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A little known fact of life in China came to light when the diary of a 14-year-old peasant girl made it from a remote town in rural China made it to the bestseller lists in France. The book, which has now been published in 16 countries around the world, tells the story of a young girl who is desperate to stay in school, despite the problem of sky-high school fees, which her parents can not afford.

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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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9 juin 2004 3 09 /06 /juin /2004 00:00
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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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"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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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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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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9 décembre 2003 2 09 /12 /décembre /2003 00:00
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Ma Yan’s Diary Touches Europe

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



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

 

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9 octobre 2003 4 09 /10 /octobre /2003 00:00
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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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24 mars 2003 1 24 /03 /mars /2003 00:00
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A Chinese Girl’s Diary Builds a Bridge Out of Rural Poverty

(New York Time, 24/03/2004)



The long road that brought Ma Yan to the Paris book fair this week began three years ago in the remote village of Zhang Jia Shu in Ningxia region of northern China. At the time she was distraught because her parents could not afford to keep her in school. Today she is the 16-year-old author of "Ma Yan’s Diary : The Daily Life of a Chinese Schoolgirl," which has sold 45,000 copies in France and has already appeared in eight languages in addition to French.
Thanks to its publication, her family is no longer poor, and 250 other Ningxia youngsters, mostly girls, now have scholarships to continue studying. Even in Beijing the book has helped some remember the darker side of China’s economic miracle.
Initially Ms. Ma’s role was accidental. At her boarding school in Yuwang, 15 miles from her home, the preteenage students were required to keep journals. It just happened that one day in May 2001 her account of the struggle against hunger and poverty was given to a group of visitors from Beijing, along with a letter that Ms. Ma’s mother, Bai Juhua, had received from her daughter.
The letter caught the attention of the visitors, including Pierre Haski, the Beijing correspondent of the Paris daily Libération. In it Ms. Ma lamented that there was no money to keep her in school. "I’m back in the house, and I till the land in order to pay for my brothers’ schooling," she wrote, adding : "I want to go school, Mother. I don’t want to work at home. How wonderful it would be if I could stay in school forever !"
Mr. Haski’s assistant, He Yanping, then translated the diary, which was written between Sept. 2 and Dec. 28, 2000, when Ms. Ma was 12. Most entries are brief, but they convey her strong character. When an older boy beats her brother, for example, she vows : "If I study hard and make daily progress, I’ll go to university and become a policewoman. And if those boys bend the law even a tiny little bit, I won’t fail to have them punished." A desire to lift her parents out of poverty is a further motivation. "I must work really well in order to go to university later," she writes. "Then I’ll get a good job, and Mother and Father will at last have a happy life." But she also wants to improve herself. "In these times even beggars need degrees," she writes. "Nothing works for you if you don’t study. In the big cities even going to the toilet entails being able to read."
One month after reading this journal, Mr. Haski and Ms. He returned to Zhang Jia Shu. Ms. Ma was back at school, but only because her parents had borrowed money and her mother had taken a laborer’s job to repay the loan.
