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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.


10 avril 2004 6 10 /04 /avril /2004 00:00
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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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7 avril 2004 3 07 /04 /avril /2004 00:00
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Letter 23 - April 2004

Dear all,
First of all, some news from Ma Yan, who has now returned to her village and to school from her fabulous trip to Paris. Her mother rang us to say she had found her transformed - in a good sense - as well as matured. And Ma Yan herself has written to us to thank us for giving her this opportunity to discover Paris : ‘It was wonderful. I have met so many new uncles and aunts who are helping us, as well as friendly, smiling teachers and students. I was very happy. I have also been to lots of places and great monuments, and all in just a few days...’ Ma Yan addresses these greetings to all the members of the Association : ‘You are wonderful people who work so hard to help us. We will never forget you. You are angels in our hearts.’ Ma Yan’s father, who had accompanied his daughter to Beijing for the first time, on the occasion of her departure from Beijing for Paris, asked his daughter to add a few lines from him : ‘Thanks for having given Ma Yan the opportunity to go abroad. And thanks also for having allowed me to go to Beijing ; this is the greatest journey I have ever made in my life. After this, I have nothing to complain of. Thanks again ; you have done so much for us.’
On her arrival back home, Ma Yan had a surprise in the form of a visit from a British journalist from the british daily newspaper The Daily Telegraph, who was already waiting for her. Following this visit Richard Spence published a long piece in his paper on the entire Ma Yan saga, including the history of our Association (read the full report in our "in the press" section) ...he interviewed her on her journey to Paris, and asked her if she did not feel intimidated by the great changes that have come about in her life. ‘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 ?",’ he writes.
In his article, this journalist also relates the story of Yang Juan, one of our bursary recipients, whom her parents wanted to withdraw from school. ‘I was furious, because people’s beliefs here are so backward !’ The journalist adds to this : ‘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.’ But the journalist also mentions some perverse effects of our intervention in this place, for instance the fact that some of the children are now keeping diaries in the hope of somehow replicating the ‘miracle’ that happened to Ma Yan... He quotes the director of the primary school of Zhang Jia Shu village who stresses that the positive effects of our initiative far surpass the negative ones. Today, Ma Yan and her fellow students are concentrating on one goal : the final exams at the end of the year, which are coming nearer. In Ma Yan’s case the exams will decide whether or not she can move on to Senior High School and, depending on her grades, to what kind of Senior High School.
Some further news :
BURSARIES : at the suggestion of the director of Yuwang High School we have taken on nine new bursary recipients, whose families were unable to pay the school fees for the second term, and who consequently were threatened with being expelled from school.
SALE : On 10 April there was an auction of works of art at the gallery ‘China Arts Seasons’ in Beijing, the profits of which were given to our Association. About fifty contemporary Chinese artists had donated works, all of which were sold at the fairly reasonable price of about 300 Euro. The exhibition and sale drew a number of visitors and bidders to this gallery located in Dashanzi, an industrial district of Beijing, which has in fact become one of the most highly reputed places for contemporary art in Beijing. It should be noted that this initiative came from the Chinese director of the Gallery, after a public reading of Ma Yan’s Diary in Chinese. She allowed us not only to take the profits, but also gave us an opportunity to inform a new section of the Chinese public about our initiative. Several local journals made mention of this auction. Our thanks go to Nie Mu, Shi Shi, the entire team at China Arts Seasons, and all the artists who have generously donated some of their works.
CONFERENCES : Also in China, I have been invited to convene a conference on our experience and on the school education of girls in Ningxia province, at Fudan University Shanghai on 17 May. The Conference is part of a programme entitled ‘V-Day at Fudan’, which is intended to raise awareness of the general situation of women. This programme will also include two performances of the ‘Vagina Monologues’ and five conferences/workshops on topics relating to women in China.
THEATRE : A bit later, in Dunkerque in northern France, on 19 June, extracts from Ma Yan’s diary will be acted out by young people from La Maison de Quartier de l’île Jeanly, from the Carré de la Vieille et des glacis, together with the elementary school of Glacis. The performance is part of a festival "Les quais de Chine", organised by the theatre company of Bateaufeu. The character of Ma Yan will be represented by a human-size puppet, made and played by Remi Verbraeken.
All best wishes

Pierre Haski

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7 mars 2004 7 07 /03 /mars /2004 00:00
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Letter 22 - March 2004

