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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 décembre 2003 2 09 /12 /décembre /2003 00:00
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Ma Yan’s Diary Touches Europe

(Shanghai’s "Liberation Daily", 02/12/2003)

In Zhang Jia Shu, the most northern village in the town of Yu Wang in Xi Hai Gu, there was a girl called Ma Yan. Since the fourth grade, she had been keeping a diary on her homework notebook. The diary recorded her thoughts and feeling about life and her experience of dropping out school. Xi Hai Hu, Ningxia province, was identified by the United Nations as one of the areas “not suitable for human living” in 1972.
In 2002, a book called Ma Yan’s Diary was published in Paris, France. Soon it was translated into six languages and published in other countries in Europe.
Ma Yan’s Diary touched Europe, and changed Ma Yan’s life as well.
Accidental Discovery of Ma Yan’s Diary
Zhang Jia Shu, the remote village in Xi Hai Gu where Ma Yan lived, was mentioned by the American journalist Edgar Snow in his world famous book, Red Star in China. Decades later it was visited by some other foreign journalists, one of them the foreign correspondent in Beijing from a French daily, Liberation. His name is Pierre Haski, and his Chinese name Han Shi. With 28 years of journalism experience, Pierre had worked in South Africa and Israel among other places as a foreign correspondent. He visited the village with his assistant, He Yanping.
Just before Pierre and other were leaving the village, a middle-aged woman with a white cap gave three diary books and a letter to He Yanping. The woman was Ma Yan’s mother, Bai Juhua. Bai Juhua gave them to the reporters because some villagers hadn’t been truthful during their interview.
Later during an interview with Wang Zhi, the host of the Face to Face program of Chinese Central Television, Bai Juhua revealed what she had thought back then : “What some villagers said, I couldn’t stand it, because our village is indeed very poor, everybody’s poor. ... I told the reporters that I was an adult, they might not believe all my words. But the village was so poor that even a child could realize it. I told them I had my daughter’s three diary books. They could have them and read for themselves. Children don’t lie. He (Pierre) asked if he needed to return the diary books to me after he reading them. I said no need. They were just worthless papers, why bother return them to me ?” Ma Yan’s mother had not expected that so many things would happen after she gave the diary to the reporters.
Pierre and He Yanping returned to Beijing with Ma Yan’s diary and letter and had them translated. Ma Yan’s letter titled “I want to go to school” was address to her mother. It said :
“We have a week-long break. Mother said to me, ‘My child, mama has a thing to tell you.’ I said ‘Mama, whatever it is, just tell me. Don’t hide it in your heart. Hiding things in your heart will make you sad.’ Mother then told me that I would not go back to school after the break. I stared at her and ask, ‘How could you say that ? It’s impossible to make a living without knowledge. Even peasants need knowledge to farm their land. Farming without knowledge will bring no harvest.’ Mother said, ‘Your father is the only person in the family who has a job, if all your three children go to school, the money he earned won’t be enough.’ ‘So, that means I have to go home.’ ‘Yes,’ mother said. ‘How about my two brothers ?’ ‘They must stay in school.’ ‘Why can boys stay in school and girls can not ?’ ‘You are too little to understand it. You’ll understand when you grow up,’ mother said. I can no longer go to school this year. I’m back in the house, and I till the land in order to pay for my brothers’ schooling. Whenever I think of the laughter in school, I feel like I was in school studying. How I want to go to school ! But my family has no money. I want to go to school. Mother, I don’t want to go home. How wonderful it would be if I can stay in school forever !”
After reading Ma Yan’s letter and diary, Pierre was so touched by her story told in her childish language that he decided to return to Zhang Jia Shu to meet Ma Yan.
Ma Yan’s Story Moved Many People
Pierre and He Yanping visited Zhang Jia Shu for the second time. Last time Pierre didn’t meet Ma Yan. This time he finally met the girl he had been wanting to see. He found her an active and smart girl with her own ideas. At the Imam’s home, 13-year-old Ma Yan told the crowd what’s in her mind without any fear. She said that she was the eldest child in the family. If she studied hard enough, she could have a life without depending on this piece of poor land, she could for sure change a village girl’s fate of marrying someone and using the betrothal gift and money to help her brothers find a wife. Moved by Ma Yan’s determination, Pierre decided to tell the story to his readers.
In January 2002, the French newspaper, Liberation, published Pierre’s long feature story, titled “I want to go to school,” which detailed how Ma Yan had been fighting hard to stay in school. The story soon received much attention from readers in France and other countries.
