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A little known fact of life in China came to light when the diary of a 14-year-old peasant girl made it from a remote town in rural China made it to the bestseller lists in France. The book, which has now been published in 16 countries around the world, tells the story of a young girl who is desperate to stay in school, despite the problem of sky-high school fees, which her parents can not afford.


9 septembre 2003 2 09 /09 /septembre /2003 00:00
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Letter 18 - September 2003

The beginning of the new school year has indeed been full of events. To begin with the coming out of Ma Yan’s Diary in Chinese, and a trip to Beijing by Ma Yan and her mother for the launch of the book : it is published by a private Chinese publishing company (which had to go through a state publishing house to get the book out on the market, though). The book contains the entire diary, the foreword and part of the accompanying documentary text of the French edition. Actually, some of the French texts would make no sense in a book intended for Chinese readers.
On the other hand, a Postscript has been added, to narrate subsequent events over the past year, in France and Europe as well as in China. No censorship at all has taken place, and the editor only asked that one word and one phrase in the foreword and postscript be toned down. This was done without changing the essential meanings of the sentences.
The launch of the book was a powerful moment. I brought some friends in Beijing together, friends who are sympathetically observing or even actively supporting our initiative. This launch party was also attended by many visitors to China, such as the French delegation at the Beijing book fair, including french publisher Antoine Gallimard, intrigued by the return to China of an originally Chinese text that first appeared in France. Li Zhensheng, the ‘photographer of the Cultural Revolution’, whose photographs are currently being exhibited at the Hôtel de Sully in Paris, was stopping over at Beijing and also came to meet Ma Yan...
The following day, on 20 September, there was an encounter with the Chinese press and a group of children from Beijing, at the Chinese publisher’s initiative. It was a very emotional moment when Ma Yan began to tell the story of one of her cousin who had to break off her school education at the age of 16 and was married by force by her family, and who is now already pregnant. Ma Yan read out to the journalists the correspondence which I had already passed on to you in translation in a recent letter, and which can be found in the postscript of the chinese edition of the book.
Herself in tears, Ma Yan explained to what degree she feared the mere word ‘marriage’ today, and publicly thanked us for allowing her to escape this fate. Half of the journalists were in tears, too, and they gave her a resounding applause. Ma Yan, her mother and I also arranged for an appearance on Chinese Central Television (CCTV), which will be broadcast at the beginning of October, during the general vacation the national holiday on 1 October. On this occasion, too, quite strong things were said, even though the interviewing host steered the conversation more off into the direction of ‘fairytale’ and away from the reality in poor rural areas...
This strong media coverage and the coming out of the book itself, with a first print run of 50,000 copies and at a fairly low price of 16 Yuan RMB (less than two Euro), give our initiative a welcome boost and will assuredly help us with our projects. But most importantly, this will allow us to feed into the debate on education of the poorest in society which is currently ongoing in China ; for even though many journalists are mainly interested in the anecdotal aspects of this adventure, the social background against which it happened remains always present.
And the story happened just at a moment when a public debate on this subject has taken off in China, even though one cannot yet discern any signs of a change in direction on the part of the Chinese government. I well recall the statements made by a special rapporteur to the UN on the right to education only a few days earlier. The rapporteur severely criticised the meagreness of public expenditure on educational matters in Chinese (just over 2% of the GDP, when Unesco is recommending 6%, ad the former Chinese prime minister had promised to go up to 4% by the year 2000 !)
Ma Yan and her mother have returned to their village with their minds full of memories of Beijing, and happy to have been able to share their emotions, as well as to share the story of the fate of the children of Ningxia, with some inhabitants of the great Chinese cities.
HERMES. On quite a different level, the french luxury goods firm Hermès conducted sales in Beijing on 20 September, the profit of which had been dedicated to our Association. These sales have been a big success, and should yield a considerable though as yet uncertain sum supporting our initiative. The date of the sales event accidentally fell on the day of the coming out of the book, and therefore Ma Yan and her mother came to see showroom. It was a strange way of being plunged into the world of luxury - a cultural shock, albeit one turned to a good purpose of solidarity. Thanks, at any rate, go to Bertrand Michaud, the director of Hermès in Hongkong, for his initiative.
BURSARIES. The beginning of the new school year in September has passed off well in Ningxia and has allowed us again to increase the number of bursary recipients, thanks to the increase of funds of the Association, which is happening slowly but surely. 56 bursaries were distributed, compared to around forty last semester, it being understood that when we grant a bursary, we undertake to grant it for the entire duration of the recipient’s studies, however long that is.
The money was sent by postal order directly to the families, and Ma Yan’s mother has just called us to tell us that people were dancing in the streets of the village, the money having just arrived. Several other mothers have also rung us to tell us that we ‘saved’ their family by this transfer. On the other hand, too, we received an avalanche of letters from children asking also to be supported through bursaries over the following few days : the needs are, as one knows, still immense. We will try to get to the village during the next few weeks, in order to see if some of these cases can be sorted out, but it is difficult to take any action based on just a letter.
Some delays, however, are occurring as regards the equipment for the computer room. The construction of the new building, which had begun the previous year, was interrupted during the SARS outbreak, and has still not been resumed, as the government suspended its transfers of funding. It is difficult for us to send the computers into an environment where they would be exposed to dust and adverse climatic conditions, and would not last long. This is yet another reason why we have to head for the village in order to see for ourselves how to get round this obstacle.
A similar difficulty has arisen with regard to the solar panels donated by a Chinese company : there are currently no shower rooms for which the panels could be used, and indeed the roofs of the current buildings would collapse if they were installed upon them. In this respect too, choices will have to be made.
So here you have some updates on a new school year which has brought some by no means unimportant events and developments. There will not fail to be big fallout from the coming out of the book in Chinese. The story will be followed up...
Best wishes
Pierre Haski


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