The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl

Overview

In May of 2001, the diary of a fourteen-year-old Chinese girl named Ma Yan was thrust into the hands of a foreign journalist by her desperate, illiterate mother. The family lived in a drought-stricken corner of rural China where education is the only hope for escaping a life of crushing poverty. Ma Yan was struggling to stay in school, but her family could not afford the fees.

Published in Europe, the diary produced an outpouring of support that led to the creation of an ...

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The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl

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Overview

In May of 2001, the diary of a fourteen-year-old Chinese girl named Ma Yan was thrust into the hands of a foreign journalist by her desperate, illiterate mother. The family lived in a drought-stricken corner of rural China where education is the only hope for escaping a life of crushing poverty. Ma Yan was struggling to stay in school, but her family could not afford the fees.

Published in Europe, the diary produced an outpouring of support that led to the creation of an international fund for the education of Ma Yan and other poor children in her remote village...all due to one young girl's honest, accessible, heart-wrenching diary.

A portion of the profits for this book wil be donated to the Association for the Children of Ningxia.

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Editorial Reviews

The Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books
“Young readers are likely to rally in support of a peer’s struggle.”
Vancouver Sun
“A compelling, heartbreaking story of poverty, deprivation, and hope.”
ALA Booklist
“Will push readers to a new understanding of the hardscrabble existence endured by many . . . [and] underscore how much teens everywhere have in common.”
AsianWeek
“Heartbreakingly inspirational.”
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
“Young readers are likely to rally in support of a peer’s struggle.”
Publishers Weekly
This affecting volume collects diary entries penned by a Hui Muslim girl living with her family in a single-room house in rural China. In his articulate introduction, Haski explains how Ma Yan's mother came to hand him the diary that her daughter (now 16) kept when she was 13 and 14. Ma Yan's illiterate mother, while suffering from an ulcer, undertook a job of hard labor hundreds of miles from home to pay for her daughter's education. The girl's determination to excel at school figures prominently in the entries: "I must work really hard in order to go to university later. Then I'll get a good job, and Mother and Father will at last have a happy life." Though frequent restatements of this goal, numerous references to Ma Yan's fear of disappointing her mother and recaps of similar classroom incidents make for rather repetitious reading, they do underscore the girl's extraordinary resolve, generosity of spirit and resilience. Many of the details will open youngsters' eyes (e.g., Ma Yan went without food for days to save money to buy a pen; each weekend, she and her brother walked more than 12 miles to and from school, where they boarded during the week and often went hungry). This heartfelt diary inspired the creation of the Association for the Children of Ningxia (to which a portion of the book's proceeds will be donated), dedicated to helping others like Ma Yan stay in school. Ages 10-up. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-In 2001, while a French journalist was visiting remote Ningxia province in northwest China, a Muslim woman wearing the white headscarf of the Hui people thrust the diaries of her daughter into his hands. The three small notebooks described the girl's struggle to get an education despite extreme poverty. Each week Ma Yan and her younger brothers walked seven miles to school where they stayed until Friday night when they returned home. Often their only food was a small bowl of rice at midday. Only occasionally did they have a bit of money to buy some vegetables in the market or to catch a tractor ride home for the weekend. Ma Yan studied hard, but she did not feel successful unless she was number one in her class. When she didn't rank first, she was berated by her mother and made to feel guilty for her lack of effort. Her parents worked constantly to make a better life for their children, farming their own fields, harvesting crops for others, and collecting the plant fa cai from the steppes north of their home. The girl's feelings for her mother were powerful and complex, and she alternated between overwhelming love and rage at the injustices she suffered. While this book will not hold the interest of average readers because of its overly didactic tone, it does paint a vivid portrait of the daily life of a child in a part of the world seldom visited.-Barbara Scotto, Michael Driscoll School, Brookline, MA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“Young readers are likely to rally in support of a peer’s struggle.”
ALA Booklist
“Will push readers to a new understanding of the hardscrabble existence endured by many . . . [and] underscore how much teens everywhere have in common.”
AsianWeek
“Heartbreakingly inspirational.”
Vancouver Sun
“A compelling, heartbreaking story of poverty, deprivation, and hope.”
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
“Young readers are likely to rally in support of a peer's struggle.”
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“Young readers are likely to rally in support of a peer’s struggle.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060764968
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/31/2005
  • Edition description: Translatio
  • Pages: 176
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Ma Yan is a teenager from Ningxia, China. She was thirteen and fourteen when she wrote these diary entries. Now sixteen, Ma Yan hopes to attend a university: "I want to study journalism," says Ma Yan. "My purpose is to keep the whole world informed, to report the poverty and real life in this area."

