The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl

"I want to go to school, Mother. . . . How wonderful it would be if I could go to school forever!" Thirteen-year-old Ma Yan, a peasant in the drought-scarred province of Ningxia, China, evidently scrawled this message in frustration at having to work in the fields. According to a preface, Ma Yan’s mother passed her daughter’s plea to visiting French journalist Haski, along with journals documenting about nine months of Ma Yan’s life. Haski published them in France and established a charity to assist similarly impoverished Ningxia students, to which Ma Yan has since promised 25 percent of her royalties. Some adults may be troubled by the diary’s odd provenance and the purposeful annotations framing Ma Yan’s rather meandering reflections. Nonetheless, the affecting story, extended with photos of Ma Yan and her family, will push readers to a new understanding of the hardscrabble existence endured by many, even as her brooding reflections ("My moods go up and down") underscore how much teens everywhere have in common. Some captions and photos not seen. —Jennifer Mattson
Year of Publication
Number of Pages
New York
ISSN Number
Average: 5 (3 votes)


Please login to review this resource

The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl

Field of Interest/Specialty: Social Studies
Posted On: 11/18/2017

I teach World Geography/History at the middle school level and read Ma Yan's diary to determine the extent to which it lends itself to complementing course content. I believe it could be readily used to support students in examining issues discussed in social studies: role of government within a society, social mobility, use/misuse of natural resources (prairie grasses), discrimination against girls/women across the globe, and cultural norms (role of family, relationship between generations, value of the collective vs individual).
On a readability index, the book is rated at a 5th grade reading level and since it is composed of diary entries it can be easily divided into short daily reads or jigsaw sharing assignments. It is an easy read for middle school students, but rich in content. In her simple diary, Ma Yan reflects deeply upon her family's poverty, her struggle to succeed academically to bring pride to her family, and her desire to provide a better life for her parents and fellow villagers. Also, the author uses descriptive passages that can be used to develop a young reader's literary senses: "Every day she (Ma's mother) and other women who have gone to pick fa cai (prairie grass) walk with their eyes on the ground, their backs bent to the sky. How many mountains has she scaled this way?"
While reading about the struggles and hopes of this Chinese schoolgirl, I would challenge my students to explore the work of charitable organizations similar to the one that published this diary, to go to bed one time without eating (sadly some are familiar with this experience), and to develop the habit of collecting pencils that are carelessly left on desks, hallway floors, and outdoor walkways and add them to our classroom's pencil box.

The Diary of Ma Yan in the Classroom

Field of Interest/Specialty: East Asian Culture
Posted On: 10/17/2017

My name is Morganne McCartney and I am a 7th and 8th grade Spanish and Foreign Language Exploration teacher at Mountain Ridge Middle School in Gerrardstown, WV. I read the Diary of Ma Yan for my NCTAsia seminar. I would recommend this book for grades 5-9. The book is about a young girl and the struggles and triumphs she goes through in her daily school life. She is from a rather poor area of China and she discusses how her family affords her education and her feelings towards bringing honor to her family through her doing well in school. The book gives great insight into a country that does not have a free education system. It also gives good insight into the family system of the Chinese people and the idea of dishonoring or brining honor to the family through actions. The story follows Ma Yan through a few years of schooling and the reader can really see how impoverished and low socioeconomic families survive in China.
This story really made me pause and think about how much we take for granted in the United States. My school just gave every student a laptop computer, for free. Ma Yan discusses how she doesn’t eat for days so that she can save money to buy a pen or a notebook. Students in the United States really need to read about other cultures and countries and see how they view education. I think it would open their eyes to a whole new world that they don’t understand because they go to school for free and some eat lunch for free and have plenty of school supplies.
This book is relatively short and a very easy read so I would recommend it for use in the classroom during a unit on China or a unit on education. Since it is written in diary format, it doesn’t take a long time to get through the book. It could be read as a class for 10-15 minutes per day and be done in two weeks. Or it could be used as a silent read book during or outside the classroom and then be a topic for discussion inside the classroom. I am considering getting a class set of these books for when I do my Chinese unit. It could be a great supplement to any classroom (not just a reading or language arts classroom) because it has life lessons, history, and culture.

The Diary of Ma Yan

Field of Interest/Specialty: gifted
Posted On: 10/02/2010

This diary was written by a 14 year old school girl from rural China. When her mother told her the family could no longer afford to send her to school, Ma Yan gives her diaries to her mother, who eventually gives them to a French journalist. Not only is the diary published, but a fund was set up to help Ma Yan and other children of Ningxia continue their education. The book contains additional information about Ma Yan continuing her education in France at the Sorbonne. More information and video clips can be found at
This book could be used for 5th grade and above. It shows the determination of a young girl from a poor rural area to become educated. It also shows the vast differences in lifestyle and opportunities between rural and urban Chinese.