The world came to her village
(The Daily telegraph, 10/4/2004)
Sixteen-year-old Ma Yans account of life in the poverty-stricken, drought-ridden north-west of China became a publishing sensation after it was shown to a visiting French journalist. Richard Spencer travelled to the depths of Ningxia to meet her.
Chinese children are told to learn from the spirit of revolutionary heroes : heroes such as Zhou Enlai, the former prime minister, or Lei Feng, a soldier of extraordinary, perhaps mythical, selflessness.
The children of Zhangjiashu, a dirt-poor village in Chinas arid north-west, are learning from the spirit of Ma Yan, a 16-year-old schoolgirl.
"Ma Yan asked me why I was crying one day," writes one, Ma Dongyun. "I replied that I was crying because I could not go to school. My mother gave birth to a younger brother, who was sick. Uncle, I hope you can help me and my family."
Ma Yan is a cheerful, chubby-faced girl who three years ago was just a bright pupil in the local primary school. Then her diary was handed to a French journalist, and now she is Chinas latest publishing phenomenon. You will see her face smiling shyly from book covers in British stores this summer.
The diary, originally published two years ago in Paris, sold 45,000 copies in France and has already been translated into eight languages. It comes out in English in July.
Now, her whole village is busy writing.
"My father says to us, I am sick. You must study hard," writes Dongyun. "I said to my father that I would learn from Ma Yan. Uncle, please help my younger brother first ; he is good-looking. I hope you can help cure my younger brother."
Ma Yans tale was a truly pitiable one. Her diary was a daily record of her familys search for money, food and water, as well as arguments with her mother and visits from her grandfather, "eyes full of tears, shirt dirtier than I had ever seen".
It also told of her struggle to continue with her education, so that her mother could "live a better life". The family lived off the income her father, Ma Dongjie, earned by picking facai, a herb that grows wild and from which he made perhaps £10-£20 a month.
At one point, while her mother did the same, there was a double income, though this meant Ma Yan was left to look after her younger brothers for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Then her mother fell sick.
It was at this point that her parents told her she would have to give up her education, so that they could afford to send her brothers to school instead. Although Communist in theory, China charges all its children fees, in this case perhaps £20 a year.
"Mum said, Honey, there is something I want to tell you," her diary recorded. I am afraid this is your last term at school. You know we cannot afford to have three children at school." She asked why her brothers could go to school and not her. "You are not grown up enough to understand all these things. When one day you are a mother, you will," she was told.
"This year, I cannot go to school. Im back here, working on the farm to support my brothers. But I can imagine being back at school each time I recalled the laughter of my classmates. If only I could go."
One day in May 2001, her diary, originally started as homework for her school headmaster, was handed over to a visiting French journalist, Pierre Haski of the Left-wing newspaper Libération. What happened then transformed her life.
First came the response to the articles written by Haski, as readers began to send in donations. Then a publisher bought the diary and published it. Now she and her two brothers all have their fees paid at school. Her mothers illness, which turned out to be an ulcer, was quickly treated. Her father has bought some sheep, a motorcycle, television and telephone.
Beneath the glitter of Chinas economic growth, its skyscrapers and new, foreign-invested factories on the coast, lies the daily toil of a billion people, most of them peasants. Many have benefited from the countrys economic reforms, even if they havent yet acquired the signs of material success - cars, flats, mobile phones.
But there is an underclass who still live in wretched poverty, earning less than a dollar a day, unable to afford school fees and with no access to healthcare.
Many of this underclass live in the north-western provinces, such as Ningxia, an "autonomous region" many of whose residents are, like Ma Yans family, ethnic Chinese Muslims. Zhangjiashu is firmly in this category, and it makes a visit to the village both inspiring and unnerving. Reached by 15 miles of broken, earthen tracks - it is a four-hour walk to the secondary school Ma Yan now attends - the village presents a bleak, if striking vista.
In front of Ma Yans house, a sea of brown stretches to the horizon - barren, brown fields and hills, dust swirling in the wind. It has not rained here for three years, before that for five.
The villages only colour is provided by the Red Flag flying in the primary school yard. But the locals are only too happy to point out the symbols of their new hope. On a hillside in the distance, for example, is a cave-cum-cottage of the sort still lived in by thousands of people in this part of China. It is the home of Yang Juan, another teenage girl.
She, too, has been writing. "When I reached the second year of primary school, my father wanted my sister to go, too. He said : For a girl, two years of school is enough. I was furious, because peoples beliefs here are so backward !"