After meeting Ms. Ma and her parents the visitors gave them $120 to allow the 13-year-old to stay at school and her mother to pay off her loan.
"For me that was it," Mr. Haski later recalled. "We’d done our bit and would leave."
But after Libération published his article about Ma Yan and her plight on Jan. 11, 2002, Mr. Haski began receiving checks from readers. His instinct was to use the donations to keep other peasant girls in school. But he also received a proposal to publish Ms. Ma’s journal in France, and he traveled to Zhang Jia Shu with a contract. By then Ms. Ma had filled another journal covering July 3 to Dec. 13, 2001. (Her father had used the paper of her journal for the early months of 2001 to roll cigarettes.) This diary was much more somber than the earlier one.
"I’m terribly hungry," she writes. "There’s been no bread or vegetables since Tuesday. When I eat my rice now, there’s nothing to go with it. I even stole a piece out of a comrade’s bowl without alerting her. When she came back to the dormitory, she called me all manner of names." She goes on, "I have to study well so that I won’t ever again be tortured by hunger and lack of money."
She also worries about her mother, who complains of acute stomach pains. "My mother’s face is as black as coal, and her lips are all cracked. She looks terrible. What’s wrong with her ? Usually when she comes back from her mother’s, she’s happy, full of chat and laughter. But today --" She reflects mournfully, "Mother is the saddest and most unfortunate mother in the world."
But with the advance paid by the French publishers things improved. Ms. Ma and Mr. Haski, who edited and annotated the book, decided to give 25 percent of their royalties to the Association for the Children of Ningxia, which Mr. Haski had set up in France after his first article appeared. After "Ma Yan’s Diary" came out in France in October 2002, the association’s membership grew to 300, and more donations poured in. By February 2003, 42 pupils in Ningxia had received grants.
Since then the diary has also appeared in Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Greece, Taiwan, Japan, Spain and Portugal. An English-language edition will be published in Britain by Virago this summer.
"I thought, `My job as a reporter is to denounce injustice, not to correct it,’ " Mr. Haski said in an interview. "Then 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 destabilized. The villagers can’t understand that something written by a 14-year-old girl could be of interest in France. At times I can’t sleep."
Still, he said, the Chinese authorities have been cooperative. "Ma Yan’s Diary" was published in China in October 2003, and its author appeared three times on government television. At a news conference she illustrated the fate of many poor peasant girls by reading a letter from a cousin forced to leave school and marry. "By the time you receive this letter," the cousin wrote, "I will already be in the palace of marriage, which is the tomb of my life."
After Ms. Ma finished reading the letter, Mr. Haski recalled, most of the reporters in her audience were in tears. Now, in Paris on her first trip outside China, Ms. Ma seems unfazed by the attention."I can eat when I want to," she said in an interview. "My parents don’t have to travel to work. They have bought some land, a donkey, some sheep. They have a motorbike, a new television and a telephone. We have also repainted the house. I think that is enough."
But she has bigger ambitions. "I want to study journalism at university," she said. Asked why, she pointed to Mr. Haski, whom she calls Uncle Han. "Because Uncle Han and others traveled across the country and found poor children like us," she said. "I’d like to be a journalist so I, too, can help poor children."
Mr. Haski conceded that early in this bizarre adventure he worried that Ms. Ma might be spoiled by her sudden fame and relative fortune. But now he feels reassured. "Her teachers say she is still a good student who is generous with her colleagues," he said. Ms. Ma, too, seems aware that she still has far to go. "To get to university in Beijing," she said, "I have to do very well in the exams."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company |

