March 24, 2004
By ALAN RIDING
PARIS , March 23 - The long road that brought Ma Yan to theParis book fair this week began three years ago in theremote village of Zhang Jia Shu in Ning xia region ofnorthern China . At the time she was distraught because her parents could not afford to keep her in school. Today she is the 16-year-old author of "Ma Yan's Diary: The DailyLife of a Chinese Schoolgirl," which has sold 45,000 copies in France and has already appeared in eight languages in addition to French.
Thanks to its publication, her family is no longer poor, and 250 other Ningxia youngsters, mostly girls, now have scholarships to continue studying. Even in Beijing the book has helped some remember the darker side of China 's economic miracle.
Initially Ms. Ma's role was accidental. At her boarding school in Yuwang, 15 miles from her home, the preteenage students were required to keep journals. It just happened that one day in May 2001 her account of the struggle against hunger and poverty was given to a group of visitors from Beijing , along with a letter that Ms. Ma's mother, Bai Juhua, had received from her daughter.
The letter caught the attention of the visitors, including Pierre Haski, the Beijing correspondent of the Paris daily Lib ation. In it Ms. Ma lamented that there was no money to keep her in school. "I'm back in the house, and I till the land in order to pay for my brothers' schooling," she wrote, adding: "I want to go school, Mother. I don't want to work at home. How wonderful it would be if I could stay in school forever!"
Mr. Haski's assistant, He Yanping, then translated the diary, which was written between Sept. 2 and Dec. 28, 2000,when Ms. Ma was 12. Most entries are brief, but they convey her strong character. When an older boy beats her brother,for example, she vows: "If I study hard and make daily progress, I'll go to university and become a policewoman.And if those boys bend the law even a tiny little bit, I won't fail to have them punished." A desire to lift her parents out of poverty is a further motivation. "I must work really well in order to go to university later," she writes. "Then I'll get a good job, and Mother and Father will at last have a happy life." But she also wants to improve herself. "In these times even beggars need degrees," she writes. "Nothing works for you if you don't study. In the big cities even going to the toilet entails being able to read."
One month after reading this journal, Mr. Haski and Ms. He returned to Zhang Jia Shu. Ms. Ma was back at school, but only because her parents had borrowed money and her mother had taken a laborer's job to repay the loan. ? After meeting Ms. Ma and her parents the visitors gave them $120 to allow the 13-year-old to stay at school and her mother to pay off her loan.
"For me that was it," Mr. Haski later recalled. "We'd done our bit and would leave."
But after Lib ation published his article about Ma Yan and her plight on Jan. 11, 2002, Mr. Haski began receiving checks from readers. His instinct was to use the donations to keep other peasant girls in school. But he also received a proposal to publish Ms. Ma's journal in France , and he traveled to Zhang Jia Shu with a contract. By then Ms. Ma had filled another journal covering July 3 to Dec. 13, 2001. (Her father had used the paper of her journal for the early months of 2001 to roll cigarettes.) This diary was much more somber than the earlier one.
"I'm terribly hungry," she writes. "There's been no bread or vegetables since Tuesday. When I eat my rice now, there's nothing to go with it. I even stole a piece out of a comrade's bowl without alerting her. When she came back to the dormitory, she called me all manner of names." She goes on, "I have to study well so that I won't ever again be tortured by hunger and lack of money."
She also worries about her mother, who complains of acute stomach pains. "My mother's face is as black as coal, and her lips are all cracked. She looks terrible. What's wrong with her? Usually when she comes back from her mother's, she's happy, full of chat and laughter. But today ," She reflects mournfully, "Mother is the saddest and most unfortunate mother in the world."
But with the advance paid by the French publishers things improved. Ms. Ma and Mr. Haski, who edited and annotated the book, decided to give 25 percent of their royalties to the Association for the Children of Ningxia, which Mr. Haski had set up in France after his first article appeared. After "Ma Yan's Diary" came out in France in October 2002, the association's membership grew to 300, and more donations poured in. By February 2003, 42 pupils in Ningxia had received grants.
Since then the diary has also appeared in Italy , Sweden , the Netherlands , Japan , Greece , Taiwan , Japan , Spain and Portugal . An English-language edition will be published in Britain by Virago this summer.
"I thought, `My job as a reporter is to denounce injustice, not to correct it,' " Mr. Haski said in an interview. "Then I found myself in a situation where I could influence reality, but I had to live with that responsibility - to Ma Yan but also to a region that in a sense we have destabilized. The villagers can't understand that something written by a 14-year-old girl could be of interest in France . At times I can't sleep."
Still, he said, the Chinese authorities have been cooperative. "Ma Yan's Diary" was published in China in October 2003, and its author appeared three times on government television. At a news conference she illustrated the fate of many poor peasant girls by reading a letter from a cousin forced to leave school and marry. "By the time you receive this letter," the cousin wrote, "I will already be in the palace of marriage, which is the tomb of my life."
After Ms. Ma finished reading the letter, Mr. Haski recalled, most of the reporters in her audience were in tears. Now, in Paris on her first trip outside China , Ms. Ma seems unfazed by the attention."I can eat when I want to," she said in an interview. "My parents don't have to travel to work. They have bought some land, a donkey, some sheep. They have a motorbike, a new television and a telephone. We have also repainted the house. I think that is enough."
But she has bigger ambitions. "I want to study journalism at university," she said. Asked why, she pointed to Mr. Haski, whom she calls Uncle Han. "Because Uncle Han and others traveled across the country and found poor children like us," she said. "I'd like to be a journalist so I, too, can help poor children."
Mr. Haski conceded that early in this bizarre adventure he worried that Ms. Ma might be spoiled by her sudden fame and relative fortune. But now he feels reassured. "Her teachers say she is still a good student who is generous with her colleagues," he said. Ms. Ma, too, seems aware that she still has far to go. "To get to university in Beijing ," she said, "I have to do very well in the exams."