TIAOHUASHAN Village, China (AP) -- Mu Zhengwu scanned the tiny room of his childhood, part of a wood home built over a shed where cows once sent earthy odors through the floorboards. Wood planks were missing from a bare bed frame. The walls were shedding a kind of wallpaper made from pages of school notebooks.
Seven Chinese characters, written in bold brush strokes, remained intact above a dusty desk: "The fragrance of winter blossoms comes from bitter chills."
"These words have prodded me along and kept me going," Mu said on a recent visit to his family's home in Tiaohuashan village. The words accompanied him on his arduous journey from Guizhou, China's most impoverished province, to a prestigious Beijing law school.
At first glance, the bespectacled 25-year-old might look like proof that China's education remains a powerful social equalizer.
But a closer examination of Mu's path shows the field of education heavily tilted away from rural students and toward the wealthy urban elite, part of the widening economic and social inequalities in modern, rapidly growing China. Supposedly socialist, China has compulsory education through grade 9 but not without costs for rural families. Some endure heart-breaking sacrifice to educate their children.
Mu's own family was so poor that his equally bright older brother had to drop out from sixth grade so Mu could stay in class.
He studied extra hard -- sometimes by streetlamp -- but his advance was hamstrung by a system that spends several times more per student in Beijing than in Tiaohuashan. His chances of entering a top-notch university were further handicapped by quotas that overwhelmingly favor big-city students.
Mu is the only person from his village ever to make it to graduate school. Only about 3 percent of impoverished rural students in China even make it as far as college, a Stanford University study estimates. About 84 percent of high school students in the thriving city of Shanghai advance to colleges, according to Shanghai's government.
China's top education officials acknowledge inequities and pledge to narrow the gaps by extending more financial resources to rural teachers and students. Some top universities suggest they will give rural students a break in test scores for admissions.
"Countless people have fallen on this road," Mu said. "It's a miracle that I even attended middle school."
The third of three sons, Mu was born in 1988 in the mountainous southern province of Guizhou, for years China's poorest with per-capita GDP of $3,100 in 2012.
He grew up in Tiaohuashan, where hay and manure litter narrow alleyways, water buffaloes bathe in muddy creeks and locals offer incense to earth deities to pray for harvests. His father supplemented farming with a scrap-metal business. His mother was illiterate but had an unwavering belief in education. Their home was built above the stable to protect valuable animals from theft.
As a boy, Mu cut hay and herded cows. He didn't start school until age 7, and his 9-year-old brother repeated the first grade to join him in class. Three years later, the Mu brothers moved to a larger school with children from several villages.
Discipline was lax. Boys began to drink, smoke and chase girls at age 10, Mu and his friends recalled. Boys pried the legs off classroom benches to brandish in a scuffle. "The teachers could not control us," Mu said.
Per-student funding in Mu's province in 1998, when he was in fourth grade, was $34 a year, compared with $211 for Beijing. Spending has since increased, but the gap remains. In 2011, per-student funding was $552 in Guizhou and $2,985 in Beijing, according to Education Ministry figures.
In 2001, the Mu family's luck went sour. They lost much of their livestock, and money from some scrap-metal deals was stolen. Paying tuition -- about 150 yuan (about $25) per semester -- for all three boys became out of the question.
The oldest son, then in eighth grade, already had lost interest in studying, but both Mu Zhengwu and the second-oldest brother, Mu Zhengwen, wanted to stay in school.
Mu Zhengwen offered to sacrifice.
"I am older, so I should step back," he recalled in an interview. "If I had insisted, neither of us would have had school to go to."
Although lower grade schools were compulsory, tuition fees at that time put education all but out of reach for some impoverished families. Grades 1 through 9 became tuition-free in 2008, but costs for textbooks remained. And China has closed many village schools and consolidated them into regional hubs, which has added costs for travel and boarding, resulting in even higher rural dropout rates.