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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.

in the press

Dimanche 19 juin 2005 7 19 /06 /Juin /2005 00:00
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For Young Readers

Washington Post / Sunday, June 12, 2005; Page BW11 


The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl
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edited and introduced by Pierre Haski, translated from the French by Lisa Appignanesi (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 10-up). You don't review this small book; you tell people about it -- adults as well as kids -- and say, "Read it." It's one of those elemental, utterly artless works that simply stop you in your tracks.

In May 2001, Haski, a French journalist, visited Zhangjiashu, a Muslim village in a region of northwestern China so debilitated by drought that the government had declared it uninhabitable. Nevertheless, Haski dryly notes, about 3 million people still live there, in grinding poverty. As he was leaving, a woman handed him a letter and "three small brown notebooks." The letter, written on the back of a bean seed packet, was a cry of protest from the woman's daughter, Ma Yan, who had been told she would have to leave the school where she boarded during the week and stay home to work in the fields. The family could afford only her brothers' fees. Even though school was a grueling, dangerous 12 1⁄2-mile walk away, Ma Yan wrote in the letter that her mother's words were "like a death sentence." She was 14.

The notebooks contained a diary Ma Yan had kept between September and December 2000. The entries were brief and the tone matter-of-fact, yet they disclosed a life of extraordinary daily hardship and a seriousness of purpose that belied the writer's age. Here's the full entry for Sept. 8: "This morning during class, our Chinese teacher taught us that in life a man has to act according to two principles: his values and his dignity. This will ensure the respect of others. At the end of class he warned us to be careful on the road on our way home. Those who have money can get a lift on a tractor for one yuan [about 12 cents]. The rest of us have to walk. But we mustn't dawdle." Even allowing for the rote pieties and the likely loss of immediacy entailed in the double translation from Mandarin to French to English, this hardly sounds like a 13-year-old.n between the hair-raising glimpses of privation -- Ma Yan doesn't even have a change of clothes and is often so hungry "I think I can see smoke coming out of my stomach" -- comes the refrain: School is the only way out. One Friday, she describes arriving home and being asked to haul bales of buckwheat. "I couldn't really walk any farther," she writes, "but Mother forced us to go." Ma Yan isn't angry at her mother, though: "How could we refuse her? She exhausts herself to provide food for us when there's nothing left, and then she exhausts herself all over again, without getting anything out of life for herself. She doesn't want us to live the way she does. That's why we have to study. We'll be happy. Unlike her."
On Sept. 24, "a nice day," Ma Yan notes sharply, "In the big cities, even going to the toilet requires being able to read."
Intrigued, Haski returned the next month to Zhangjiashu, where he found the cheerful, round-faced girl back in school after all. Her mother had taken a laboring job in the city to pay for it. Haski stayed in touch, and Ma Yan kept up her journal, the entries growing longer, more vivid, more self-aware, by the week. ("Her life is a fast and tough teacher," Haski comments.) In January 2002, a French newspaper published an extract. The response was immediate: Readers sent letters, money and gifts; the diary came out as a book; scholarships were set up. Ma Yan became a celebrity, even in China. Her family bought some sheep and a new television. Last year, she flew to Paris for a book fair, and she has a good chance of attending a university -- once an unimaginable dream.
Ma Yan's story is on track to end happily. That's not so clear for the larger story her diary illuminates. The book raises questions, even for younger readers. What about those school fees, for example? Wouldn't a communist country provide free, universal education? It turns out that it does -- in principle. In practice, most of the money goes to the cities, forcing rural schools to impose special fees to make up the shortfall. Corruption siphons off more funds. In March, officials said rural school fees would be eliminated this year as part of a wider push to reduce inequality between China's booming cities and backward hinterlands. But critics doubt the policy can be enforced.
On Nov. 22, 2001, 14-year-old Ma Yan wrote: "If you walk up to the high plateau to look down at [Zhangjiashu], all you can see is yellow barrenness, a dried-out terrain. It's not even a landscape. To tell the truth, there's nothing to see. Nor does the economy produce anything . . . . The situation has to change."
At the very least, her diary puts an unforgettable human face on the struggle.


Elizabeth Ward

 

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A hunger to learn.

