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 Yans 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 didnt know that Ma Juhuas 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 Chinas 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 Snows 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 Pierres and his assistants 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. Im 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 girls 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 Yans mother happened to be home that evening after collecting vegetables. When she gave us her daughters 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 couldnt stop crying.
Pierre left 1000 Yuan (US$120) to Ma Yans family. It cost 500 Yuan (US$60) a year for her to go to middle school. After Pierre had left, the relatives of Ma Yans family came to ask for money, Ma Yans mother had to use part of Pierres 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 Yans Diary to be published in French. In the book, Pierre wrote about Ma Yans story as he knew. He didnt 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, Pierres article, I Want to Go to School, appeared on the Liberation covering two full pages. On the next day readers letters poured into his email box. Three days later, an editor from Ramsay, a 25-year-old small publishing house in France, called Pierres office in Beijing, saying that they would like to turn Ma Yans diary into a book. The publishing house published the memoir of Mrs. Mitterrand (former first lady of France).
After reading Pierres 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 dont 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 wont 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 cant ? You are too little to understand it. Youll understand when you grow up, mother said.
In October 2002, Ma Yan saw her French publisher and her book in Beijing. Ma Yans 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 doesnt 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 Yans 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 Yans 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, its very possible that she would have been married by now, Ma Yans 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 Yans fate could easily be : she marries at a very young age, her parents use the betrothal gift and money from the grooms family to help her two younger brothers to find a wife.
Its 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 Yans 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 Yans 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 dont 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.