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A hunger to learn

With little food, no money and a six-hour hike to a dilapidated school, life for a 13-year-old girl in rural China could hardly be more different from that of British teenagers. In an edited extract from her diary, Ma Yan details the pride and the privations

Ma Yan is the 16-year-old daughter of poor subsistence farmers in Zhangjiashu, a village in southern Ningxia, a remote province of central China. When her diary was passed on to Pierre Haski, China correspondent for the Paris newspaper Liberation, she had just been taken out of school at 13 because her parents could not afford the fees. To make ends meet, they both had to work as itinerant labourers in inner Mongolia, harvesting fa cai, a wild grass sought after in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Ma Yan's diary, published in the UK this week, records her distress at having to work so her younger brothers could stay in school. When Haski visited her village again a month later, her parents had borrowed 70 yuan (about pound;4.60) so she could return to the middle school in Yuwang, a market town four hours' walk away, as a weekly boarder. The diary tells how she made the trek on dangerous mountain roads every Sunday with her brother, carrying the sack of rice they lived on all week (they could only occasionally afford bread or vegetables and she went hungry for weeks to buy a pen). The family is much better off since Ma Yan's diary was published in France in 2002, and she is now about to start high school.

Here are scenes from a month in her life in late 2001. To keep her at school, her parents have left the children alone while they go off to harvest fa cai, although her mother has a stomach ulcer.

Thursday, 11 October, 2001. A fine day.

This morning, after our last class, I stay behind to do an essay. Suddenly the head of games comes in and tells me to go outside and join the ranks.

"All the others are already lined up. There's only you left."

I go out to the sports ground and concentrate on standing very straight.

The other comrades have just started their games. Some are skipping with a rope, others are playing football, and still others are engaged in a game of tag. I'd like to play too, but my heart isn't in it.

When I hear these children who aren't boarders talking about their families, I automatically think of my own.

Suddenly Ma Yichao (her brother) runs past me, as fast as the wind. As soon as I see him, I stop having these dark thoughts and go off to play with the others.

I don't know what's wrong with me these days. I'm all upset about things. I don't know quite what I'm doing or thinking. My moods go up and down.

Wednesday, 17 October. A fine day.

We have a free period this afternoon. 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. I weep without showing the tears. I think their parents would be weeping, too, if they saw how badly their children were treated.

The teacher is in a rage and shouts, "If you still haven't learned your lessons by the next period, I won't give you another chance. I'll only choose the brightest students to answer questions." During the class, the teacher chooses me several times. My comrades look at me with envious eyes.

They would do anything to get the better of me.

I mustn't worry. I mustn't let anything prevent me from attaining my goals.

I'll try and do something to change their jealous glances into admiring ones. I'll be as strong as my mother. When she encounters difficulties, she confronts them alone and no one dares laugh at her.

Failure is the mother of success. But it worries me to see the teacher striking the pupils. What will happen if they get hurt?

During the evening study period, these comrades managed to learn the words they hadn't known before. Why do they work better after they've been beaten? Their parents hope they'll become accomplished people, but after so many difficult years of study, how will they fulfil these expectations?

A skinny dog no longer manages to jump over a wall, even with help.

That's one of my mother's proverbs. It's only now that I grasp its full meaning.

Friday, 19 October. Fine, but then grey.

Today my father has come to town for the market. He waits for me by the door while I'm still busy in class. I'm so happy because that means he probably has some money for me. Otherwise he wouldn't wait.

As soon as classes are over, I rush out to meet him. He gives me five yuan, which I'll have to give to the teacher for books. He asks me if I've run out of bread.

I explain that the steamed bread is long finished. He buys two rolls, one for my brother and one for me. I hold on to mine. It's precious. I'll eat it tomorrow on the long road home.

When I get to the vegetable part of the market, I meet comrade Ma Yongmei.

I borrowed a roll from her not long ago. She asks me to return what I owe her. I give her the bread rolls. But she doesn't want that. She wants money. Where am I going to find money?