 

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CHINA EDUCATION

(Commonground radio, USA, 23/03/2004)



« MCHUGH : 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’t afford. As Celia Hatton reports from Beijing, the book highlights a much larger problem in China, where rural schoolchildren cannot afford to complete even the most basic levels of education.
[The sound of people speaking Chinese in a busy room]
CELLIA HATTON : Excitement was in the air at a recent book launch in Beijing, as the long-awaited diaries of a 14-year-old girl were released in China. The diary of Ma Yan details the daily life of a schoolgirl from a remote, impoverished part of China who longs to stay in school, despite the fact that her school fees are crippling her parents.
[The sound of Ma Yan crying as she relates her story to the crowd at her book opening]
HATTON : At the launch, Ma Yan wept as she told the audience about a friend who was forced to leave school in the fifth grade and is now married with a baby. Often, parents are forced to choose which of their children will be allowed to continue studying, usually allowing boys to stay in school while girls are forced to marry into other families. Just before Ma Yan’s book fell into the hands of Pierre Haski, a French journalist traveling through her village, she had been told that she would not be allowed to continue with her education. Haski included excerpts of Ma Yan’s diary in the French newspaper Liberation and soon returned to the girl’s village to convince Ma Yan’s family to allow him to publish the entire diary in France.
Although Ma Yan’s story has a happy ending, she is just one of millions of children in rural China who must fight to remain in school, even in the first nine years of China’s supposedly compulsory education system. One Ministry of Education study last year found that five out of seven children in a region of China’s poor Anhui province had dropped out of school because their parents could not afford to pay tuition fees. United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Katarina Tomasevski, was invited by the Chinese government to rate China’s compliance with its agreed international human rights obligations in education. She explained that the financial obstacles to basic education were her principle concern and criticized the Chinese government.
UNITED NATIONS SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR KATARINA TOMASEVSKI : The government of China is in a fairly comfortable position relying on the fact that most parents will do whatever they can to provide the best possible education for their children, which makes the life of the government very easy. It can mismanage budgetary allocations because parents will step in and provide as much as they can.
HATTON : Education funding was a casualty when China began to liberalize in the 1980s. As the economy began to open up, shrinking government budgets shifted the responsibility for education funding from the central to local governments. Bankrupt townships in rural areas eventually forced parents to cover most school expenses. French journalist Pierre Haski, who discovered Ma Yan’s diaries in rural Ningxia, says that in Ma Yan’s case, the tax-strapped government paid to build the school structure and now, only pays the meager salaries of the teachers who work there.
PIERRE HASKI : Everything else has to be provided by the parents. That means to pay for the electricity, to pay for the maintenance, to pay for the books, to pay for everything, they rely on the fees. And these fees are equal in that case to one year’s income of a villager.
HATTON : Katarina Tomasevski argued to the UN that the Chinese government needed to increase the allocation of funding from just over three percent of its gross domestic product to the internationally recommended minimum amount of six percent. Most developing countries are able to contribute four percent, Tomasevski says. In response to the UN report, the Chinese government issued its own statement highlighting strides that the education system has made in the past few years, including decreased illiteracy rates for women and higher enrollment rates for girls stretching from primary school to university. There are also signs, however, that the Chinese government is beginning to take note of the problem of rural school fees. In September, China’s Education Minister, Zhou Ji, promised to tackle the school fee problem by ensuring teacher’s salaries and eliminating random charges at primary and middle schools.
It will be difficult to improve education much, however, without committing more money. According to China’s state-run newspaper, The China Daily, China uses 1.4 percent of the world’s educational funds to support 22.9 percent of the world’s students. Back in Beijing, the success of Ma Yan’s book continues to grow. A charity, the Children of Ningxia, has been started in France to provide free education to all primary school children in Ma Yan’s village, and full scholarships to 50 middle school students in May Yan’s school, most of them girls. As more publishing houses around the world sign up to print Ma Yan’s book, the hope is that more children in rural China will be able to overcome the problem of sky-high school fees. For Common Ground, I’m Celia Hatton in Beijing.
MORT : For Common Ground, I’m Steve Mort at the United Nations in New York.
PORTER : That’s our show for this week. If you have questions or comments about today’s program, visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org or e-mail us at commonground@commongroundradio.org.
MCHUGH : Transcripts and information on how to order copies of this and other Common Ground programs are also available on our Web site : commongroundradio.org. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER : And I’m Keith Porter. Cliff Brockman is our Associate Producer. Creative Director is Amy Bakke. Andy Burnette is our Webmasters. Jim Yoon is Senior Webmaster. Susan Roggendorf provides administrative assistance. B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Additional compositions by Wink Music.
ANNOUNCER : Common Ground is a Stanley Foundation production. The Stanley Foundation : promoting public understanding, constructive dialogue, and cooperative action on critical international issues. On the Web at stanleyfoundation.org.

