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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.

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16 janvier 2003 4 16 /01 /janvier /2003 00:00
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IN THE PRESS/
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China’s new female writers captivate world.

www.asiatimes.com, Jan. 16, 2003

By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - Two utterly different female voices of China have come to fascinate worldwide publishers in recent months, giving rise to yet another round of enchantment with the exoticism of China’s multiple faces.
One - a barely mature voice of a 14-year-old girl from the wind-swept arid plains of China’s northwest, confesses the pains of growing and learning as a woman belonging to an ethnic minority on the forgotten fringes of the country.
Ma Yan’s Diary is the intimate journal of a young girl who wants to study but whose family is too poor to help her escape the uniform destiny of many peasant women - dropping out from school and getting married very early.
The diary was not conceived as a work to be published. But since its discovery by a French journalist in Zhangjiashu village in Ningxia a year ago, it has become the hot property of many publishing houses in Europe and Japan.
Another trendy voice - a confident and yet naive narrative of an 18-year-old girl from Beijing - reveals volumes about solitude as an intense but groundless young urban generation of China emerges, with contempt for study and hunger for passion being the main characteristics of many.
Beijing Wawa ("Beijing Doll") is what skeptics may say is the Beijing rendition of Shanghai Baby - the banned best-seller of steamy sex and decadent urban life penned by Chinese female writer Wei Hui in 1999.
Yet what Beijing Wawa author Chun Shu writes is less self-conscious and strikes a greater note of sincerity with its young readers. Her pen name - Chun Shu, meaning Spring Tree - is not ostentatious and denotes just the writer’s young age.
Both Ma Yan’s and Chun Shu’s books are autobiographical. Chun Shu’s narrative lays claim to representing the voice of her generation - the urban type of girls with no privileges or background born in the China of late 1980s, fascinated with underground rock music and "punk spirit", searching for lasting love and warmth in a circle of alienation and ephemeral pleasures.
Ma Yan’s journal is personal but sheds light into the daily life of thousands of girls from the Muslim Hui minority in Ningxia - one of China’s poorest western provinces.
Thousands of kilometers away from the booming coastal cities in the east and forgotten by the market forces that nowadays rule this once egalitarian country, these girls have to leave school and toil in the fields to support their families before being made to marry at the age of 15 in exchange for a dowry.
Ma Yan’s diary landed in the hands of Pierre Haski, a correspondent for France’s newspaper Liberation, who was the first foreigner many of the villagers in Zhangjiashu ever saw. Ma Yan’s mother, Ma Juhua, shoved three little notebooks with handwriting into Pierre’s hands when he was passing through the village during a trip in 2001.
"The expression on her face was such as if her life depended on this," says Pierre, "and I could not refuse to take them although at the time I did not know what it was."
A month later, Haski returned to give the family 1,000 yuan (US$120) - enough to enable them to cover middle-school fees for two years. " When Ma’s mother saw me," he recalls, "she knew that her message in a bottle thrown in the big sea had reached a shore. She cried."
What unites and separates both books are their protagonists’ strong feelings about academia. They could not be more different.
"I want to study," screams Ma Yan, when her mother tells her that there is no money in the family for her to continue with schooling in the next term.
"If I come home, what would happen to my two brothers ?" asks Ma Yan. "Your brothers would continue at school," answers her mother. "But why boys can study and girls cannot ?" Ma Yan doesn’t give up. "You are too young to understand. When you grow up, you will learn why," comes the answer.
"I want to study, mother," writes the girl in her diary. "I don’t want to return home. It would be wonderful if I could stay at school forever."
With equal determination, Chun Shu declares in her novel that "she hates schools". "I did not make it into the senior middle school," she continues, "but even if I had what difference would it make ? I would not be happier or luckier."
Chun Shu is nothing but unaware of the provocative tone of her writing in country that is obsessed with higher education after a whole generation lost its chance for schooling in the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
But Chun Shu belongs to a generation of youth reaching their twenties with no memory of hardship and political ravages. And she seems to give a little thought to what preoccupied Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby - a search for personality and moral grounding in a country of shifting values.
Chun Shu is absorbed in her own pursuit of pleasures and she is not ashamed of laying bare the course of her days full of sex, rock music and gatherings of "punk" friends. Still, despite the apparent lack of soul-searching in her book, Chun Shu’s writing appealed better to readers here because it seems less self-conscious of the shortcuts to writer’s fame than the deliberate writing in Shanghai Baby.
"I think she is much more substantive and sincere than Wei Hui, author of Shanghai Baby," remarks a Chinese reader about Chun Shu in an Internet chatroom.
After appearing in China in May 2002, Beijing Wawa has quickly captured the attention of foreign publishing houses in Britain and Germany that are bidding for publishing rights. The hype surrounding the book has led some book lovers here to speculate that it will not be long before the Chinese arbiters of taste ban the book.
But while Beijing Wawa has had a chance to debut on the Chinese literary scene, Ma Yan’s Diary has premiered only abroad.
When Pierre Haski’s article about Ma Yan appeared in France, the drama of the young girl revealed in the simple records of her daily life caught the eye of the publishers at the Editions Ramsay.
The diary - translated into French and with a foreword by Haski - appeared in October. Publishing rights have already been sold to publishing houses throughout Europe and also in Japan, and numbers of sales have quickly risen.
In China, however, the book remains a somewhat embarrassing testimony to the failure of the Communist Party to fend for China’s impoverished minorities. "All this difficult life and described by the hand of a child - I doubt the book will get published any time soon," muses one Chinese literature professor.

 

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