March has been an important month for us : Ma Yan went to Paris ! She was invited by the publishing house Ramsay to attend the 2004 Paris Book fair celebrating Chinese literature. She went with He Yanping, the translator of the diary who is very involved in the association. This was 16 year old Ma Yan’s first trip outside of China : she not only discovered France, but also understood the impact of her story abroad and the size of the support for the Ningxia children who were not as lucky as she was. It was also a wonderful moment for us as we watched the young girl who three years ago had no future, blossomed into a young girl full of optimism.
The most wonderful moment in the whole trip was, without a doubt, when we went to visit the ORT high school in the Paris suburbs. Two years ago a teacher, Emmanuelle Polack and her students read the story of Ma Yan in the newspaper and collected 100 euros which they sent to Ma Yan. This time, the students gathered again and gave a warm welcome to the young Chinese girl ; they had written poems, slogans, all translated in Chinese, they had drawn maps of China, posters to encourage people to participate in the association. They welcomed Ma Yan with a loud “Mayan we will never forget you !” which deeply moved her.
Ma Yan thanked the French children for their help, and talked with them with emotion and happiness. She had lunch in the very plain school cafeteria, which still seemed luxurious compared to the one in her high school. She actually enjoyed that meal more than any of the other meals at fancy restaurants. She left the school with gifts and with a small book telling the story of the children’s involvement and the special link that was created between their town - Villiers le Bel - and Ma Yan’s Yuwan.
The meetings with French schoolchildren were by far the most emotional moments of her stay in France. During the Book Fair, at the Ramsay booth, Ma Yan met some readers of the youth magazine Okapi. These readers asked her extremely detailed questions, which showed how much they had learnt from Ma Yan’s diary. On Wednesday, which was a special young readers day at the Book Fair, the booth was filled with children, who have been the most devoted readers of the book.
During her stay in France she also had the opportunity to go and visit the Liberation offices. Liberation is the newspaper which first published her story. There, she met 30 of the founders of the association. Ma Yan thanked them and talked with emotion about the impact that the association had had on her life and on the life of all the children that we are now helping. The founders appreciated meeting this young smiling girl, who has - incredibly - remained herself through this life changing experience. She never forgets where she’s from and never forgets all those who are now living in the nightmare that she was so lucky to escape. This informal meeting was also the opportunity to talk about the current actions of the association.
In the midst of all the interviews and meetings, we managed to set aside some time for tourism. Ma Yan had seen the Eiffel Tower on tv once, and kept her eyes wide open throughout the visits, including the visit of Chinatown ! He Yanping and Ma Yan were also welcomed in the house of our friend Linda and her family. Ma Yan was thus exposed to the life of a typical Parisian family. During her stay she continued writing in her diary because her high school classmates had requested a detailed report on her trip. She left with thousands of pens - pens are such an powerful symbols in her story - sent by one of our association’s members who had some leftover merchandise from a publicity campaign. She will distribute them to her schoolmates.
The second book “Ma Yan and her sisters” published by Ramsay was launched during the Book Fair. Half of the author’s profits will go the Association. The book is in part the sequel to the first as it tells what happened to Ma Yan after the beginning of this adventure and recounts the creation of the association, its goals and its achievements. It also traces the portraits of other young girls from Ningxia, with the letters they sent us. Some of those letters have been included in the monthly newsletters. The book also focused on Ma Shiping, Ma Yan’s cousin who was forcibly married at 15. We met her in December last year and she’s now the mother of a little girl.
Ma Yan and He Yanping’s visit and the publication of the second book will certainly have an impact on the association which still attracts interest from a wide group of people. The forgotten children of Ningxia have become a “cause celebre” and we are hoping that all the latest media flurry will result in concrete actions in China. This is our goal for the next few months.
We will benefit from a great new tool : The association website - www.enfantsduningxia.org - which was created and built by a group of Chinese students (and their teacher) currently enrolled in the ENST - the national school of telecommunications in Paris. Their work is already impressive and will be even more so in the next few weeks. The site will be available in French English and Chinese and will contain the archives of the association, with all the monthly newsletters, photos, and the presentation of the current actions.
The adventures of Ma Yan’s Diary have just begun... I am writing this newsletter from Barcelona, Spain, where I am launching the Spanish edition of the book. Then, on to Lisbon, Portugal, for the Portuguese launch. The book will be published in English on July 1st. All told it will be available in 14 languages, which will help spread its message around the world.
I hope that even more children from this terribly poor farmland region will benefit from our actions.