Friday, 26 October. A fine day.

My father gave us four yuan and told us to get a ride home on a tractor today. My parents are meant to have gone off to work again, and they were worrying about our safety.

But how in all conscience can I squander money on a tractor ride? My parents are working so hard, breaking their backs, their faces fixed on the yellow earth. How can we possibly allow ourselves the extravagance of a tractor ride that is paid for with our parents' sweat? My brother and I prefer to walk home.

We set out at 11 in the morning and it is almost five when we finally reach home. We push open the door. Everything is quiet. The yard is empty.

There's no one here.

When it was dark, my brother went off to ask our paternal grandmother if she would keep us company. She didn't come and there's only us, my two brothers and me. We go to sleep silently on the kang. Outside, everything is quiet and we're very frightened. If Mother were here, I don't know what she would be talking about. It would probably be one of her funny stories.

But she isn't here.

Even cuddled up in bed, we feel the cold. I don't know how Mother manages to sleep on the damp earth - especially since she's ill. What a terrible life she has. I so very much hope she'll soon be happy.

Monday, 29 October. A fine day.

Good news today. On Wednesday we're going to have our mid-term exam. I'm very happy about it. I fully intend to demonstrate my abilities. I'm no worse than anyone else, apart from the fact that I eat and dress less well than they do. Some girls change their school clothes often. But I've only got one outfit, a pair of trousers and a white shirt, which I wash on Saturdays so that it's clean by Monday.

But what matter! I only want to study and pay tribute to my parents' hands.

Despite the cold, they're working far away from home for us. And I mustn't disappoint them.

Tuesday, 30 October. A sombre day.

It's freezing. 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.

Seeing my tears, my brother says, as if his heart were light,"Wait, sister, I'm going to borrow some lunch tickets." But I know he feels no better than I do. I go back to my dorm and sit on my bed and wait for him to return.

I'm dreaming of this bowl of yellow rice.

He takes a very long time to come back. Then he says, "Sister, there's no more rice."

He turns to leave. I watch his receding back and I can't help letting the tears flow.

Do you know what hunger is? It's an unbearable pain. I wonder when I'll stop experiencing hunger at schoolI Friday, 2 November. Wind.

All these last days we've been doing our mid-term exams. I think of nothing else, not even my sick mother who's working far away. Whatever she does, it's for our future. There's no question of disappointing the hope our parents have placed in us.

For the exams, some of the comrades have torn out pages of their books and hidden them in their pockets. They'll be punished. Others write answers to difficult questions down the length of their arms. Do you think that's fair?

I haven't even opened my book. In primary school a teacher explained to us that before an exam, there's no point re-reading all your notes. It's better to relax, have fun. "That's the best way to get good results," he said.

I haven't altogether followed his advice. Instead, I sat on the edge of my bed and thought of my parents' suffering.

I can't disappoint them. I will do well.

Saturday, 3 November. A grey day.

The weekend starts today and I'm full of joy. I hope that my parents have come home. I'll tell them all about the mid-term exams.

I'm busy planning all kinds of projects when a comrade whispers: "The politics teacher knows our exam results."

But another comrade is furious. "He doesn't. He only knows how the best students did, not the results of the dunces like us who aren't ranked among the top students."

I hurry over to the teacher's house. It's already full of students. I've only just come in when I hear the teacher's voice. "Ma Yan got 114 points in maths. She's come top of all six classes. She got 90 points in ChineseI The English results haven't come in yet."

I'm so overjoyed, I burst into tears. I don't know where so many tears can come from.

I'm so moved, I still can't even find words to describe how I feel. Never have I had a moment like this one. Never will I forget it.

Monday, 5 November. A fine day.

I have a total of 299 points. I come second. Someone who is repeating the year comes first. Tears of joy pour from my eyes. The teacher congratulates me and says everyone should take me as a model.

But the more he talks, the sadder I become, because Mother has had to go far off to work. Everything the teacher said today will stay etched on my mind. If I follow his advice, I think I'll be able to overcome my difficulties.