The Times Education Supplement, July 2, 2004

With little food, no money and a six-hour hike to a dilapidated school, life for a 13-year-old girl in rural China could hardly be more different from that of British teenagers. In an edited extract from her diary, Ma Yan details the pride and the privations

Ma Yan is the 16-year-old daughter of poor subsistence farmers in Zhangjiashu, a village in southern Ningxia, a remote province of central China. When her diary was passed on to Pierre Haski, China correspondent for the Paris newspaper Liberation, she had just been taken out of school at 13 because her parents could not afford the fees. To make ends meet, they both had to work as itinerant labourers in inner Mongolia, harvesting fa cai, a wild grass sought after in Hong Kong and Beijing.
Ma Yan’s diary, published in the UK this week, records her distress at having to work so her younger brothers could stay in school. When Haski visited her village again a month later, her parents had borrowed 70 yuan (about £4.60) so she could return to the middle school in Yuwang, a market town four hours’ walk away, as a weekly boarder. The diary tells how she made the trek on dangerous mountain roads every Sunday with her brother, carrying the sack of rice they lived on all week (they could only occasionally afford bread or vegetables and she went hungry for weeks to buy a pen). The family is much better off since Ma Yan’s diary was published in France in 2002, and she is now about to start high school.
Here are scenes from a month in her life in late 2001. To keep her at school, her parents have left the children alone while they go off to harvest fa cai, although her mother has a stomach ulcer.
Thursday, 11 October, 2001. A fine day.
This morning, after our last class, I stay behind to do an essay. Suddenly the head of games comes in and tells me to go outside and join the ranks.
"All the others are already lined up. There’s only you left."
I go out to the sports ground and concentrate on standing very straight.
The other comrades have just started their games. Some are skipping with a rope, others are playing football, and still others are engaged in a game of tag. I’d like to play too, but my heart isn’t in it.
When I hear these children who aren’t boarders talking about their families, I automatically think of my own.
Suddenly Ma Yichao (her brother) runs past me, as fast as the wind. As soon as I see him, I stop having these dark thoughts and go off to play with the others.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me these days. I’m all upset about things. I don’t know quite what I’m doing or thinking. My moods go up and down.
Wednesday, 17 October. A fine day.
We have a free period this afternoon. Our English teacher dictates a text to us. Two of the comrades can’t manage it. The teacher hits them very hard with the leg of a chair. Bruises immediately appear on the arms and legs of the pupils.
This teacher wants us to do well, but he hits too hard. I think he enjoys it. I weep without showing the tears. I think their parents would be weeping, too, if they saw how badly their children were treated.
The teacher is in a rage and shouts, "If you still haven’t learned your lessons by the next period, I won’t give you another chance. I’ll only choose the brightest students to answer questions." During the class, the teacher chooses me several times. My comrades look at me with envious eyes.
They would do anything to get the better of me.
I mustn’t worry. I mustn’t let anything prevent me from attaining my goals.
I’ll try and do something to change their jealous glances into admiring ones. I’ll be as strong as my mother. When she encounters difficulties, she confronts them alone and no one dares laugh at her.
Failure is the mother of success. But it worries me to see the teacher striking the pupils. What will happen if they get hurt ?
During the evening study period, these comrades managed to learn the words they hadn’t known before. Why do they work better after they’ve been beaten ? Their parents hope they’ll become accomplished people, but after so many difficult years of study, how will they fulfil these expectations ?
A skinny dog no longer manages to jump over a wall, even with help.
That’s one of my mother’s proverbs. It’s only now that I grasp its full meaning.
Friday, 19 October. Fine, but then grey.
Today my father has come to town for the market. He waits for me by the door while I’m still busy in class. I’m so happy because that means he probably has some money for me. Otherwise he wouldn’t wait.
As soon as classes are over, I rush out to meet him. He gives me five yuan, which I’ll have to give to the teacher for books. He asks me if I’ve run out of bread.