A French school teacher, Emmanuelle, read the story to her class. “After I finish reading,” the young blonde teacher said, “several students cried. One student raised hand and asked, ‘teacher, what shall we do to help her ?’” The students raised fund on Ma Yan’s behalf in their school and sent 100 Euros (900 Yuan) to China to help Ma Yan and other Chinese children to return to school.
Many readers from France, Italy and other European countries were also touched by Ma Yan’s diary and story. They mailed donation, wrote letters, and established the “Ningxia Children Foundation.”
Not Just Ma Yan’s Life That Has Been Changed
As soon as its publication in France, Ma Yan’s Diary was received well by the public. The book, priced at equivalent 160 Yuan, landed on the French bestseller list of 2002. Pierre said, “Ma Yan’s diary touched the most sensitive part of French people’s heart, and other people than French have been touched as well.”
The book has drawn strong reaction from its readers. A teacher in eastern France said that he often used Ma Yan’s story to educate his students. Coming from a poor social class, his students had great difficulties in studying. The teacher wrote, “Some of my students are moved by Ma Yan’s story and want to send something to Ma Yan, or at least wrote a letter to her.” The result was the students wrote Ma Yan more than 20 letters with picture and poems in them. And every letter contained a pen because Ma Yan mentioned in her diary that she had to skip a meal in order to save enough money to buy a pen.
The young readers of a French youth magazine, L’Actu, voted Ma Yan as the Teenager of the Year in 2002. Fourteen-year-old Chris wrote in a letter, “I think she’s right to fight for her rights. She’s very brave. Today many young people don’t realize how lucky they are to be able to go to school.”
The publication of the diary changed Ma Yan’s life. She now receives 500 Yuan every month from her royalty. The money is enough not only to pay for her schooling, but also to improve her family’s life. With the money, her family has bought a donkey and color television set, and painted the house.
Pierre has used the donations from all over Europe to set up a foundation, the Association for the Children of Ningxia. The association has helped dozens of children in the area, all of them except two were girls.
Ma Yan has also become a celebrity in Chinese media. In March 2002, Ma Yan and her mother, Bai Juhua, went to Beijing for the first time and appeared on the “Face to Face” program on the government television. Ma Yan’s story attracted donations from all over the country, which will be used to help young girls like Ma Yan to stay in school.
Having never been to school, Ma Yan’s mother started to learn to read after the publication of her daughter’s diary. Today she can write not only her name, but also this sentence : “Dear daughter, how are you ?”
Excerpt from Ma Yan’s Diary
September 13, 2000, Wednesday (Sunny)
This afternoon after school, when it’s time to go home for supper, my younger brother and I went to look for my mother. When we found her she was visiting a doctor for illness. I took out our shampoo and gave it to her to take home. My brother and I then wanted to go back to school to do homework. But mother didn’t let us go, saying that she would buy us some food after the doctor visit. Together we three went to the market to find a place to eat. But mother didn’t eat. My brother and I did. I saw mother was hungry and thirsty.
I told myself, mother doesn’t eat so that we can eat and go to school. I must make her proud, go to college, find a job, and never let her be hungry.
· November 5, 2001, Friday (Sunny)
When my brother and I left home this afternoon, the steamed bread for us were not ready yet, so I locked the door and went to where my father was to give him the key. Father asked us to stay until we had our dinner. I told him that we had to leave early today in order to catch a ride. Father then gave me 10 Yuan (US$1.25) so that we could buy some bread on the road. I took the money to a shop to change it to two five-Yuan bills. I gave five Yuan back to my father and saved the other five for us to buy bread. I know that father worked hard to earn that 10 Yuan. Father used his blood and sweat to earn that 10 Yuan, how could I just take it without any consideration ? I must study hard, go to college, find a job so that I will never have to worry about money.