Pierre Haski


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6 mars 2004 6 06 /03 /mars /2004 22:29



Who are we?


The french-registered non-governmental organization Enfants du Ningxia is still very young : its first general assembly was held in October, 2002... But its action is actually older, as it started on an informal basis at the beginning of 2002, following the publication in the french daily Liberation of a report on Ma Yan, a young chinese schoolgirl, daughter of poor farmers in southern Ningxia province, north-western China, who was threatened of being pulled out of school because of her family’s financial difficulties. Her cry of “I want to study” had moved many readers of the newspaper, who had offered assistance.
As no NGO was operating in Ningxia, we decided to try and organize “something”... We decided to offer scholarships to children, mostly girls, excluded from the education system, obviously starting with Ma Yan who had become the symbolic face of this movement. We did it simply, by collecting funds on a Paris bank account, and giving the scholarship directly to the families we selected (this is the toughest part...), bypassing any intermediaries. The only condition asked was that the children should write to us during the school term to tell us about their studies. Twenty scholarships were thus offered at first, two months after the publication of Ma Yan’s story. At the beginning of the new school year in sept. 2004 we had some 400 scholarships, including all the children of primary school age of Zhang Jia Shu, “Ma Yan’s village”, to whom we guarantee free primary education.

It became rapidly necessary to formalize our action into an NGO (according to the french 1901 law on Associations), both for legal reasons and to better organize our action. We quickly realized that we also needed to be involved in projects that could affect people’s lives collectively, as our intervention in this remote region of Ningxia created as much frustration as it generated satisfaction.
We therefore started working, together with the heads of the Yuwang middle school as well as the Zhang Jia Shu primary school, and other schools in the region, on providing better equipments : 50 computers were installed at the Yuwang middle school in september 2004. Books and small equipment were also provided to three schools.
We also started working, after discussions with the farmers, on the water supply problem of Zhang Jia Shu, a major concern for the population. Thanks to the publicity generated by Ma Yan’s diary, as well as sponsoring possibilities from private companies, we can start planning it. A well for the village, to replace the one that collapsed five years ago and was never replaced for lack of funds, was built in october 2004.
The Association also started acting at the level of french schools, where teachers and students have been sensitive to Ma Yan’s story and started to work on issues such as the right to education and the realities of development issues in some of the world’s least known regions. With the help of a school teacher who was among the first to react to the Liberation story, we developed this action. She actually designed a teaching project based on Ma Yan’s diary.
All these projects require funding and goodwill. The funding part is simple : funds are collected and placed on a Paris bank account for the financing of the scholarships and other projects. Expenses are limited to the maximum : banking fees and postal dues. No salaries or rentals. There’s been a lot of goodwill, with volonteers both in Europe and China managing the funds, dealing with mail and building our website in English, French and Chinese.
The Association has chosen at its presidency Michèle Fitoussi, a journalist with Elle magazine and a writer, who has committed herself to this action since the start, and published a report in the September 2002 edition of France’s Elle. Pierre Haski,  author of the first report on Ma Yan, is the association’s treasurer, now based in Paris, and Perrine Lhuillier, a Beijing-based volunteer, coordinate relations with Ningxia and follow up the actions there.


How to support our actions ?

The foundation depends on the public to implement its program of scholarships that allow poor families to continue sending their children, mostly girls, to school. We slowly increase the number of scholarships as when we provide one, we commit ourselves to follow it up until the end of the child’s studies. The funds are attributed to a collective account, but donors can establish a direct relationship with one of the students if they wish so. One term at a primary school costs 100 yuans (10 euros or 12 US dollars), one term at the lower middle school -including boarding- is 500 yuans (50 euros or 60 US dollars), and at high school 700 yuans (70 euros or 85 US dollars).
If you wish to join our action, you can contribute to the Association’s fund at the following banking address :


Adress : 66 rue René Boulanger 75010 PARIS FRANCE

E-mail : enfantsduningxia@yahoo.fr

In France:

Pierre Haski : phaski@gmail.com

South France:


In Beijing :

 Perrine Lhuillier : perrine.lhuillier@gmail.com

In Hongkong : you may contact:
Diane Michaud : bigzora@netvigator.com
ou Evonne Tsui : evonnetsui@yahoo.com

