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

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

by Ma Yan, Pierre Haski


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"I'm so hungry, I could eat anything. Anything at all."

In a drought-stricken corner of rural China, an education can be the difference between a life of crushing poverty and the chance for a better future. But for Ma Yan, money is scarce, and the low wages paid for backbreaking work aren't always enough to pay school fees . . . or even to provide enough food for herself and her family.

Ma Yan's heart-wrenching, honest diary chronicles her struggle to escape hardship through her persistent, sometimes desperate, attempts to continue her schooling. Its publication was an international sensation, creating an outpouring of support for this courageous teenager and others like her . . . all due to one ordinary girl's extraordinary diary.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060764982
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/23/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 474,384
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

About 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.

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?"


"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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Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Iron-Teacher More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'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
Jmmott on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ma Yan is a thirteen year old girl living in the predominantly Muslim Ningxia region of China. Through her diary entries the reader sees the hardship that Ma Yan's family faces, and the guilt that she feels for being an above average student rather than an exemplary one. The book was published in France by Pierre Haski, a journalist, who had been given the diaries by Ma Yan's mother. School is a luxury that Ma Yan is reminded frequently by her mother that she doesn't deserve. The good and the bad of her young teenage life are illustrated with heart wrenching passages about hunger and worry for her family.
autumnesf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Read this one. A true diary of a girl that wanted to go to school. As school costs the families in China, this girl's struggle to be considered worthy enough to keep her parents broke is really sad. C and I read this one as a Mother/Daughter book club read -- so your kids can read it also. I think it is a good book for our children born here in the states to read to understand the gift of schooling our country provides us with -- no matter what our financial situation. Pre-teen through High School aged.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.