· July 30, 2001, Monday (Sunny)
When I sat down to write my diary this afternoon, I couldn’t find my pen. I asked my two brothers if they had seen it. They said no. Then I went to where I wrote diary yesterday but couldn’t find it there either. Then I asked my mother if she had seen it. Mother said that she saw me leave my pen and books on the family bed. Afraid that I might lost them, she put them into a drawer. But I still couldn’t find them after searching everywhere. My heart was broken. You might laugh : it’s just a pen, so what ? It doesn’t worth enough for you to feel heartbroken. But you don’t understand how hard it is for me to get that pen. I had saved all my allowance for two semesters to buy it. Seeing every classmate has two or three pens, but I didn’t have any, I couldn’t help buying one. That pen represents all the hardship I have endured. My mother gave me allowance because I had no bread to eat. Everyday, two bowls of coarse rice was all the food I had. She gave me allowance so that I could buy some bread. But I forced myself to endure hunger to save the allowance, and finally bought the pen. I have endured much hardship for that pen. Now I have another pen which was the prize when I won the “Triple Good Student” (Good in moral study, academic study, and physical education) title in school on June 1, the Children’s Day. I don’t lack pen, but I will always remember the pen I lost. It has taught me what’s a hard life, what’s a happy life. Every time I saw it, I was reminded of my mother who was encouraging me to study hard and pass the entrance exam of the girls’ middle school . But I disappoint her, I’m worthless. My life in school is worse than that of a cow or horse. Now that I fail the entrance exam of the girls’ middle school, what fun does my life have ? But I’m determined to succeed, to find a good job, then I’ll be satisfied.
· October 30, 2001, Tuesday (Overcast)
It’s so cold today ! My brother and I don’t have food again. At noon all my classmates were eating, only my brother and I stood there, upper teeth clenching lower teeth, lower teeth clenching upper teeth. When my brother saw me crying, he pretended to be happy and said, “Sister, wait here, I’ll borrow money to buy some rice.” I knew his feeling was even worse than mine. But he did it to comfort me, to let me not to worry about him. I went to my dorm room, sat down on my bed, and saw him left. Readers, do you know what I was longing for ? I was longing for a bowl of coarse rice. I waited and waited. Finally my brother returned. He told me that the rice was sold out, then he left. Watching his back becoming farther and farther away, I couldn’t stop my tears from running down my cheek. Readers, have you ever tasted hunger ? I have had enough of this unbearable pain. I wonder : when can I go to school without being hungry ?
· December 8, 2001, Saturday (Sunny)
Today is the start of the winter recess, I can’t express how happy my heart is, because tonight is the end of Ramadam and my family will have a festival meal. At the school gate, other students were busy catching a bus to go home, only my brother and I stood there watching. I wanted to take bus, but I also wanted to save money. If we don’t take bus but walk home, it would be late night when we got home, then we won’t have time to do homework. So we got on a bus. When the bus stopped at my house, I paid the driver one Yuan which really pained my heart. But I also knew it’s not easy for the driver to earn that one Yuan. Once we got in the house, my mother scolded us, “You two are old enough to walk home, but you took bus and spent money. Don’t you know where that one Yuan came from ?” Hearing that made me think of all the hardships that mother has. At home I can hear mother’s cough again, and really feel I should not have spent that one Yuan. Not taking bus, I could have used that one Yuan to buy medicine for mother so that she can get better sooner, then I won’t have to worry about her health when I’m at school. But I didn’t save the money, I greatly regret it. Mother’s criticism is very right, very reasonable. I think my mother is the most intelligent person in the world, I admire her, she’s the smartest person in the world. But unfortunately she has no education, only to make her life miserable. I promise I won’t waste money next time, I will let my parent have a good life in the future.
· December 13, 2001, Thursday (Sunny)
Today is another festival day, I was very happy, I thought mother would come to the festival to buy gifts for grandma. But mother didn’t come, I can’t help shedding tears because mother has disappointed me on every festival so far. While walking with my head down at the festival, I came across grandpa and my father. They were discussing something and looked having some fun. But they looked very ugly. Their clothes were ragged enough, but they still carried a bag around their waist, making them look even more ugly. Grandpa looked very old, I wondered what he had to eat on this festival day. As his granddaughter I should do something for him to show my respect. So I bought 0.5 Yuan of apples as his end-of-Ramadam gift. But when I tried to give the apples to him, he had already left the festival. Then I came across grandma at the vegetable market. She said that grandpa sent her to buy apple. So I gave my apples to her and added another Yuan of pears to my gift. Spending so much money in such a short while, I felt really reluctant, but I had no choice. Then I walked to the direction of school. At the gate of the vegetable market I saw an old lady who looked like my nai-nai (grandma on the father’s side). That made me think of nai-nai. So I bought her 0.5 Yuan of pears. Nai-nai is more than 70 years old. I should do something for her to show respect, so I used my money for notebooks to buy her pears. I have never spent so much money, 2 Yuan, at one time since elementary school. Except that last year I spent 35 Yuan to take exams in the capital of the county, today I spent most money. But I have to spend this money. If you have a festival celebration, you would buy something nice for your family, too. I did it just to show my respect and do my duty to the elderly.



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