I explain that the steamed bread is long finished. He buys two rolls, one for my brother and one for me. I hold on to mine. It’s precious. I’ll eat it tomorrow on the long road home.
When I get to the vegetable part of the market, I meet comrade Ma Yongmei.
I borrowed a roll from her not long ago. She asks me to return what I owe her. I give her the bread rolls. But she doesn’t want that. She wants money. Where am I going to find money ?
Friday, 26 October. A fine day.
My father gave us four yuan and told us to get a ride home on a tractor today. My parents are meant to have gone off to work again, and they were worrying about our safety.
But how in all conscience can I squander money on a tractor ride ? My parents are working so hard, breaking their backs, their faces fixed on the yellow earth. How can we possibly allow ourselves the extravagance of a tractor ride that is paid for with our parents’ sweat ? My brother and I prefer to walk home.
We set out at 11 in the morning and it is almost five when we finally reach home. We push open the door. Everything is quiet. The yard is empty.
There’s no one here.
When it was dark, my brother went off to ask our paternal grandmother if she would keep us company. She didn’t come and there’s only us, my two brothers and me. We go to sleep silently on the kang. Outside, everything is quiet and we’re very frightened. If Mother were here, I don’t know what she would be talking about. It would probably be one of her funny stories.
But she isn’t here.
Even cuddled up in bed, we feel the cold. I don’t know how Mother manages to sleep on the damp earth - especially since she’s ill. What a terrible life she has. I so very much hope she’ll soon be happy.
Monday, 29 October. A fine day.
Good news today. On Wednesday we’re going to have our mid-term exam. I’m very happy about it. I fully intend to demonstrate my abilities. I’m no worse than anyone else, apart from the fact that I eat and dress less well than they do. Some girls change their school clothes often. But I’ve only got one outfit, a pair of trousers and a white shirt, which I wash on Saturdays so that it’s clean by Monday.
But what matter ! I only want to study and pay tribute to my parents’ hands.
Despite the cold, they’re working far away from home for us. And I mustn’t disappoint them.
Tuesday, 30 October. A sombre day.
It’s freezing. My brother and I have no more bread. At lunchtime, the comrades are all eating and we have to stand by and grit our teeth.
Seeing my tears, my brother says, as if his heart were light,"Wait, sister, I’m going to borrow some lunch tickets." But I know he feels no better than I do. I go back to my dorm and sit on my bed and wait for him to return.
I’m dreaming of this bowl of yellow rice.
He takes a very long time to come back. Then he says, "Sister, there’s no more rice."
He turns to leave. I watch his receding back and I can’t help letting the tears flow.
Do you know what hunger is ? It’s an unbearable pain. I wonder when I’ll stop experiencing hunger at schoolI Friday, 2 November. Wind.
All these last days we’ve been doing our mid-term exams. I think of nothing else, not even my sick mother who’s working far away. Whatever she does, it’s for our future. There’s no question of disappointing the hope our parents have placed in us.
For the exams, some of the comrades have torn out pages of their books and hidden them in their pockets. They’ll be punished. Others write answers to difficult questions down the length of their arms. Do you think that’s fair ?
I haven’t even opened my book. In primary school a teacher explained to us that before an exam, there’s no point re-reading all your notes. It’s better to relax, have fun. "That’s the best way to get good results," he said.
I haven’t altogether followed his advice. Instead, I sat on the edge of my bed and thought of my parents’ suffering.
I can’t disappoint them. I will do well.
Saturday, 3 November. A grey day.
The weekend starts today and I’m full of joy. I hope that my parents have come home. I’ll tell them all about the mid-term exams.
I’m busy planning all kinds of projects when a comrade whispers : "The politics teacher knows our exam results."
But another comrade is furious. "He doesn’t. He only knows how the best students did, not the results of the dunces like us who aren’t ranked among the top students."
I hurry over to the teacher’s house. It’s already full of students. I’ve only just come in when I hear the teacher’s voice. "Ma Yan got 114 points in maths. She’s come top of all six classes. She got 90 points in ChineseI The English results haven’t come in yet."
I’m so overjoyed, I burst into tears. I don’t know where so many tears can come from.
I’m so moved, I still can’t even find words to describe how I feel. Never have I had a moment like this one. Never will I forget it.
Monday, 5 November. A fine day.
