The Journal of Ma Yan (Continued)

A previous post covers the story first in Libération and then in the New York Times about the Chinese girl Ma Yan in Ningxia whose diary was a literary sensation in France.  In this week's Next Magazine of Hong Kong, a reporter followed up with a field trip to Ningxia.  This is my edited translation from that report.

Life In The Home Village

Ma Yan's home is in the village of Zhangjiashu in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of China.  The reporter traveled from Yinchuan (capital of Ningxia) to that village.  The time was already winter, and the temperature was below freezing.  Outside the car window, there was nothing but yellow sand.  It is permanently dry here, and is classified by the UN FAO as "unsuitable for humans to live."  The reporter did not see any cows or sheep, never mind even a blade of green grass, during the three-hour journey.

The driver told the reporter that this was the poorest place in the country.  Some families earn only 120 yuan (about US$15) for the entire year.  There is a year-round drought and all the peasants that we saw on the road were covered in yellow mud on their hands and faces, their hair were standing up like straws and their clothes were dusty.  It was not that these people are opposed to cleanliness, but there is simply no water to spare for washing.

Under circumstances that are hard for ordinary people elsewhere to imagine, the children here don't get enough to eat and they don't have enough clothes to keep warm, never mind being able to school.  The walls in the village are plastered with slogans such as "Care about girls, Support the family" and "Knowledge changes destiny" but the girls here simply have no chance to attend school.

When Ma Yan was five years old, her parents began to work outside, for periods of one to two months at a time.  During the day, the little girl took care of her two younger brothers.  At night, her grandmother came to make dinner.  Life was very hard.  She and her brothers ate only potatos all the time.

There was very little water here.  Ma Yan took a bath once a week.  On the rare occasion when it rained, Ma Yan would wear some light clothing and stand under the rain to get wet.  Then she would go back inside and dry herself after the 'shower.'  Whenever it snowed, she and her brothers would collect as much snow as possible because the melted show can be used for drinking.

When Ma Yan did not have to attend school during vacation, her parents took her to the countryside to pick black moss.  They worked during the day and slept in the wilderness at night.  "Sometimes, when it rains, the blanket gets wet and there are puddles everywhere.  On one occasion, my mother got very fatigued from picking black moss.  She had stomach problems and began to cough out blood.  It was snowing at the time.  I thought she was going to die.  Then she told me to keep on studying.  My mother went to school for a total of one week in her entire life.  I know that I must not follow her path.  My parents work very hard, but they don't make a lot of money.  The teacher says that knowledge can change destiny.  If I quit school, I would come back and become just like them."

In fifth grade of elementary school, Ma Yan lived in a boarding school.  The only transportation between the school and village are the farm tractors, which charge one yuan per trip.  Since she did not have the money, she would walk five hours wearing her mother's handmade cloth shoes until her feet were swollen.

Right now, Ma Yan receives 500 yuan per month out of her author's loyalties, with more money being kept in trust on her behalf until she turns eighteen.  Compared to Hong Kong standards, her new "riches" are negligible.  But it is a world of difference from her former days: the family has a color television set and a motorcycle; her family can eat rice and noodles made from flour; there are ballpoint pens in addition to pencils.

Although the family is supposedly rich, they are still frugal.  On the night of the visit by the reporter, the were still eating only potato strips for dinner.

Ma Yan's father knew from the start that he did not have the ability to change her destinry.  Now that Ma Yan is famous, he just sat quietly on the side and smoked.  Inside the home, Ma Yan and her brothers clustered around the mother.  It was her mother who accompanied Ma Yan to Beijing.  During dinner, the mother told the reporter how she married the wrong man who was often cheated out of his wages.  The father looked embarrassed but did not say anything. 

The Media

In 2001, a two-page feature article by Pierre Haski appeared in Libération on Ma Yan.  In October 2002, the book Le Journal De Ma Yan appeared in France, and it has been translated into English, Japanese, Italian, Chinese and other languages.  Various media in France, Japan and Italy have visited her for interviews; CCTV covered her school life on four different occasions.  

The media attention concerns Ma Yan.  She tells this reporters that the media coverage is bothering her.  Last year, she was unable to attend class because there media reporters were showing up every day.  When she entered high school, her study deteriorated as a result.

"No matter inside or outside the classrooms, there were reporters around.  Before then, I was concerned about being at school one day and then being forced to withdraw the next day.  Now, I am most concerned about the progress of my studies."

In order to protect Ma Yan, the school has forbidden reporters from taking photos and videos inside the classroom.  

But this means that the photographer can still take photos elsewhere in the school.  The above photo was taken in the dining hall, where Ma Yan eats only a bowl of spicy noodles in order to save money and sometimes even skips breakfast.

In the eyes of the students, Ma Yan is a media star.  When the photographer takes photos in the dining hall, the other students shy away.  The students of China use her as the ideal.  Facing such pressures, what does Ma Yan think?  "Of course I feel the pressure when so many people are concerned about my progress and academics.  All I can do is work even harder."  Are the schoolmates jealous?  "On the surface, they are happy and nice, but I can't know what they think inside.  I would like to be an ordinary person.  But there is a vast gap right now, and they expect too much of me."  Her voice trailed away to become almost inaudible. 

Her Academic Life

Ma Yan is currently attending a high school in Wuzhong City about one hour away from Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia and about three hours away from Zhuangjiashu village.

Her class master tells our reporter that Ma Yan's level is significantly behind her classmates.  "She did not have a good foundation.  When she first got here, she was ranked second from the bottom of the entire class.  Whereas our other students started to learn English in elementary school, she did not begin until she entered secondary school.  She can be said to be a work in progress.  She works hard and she pays attention in class.  Other students may gossip in class, but she never does that.  She follows the teacher for the entire 45 minutes of the class."

