The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl by Ma Yan, Pierre Haski, Lisa Appignanesi (Translator)


Hardcover, 176 pages
Published May 31st 2005 by HarperCollins
Source: Library

It is not every day that a book makes me cry. Just…every other day. Just kidding. I actually have a cold heart so being emotional while reading is not a normal occurrence for me.

However, The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl hit me right there in the heart particular in its latter half. First, the official synopsis:

Wednesday, November 7

My father gave me and my brother a little money. My stomach is all twisted up with hunger, but I don’t want to spend the money on anything as frivolous as food. Because it’s money my parents earn with their sweat and blood.

I have to study well so that I won’t ever again be tortured by hunger. . . .

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 money is scarce, and the low wages paid for backbreaking work aren’t always enough to pay school fees.

Ma Yan’s heart-wrenching, honest diary chronicles her struggle to escape hardship and bring prosperity to her family through her persistent, sometimes desperate, attempts to continue her schooling.

Look, whether we admit it or not, if you are reading this you are privileged. And sometimes you only feel your privilege when you are faced with someone who has none of what you take for granted be it water or food or the freedom to speak your mind.

Reading about Ma Yan’s daily and often grueling life made me feel many things. One of them was inspiration–this girl has very little in the way of material comfort and even less in the way of financial security and comfortable future but her determination to succeed at school is stronger than anyone else I have met either in a book or in real life.

She walks to and from school to home every weekend and the distance is nothing so puny as 10 km. Hers is a longer journey and more dangerous due to the landscape and the bandits who haunt the roads looking for vulnerable people from whom to steal money and food. Hunger makes criminals of us all.


Ma Yan is extremely aware of the sacrifices her parents but especially her mother are making to allow her to go to school and every time she faces an obstacle in her path on the way to academic success, she reminds herself of her parents.

Ma Yan’s family is extremely poor. Ma Yan describes how her brother go hungry at school day after day because they don’t have enough money to buy anything to eat. Ma Yan rebukes herself for her hunger, telling herself to think of her mother who has traveled so far away while ill to earn money to send her to school. Hunger is a weakness but it isn’t something she can simply forget or wish away. Her diary becomes the space in which she fully expresses the emptiness in her stomach.

It is brutally sad.

And humbling. Also, inspiring.

Look, we all face hardships but this girl, she awed me with the resilience of her spirit, of her determination to study no matter how difficult her life gets otherwise. Her hunger becomes a character in her life, constantly present, closer to her than a lover would be, pervasive, and yet she has the courage to stand with it, live with it and do her best to succeed.

If that’s not inspiring then I don’t know what is.

The Diary of Ma Yan is why diverse books are important. Books like this one allow you to experience the world in a different way, peek through eyes not your own, walk in shoes not your own, live a life not yours. Books like Ma Yan’s invite you to empathize and realize your own self through someone else’s eyes.

Ma Yan’s story does not end when this book does but the editor’s notes in the end give hope of to the reader that she will ultimately be successful at achieving her goals.

The Diary of Ma Yan would be an invaluable text to use in a classroom. Studying the book would not just show kids what it means to be grow up in a very different place but can also be used to impart the importance of education.