Basile Minet : basile.minet@tiscali.fr

banking address

  66 rue René Boulanger, 75010 PARIS, FRANCE
Code of the bank : 30004
Code of agency : 00802
Account number : 00010058152
RIB : 65
or :
IBAN : FR76 3000 4008 0200 0100 5815 265
Cheques, bearing the name Enfants du Ningxia, can also be sent to the Association’s Paris address : 66 rue René Boulanger, 75010 Paris, France

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7 février 2004 6 07 /02 /février /2004 00:00
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Letter 21 - February 2004

The month of March promises to be rich in events...
MA YAN GOES TO PARIS. If all goes well Ma Yan will come to France to attend the Book Fair (Salon de Livre) in Paris from 19 to 24 March. China is this year’s guest of honour at the Salon. Ma Yan has been invited by the publisher of her diary, Ramsay. He Yanping, who transalted the diary and who has been a very active member of our initiative in Ningxia, will be travelling with her. This will be the first meeting of its kind ! Ma Yan’s journey to France is not easy to organise, and there is still some risk that the project may be cancelled at the last moment. But if everything is confirmed, then the members of the Association will be able to meet Ma Yan on Wednesday, 24 March, at 6 pm.
We will also be at Ramsay’s stand at the Book Fair on Tuesday 21 March, Monday 22 March (the professionals’ day), and on Wednesday 24 March (the children’s day). You are most welcome to pay us a visit there. We will try to arrange a programme for Ma Yan that reconciles the publisher’s demands with those of the Association - and also with giving her a chance to discover Paris ! And at the same time we must not unduly extend a journey which comes right in the middle of her school year. During her stay in France, Ma Yan will meet with students of the College of Villiers le Bel, former students of our friend Emmannuelle’s, who were among the first to show solidarity with Ma Yan helping her to return to High School.
Mid-March will see the coming out of a new book entitled Ma Yan and Her Sisters (published by Ramsay), which will narrate the history of Ma Yan herself, of Ma Shiping, her cousin who was forced to marry, and also of some other young girls whom we are helping in Ningxia , on the basis of the letters they have sent us, and of the encounters we have made there during our trips to Ningxia. It also contains a detailed account of the history of our Association. The Association will get half the profits from the copyright in this book.
The last event in March, for those of you who live in the South of France, is a conference on 31 March at Nîmes, organised jointly by the Children of Ningxia and the Centre for Information on the Rights of Women and the Rights of the Family, at the initiative of one of our supporters. You will receive an invitation shortly, and this could be a good opportunity to get to know some other members of the Association living in the same region.
Prior to this, this month we are also having two new editions of Ma Yan’s Diary coming out, in Spain and in Portugal.
CONTRIBUTIONS. In February, during her school holidays, Ma Yan and her mother came to Beijing for a second time, this time at the invitation of a real estate developer in the capital, Pan Shiyi, who had bought five thousand copies of the Diary to be distributed in the schools of Ningxia and of the neighbouring province of Gansu. Gansu is also a very poor province and moreover Pan Shiyi’s own home province. There was a big ceremony, reported on in the Chinese media, to mark the occasion. He Yanping and I also participated in a number of broadcast events dedicated to Ma Yan’s Diary in the province of Hebei, which will start being broadcast there from the beginning of March. Among the other initiatives taken within China to promote the Diary, a Gallery for contemporary Art in Beijing, China Arts & Seasons, which will launch an exhibition of Chinese women artists’ work on 6 March, has decided to have a special sale of art work on 10 April, the profit of which will go to the Association. The Gallery will be presenting the Diary in French and Chinese, as well as an introduction to the work of the Association, throughout their current exhibition. Again, in China, this is the first event of its kind for us.
Also on the subject of contributions in February, Bertrand Michaud, the Asian director of the company Hermès, sent us a very handsome giant cardboard facsimile cheque, the amount of which represented the profits made from last September’s special sales at the Beijing shop of Hermes, all of which have been dedicated to the Association. All the shop’s staff attended the ceremony marking this occasion. The sum we have received will allow us to set up a computer room at Yuwang High School ; if all goes well, as early as next September. Many thanks, finally, to the French and Chinese students at the National School of Telecommunications (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécoms of Paris, ENST) in Paris, who have started a project for - finally ! - setting up an internet website of the Association. It will be trilingual (French, English and Mandarin) and will contain both the written memory of the Association, and information for those who want to contribute to it.
On another note, the travel plans of the students of the Lycée Français of Hongkong, put on hold last year because of the SARS epidemic, is now back on the agenda. The students and their teachers will go to Yuwang at the end of May, but they have already started collecting funds for some concrete project of co-operation for the benefit of this disadvantaged region.
BURSARIES. As we decided last time we visited the village of Zhang Jia Shu in December, we have paid the tuition fees for about 200 children there to go to primary school. Including the other bursaries we have already given, this means we are now supporting over 250 children to go to school, ranging from students at primary school to students at Senior High School. Their return to school for the new term took place without any problems.
So that is this month’s news...the next step will be taken by Ma Yan herself when she discovers Paris, and finally gets a chance to meet those who have supported her, and are now participating in this initiative of solidarity with other children who did not have her luck. Hope to see you soon, if you are among those who can be part of the upcoming events in France -
With best wishes
Pierre Haski

