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

"My stomach is all twisted up with hunger, but I don’t want to spend that yuan on anything so frivolous as food. Because it’s money my parents earned with their sweat and blood."

Fats here.

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

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.”

Ma Yan (right) in her dormitory in Yuwang

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
Photo of Ma Yan in her dormitory from
Visit the official website of Les Enfants du Ningxia at

The Diary of Ma Yan by Ma Yan

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Fats is the Assistant Manager for Circulation Services at the Wayne County Public Library in Wooster, Ohio. She considers herself a reader of all sorts, although she needs to work on her non-fiction reading. Fats likes a good mystery but is not too fond of thrillers. She takes book hoarding seriously and enjoys collecting bookmarks and tote bags. When she is not reading, Fats likes to shop pet apparel for her cat Penny (who absolutely loathes it).

10 comments on “The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl

  1. Mary of GatheringBooks

    It does seem to have similarities to the Filipino story. Many of us take for granted the education we get. And yet, its these stories that tell us how lucky most of us are for being able to go to school.
    When I read: “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.” I found it fascinating how she extends her achievements to the country and its people. Thanks for the review. 🙂


    • I had my bouts of “how I wish money grows on trees so I can enroll in grad school any time!” Haha. Her story is so heart-wrenching you’d really be thankful of the life you have. It’s close to home, too, since it’s from a nearby Asian country. Like I said, her diary entries are repetitive, but you would admire how her situation ‘haunted’ her to the very end and brought her to where she is now.


  2. myragarcesbacsal

    Truly an inspiring story. It actually reminded me of Mao’s Last Dancer – how is the language like? which age group do you think this would best work for?


    • For the most part, the language is simple. It was written when she was 13, and was translated to English so I can only imagine how some were transliterated. It fits the 11-15 age category. Mostly kids from late elementary to late middle school, just before they go to high school, although I think everyone should read her story and learn from her.


      • myragarcesbacsal

        Agreed. I have my reservations about age-grouping of literature as well. I feel that even little babies can be read these stories aloud and grow up from them. Although, little suggested guidelines (that are not cast in stone, mind you) would be quite helpful.


  3. i am so much more grateful for school now that i have read this book


    • Hello billi. =)

      Ma Yan’s story is truly an inspiring one. I’m glad that this book made you more grateful for school. It had the same effect on me, and this book also made me appreciate my parents’ sacrifices and hard work just to be able to send me to school.


  4. I Already read this book It make me so inspiring


  5. ME!!!! no personal info please......just sayin my name is "puppygirl"

    i just finished this book, and i <3<3<3 (and many more <3s) it!!!!!! it is awesome and definetely on my list of books to recommend. yes, this also made ME more grateful for school. Ma Yan is now one of my role models!!!!!!!


  6. Pingback: Example-Ma Yan’s story

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