In 2001, a French journalist Pierre Haski and others were travelling through the province of Ningxia in northern China together with the Chinese photographer Wang Zheng who came from that region, in preparation for an exhibition destined for Nice.
Their little expedition was in the small village of Zhangjiashu where they had been treated with hospitality by the local Imam. As they were on the point of departure a woman approached the group and pressed a little bundle consisting of three brown notebooks and a letter scribbled on the back of a seed packet into their hands and insisted they took it away with them. When the group eventually got back to Beijing they had the notebooks translated into French, and they turned out to be part of a diary kept by a schoolgirl of 13 who had also written the letter – her name was Ma Yan.
After Pierre Haski wrote an article in the French press about this diary, it was taken up and published as a book , and then in 2004 a former neighbour of mine, Lisa Appignanesi, translated the book into English.
The diary is in two parts, September to December 2000 and July to December 2001, Ma Yan had kept a continuous diary but some of her notebooks were destroyed, mainly as a result of her father using the pages as paper for his hand-rolled cigarettes.
Ma Yan was born in 1988,she has two younger brothers, her parents are both illiterate and the family are Muslims from the Hui ‘ethnic minority group’, as are most of the population of this province. The autonomous region of Ningxia is in the north-west of China to one side of Inner Mongolia, far from the bustling modernisation of the rest of China. Suffering from an acute lack of water, an extremely harsh climate and barren unforgiving land (partially caused by the deforestation which took place during Mao’s Great Leap Forward) the rural population live in extreme poverty, life is very, very hard.
Ma Yan and her brothers attend the nearest school which is a four-hour walk from their home; as a daily 8 hour round trip is not feasible, they live in dormitories at the school during the week only returning home at the weekends, either on foot, or if they can find one, a lift on a tractor going in their direction for which they have to pay. Ma Yan started school aged eight, and at the time of writing the diaries she is in her last year of Primary, and hoping to pass the examination to move on to Middle School.
She is an intelligent girl and aware of her abilities. Education, she has decided, is the only way she will be able to lift her family out of the grinding poverty in which they live. However her parents have told her that they can no longer afford to keep her at school. The thought of having to stop her education fills her with despair. ‘Why can boys study and not girls?’ she asks her mother, who replies ‘when you grow up, you’ll understand.’
‘No more money for school this year. I’m back in the house, and I till the land in order to pay for my brothers’ schooling… How I want to study! But my family can’t afford it‘ she writes in the letter that accompanied the diaries.
Her diaries reveal a girl of determination, an indomitable spirit with a gentle sense of humour and enormous love and respect for her mother. Each day she catalogues what it means to be hungry, at times on the edge of starvation as she has to weigh up whether to buy food for herself or save the money in order to buy the pen she needs. “It’s freezing today. My brother and I have no more bread. At lunchtime the comrades are all eating and we have to stand by and grit our teeth.”
Her mother knows how much attending school means to Ma Yan, and so she travels over 200 miles away in order to earn money picking fa cai so that her daughter can continue at school for a while longer. This takes its toll on her health which worries Ma Yan and at the same time makes her even more determined to succeed at her studies.
Schooling in rural China doesn’t seem to have recovered from the disruption caused by the Cultural Revolution, teaching at Ma Yan’s school is hit-and-miss, and there is a good deal of corporal punishment for even minor transgressions. Indeed some teachers will beat pupils just because they have failed to understand something. ‘Our English teacher dictates a text to us. Two of the comrades can’t manage it. The teacher hits them very hard with the leg of a chair. Bruises immediately appear on the arms and legs of the pupils. This teacher wants us to do well, but he hits too hard, I think he enjoys it.’ Never-the-less Ma Yan tries to rise above this: ‘Failure is the mother of success.’
When the little team of French journalist, researchers and photographer pass through their village, Ma Yan’s mother decided to take them her daughter’s diaries and a letter she had written. It was an act of desperation in the hope that the diaries might be seen and read by someone who could help them, and it was an act which ultimately paid off.
Reading this short book, which as well as Ma Yan’s diaries has explanatory notes written by Pierre Haski, I could not help thinking of the other diary written by a young girl of the same age as Ma Yan – The Diary of Anne Frank; although they live in different parts of the world, and at different times, they have in common one important thing, the yearning for a better life, a kinder life, and both write with the innocence and charm of a teenage girl on the brink of adulthood. We know of the terrible fate of Anne Frank and her family in the Holocaust, but Ma Yan has been more fortunate, her diaries have saved her. After the article about them appeared in the French press, people in France, particularly school children, were moved to try to do something to help her. So a charity was set up: http://www.childrenofningxia.org and through it over 250 other Ningxia children, mostly girls, have received scholarships to enable them to continue their education.
Over the past 20 years millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty as a result of the reform of economic policies, however, whatever the world media may say about China becoming the new economic superpower, when one considers the sheer numbers of the population most citizens are still far below the basic living standards of western nations.
Living here in Beijing, surrounded by glittering skyscrapers in a Chinese version of Manhattan complete with Starbucks, Apple and Prada stores here, there and everywhere, it is easy to lose sight of the plight of the rural peasants who still live in abject poverty far from the great cities. Ma Yan’s diaries are a reminder – written in the last 10 years – that there is still a long way to go for this country before all its citizens benefit from the wealth that is being created on the eastern seaboard.
It is rare for me to say that everyone should read a particular book, but in this case I do think that this book is one that should be mandatory.
And if you know any teenagers who moan about their lot in life – boring school, the fact they don’t have the latest mobile phone and that Mum and Dad won’t fork out for the expensive brand of designer footwear – buy them a copy immediately and insist they read it before they get another penny from the family exchequer! It might put life into perspective.