“No more money for school this year. I’m back in the house and I work the land in order to pay for my brothers’ education. When I think of the happy times at school, I can almost imagine myself there. How I want to study! But my family can’t afford it..” – Ma Yan, May 2, 2001
The Diary of Ma Yan is a heart-breaking albeit inspirational story of a Chinese schoolgirl who lived in the remote village of Zhangjiashu, located thousands of miles northwest of Beijing. A French journalistic crew visited the village in 2001 and, there, a woman from the village approached them and handed them a myseterious bundle which contained Ma Yan’s* diary written on little brown notebooks.
Due to lost entries, the publisher divided Ma Yan’s diary into two parts – the first one running from September 2 to December 28, 2000; the second from July 3 to December 13, 2001. Ma Yan was thirteen when she wrote her first entry, and her diary stopped when she was fourteen.
Ma Yan’s story reminds me of the children in the Philippines who either had to stop going to school or had never set foot in school at all because their families could not afford it. This, I think, is one of life’s ironies. That while there are children like Ma Yan, there are also children who waste their education because their families could afford it any time.
Ma Yan’s life of poverty is the force that drives her to (want to) go to school and become successful one day in order to provide a good life to her family, especially to her mother whom she loves very much. In her September 2001 entry, Ma Yan writes, “I have to study hard to make a contribution to my country and my people one day. That is my goal. That is my hope.”
For the most part, I find her diary repetitive. Each entry was barely any different from the previous one and I started pitying her halfway through because it seemed like there was no hope for her. However, as French journalist, Pierre Haski, wrote on his introduction, “Page by page, Ma Yan shows an increasing command both of her writing and of her feelings. Her first days as a schoolgirl in 2000… are the subject of the briefest, most understated notes. Then, before our eyes, Ma Yan gains in stature. Her life is a tough and fast teacher.”
On the surface, readers are looking at a young girl’s earnest desire to go to school. Yet, there is more than meets the eye. Ma Yan’s diary also portrays her relationship with her family and her extended family, her mother’s undying love for her, the Chinese rural community, and the public school system in China. The book also provided pictures of Ma Yan, her family, and her schoolmates, as well as short introductions by Pierre Haski in the beginning of each set of entries.
One of my favorite diary entries was written on July 30, 2001:
“This afternoon, when I want to start writing in my diary, I can’t find my pen… I’m distraught. You’re probably going to start laughing. ‘A pen. What a little thing to get so distressed about!’ If you only knew the trouble I had to get that pen… The difficulties I faced in getting this pen are a mirror of all my other problems. My mother had given me some money with which to buy bread. For days I had only eaten yellow rice. I preferred going hungry and saving so that I could buy the pen… My dear old pen gave me a sense of power. It made me understand the meaning of a difficult life or a happy life. Every time I see the pen, it’s as if I were seeing my mother. It’s as if she was encouraging me to work hard and make it into the girls’ senior school.”
The Diary of Ma Yan made me appreciate the life I have. Like Ma Yan’s parents, mine worked hard to provide good education for me and my sister, but as Pierre Haski mentioned in a letter from Paris, Ma Yan’s diary “is a lesson for all of us who didn’t have to experience hardship on the way to education and building our futures.”
Ma Yan said she wanted to pursue journalism “to keep the whole world informed, to report the poverty and real life in this area.” Upon the successful publication of the book, Ma Yan was given the opportunity of to study at a university in France. The French-based foundation, Les Enfants du Ningxia (The Children of Ningxia), was founded to help children like Ma Yan with their schooling. Seventeen of them have now reached university level in 2008, and hundreds more are being helped. Ma Yan later on wrote to say that twenty-five percent of her earnings from the book will go to the foundation.
*In China, it is customary to list last names first, thus Ma is Ma Yan’s family name which also happens to be a common last name in her village.
Book cover from http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com/harperchildrensImages/isbn/large/8/9780060764968.jpg
Photo of Ma Yan in her dormitory from http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com/harperchildrensImages/isbn/large/8/9780060764968.jpg
Visit the official website of Les Enfants du Ningxia at http://enfantsduningxia.uk.over-blog.com/