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The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl    by Ma Yan order for
Diary of Ma Yan
by Ma Yan
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2005 (2005)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Ma Yan's Muslim family lives at a subsistence level in the village of Zhangjiashu, in remote rural China, and her diary reflects their struggles to give Ma Yan and her brothers an education, and the chance for a better life. The story of how her diary came to be published (her mother thrust it into the hands of visiting journalists) is as interesting as the diary itself, and reflects the power of the pen to change the world, or at least a small part of it. Part of the book's proceeds are donated to The Association for the Children of Ningxia.

Despite suffering painfully from ulcers, Ma Yan's mother, Bai Juhua, works extremely hard to send her children to school. They board at Yuwang, walking over twelve miles back and forth on week-ends, and risking encounters with thieves, though they don't have much to rob. Ma Yan speaks of going hungry to buy herself a pen. And her mother's sacrifices put incredible pressure on her to do well at school, which is already a fiercely competitive, harsh environment (teachers' beating of students encourages student bullying) with seventy children in one class.

Other than reflecting the family's poverty and a constant worry for her mother's health, Ma Yan comes across in her writing as a typical (though exceptionally sincere and sensitive) teen, with the usual mood swings. She worries about being good enough, has a mixed friendship and rivalry with her cousin Ma Shiping, is protective of her younger brother at school, and gets angry with relatives who feel and act superior to her family. Once, when her mother lashes out at her, she confides, 'I feel so alone. There's no one to talk to.'

The Diary of Ma Yan (written between September 2000 and December 2001) reflects an amazing Cinderella story, but one where the downtrodden young woman isn't waiting for a prince, but rather fights hard for, and wins, an education.

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