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7 janvier 2004 3 07 /01 /janvier /2004 00:00
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Letter 20 - January 2004

Dear all,
Since our last trip to Ningxia, we’ve have had many letters from there, especially letters to wish us a good Year of the Serpent ! The school holidays are almost over and the students are preparing to go back to school. The beginning of the second semester will allow us to see if the agreement we have reached with the primary school of Zhang Jia Shu village, for free tuition to all children of school age, really works. We will easily be able to check if the terms of the agreement have been honoured when we visit there next time : The children’s parents should not have to pay a penny now for their children’s tuition. Our regular correspondence with people in the village means we would surely be alerted to any mistake or breach. Let me just remind you that we will be helping more than 250 students at primary school, lower and Senior High School level in this district in the future.
We will also find out if, as we were told, the construction of the new school building at Yuwang will really be resumed at the end of the coming Chinese New Year holidays. As I already mentioned, completion of the new building is a precondition for setting up the new computer rooms in it, for which we have already received a generous donation from the company Hermès (they have given us the proceeds of their special sales last September in their Beijing shop). We hope to be able to realise this project this year. It will mean that the children at Yuwang will gain some minimal access to modern technology and thus will get a chance of success in a future which, for many of them, will be in the cities not the villages.
The completion of the building should also allow us to work out a clear proposal for the renovation of the dormitories. The majority of students are Boarding at Yuwang because they come from surrounding villages, not Yuwang itself. The local government has promised to renovate the dormitories, which are in a pitiful state, but our Association could make a contribution to speeding up this process, which is really urgent.
CORRESPONDENCE. A year ago in January 2003 we got a desperate letter from Ma Shiping, a cousin of Ma Yan’s, who had been taken out of school and married by force at the age of fifteen. Her letter began like this : ‘When you receive this letter, I will already be in the palace of marriage, which is the grave of life.’ When we went to visit her in December, she had just given birth to a small daughter. At fifteen and a half. It was a very sad meeting, because we could only give her a few presents for herself and her baby, but there was nothing now that we could do to change her fate : there she was, married and a mother at age fifteen, when she had been dreaming of receiving an education and discovering life. At the beginning of January we received another letter from Ma Shiping. It shows both the strength of character this girl has, and how sad her situation is.
"Today, I am ending the first month [the month of confinement to one’s room after giving birth]. Am I the same person I used to be, after giving birth ? Whether it is because of how I feel, or because of my situation - I’m certainly not the same today as before. I think I have really understood that if one wants to have a good life, it is better not to feel anything at all.
At the moment when my life went dark, you sent me a letter that was like a burning candle. When I was worried because I had no milk for my baby, you brought me happiness. Your arrival brought nourishment into my life and it made me have enough milk to give her. You have not only helped me in material terms but also spiritually. The love you have shown me, and Aunt He’s [He Yanping’s, the translator’s] attitude, have softened their [her parent’s in law’s] mentality, which is to privilege the boys and to hold girls cheap. You know, after I had taken leave from the god of death and come back to life, you were the first to visit me. When I heard [the day before] that you were coming to see me, I was so happy. I was so moved that I couldn’t sleep all night. But then the next day I couldn’t speak a single sentence. I only wanted to cry ; but I couldn’t cry either. I’m not a common girl. I can’t share my pain with you. I can only eat the bitter fruit myself.
Man has only one life, plants have only one summer. For my life, having met you is enough. I often hear people say that one is happy when one is content with what one has. Today, I am already seeing another Me coming to life. I don’t want her to follow my old path. She is my hope now. I want her to understand why people live in this world and why she has come into it.
At this season of giving thanks, I want to thank you because you gave a second life to my daughter, and also to myself : now I can live among them. But when the gift is too great, one doesn’t give thanks anymore. I can only wish happiness for your entire family from the sincerity of my heart ; pray for a good life for good people. If you have the time I hope very much that you can often come and visit me. Thank you."
A letter that allows us, perhaps, to see through the splendid Chinese decorations put up at this moment as France is celebrating the new lunar year in a spectacular manner, and welcoming the Chinese President here with a lot of pomp and circumstance ...I would not want to conclude on such a sad note, though. Let me remind you that Ma Shiping’s younger sister is the recipient of a bursary from the Association, and that we will do as much as we can to help her avoid the same fate as her older sister’s. Our small gestures weigh very heavy here.
Best wishes