Now, thanks to Ma Yan, she is also at secondary school. The money raised by Libérations readers and then the book royalties has been used for a fund to support other children from the village, particularly girls, whose lives are now also being transformed.
Yang Juans letter was one of thanks to some of her French benefactors. "I dont know how to thank you. I know the only way is to study hard..." The fund is now paying the school fees of more than 200 children, including those of every village child at the primary school.
Seven girls, including Ma Yan and Yang Juan, board at the school 15 miles away, Yuwang Middle School.
Haskis intervention in a story he was writing about was an unusual one, and he was aware of it. In one interview, he recalled : "I found myself in a situation where I could influence reality, but I had to live with that responsibility - to Ma Yan, but also to a region that in a sense we have destabilised."
By destabilisation, I guess - after my own tour - that he means the villagers have seen a way out of their poverty and are eager to grasp it. As I passed a house, I saw two children sitting on the doorstep writing something. "They are writing letters to you," I was told.
And, as I went on my way, a series of children, and some adults, thrust letters and notes into my hand.
"In order to support my extremely poor family, I became a teacher in the primary school... My father is seriously ill, and my husband cannot work because of an injury from a car accident. My family just depends on my tiny salary to make living. I hope that you can try to help me." The author is Ma Xiaoqin. She is a teacher at the local school, and is just 17. She has a baby, aged four months.
The old, almost all illiterate, beg more directly. "Please give me money for medicine," says one old man, dropping to his knees. "My leg has been crippled since birth. You are my only hope."
The local headmaster, Hu Dengshuang, sometimes wonders what he started when he asked his children to keep diaries. It was, he admits, partly a conscious act to bring attention to their poverty, the difficulties of keeping children at school, and in particular the obstacles facing girls.
He had even gone to Beijing and had photographs taken for newspapers there about his villages situation.
"I do feel a loss of face when journalists come to the village and people beg them for money," he said. "Thats not the character of the village at all."
He worries that people are learning the wrong example - not to go out and improve their lot, as Ma Yan did by studying, but to wait for charity to come to them.
But, he adds : "All good things come with bad things attached," and he is sure the good outweighs the bad.
The headmaster of Ma Yans secondary school, Ma Chenggui, is also troubled, saying he no longer wants to rely on outsiders. What fate can unexpectedly give, after all, fate can take away. The government has promised tuition fee waivers for poor pupils, he says, and 50 children are already benefiting.
As he speaks, Ma Yan herself enters his office, and suddenly it is hard not to be inspired again. She is just back from Paris, on a book tour, where she has been up the Eiffel Tower and to the Louvre, a palace unheard of or even imagined in her village.
She is matter-of-fact about her visit, and does not understand a question about whether she is intimidated by the changes to her life. "How could I not be happy ?" she asks.
And then, though it is nine oclock in the evening, she goes back to the classroom. She is behind with her timetable now, her headmaster scolds, and senior high school exams are in the summer.
He will allow no more journalists, he adds. He is stopping a television docudrama team that wanted to spend the week shadowing her.
Night has fallen, but proof of Chinas obsession with education is hard to miss as you look around. In one classroom, children are studying by candlelight. Ma Yans, a shabby affair of dirty concrete, has gloomy electric lighting. As she takes her place, her 60 classmates, packed tight together but eagerly following their teachers every word, are having an English lesson.
"You are welcome to take part in my birthday party," they chant, smiling at her, but not stopping. "Thank you. That is very kind of you."
Ma Yan has her eyes on high school, then university. "I want to study journalism," she says. "My purpose is to keep the whole world informed, to report the poverty and real life in this area."
Back in the other China, the China where children win scholarships to foreign universities, I try to discover what people feel about Ma Yan and her book. It was eventually published, to a modicum of local publicity, last September. It has sold 50,000 copies - a respectable number, but not the 300,000 the publishers had hoped for.
One young woman pointed out that, while such tales might be shocking in the West, and the simplicity of the teenagers Chinese charming, here they are only too commonplace.
Shi Tao, the books editor, was somewhat more cynical. "We targeted it at parents of well-off families in cities, hoping the book might encourage them to compare the different lives of their children and those of the same age in poor areas.
"We thought they could ask their children, Why arent you studying as hard as these poor children ? " In fact, she said, such ambitious parents were more interested in buying the real current hit among memoirs : A Chinese Girl at Harvard.