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Ma Yan's Diary Giving Voice to the Voiceless

"Ma Yan's Diary," in which 14-year-old Ma Yan expresses her strong desire for education, has fascinated international publishers and been described as "legendary" by the Chinese media.

Yet what is far more significant than simply changing the author's life is that the ordinary girl from China's impoverished northwest is giving a voice to tens of thousands of children from the country's underdeveloped rural regions.

'I want to study'

Ma Yan's diaries, which were not intended for publication, accidentally found their way into bookstores.

In May 2001, several journalists from the French daily Liberation paid a visit to Zhangjiashu Village in Xihaigu in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. It was the first time that many villagers saw foreigners.

The village is described in Edgar Snow's "Red Star Over China," but since then, it has been visited by few outsiders.

Xihaigu, consisting of three counties - Xiji, Haiyuan and Guyuan - is one of the poorest areas in China.

Owing to the extremely poor natural conditions, it was described by the United Nations as a region unfit for human habitation.

While it takes less than two hours to travel thousands of kilometers from Beijing to Yinchuan, the capital city of Ningxia, an entire day is required to get from Yinchuan to Zhangjiashu, which are only separated by a distance of several hundred kilometers.

When the journalists were about to leave, a local woman in her late 30s thrust three notebooks with handwriting and a letter into the hands of a photographer, who later gave the items to his colleague Pierre Haski.

Back in Beijing, the articles in the notebooks and the letter were translated into French. They turned out to be written by a 14-year-old girl named Ma Yan, the daughter of the woman who passed them to the photographer.

In the letter which the girl wrote to her mother, Ma complained angrily about having to leave school in the next term because her family could no longer afford her education.

Her family was too poor to help her escape the miserable and predictable destiny of many peasant women - dropping out from school and getting married at an early age.

"I want to study," Ma Yan writes in the letter.

Such a heartfelt plea was frequently found in the diaries.

"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."

"If I had knowledge, I could choose the life I want. I do not want to live a life the same as that of my parents. It was too tough," Ma Yan later explained.

Deeply moved, Haski decided to interview Ma Yan. He returned one month later and gave the family 1,000 yuan (US$120) - enough to enable them to afford Ma's middle-school fees for two years.

"When Ma's mother saw me she cried, as she knew that her message in a bottle thrown into the sea had reached the shore," he recalled.

In January 2002 Pierre Haski published a feature about Ma Yan in the French newspaper Liberation, revealing the drama of the young girl revealed in the simple records of her daily life.

This article caught the eye of the publishers at Editions Ramsay, a French publishing company.

The book immediately became a best-seller. The girl's strong desire for an education won the hearts of many French readers, who then offered their helping hands.

The publishing rights were soon sold in many other European countries and Japan. So far "Ma Yan's Diary" has been published in five languages and many foreign readers have written letters to Ma Yan offering their support.

Ma Yan's life has been greatly changed as a result, meaning that she will no longer need to worry about her tuition fees.

Now she is even starting to hope that she will be able to attend university, something which is normally considered almost impossible for girls from Zhangjiashu.

Ma Yan, now 16, earns monthly royalties of 500 yuan (US$60) from sales of the book, enough to pay for her education as well as improving her entire family's standard of living.

Ma Yan's parents have also purchased a donkey and a new TV set and redecorated their house with the money.

"It's like a dream," says Ma Yan.

Her story has provoked a wave of solidarity from readers in several countries who formed an association to keep Ma Yan and other children like her in Ningxia in school.

Today, the Children of Ningxia Association, has more than 300 members.

Last month when the new semester began, the association funded the education of 60 children, mainly at Yuwang Middle School and Zhangjiashu Primary School.

The Chinese edition of the book was recently published in Beijing by the Huaxia Publishing House.

In order to retain its original feel, all of Ma Yan's wrongly written characters remained unchanged.

The first print runs 100,000 copies, and the publisher optimistically estimated that it would also become a best-seller in China, with total sales of more than three times that.

The Chinese media have also shown a keen interest in Ma Yan. Her name frequently appears in the headlines and she is regularly a guest on national TV talk shows.

Lucky young woman

But Ma Yan's story was by no means unique in China's poverty-stricken regions.

Ma Yan was only one of the most lucky among those children from poor families.

According to statistics released by the Ministry of Education, despite the fact that illiteracy rates among adults have been reduced to 8.72 percent from 22.23 percent 10 years ago, seven out of 100 Chinese are illiterate or over 85.07 million Chinese can only read and write a little.

The Ministry of Education has vowed to wipe out illiteracy among young people between 15 and 24 years old by the end of 2005.

That is a big challenge

Although most rural parents have realized the importance of knowledge in changing their lives, many are reluctant to allocate their limited budgets to girls' education, as the result of the traditional view that men are superior to women - an idea still widely advocated in many impoverished regions.

In Zhangjiashu, most girls used to withdraw from primary school at the third or fourth grade, although the country offers nine-year 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.

When Ma Yan's mother told her that the family could not afford to send her to school, she asked her mother what would happen to her two brothers and was told that they would continue at school.

Ma Yan kept asking her mother "why boys can study and girls cannot."

The answer was perfunctory. "You are too young to understand. When you grow up, you will learn why," her mother said.

Nowadays many villagers in Zhangjiashu have changed their attitudes. The number of girls at primary school has increased.

Even Ma Yan's mother has begun to learn how to write.

Now the former illiterate can write the entire sentence:

"Ke'ai de nu'er, nihaoma (How are you, my dear daughter)?"

(China Daily October 23, 2003)


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