I have a total of 299 points. I come second. Someone who is repeating the year comes first. Tears of joy pour from my eyes. The teacher congratulates me and says everyone should take me as a model.
But the more he talks, the sadder I become, because Mother has had to go far off to work. Everything the teacher said today will stay etched on my mind. If I follow his advice, I think I’ll be able to overcome my difficulties.
Next time, I shall try to come first.
Tuesday, 6 November. A dull day.
During class today, the politics teacher compliments me once more. He admits that up until now he had paid no attention to me, noticing neither my qualities nor my faults.
"In her mid-term exams, comrade Ma Yan has shown lots of potential - potential I hadn’t suspected she had. I judged her wrongly. You should know that a comrade of ours wrote in a composition : ’When we hadn’t done well in an exam the teacher insulted us, complaining that he had taught a class of idiots and all in vain.’ This same girl went on to say, ’Teacher, you shouldn’t underestimate us : failure is the mother of success.’ This is both a piece of advice she offers to your teacher and the expression of her own feelings. This girl is in our class."
Everyone is staring at me. It’s true, I wrote those words. If I did well in these exams, it’s largely because of what this teacher said. If he hadn’t called us idiots, I would certainly not have gone on to get the results I did.
Wednesday, 7 November. A fine day.
I’m so hungry, I could eat anything. Anything at all. When I talk about hunger, I instantly think of my mother. I don’t know if she’s got home safely. Me, I’m happy enough coming to school every day and being hungry.
But Mother has to run up mountain slopes every day. On top of it all, she’s ill.
It’s three weeks since I’ve seen her. I think of her all the time.
I’m terribly hungry. There’s been no bread or vegetables since Tuesday.
When I eat my rice now, there’s nothing to go with it.
I even took some food from a comrade’s bowl without asking her. When she came back to the dormitory, she called me all manner of names.
What can I say to her ? When I hear her sounding off, I think of my father who left my brother and me four yuan. We’ve been living on that for three weeks, and I still have one left over in my pocket. My stomach is all twisted up with hunger, but I don’t want to spend that yuan on anything so frivolous as food.
I have to study well so that I won’t ever again be tortured by hunger and lack of money. When I have a job, I’ll certainly be able to guarantee some happy times for my parents. I’ll never let them go far away to work for us again.
Thursday, 8 November. A fine day.
It’s market day. In the English class, I’m sitting next to the window.
Suddenly, I see a shadow from the corner of my eyes. I lift my head. Behind the window, I see Mother. I’m staggered. It’s so long since I’ve seen her.
Even through the window I can see that her face is all black and swollen.
The class comes to an end. I’ve taken nothing in. It’s not important. I’ll ask the teacher what I’ve missed at the next lesson. First, I have to find Mother.
Father and Mother are waiting for me in the street. I’m so happy ! We walk down the street, all together. We talk about all kinds of things and forget about our stomachs. Suddenly Mother taps her forehead : "But you two, you haven’t eaten yet ?"
We shake our heads.
She takes us to the market. She buys us vegetable soup for fifty fen and we also get bread to dunk in the bowl.
After we’ve eaten, we go off to buy winter clothes. With good padded clothes, we won’t be cold. We each get a jacket and shoes and socks. In no time at all we’ve spent over 100 yuan. What a pity ! I feel both happy and sad. Money is so hard to earn and so easy to spend.
I don’t know how Mother and Father have earned these hundred yuan, how many days it took, how many tens of hours, hundreds of minutes, thousands and thousands of seconds. And I spent all this hard-earned wealth as if it were nothing at all.
When I grow up, what won’t I do for my parents !
Copyright (c) Editions Ramsay/Susanna Lea Associates, Paris 2002. This translation copyright (c) Lisa Appignanesi, extracted from The Diary of Ma Yan, published by Virago, £9.99. Order from Grenville Books at the discount price of £8.49 plus 99p p&p on 0870 160 8080. Enfants du Ningxia, a French-registered non-governmental organisation, was set up in 2002 to support schools in Ma Yan’s region after Liberation covered her story. It pays for primary education for the 200 children in Ma Yan’s village and in the past year has given secondary school scholarships for 65 students, mostly girls.One term at a primary school costs 100 yuan (£6.60), one term at the lower middle school - including boarding - is 500 yuan (£33), and at high school 700 yuan (£46).