Next time, I shall try to come first.

Tuesday, 6 November. A dull day.

During class today, the politics teacher compliments me once more. He admits that up until now he had paid no attention to me, noticing neither my qualities nor my faults.

"In her mid-term exams, comrade Ma Yan has shown lots of potential - potential I hadn't suspected she had. I judged her wrongly. You should know that a comrade of ours wrote in a composition: 'When we hadn't done well in an exam the teacher insulted us, complaining that he had taught a class of idiots and all in vain.' This same girl went on to say, 'Teacher, you shouldn't underestimate us: failure is the mother of success.' This is both a piece of advice she offers to your teacher and the expression of her own feelings. This girl is in our class."

Everyone is staring at me. It's true, I wrote those words. If I did well in these exams, it's largely because of what this teacher said. If he hadn't called us idiots, I would certainly not have gone on to get the results I did.

Wednesday, 7 November. A fine day.

I'm so hungry, I could eat anything. Anything at all. When I talk about hunger, I instantly think of my mother. I don't know if she's got home safely. Me, I'm happy enough coming to school every day and being hungry.

But Mother has to run up mountain slopes every day. On top of it all, she's ill.

It's three weeks since I've seen her. I think of her all the time.

I'm terribly hungry. There's been no bread or vegetables since Tuesday.

When I eat my rice now, there's nothing to go with it.

I even took some food from a comrade's bowl without asking her. When she came back to the dormitory, she called me all manner of names.

What can I say to her? When I hear her sounding off, I think of my father who left my brother and me four yuan. We've been living on that for three weeks, and I still have one left over in my pocket. My stomach is all twisted up with hunger, but I don't want to spend that yuan on anything so frivolous as food.

I have to study well so that I won't ever again be tortured by hunger and lack of money. When I have a job, I'll certainly be able to guarantee some happy times for my parents. I'll never let them go far away to work for us again.

Thursday, 8 November. A fine day.

It's market day. In the English class, I'm sitting next to the window.

Suddenly, I see a shadow from the corner of my eyes. I lift my head. Behind the window, I see Mother. I'm staggered. It's so long since I've seen her.

Even through the window I can see that her face is all black and swollen.

The class comes to an end. I've taken nothing in. It's not important. I'll ask the teacher what I've missed at the next lesson. First, I have to find Mother.

Father and Mother are waiting for me in the street. I'm so happy! We walk down the street, all together. We talk about all kinds of things and forget about our stomachs. Suddenly Mother taps her forehead: "But you two, you haven't eaten yet?"

We shake our heads.

She takes us to the market. She buys us vegetable soup for fifty fen and we also get bread to dunk in the bowl.

After we've eaten, we go off to buy winter clothes. With good padded clothes, we won't be cold. We each get a jacket and shoes and socks. In no time at all we've spent over 100 yuan. What a pity! I feel both happy and sad. Money is so hard to earn and so easy to spend.

I don't know how Mother and Father have earned these hundred yuan, how many days it took, how many tens of hours, hundreds of minutes, thousands and thousands of seconds. And I spent all this hard-earned wealth as if it were nothing at all.

When I grow up, what won't I do for my parents!

Copyright (c) Editions RamsaySusanna Lea Associates, Paris 2002. This translation copyright (c) Lisa Appignanesi, extracted from The Diary of Ma Yan, published by Virago, pound;9.99. Order from Grenville Books at the discount price of pound;8.49 plus 99p pamp;p on 0870 160 8080. Enfants du Ningxia, a French-registered non-governmental organisation, was set up in 2002 to support schools in Ma Yan's region after Liberation covered her story. It pays for primary education for the 200 children in Ma Yan's village and in the past year has given secondary school scholarships for 65 students, mostly girls.One term at a primary school costs 100 yuan (pound;6.60), one term at the lower middle school - including boarding - is 500 yuan (pound;33), and at high school 700 yuan (pound;46). Enfants du Ningxia, 45 rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth, 75003 Paris, France.; email:

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