Ma Yan’s Diary
In 2001, a Chinese mother entrusted her daughter’s private diary to a group of Frenchmen who were passing through her small village in the province of Ningxia. Among them was journalist Pierre Haski, who would make the story of this young schoolgirl known to public, first by publishing extracts from the diary in the “Libération”, followed by the publication of a book that recaptures the different stages in Ma Yan’s life.
Ma Yan is a thirteen-year-old girl, the eldest of the three children in her family, whose greatest wish is that her grandparents and parents could retire peacefully. She knows that in order to achieve this, she has to work hard and be successful in her studies. In fact, Ma Yan’s mother, Bai Juhua, often inculcates the importance of education in her children, by saying that the state of misery in which they are living is related to her own lack of education.
Ma Yan’s parents are ready to make various sacrifices for their children to go to school: they spend most of their time working flat out in the fields to make up for the necessary school fees. Her father is a migrant worker: he often leaves for Yinchuan, the provincial capital, or Inner Mongolia, the neighbouring province, where he could find work on the construction sites. Despite severe stomach aches and irritated hands due to constant contact with freezing cold water while doing housework, her mother tries hard to take good care of the household. She too, would be gone from time to time, to dig for fa cai, a nutritious herb that grows in the Mongolian steppes and is highly sought after by residents in Hong Kong.
Ma Yan started school at the age of eight, in her native village of Zhang Jia Shu. She began to write in her diary while she was in her fourth and final year of primary school education, at the Yuwang Hui Boarding School. In order to return home for visits, Ma Yan and her younger brother would travel, rain or shine, 20 kilometres on foot, twice a week, for they lack the money to return on a tractor.
In her diary, Ma Yan describes her desire to be the top student in the class, her joy when she obtains a good grade, and her despair whenever she has to return home with unsatisfactory grades on her school report. In addition, she notes the extreme poverty to which she has been subjected: the cold, she has to wear the same set of uniform in summer and winter alike while her classmates are able to afford better clothing, to eat only one meal per day, she once forced herself into fasting for two weeks in order to buy a pen, hunger, hunger, and more hunger – a sentiment that runs as a leitmotiv throughout her diary.
At the end of the school year, the young girl sat for an entrance examination for entry to the Tongxin Girls Secondary School, a school that would allow her to discover the ‘outside world’. Unfortunately, she did not pass the examination and thus had to content herself with staying on at the Yuwang Secondary School, an institution with more than a thousand pupils.
However, during the school year, she learnt that her parents no longer have the means to pay for her school fees, as a result of five consecutive years of drought. She then wrote a letter to her mother on the reverse side of wrappings for bean seeds, a letter that would become famous and launch the ventures of “Children of Ningxia”.
« I want to study »
We have a week of vacation. My mum said to me: “My child, I’ve something to tell you.” I responded: “Mum, if you have something to say, go ahead! You should not keep it to yourself”. But her first few words shattered my dream: “I’m afraid that this might be the last time you go to school.” With eyes wide open, I looked at her and asked: “How could you say something like this? In our days, one could not live without studying. Even a peasant needs knowledge to cultivate his field, if not, he’ll not have any crops”.
Mum insisted: “Your brothers and you, altogether there’re three of you who go to school. Only your dad is working, afar. It’s not enough.” I asked her, with anguish at heart: “Does that mean that I’ve to return and stay at home?” “Yes”, she replied. “And my two brothers?” “Your two brothers can continue their studies at school”. I protested: “Why could boys continue their studies but not girls?” She smiled wearily: “You’re still young, when you grow up, you’ll understand.”
This year, there is no more money for me to go to school. I have returned home and I cultivate the fields to provide for my two brothers’ schooling. When I think back to the laughter at school, I have the feeling that I am still there. How I wish I could go back to school and study. But my family has no money.
I want to study, mum, I don’t want to come back home! It would be nice if I could stay in school forever!
Ma Yan, 2 May 2001
Bai Juhua has never learned to read or write, she had to ask her daughter to read out the letter for her. The events have followed up quickly since then: touched by Ma Yan’s feeling of distress, her parents borrowed the 70Yuan (6.60 Euro) needed to complete the entire school year, and the letter has been passed to the French journalist, as if a message in a bottle had been released into the ocean.
Ma Yan could finally return to school and benefit from high quality education. Currently, she is reading French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. Her younger brother is studying law at the University of Ningxia, in Yinchuan province, while the youngest brother will sit for the Gaokao (High School Diploma Exam) in 2012, and would like to study international relations in university.