The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of A Chinese Schoolgirl

by Edited and introduced by Pierre Haski
167 pages,
ISBN: 000200609X

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Kids' Lit
by M. Wayne Cunningham

When 13-year-old Chinese student Ma Yan began her diary on September 2, 2000, she had no idea her mother would give it to French journalist, Pierre Haski, nor that his newspaper stories about it would revolutionise the world for the school children of Ningxia and the residents of her village of Zhangjiashu. But that is what happened, and "revolutionise" is not too strong a word.
Now in its English edition, the book contains a running commentary by Haski as well as Ma Yan's diary entries for the period September 2 to December 28, 2000, and July 3 to December 13, 2001, all of which were originally translated from Mandarin into French. The records for the missing period were lost.
Haski's explanatory notes describe how he obtained the diary during his travels to Zhangjjashu, a tiny village located "thousands of miles northwest of China's capital, Beijing." It is an area so far removed from mainstream China that travelling there "is as much a journey through time as it is through space." To illustrate he tells how amenities taken for granted in the West, such as schooling, especially for girls like Ma Yan of lower class families, are hard-won struggles. It is hard to believe that while Ma Yan and her brother labour to gain an education, living at school and walking for hours on the weekends to return home, her family struggles to survive in a village without running water and where rain and snow are collected in underground tanks. The nearest well, an hour's walk away contains "bitter water", used only for gardens or household chores because it irritates the skin. It's an area so poor that the villagers must scrabble for pennies earned from harvesting fa cai, a local grass with no nutritional value but used as a garnish in China's major cities. Ironically, along with the small barnyard animals that sometimes invade the rudimentary house the Ma family shares, there is a black and white television set.
Within the context of Haski's descriptions of village life and religious culture, Ma Yan's journal reveals a young woman determined to fight the odds against her gaining an education. As much as she loves her parents she can at one moment rail against her mother for being poor and at another praise her for the sacrifices she makes daily to keep her and her brother in school where the pupils refer to each other as "comrades." From her we get first-hand instances of the physical and mental cruelty of the teachers in their demands for perfection, of the dangers of walking home on roads where bullies demand money or goods to allow passage, of the hunger when there is no rice or vegetables to be had or shared, and conversely of the joys of being with her father when he returns home from working afar. Over and over she repeats her desire to be at the top of the class, to make her parents proud of her accomplishments and to continue her schooling at all costs for as long as she can.
Because of Haski's stories and the publication of her diary, Ma Yan became a celebrity in China. Her journal was published throughout the country, she appeared on Chinese national television and was voted "best-loved of the year" in a French magazine for adolescents. In France a charitable society called the Association for the Children of Ningxia was founded on her behalf and quickly accumulated funds for more than 350 scholarships to ensure that youngsters, especially the girls, in Zhangjiashu and Yuwang would remain in school. The same foundation is exploring the construction of a clean water well for the village, a truly revolutionary event for the people of Zhangjjashu.
Despite the clamour and adulation for her diary Ma Yan maintains, "I'm an ordinary pupil." Ordinary she may be in her own eyes but for the rest of the world she is a hero, even now contributing 25 percent of the royalties from her diary to the Association for the Children of Ningxia so that the scholarship recipients can "slowly make their dreams come true [and] build a better future for our country, our native land." Her diary is an inspiration for youth and adults alike.

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