Pierre Haski is the French journalist who first published extracts from Ma Yan's diary. He was instrumental in establishing The Association for the Children of Ningxia, a fund that pays for the schooling of children like Ma Yan.

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Read an Excerpt

The Diary of Ma Yan
The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl

I Want To Study

We have a week of vacation. Mother takes me aside.

"My child. There's something I have to tell you."

I answer, "Mother, if you have something to tell me, do it quickly. Tell me." But her words are like a death sentence.

"I'm afraid you may have been to school for the last time."

My eyes go wide. I look up at her. "How can you say something like that? These days you can't live without an education. Even a peasant needs knowledge to ensure good harvests and to farm well."

Mother insists. "Your brothers and you add up to three children to be sent to school. Only your father is earning money, and it's not enough."

I'm frightened. "Does this mean I have to come home to work?"

"Yes."

"And my two brothers?"

"Your two brothers will carry on with their studies."

I protest. "Why can boys study and not girls?"

Her smile is tired. "You're still little. When you grow up, you'll understand."

No more money for school this year. I'm back in the house and I work the land in order to pay for my brothers' education. When I think of the happy times at school, I can almost imagine myself there. How I want to study! But my family can't afford it.

I want to go to school, Mother. I don't want to work at home. How wonderful it would be if I could stay at school forever!

Ma Yan

May 2, 2001

How it Happened
May 2001

The village of Zhangjiashu is a little like the end of the world; you don't come upon it by accident. Travel to Zhangjiashu,located thousands of miles northwest of China's capital, Beijing, is as much a journey through time as it is through space. Houses are built of brick and roofed with traditional tiles, and the village, spread unevenly along the hills, occupies a space far removed from the bubbling modernization of urban China. The village's inhabitants were amazed that we had taken less than twenty-four hours to get there from Beijing. For them, the capital is light years away.

In this remote corner of China, children are unaccustomed to seeing strangers. An official had told me that I was the first foreign journalist to come to the region since the 1930s. The very sight of us had created unusual excitement. Now, having reached the end of our visit, our little expedition was getting ready to leave. The road before us was long and difficult, and our driver was impatient to start.

At that moment a village woman wearing the white head covering of the Chinese Muslims approached us. She held a letter and three small brown notebooks covered in finely drawn

Chinese characters. She insisted, as if her very life depended on it, that we take them. We left a few minutes later, carrying this mysterious and apparently precious bundle with us.

A translation of just a little of what we had been given revealed a startling text, as well as the identity of its author. She was Ma Yan, then a girl of thirteen, in the midst of a crisis. In the letter, addressed to her mother — the very woman who had given us the notebooks — Ma Yan shouts a protest. She has just learned that she won't be able to go back to school. After five consecutive years of drought, her family no longer has the money to pay her school fees.

"I want to study," Ma Yan exclaims in the headline of the letter, written on the back of a seed packet for green beans. The letter had been scribbled in anger, as the various tears in the paper show. To pay for the ballpoint pen she used, we later learned, she had deprived herself of food for fifteen days.

The three little brown notebooks that came to us with Ma Yan's letter contained her personal diary. These pages gave us an intimate sense of the everyday life of a teenager whose life mirrors that of millions of others in the Chinese countryside. Many share her passionate desire for the education that will allow her and her family to escape poverty; many are tormented, like her, by the anxiety that they won't make the grade; many struggle against constant hunger and the sometimes harsh human relationships that can be part of an impoverished life.

Page by page, Ma Yan shows an increasing command both of her writing and of her feelings. Her first days as a schoolgirl in 2000, when she is thirteen, are the subject of the briefest, most understated notes. Then, before our eyes, Ma Yan gains in stature. Her life is a tough and fast teacher.

A month after our first visit, we decided to return to Zhangjiashu to meet Ma Yan and her mother.

We discovered that Ma Yan has returned to school. Her mother understood her distress and made the sacrifice of going off to do hard labor two hundred and fifty miles away to earn money for Ma Yan's education.

When we finally met Ma Yan, we found a girl who has short hair and a lot of character. She was simply dressed in a white shirt and red canvas trousers. Around her neck there was a small plastic heart on a chain, and she sported two silver-plated hoops in her ears. Lively and intelligent, she beamed at us, so very happy to have taken up her school life again. She didn't hide her joy when she learned that we've come because of her.