© 2004 by The Stanley Foundation Sponsored by The Stanley Foundation 209 Iowa Avenue Muscatine, Iowa 52761 USA 563-264-1500 563-264-0864 fax

 

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19 janvier 2003 7 19 /01 /janvier /2003 00:00
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I want to go to School

(China Youth Daily, 18/01/2003)

 

The diary of a Chinese girl who had to leave school because her family could not afford it any longer has been published in Paris and become a bestseller, and translated into several other European languages and Japanese. The book title is “Ma Yan’s Diary,” subtitle “The Daily Life of a Chinese Schoolgirl”.

In May 2001, Pierre Haski from Liberation, a French newspaper, visited Zhang Jia Shu for the first time and didn’t know that Ma Juhua’s daughter, Ma Yan, will soon drop out of school. Zhang Jia Shu is the most northern village in the area of Yu Wang in Xi Hai Gu, Ningxia Province. With seven of its counties named on the official list of China’s poorest counties, Xi Hai Gu was identified by the United Nations in 1972 as one of the areas not suitable for human living.
Local officials said that Pierre is the first foreign journalist the village has seen since (US reporter) Edgar Snow’s visit (in 1940s, author of “Red Star in China”). Just before Pierre and other visitors left the village, Ma Juhua who wore a white Muslim cap, put a piece of paper and three notebooks into Pierre’s and his assistant’s hands. Until they were back in Beijing did Pierre and his assistant find out that the paper and the notebooks were a letter and three diary books. All of them were written by Ma Yan. The letter 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. How I want to go to school ! But my family has no money.” Pierre has read many writings about living in poverty. But a 13-year-old girl’s simple journal of countless little things in her life touched him, left him “shaken.”
Twenty-seven days later Pierre went back to Zhang Jia Shu “at the end of the world.” The flight from Beijing to Yin Chuan (capital of the Ningxia Province) took only an hour, but the bumpy vehicle ride from Yin Chuan to Zhang Jia Shu took him a whole day.
Ma Yan’s mother happened to be home that evening after collecting vegetables. “When she gave us her daughter’s diary, she knew she was throwing a message bottle to the sea. Now she saw us, she knew that the bottle had reached its destination. She couldn’t stop crying.”
Pierre left 1000 Yuan (US$120) to Ma Yan’s family. It cost 500 Yuan (US$60) a year for her to go to middle school. After Pierre had left, the relatives of Ma Yan’s family came to ask for money, Ma Yan’s mother had to use part of Pierre’s gift to pay debt to them.
In March 2002, Pierre visited the village for the third time. This time he came with a publishing contract for Ma Yan to sign. Pierre and Ma Yan would be the co-author of “Ma Yan’s Diary” to be published in French. In the book, Pierre wrote about Ma Yan’s story as he knew. He didn’t expect that his first book about China would be in this subject. He had thought it would be a political commentary. He had even less expectations that his reporting about Ma Yan would cause so much reaction. A journalist with 28 years of experience, Pierre has covered South Africa and Israel as a foreign correspondent.
On January 11, 2002, after a delay by the 9/11 event, Pierre’s article, “I Want to Go to School,” appeared on the Liberation covering two full pages. On the next day reader’s letters poured into his email box. Three days later, an editor from Ramsay, a 25-year-old small publishing house in France, called Pierre’s office in Beijing, saying that they would like to turn Ma Yan’s diary into a book. The publishing house published the memoir of Mrs. Mitterrand (former first lady of France).
After reading Pierre’s article, students and teachers from a Paris middle school raised some fund for Ma Yan and wrote her a letter. The letter said, “We are very touched and hope to be able to help you and your family. We wish you can continue your schooling. In France, we don’t even have the right to work until we are 16, therefore we are very sympathetic about your situation. We wish we can help to make your dream come true. We wish you success in your study and a bright future thereafter so that you can help your family. We wait for some good news from you. We wish we can hear from you.” The first donor is a journalist from the ELLE magazine, Michelle Fitoussi. In July 2002, she went to China as well and interviewed Ma Yan. Her reporting focused on the large number of girls in Zhang Jia Shu who could not go to school.
Pierre used the donations from all over Europe to set up a foundation, “The Association for the Children of Ningxia.” The foundation has helped dozens of children in the region, all of them except two are girls.