Pierre Haski


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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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Letter 19 - December 2003

Dear all,
I managed to spend five days in Ningxia in December, with my assistant, He Yanping, and we were able to meet most of the scolarship recipients as well as the local authorities. But before going any further, I have some great news : we’ve reached an agreement with the Principal and the teachers of the primary school in “Ma Yan’s village “ - Zhang Jia Shu - and have decided to offer free schooling to every child in the village, approx 200 children, by paying for the entire school fees. This news was warmly welcome by the villagers who, once again this year, are facing a severe drought. The schooling fees, to be paid in cash, are such a terrible burden for them that a lot of kids, particularly girls, are taken out of the school.
During our discussions with the school Principal and the teachers, we were told that they were well aware of the villagers’ difficult situation, and had decided to vastly decrease the school fees. In spite of that gesture, half of the villagers were still unable to pay the fees. Thus, when we arrived in the village, the school itself was facing a very difficult financial situation. We made some quick calculation and concluded that, instead of offering 26 scolarships at the former higher rate, we could pay for the entire school fees. We therefore took over the villagers’ debt for the first semester and promised to pay for the entire second semester... approximately $1,500 ! This plainly shows how poor the whole place is.
This decision, aside from being a strong symbolic gesture, has allowed us to solve one of the most disturbing aspect of our action : by choosing who gets a scholarship we were excluding others, creating an inequality which was becoming more and more difficult to face, particularly in the primary school. A quick glance in the school classrooms was enough to prove that everyone in the village lives below the poverty level : the children’s clothes are thread bare, the classrooms are barely heated with coal and do not have any supplies. By offering free school for all we restore equality among the families.
We wrote a contract, discussing the fine points around the table in Ma Yan’s parents’ house, which in 2 paragraphs explains the obligation from the Association to pay for the approximately 200 children’s school fees and from the School to stop asking the parents to repay their depts and to regularly keep the Association informed of the children’s progress in school. This contract was signed by the Primary School Principal, the Imam, the Party Secretary, my assistant He Yanping and myself. A provincial governement official was present and he gave his word that he would closely follow the progress of the agreement.
This represents a fantastic step forward in our decision to help the villagers of Zhang Jai Shu, who, benefiting from the amazing response to Ma Yan’s story, are now better off than the neighbouring villages. This is probably going to become a sore point between the villages, and that will replace the previous unease between the scolarship recipients families and the families who did not receive such help.
With this gesture, we accomplished - on a small scale - what a UN report recommended in early December : “ The Central Chinese Governement must guarantee free school fees for all school children”
We now have 200 children depending on us in the village school, but we are still offering scolarships to the secondary and higher schools. We are currently funding 39 other scolarships, mainly in the secondary school in Yuwang - where the Zhang Jia Shu schoolchildren go after the end of the primary education - and in the Tongxin high school located in the county seat.
We were able to meet most of those kids, and evaluate the impact of the scholarship funds on their lives and encourage them in pursuing their education. Part of our motive for the meetings was to check on the terrible situations that had been described in the letters sent by thoses kids and that had sometimes influenced our decision in allocating a scolarship. What we saw goes well beyond the situations that the children had described. Their lives are straight out of the most dramatic books, but receiving the scolarship has given them an indestructable optimism which enables them to confront all the problems in their lives and which - as Mao would have said- will enable them to move mountains !