Without any sign of being intimidated, Ma Yan told us her story, recounting her great sadness when she thought she might never be able to return to school. She talked about the gratitude she owed her mother and about the hopes her family had vested in her, their eldest child. Her sense of duty to her family was linked with defiance. If she can only get far enough with her studies, she'll be the first to escape from the dual burden of a harsh, desert soil and a strictly traditional society. She was fired up by the challenge.

The Diary of Ma Yan
The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl
. Copyright © by Ma Yan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 31, 2010

    Very Accurate

    As someone who has taught in rural China, the life Ma Yan describes in her personal diary is very accurate. Not only her daily life of hunger, hard work and living with 4 others in a one-room home but also daily life in school. The long walks to and from school, the lack of food and supplies and most importantly, the incredible pressure Chinese students put on themselves to succeed. School is a completely different animal in China; nothing at all like the candy-coated schools in America (I teach here, too). I plan to use this book in my classroom this year and think it should be required reading for all American students. Ma Yan is a highly motivated and normal young girl from rural China. She has the same dreams of success as American children but must achieve them in an entirely different and sometimes unimaginable way.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2008

    Just Deal with the Truth

    Some may complain that this book is boring, that it is not 'suspenseful'. This is because this is not a Westernized, fantastical novel of the struggle between good and evil. If you are looking for such a book, go read Harry Potter. Ma Yan's diary is a DIARY, a personalized account of the struggles that a Chinese girl must endure in an uneducated, poverty-stricken, patriarchal society where females are second class citizens. Ma Yan's diary is the cold hard truth: life is hard, cold, and nothing like the dreamy, flowery life promised to Western children by Mr. Walt Disney. The dreams that come true in this part of the world come from the hard work and sacrifice of a mother's love, and a little girl's determination to go to school. Appreciate every word in this book, for they were written down with a pen Ma Yan bought with the money she should have used to buy two weeks worth of food. This book is a plea to the world, to rethink how much we all take for granted. While so many American and European children play hooky and try their best to be truant to their first-rate schools, millions of others across the globe have given up all they have just to have a chance at any bit of education they can get.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2007

    The Gritty Hard Truth

    This book is not for the faint of heart. Deceptively slim, this book takes a cold, hard look at what lies beneath the facade of Chinese education, the truth behind those propoganda films of red-scarved children reciting passages in school. Although I disapprove of this title's market as children's literature, it is still a very good book. Some may complain that this book is poorly written, but they do not keep in mind that these are simly the translated words of a poorly educated Chinese girl who WISHES for an education, not a fictionalize account of some hardship written by a Bachelor or Master of Arts graduate who has had years of education to refine his or her writing. I enjoyed reading this book as an insight into the loopholes of the Chinese educational system and the admirable strength that kept a girl, who lacked all the material comforts we take for granted, still hopeful for an education.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2006

    Awe inspiring

    I think this was an awe-inspiring book. I would definitely recommend this to any reader who wants to learn about what it's like outside of the US.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2005

    The Power of One

    'The Diary of Ma Yan' is the personal testament to the power of one child¿s determination and will power despite facing severe financial adversity, daily starvation and darkness of growing up in a small poor village in China. Ma Yan serves as the inspiration for all children worldwide that education and an individual¿s inner strength to succeed despite overwhelming obstacles is the catalyst for change. She truly represents that ¿Knowledge creates power... power results in change.¿ The power of her written words will leave you with tears in your eyes and breathless at times as the magnitude of her perception of life leaves you wondering how could a young child convey such adult concepts. Education is not a right or freedom affording to so many poor children in China but instead it is responsibility and duty for many as it represents their sole opportunity for a better life one day. This book should be mandatory reading for all students worldwide to allow them the chance to understand the true value of education and the cost one has to pay to gain the knowledge. I read the book cover to cover in under two hours as once I started I could not put the book down. I highly recommend the book for all ages. A ten out of ten stars. Tony Salgado

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2012

    BEST BOOK EVER

    This biography is amazing it made me realize what a good life i have and apreciate what i have this young girl couldnt even afford a pen:(

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2007

    Terrible

    This book was soooooo bad!! It was completely boring, and I wouldn't read if I had to choose between life or death. Terrible, just terrible.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2007

    HORRID

    If you love books w/ suspense and a plot, then this is not the book for you. The whole book says exactly the same thing 1) She takes the ten mile walk to school 2) she gets a bad grade 3) she eats rice and no vegetables 4) she goes home This book was a waste of my time and no one who likes suspensful books should read it.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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