What Changed the Fate
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’t ?” “You are too little to understand it. You’ll understand when you grow up,” mother said.
— Ma Yan
In October 2002, Ma Yan saw her French publisher and her book in Beijing. Ma Yan’s Diary is priced at 20.5 Euros, about 160 Yuan.
The party secretary in the town of Yu Wang, Luo Yanyuan attended Yu Wang middle school, then the Geology Institute of Xi An, and came back to Yu Wang after graduation. Secretary Luo doesn’t approve the attention the media has been giving to Ma Yan. He told our reporter that Ma Yan became arrogant now that people publish her book and give her money. Villagers have lots of complaints, saying that Ma Yan is no longer self-disciplined and even allowed French guys to take her to an entertainment bar in Beijing.
While the reporter was interviewing Ma Yan’s mother, the principal of the Zhang Jia Shu elementary school, Hu Dengshuang, asked the reporter out, and told him that the villagers were unhappy about the assistance that Ma Yan’s family had received from French people. They wanted the money to be shared by more people in the village. Some villagers went into angry arguments which almost escalated to a fist fight.
Secretary Luo emphasized that education played an important role in changing a family, a clan, and a village. Besides that there were too many people but too little land, people were poor in Yu Wang mainly because of their lack of education and failure of family planning.
The reporter asked, “What is the town government going to do about the children who are too poor to go to school ?”
Secretary Luo said, “The town government wish to allocate some civil fund to help them, for example, reducing or eliminating tuition and fees for the extremely poor children. During the highest enrollment time every year, we can reduce their book purchase fee by 30%, and tuition by 20%. Due to a shortage of school dormitory rooms, the town government also allows children to commute if they live within five Li (1.5 mile) of their school. This way they pay less for room and board.”
“If Ma Yan had dropped out of school, it’s very possible that she would have been married by now,” Ma Yan’s middle school principle told the reporter. Villagers value boys, and treat girls as labors. Some girls have never been to school. When a family is short of money, girls are the first to drop out of school. Ma Yan’s fate could easily be : she marries at a very young age, her parents use the betrothal gift and money from the groom’s family to help her two younger brothers to find a wife.
It’s a custom for girls to marry at a very young age in Xi Hai Gu. The reporter saw many young girls who were already married and had a baby in their arms. Their immature body is already nurturing another human life. “Their marriage has no legal recognition, therefore no legal protection.” A 15-year-old cousin of Ma Yan’s dropped out of school a year ago, and was to get married next week.
In Zhang Jia Shu, the reporter also met Wang Xiaoyan, Ma Yan’s elementary school teacher. She was the only vivacious girl the reporter had seen in Xi Hai Gu. Wearing a brightly red jacket, a pair of black jeans and white sneakers, she had bright eyes and smiled a lot while talking. Married at 18, now 20, Wang said that she married late. And she had a son with brain disease. Wang taught two classes, a preschool and a first grade one. When she was teaching the preschool class, students of the first grade class would play outdoor ; when the first grader students were in the classroom, children of the preschool class would play outside. When the reporter saw Wang Xiaoyan, she was leading the students of both of her classes to read text aloud : “I get on a spaceship, I fly to the space. I see China, China has Yangzi River, Yellow River, and the Great Wall.”
The reporter met Ma Yan in her middle school who just came back from Beijing. She told the reporter that she had been to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. She liked Beijing very much. The city was very clean and big, people there nice. There was no litter, unlike here, garbage and dirt everywhere.
The reporter asked her : “Many children in your village drop out school. Why do you insist going to school ?”
Ma Yan said : “I want to go to school because I don’t want to live like my parents. Their life is too poor.”
The reporter asked : “Can going to school guarantee you a different life than your parents’ ?”
Ma Yan said : “Going to school will give a person knowledge, a person with knowledge will be able to choose a life she wants.”

 

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