________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 16 . . . . April 15, 2005


The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese School Girl.

Ma Yan.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2005.
166 pp., cloth, $22.99.
ISBN 0-00-200609-X.

Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.

Review by Juhong Shi.

*** /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected Proof.


No more money for school this year. I till the land in order to pay for my brothers’ schooling. When I think of the happy times at school, I can almost imagine myself there. How I want to study! I want to go to school, Mother. How wonderful if I could stay at school forever!

But I must think positively. I have to succeed. I will, I really will find an ideal job. And I’ll be happy with it.

I must study hard. When I’m older I’ll make sure that my children have happy days, that they’re not always caught up in money problems, which is the case at home now.


Thirteen should be an age associated with sunshine, flowers, laughter and all kinds of sweet things. But for Ma Yan, a girl living in Zhangjiashu, a small village of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China, it was totally another story. She had to struggle desperately for life, especially for her education: she starved for two weeks to save money for a ball-point pen; she could only have a bowl of rice a day to survive, with meat, vegetables, and fruits being absolutely a luxury; she might only get 1.5 yuan (1 yuan is worth approximately 12 cents in American currency) of pocket money, but she saved her money for school supplies; she had to take a weekly walk for more than two hours, traversing steep ravines, taking the risks of encountering bandits, to save one yuan’s tractor ride from the boarding school to home or from home to school at weekend. Even so, she had to quit school when the harvest became terribly bad. This was what recorded in The Diary of Ma Yan, a moving tale about the young girl who wanted to overcome her impoverished life. But it was not bleak at all. Instead, Ma Yan’s words are sparkled with hope. She never gave up her dream of a good education and a decent job, even when the food she brought from home ran out and she could only stare at others eating during meal time. Her reflection of life is not only about herself but also the people around her. She showed great concern for her folks, for her mother’s stomach illness, for her grandparents’ hardship. She even bought some apples for a poor old lady with her extremely limited money only because the lady reminded her of her poor grandmother. Ma Yan was just like a sapling growing in the track of rocks, desperately in need of water and soil, but still managing to survive and prosper.

     Owing to the extremely poor natural conditions, Ma Yan’s home village was described by the United Nations as a region unfit for human habitation. Although most rural parents had realized the importance of knowledge in changing their lives, many were reluctant to allocate their limited budgets to girls’ education because of the traditional view that men were superior to women - an idea still widely advocated in many impoverished regions. In Zhangjiashu, where Ma Yan lived, most girls used to withdraw from primary school at the third or fourth grade, although the Chinese government offered nine-years of 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. But the spunky Ma Yan said no to this miserable and predictable destiny of many peasant women. She wrote a letter to her mother, complaining angrily about having to leave school in the next term because her family could no longer afford her education. “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.” Fortunately enough, the letter, together with three of Ma Yan’s notebooks, found their way into the hand of Pierre Haski, the Beijing correspondent of Paris Daily Liberation. The girl’s strong desire for an education deeply touched the heart of Haski. Owing to his efforts, the diary was published in French in 2002 and immediately became a best seller. So far the book has been translated into five languages. Ma Yan’s life has been greatly changed as a result, and she will no longer need to worry about her tuition fees. Moreover, with 25% of the book’s royalties and donations from other warmhearted people, Pierre Haski set up an Association for the Children of Ningxia and about 250 pupils, mostly girls, have received grants. So this was a book that not only changed Ma Yan’s fate but also the fate of millions of rural teenage girls. Nowadays many villagers in Zhangjiashu have changed their attitudes, and the number of girls at primary school has increased.

     The greatest merit of The Diary of Ma Yan is that it gives a voice to millions of voiceless grass-root peasant children whose one year school fee, while less than the cost of a piece of toy owned by kids in big cities, is still more than they can afford. Thanks to Ma Yan and the book, Chinese mainstream media now tend to keep an eye on those who have long been neglected by Chinese economic development. Ma Yan was featured three times on CCTV, the most influential media in China. A documentary film set in the village where Ma Yan lives was made to focus more attention on education issues in rural areas. When the book’s Chinese version was published in October 2003 in Beijing, it caused hot discussion among the social elite about the extreme poverty hidden underneath the prosperous surface and the social and political reasons behind that situation.

     The Diary of Ma Yan is divided into two parts. The first part runs from September 2 to December 28, 2000 when Ma Yan is 13 and in grade five. The second part is from July 3 to December 28, 2001. The break is due to the loss of her notebooks, some of which had been taken by her illiterate father to wrap cigarettes. Because it is written from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl, the words are quite simple, or in other words, not polished. But it exactly forms the style of the book: simplicity and truth, the greatest beauty. It not only authentically represents Ma Yan’s difficulties and frustrations, but it also gives readers a glimpse of real rural life in China: girls’ inferior position both in family and society, children’s strong sense of indebtedness and paying tributes to parents, parents’ firm belief of never sparing the rod, et cetera.

     Reading a book like this, you’ll find yourself more than once in tears for the suffering of this bright teenage girl. You may also be greatly touched and cheered by her stubborn spirit and strong will when encountering challenge. Read it if you are in a condition as poor as Ma Yan. It will definitely give you strength to fight the difficulties. Read it also if you are in a well-off condition far beyond Ma Yan’s imagination. It will cause you to cherish what you have now.

Highly Recommended.

Juhong Shi, who is a staff member in the School of Foreign Languages of English, Lanzhou University, China, is presently a Visiting Scholar in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba. Prof. Shi is interested in Canadian literature for juveniles, and, before coming to Canada, she had read Ma Yan’s diary in its Chinese version.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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