” Fuman told reporters at the time. “They [SWAT officers] train really hard every day, but I still want to be a policeman.”
Fuman is doing well at school, Vice Principal Fu Heng told the People’s Daily. “He is in the top three for mathematics and the top five overall,” he said. “He also has a good relationship with the other pupils.”
The Wang family now lives in a small two-story house closer to school.
“Our old house was a bit dirty, but the new house is clean,” Fuman said. “In the old house, there were a lot of old memories because my grandfather built it. But in the new house, there are [new] memories because my dad built it.”
Better still, their mother, who had been working in restaurants in the east coast province of Zhejiang, also returned home in the middle of the year. “I think we are very lucky that mom could come back. [I am] very happy,” Wang’s sister, Fumei, said in the video.
Every weekend, they squeeze into her bed to sleep together, they said. “Mom has come back; our family is very happy,” Fuman said.
She now cares about them more, he said. “If our clothes are dirty, she’ll wash them. When it is cold, she asks us to take another quilt to school,” Fuman told the Kunming paper.
His mother, Lu Dafeng, explained why she left in the first place. “I disliked his father because he was poor and disappointing, so I got angry, left and went to work in other places,” she said in the video. “But later I missed my children, so I came back.”
But she might not stay for long. “This year, after Lunar New Year [in February], I will go and work on the construction site with his dad,” she said.
Lunar New Year is the biggest annual Chinese holiday. Many people return to their hometowns for the week. “This year, [my wife] has come back home, so our family can have a lively happy New Year together,” Fuman’s father said in the video. He had even been able to buy a 220-pound pig for the New Year feast.
Fuman’s improved fortunes have warmed online hearts in China, with the hashtag “#one year of snowflake boy” attracting 77 million views on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
“What a warmhearted ending. May every child be treated gently by the world,” wrote one Weibo user with the screen name Hangxiaoye.
The living standards of local people have improved dramatically thanks to the attention and financial aid that Wang brought, said Tang Yadong, mayor of the town that includes Zhuanshanbao.
A total of 17,857 people in Ludian County — out of a population of 458,200 — crossed over the poverty line last year, according to state figures, but the area remains deeply deprived.
And the Kunming newspaper video showed that there are still plenty of “left behind” children in the area.
“It’s three miles from my home to school. I’m bored at home because I have only my grandparents to talk to,” said Lu Zipeng, a third-grade student from Wang’s elementary school.
“I really miss mom and dad. I really want to go visit them in Zhejiang [on the coast], but I can’t,” he said. “Sometimes I see them come back home in my dreams.”
While some Weibo users commended the power of the Internet, others lamented that these situations improve only if they attract media attention.
“There’s money to improve the situation once being reported,” wrote one. “How about getting rid of poverty like is usually said? Are they getting rid of the true poverty?”