In Yuwang we met Ma Xiaomei, a quiet 14 year- old girl with neatly braided hair. She had written us a sad story about her life : her father had died 10 days after having been diagnosed with a cancer which had not been detected earlier because they did not have the money to pay for the doctor’s visit (medical care is not free in China) ; her mother also had a tumor in her head and could not see a doctor for lack of money. We went to her house : her mother had left her farm because she could not work alone in the fields. In Yuwang, she had opened a tiny store - 3m x 4m - in which she lived with her daughter and 2 young sons. She’s skinny and weak. And this woman has a daughter who in spite of this life is an excellent student whith a head full of dreams about her future. Obviously, we immediately offered a scolarship to each of the brothers as well, starting next semester, and gave her some money to go and see a doctor.
Li Xiaoyan started receiving our scholarship in Sept 2003. We had met her last February in the Principal’s office, crying and pleading for him to take her back half way through the school year. We had not understood what was happening. In Sept 2003 she wrote us and reminded us of our meeting, and asked for a scholarship. We had accepted although we were skeptical at the time. How happy we are that she is one of the recepient : at 12 years old, Li Xiaowan stopped going to school because her parents had chosen to use their meager resources for the younger brother’s education. She went to work as a waitress in a mining town restaurant, 100km away from home, with the goal of saving enough money to pay for her own schooling. She earned 100 yuan a month (around $10 dollars) . After eight months of work she had come back and encouraged by one of her uncles had asked the school principal to take her back half way through the school year, which is what we had witnessed. But the following September she had no more money and had decided to ask for our help. At 14, she’s already lived through tragedy yet she is full of optimism and willpower to improve her life.
These stories and many others that we discovered during those few days will be published in a second book, to come out in France next spring by Editions Ramsay. Half of the author’s rights will be given to the Association. My last trip was paid by the Publisher and did not cost a cent to the Association. We are always trying to limit our expenditures to postage, bank charges or photocopies costs. The Association does not have to pay for office rent, salaries nor are there any overhead. Everyone involved in the actions of the Association is a volunteer, whether in Paris, Beijing or elsewhere and we hope to be able to continue our work this way so that we may expand our involvement with the children.
In Yuwang, we met with the medium school principal. His office had collapsed since our last visit. The conditions in which the students and the teachers live and work are unbelievable. In front of his office is a brand new building, 4 floors high. It’s the new school, financed by the state and for which we had pledged an investment in computers. But the construction was interrupted in March for lack of money and still hasn’t started again. In Yinchuan, the provincial capital, an administrative civil servant assured us that construction was to start again soon and finished next year... He also assured us that the official declarations about a larger public action in the countryside would, next year, be translated in financial help. Let’s see. In any case, this official person thought positively of our action , which added to the succesful launch of “Ma Yan’s Diary” in China, enables us to implement our actions more decisively.
In France our friend Emmanuelle Polack started an action in her class, using “Ma Yan’s diary” and this has now been officially approved of and is growing. Anyone interested in her project can read it (in French !) at : www.enseignants.com/partenaires/pg/glossaire
We have been asked if the diary in Chinese could be found in France, we do not think so but we will certainly ship it to anyone interested, the total price of shipping and book purchase will amount to 10 euros. Please send your request with a check and shipping address to the Association.
To conclude, we are asking for your support. The book is still attracting new supporters in many countries, but we rely on word of mouth. Please forward this message to those around you and encourage them to check out our Association. The amazingly courageous Children of Ningxia are counting on you.