At school, Ma Yan's day begins at 7am.  Other than the two hours for lunch, she is in class until 6pm.  After dinner, there are study hours when the students do their homework in classrooms supervised by teachers.  The students return to the dormitory to sleep at 10pm.  In order to keep up and make progress, May Yan studies until midnight.  Then she gets up at 6am and another day starts anew.  On Satuday night, she returns home.  On Sunday, she spends all day studying.

Ma Yan's wish is to enter Tsinghua University and become a journalist.  In all of Ningxia, about two dozen students enter Tsinghua University each year and about thirty enter Bejing University.  It is a long shot to get into these big-name schools.

Why does she insist on going to Tsinghua?  "I saw how difficult my parents' lives were.  My mother is an uneducated woman.  From her, I learn that we need knowledge because it is useful."

Will Ma Yan make it to Tsinghua?  "If I work hard, I will make it," she said calmly.

Only if you have suffered deprivation before will you know how to treasure it.  Today's Ma Yan drew her strength from her previous experience.  Looking at the spoiled children of Hong Kong, perhaps they have it too easy?

The Other Children of Ningxia

Ma Yan was one girl picked out from the millions by random chance.  

In 2001, Pierre Haski, a reporter from the French newspaper Libération, heard about the village of Zhangjiashu in Tongxi County from a reporter named Wang Zheng at a photo exhibition held in France.  "You can find the description of that place in Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow," Wang told him.  Ma Yan and her mother were the main subjects in a photo Wang Zheng.

When Pierre Haski went to China, he went to Zhangjiashu to see the Ma family.  Before seeing him off, Ma Yan's mother gave her daughter's letter and three copies of her diaries to Haski, who later learned about Ma Yan's story through a translator in Beijing.

In her diary, Ma Yan wrote:

"We have a week off. Mum said, 'Honey, there is something I want to tell you.... I'm afraid this is your last time to go to school. You know we cannot afford it if you three kids go to school, because only your father works in other places.'

"I said, 'Then I have to stay at home?'

"'Yes,' Mum said.

"'What about my brothers?' I asked.

"'They must continue studying.'

"I asked mum why boys can go to school but girls cannot.

"'You are not grown up enough to understand all these until one day you are a mother,' Mum explained.
"This year, I cannot go to school, I'm back to do farm work to support my brothers. I felt like was at school each time I recalled the laughter of my classmates. If only I could go."

There are millions and millions of other girls like her in China.  At the time of this interview, Ma Yan's 18-year-old cousin just got married.  17-year-old Ma Yan is horrified at the thought of marriage: "No, marriage is just too horrible.  Since the fifth year of elementary school, my schoolmates have dropped out of school one after another, and then they get married within a year or two.  I think that marriage was a scourge on their lives, because it happened far too early for them."

The marriage of her own parents were arranged through a matchmaker and they were married without even meeting each other first.  Ma Yan said, "I have never thought about getting married.  I saw that my parents' lives were too hard, and I wanted to use knowledge to change things.  My parents got married too early, then they got the kids and they did not have a career afterwards."

The above photo has this caption: "We went back with Ma Yan's mother (front right) to their own home, and we saw miles and miles of yellow sand which makes it difficult to imagine how people can make a living here.  When the villagers found out that we were reporters, they came out with all their children and hope that the Ma Yan miracle can happen to them too."

What is the definition of a miracle?  'An event or effect contrary to the established constitution and course of things, or a deviation from the known laws of nature; a supernatural event, or one transcending the ordinary laws by which the universe is governed.'  So the idea is that this is an exceptional event.

The Ma Yan miracle is an exception that happened to one person.  This one case generated lots of publicity.  Foundations in Europe have also collected money to allow a group of other children with backgrounds similar to Ma Yan to continue their schooling.  But those small number of successes are just drops in an immense ocean.  Millions of school children are inspired by Ma Yan to write diaries, but a miracle of similar magnitude is unlikely to befell them.  Their lives will not change unless there is signficant improvement in the economic conditions of the peasants, or a huge investment in education to enable the children to continue their schooling.

From the website of Pierre Haski is the story of Ma Shiping:

Cette jeune fille agée de 17 ans, a été mariée contre son gré à 16 ans, et est déjà mère d'une petite fille. Elle nous a récemment envoyé une lettre extraordinaire d'où j'extrais ce passage :

"J'ai toujours essayé d'être fidèle à mes rêves, mais de nombreux facteurs extérieurs me ramènent toujours à la réalité. J'ai le lourd fardeau de la vie sur les épaules, et je ne pourrai plus jamais revenir aux beaux moments de la jeunesse. Je sais désormais que je suis une mère, que je ne peux plus avoir les mêmes rêves que les autres filles de mon age, avec espoir d'un avenir enchanteur. Mais je ne veux pas abandonner, je veux me libérer de la fatalité, et revenir au monde de mes rêves, être une jeune personne moderne ayant un idéal et un but. Pouvez vous me dire si c'est possible ?"

[my translation]

This 17-year-old girl was married against her will at 16 and is now already the mother of a little girl.  She recently sent us an extraordinary letter from which I excerpt this passage:

"I have tried to be faithful to my dreams, but numerous external factors always send me back into reality.  I carry the heavy burden of life on my shoulders, and I can no longer return to those wonderful moments of youth.  I know that I am a mother and I can no longer have the same dreams as other girls of my age who have hopes of an enchanted future.  But I will not give up.  I want to liberate myself from the fatalism.  I want to return to the world of my dreams.  I want to be a modern young person with an ideal and a goal.  Can you tell me if this is still possible?"

This is possible.  After all, it did happen to Ma Yan, but the odds are not good.