Enfants du Ningxia, 45 rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth, 75003 Paris, France.
www.enfantsduningxia.org ; email : enfantsduningxia@yahoo.fr


 

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"Here on Earth, US public radio, july 3, 2004

On july 3, 2004, Here on Earth, a Wisconsin Public Radio programme, interviewed Ma Yan and Pierre Haski, with questions from listeners. You can listen to this 52’ show on the radio’s web site :

http://clipcast.wpr.org:8080/ramgen/wpr/hoe/hoe040703j.rm

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Neither One Child’s Fight Nor a Fight for One Child

(Beijing review, 03/06/2004)

Ma Yan is not a heroine, nor a prodigy, but an ordinary schoolgirl whose dream used to be, and still is, going to school. She had dropped out from her primary school twice because of poverty. As a persevering and assiduous girl, she won sympathy and support from foreigners to continue her studies. Now, the 16-year-old is a little famous figure not only at home, but also in France and other countries, after her first book-Ma Yan’s Diary : The Daily Life of a Chinese Schoolgirl-was published in nine languages.
Her sad story with a happy ending began three years ago at her home village in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, one of the remote, poor areas of China. At the time, Ma was distraught because her parents couldn’t afford to keep her in school. She wrote down her thoughts in a series of journals, which she didn’t realize would change her life. One day in summer of 2001 Ma’s account of the struggle against hunger and poverty was given to a group of visitors from Beijing, along with a letter that Ma’s mother had received from her daughter.
One of the visitors, Pierre Haski, correspondent of the Paris newspaper Libération, was touched by the letter, in which Ma lamented that there was no money to keep her in school. “I want to go to school, mom. I don’t want to work at home. How wonderful it would be if I could stay in school forever !” the poor girl wrote. One month after reading this journal, Haski and his interpreter returned to the small village and met Ma and her parents. Ma was back at school, only because her parents borrowed money and her mother had taken a laborer’s job to pay off her loan. The visitors gave them some money to allow the 13-year-old to stay in school and pay off the loan.
After Libération published Haski’s report about the schoolgirl and her plight in January 2002, the reporter began receiving checks from readers. As a result, Haski set up the Association for the Children of Ningxia to use the donations to keep other farm girls in school. In addition, a French publishing house proposed to publish Ma’s diary, so he returned to Ningxia with a contract.
Ma and Haski, whom she calls Uncle Han, decided to give 25 percent of their royalties to the association. After her book came out in October 2002, the association’s membership grew to 300, and more donations poured in. Thanks to its publication, Ma’s family is no longer poor, and 250 other Ningxia youngsters, mostly girls, now have scholarships to continue their study.
Ma is now a junior high school student in Tongxin County, her hometown, where a so-called “Ma Yan effect” is functioning. More farmers, for example, began changing their traditional idea of treating men as superior to women, sending their daughters to schools. At the school Ma attends, the number of female students have increased from 170 to 370 in the past two years. Interestingly, a wave of journal writing is spreading among local children and teenagers. In Ma’s school, almost every student writes a diary. Some, it is reported, want to experience the same good luck as Ma.
Yes, Ma is lucky to have found foreign support. She understands that it is reporting that has changed her life. Ma said her ambition is to “study journalism at university.” Her reasons are based on her own changing circumstances and those around her. “Uncle Han and others traveled across the country and found poor children like us. I’d like to be a journalist so I, too, can help poor children,” she said.
Substantially, what is discussed here is neither one girl’s fight for her educational right, nor an international campaign for only one child. Ma knows there are still many poor children in Ningxia and other underdeveloped regions, mostly in west China, whose right to go to school is being threatened. But she may not know that now more than 100 million primary school-age children worldwide may not be sitting in class as she is-and about 60 million of those missing out are girls. And the crisis extends to another 150 million children who will never complete their primary education.
What makes these statistics alarming is the colossal numbers for a world that is entering a hi-tech era. No country can reach real sustained economic growth without achieving near universal primary education. Particularly for girls, education is related to lower infant mortality rates and higher life expectancies. What makes the statistics terrifying is that the world community is too tardy to curb the problem efficiently.
This is a vicious cycle-poverty is often the cause of dropping out of school, and the latter leads to poverty. Children of poor families are particularly apt to be dropouts. Poverty, with its attendant evils-ignorance, unemployment, drug abuse, school dropouts, violence-is the tumor of our globe. Education, in a fundamental sense, is the key to break this cycle.
It is increasingly recognized around the world that the most readily identifiable tragedy in modern life is the illiterate child. On International Children’s Day, June 1, all adults should ask themselves : What the best gift can we give to our children ? Perhaps the most meaningful thing we can do is to help the poor children in any way we can.
Ma’s case indicates that journalism can play a positive and concrete role in this endeavor. This is not only the responsibility of government and its educational departments. There should be no professional boundary in promoting education. All professions and trades are the products of education and should contribute to schooling. But the role of journalism is special. Mass media can help us know where these poor kids are and how serious their situation is. Moreover, the fourth estate and public opinion serve as a supervisory force for government’s educational policies and funding.
Her story also illustrates that there is no national boundary in supporting the young in difficult circumstances. When Ma grows up and realizes her ambition of being a journalist, we do hope she and her colleagues may broaden their horizons-do something beneficial not only for Chinese youth, but also for those poor children in countries and regions around the world.

 

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The world came to her village

(The Daily telegraph, 10/4/2004)

Sixteen-year-old Ma Yan’s 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 China’s 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 China’s 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 Yan’s tale was a truly pitiable one. Her diary was a daily record of her family’s 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. I’m 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 mother’s 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 China’s 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 country’s economic reforms, even if they haven’t 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 Yan’s 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 Yan’s 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 village’s 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 people’s beliefs here are so backward !"
Now, thanks to Ma Yan, she is also at secondary school. The money raised by Libération’s 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 Juan’s letter was one of thanks to some of her French benefactors. "I don’t 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.
Haski’s 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 village’s situation.
"I do feel a loss of face when journalists come to the village and people beg them for money," he said. "That’s 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 Yan’s 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 o’clock 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 China’s obsession with education is hard to miss as you look around. In one classroom, children are studying by candlelight. Ma Yan’s, 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 teacher’s 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 teenager’s Chinese charming, here they are only too commonplace.
Shi Tao, the book’s 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 aren’t 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.

 

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