Pierre Haski Enfants du Ningxia


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Giving voice to the voiceless.

China Daily, Beijing, Oct. 23, 2003.

By Jin Bo.

"Ma Yan’s Diary," in which 14-year-old Ma Yan expresses her strong desire for education, has fascinated international publishers and been described as "legendary" by the Chinese media.
Yet what is far more significant than simply changing the author’s life is that the ordinary girl from China’s impoverished Northwest is giving a voice to tens of thousands of children from the country’s underdeveloped rural regions.
’I want to study’
Ma Yan’s diaries, which were not intended for publication, accidentally found their way into bookstores.
In May 2001, several journalists from the French daily Liberation paid a visit to Zhangjiashu Village in Xihaigu in Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. It was the first time that many villagers saw foreigners.
The village is described in Edgar Snow’s "Red Star Over China," but since then, it has been visited by few outsiders.
Xihaigu, consisting of three counties - Xiji, Haiyuan and Guyuan - is one of the poorest areas in China.
Owing to the extremely poor natural conditions, it was described by the United Nations as a region unfit for human habitation.
While it takes less than two hours to travel thousands of kilometres from Beijing to Yinchuan, the capital city of Ningxia, an entire day is required to get from Yinchuan to Zhangjiashu, which are only seperated by a distance of several hundred kilometres.
When the journalists were about to leave, a local woman in her late 30s thrust three notebooks with handwriting and a letter into the hands of a photographer, who later gave the items to his colleague Pierre Haski.
Back in Beijing, the articles in the notebooks and the letter were translated into French. They turned out to be written by a 14-year-old girl named Ma Yan, the daughter of the woman who passed them to the photographer.
In the letter which the girl wrote to her mother, Ma complained angrily about having to leave school in the next term because her family could no longer afford her education.
Her family was too poor to help her escape the miserable and predictable destiny of many peasant women - dropping out from school and getting married at an early age.
"I want to study," Ma Yan writes in the letter.
Such a heartfelt plea was frequently found in the diaries.
"I want to study, mother," she writes. "I don’t want to return home. It would be wonderful if I could stay at school forever."
"If I had knowledge, I could choose the life I want. I do not want to live a life the same as that of my parents. It was too tough," Ma Yan later explained.
Deeply moved, Haski decided to interview Ma Yan. He returned one month later and gave the family 1,000 yuan (US$120) - enough to enable them to afford Ma’s middle-school fees for two years.
"When Ma’s mother saw me she cried, as she knew that her message in a bottle thrown into the sea had reached the shore," he recalled.
In January 2002 Pierre Haski published a feature about Ma Yan in the French newspaper Liberation, revealing the drama of the young girl revealed in the simple records of her daily life.
This article caught the eye of the publishers at Editions Ramsay, a French publishing company.
The book immediately became a best-seller. The girl’s strong desire for an education won the hearts of many French readers, who then offered their helping hands.
The publishing rights were soon sold in many other European countries and Japan. So far "Ma Yan’s Diary" has been published in five languages and many foreign readers have written letters to Ma Yan offering their support.
Ma Yan’s life has been greatly changed as a result, meaning that she will no longer need to worry about her tuition fees.
Now she is even starting to hope that she will be able to attend university, something which is normally considered almost impossible for girls from Zhangjiashu.
Ma Yan, now 16, earns monthly royalties of 500 yuan (US$60) from sales of the book, enough to pay for her education as well as improving her entire family’s standard of living.
Ma Yan’s parents have also purchased a donkey and a new TV set and redecorated their house with the money.
"It’s like a dream," says Ma Yan.
Her story has provoked a wave of solidarity from readers in several countries who formed an association to keep Ma Yan and other children like her in Ningxia in school.
Today, the Children of Ningxia Association, has more than 300 members.
Last month when the new semester began, the association funded the education of 60 children, mainly at Yuwang Middle School and Zhangjiashu Primary School.
The Chinese edition of the book was recently published in Beijing by the Huaxia Publishing House.
In order to retain its original feel, all of Ma Yan’s wrongly written characters remained unchanged.
The first print runs 100,000 copies, and the publisher optimistically estimated that it would also become a best-seller in China, with total sales of more than three times that.
The Chinese media have also shown a keen interest in Ma Yan. Her name frequently appears in the headlines and she is regularly a guest on national TV talk shows.
Lucky young woman
But Ma Yan’s story was by no means unique in China’s poverty-striken regions.
Ma Yan was only one of the most lucky among those children from poor families.
According to statistics released by the Ministry of Education, despite the fact that illiteracy rates among adults have been reduced to 8.72 per cent from 22.23 per cent 10 years ago, seven out of 100 Chinese are illiterate or over 85.07 million Chinese can only read and write a little.
The Ministry of Education has vowed to wipe out illiteracy among young people between 15 and 24 years old by the end of 2005.
That is a big challenge.
Although most rural parents have realized the importance of knowledge in changing their lives, many are reluctant to allocate their limited budgets to girls’ education, as the result of the traditional view that men are superior to women - an idea still widely advocated in many impoverished regions.
In Zhangjiashu, most girls used to withdraw from primary school at the third or fourth grade, although the country offers nine-year compulsory education.
Many girls had to leave school and toil in the fields to support their families before being made to marry at the age of 16, or earlier, in exchange for a dowry.
When Ma Yan’s mother told her that the family could not afford to send her to school, she asked her mother what would happen to her two brothers and was told that they would continue at school.
Ma Yan kept asking her mother "why boys can study and girls cannot."
The answer was perfunctory. "You are too young to understand. When you grow up, you will learn why," her mother said.
Nowadays many villagers in Zhangjiashu have changed their attitudes. The number of girls at primary school has increased.
Even Ma Yan’s mother has begun to learn how to write.
Now the former illiterate can write the entire sentence :
"Ke’ai de nu’er, nihaoma (How are you, my dear daughter) ?"

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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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