Thursday, March 25, 2004

You must learn to eat bitter before you can taste sweet

A Chinese schoolgirl saves her family from poverty when her diary becomes a bestseller in France.

"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."
The writer of this New York Times article, Alan Riding, suggests that Ma Yan's diary has "helped some remember the darker side of China's economic miracle" without connecting her family's suffering to economic development in any way whatsoever.
[S]he 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."
Economic development relieves the poverty that condemns young Chinese women to unwanted marriages. It's not as if they enjoyed independent lives before economic liberalization. The example of the West and, even more saliently, developed Asia demonstrates that once women achieve a sufficient degree of economic independence they marry later and show less willingness to stay in troubled marriages. Young Chinese women today, especially those as diligent as Ma Yan, can look forward to more opportunity than their mothers or grandmothers because of development, not despite it.

Taken as a whole, Ma Yan's life sounds like nothing so much as a Horatio Alger story. "Studious girl endures poverty and hunger while, by the way, bearing the additional burden of being female in a sexist society and is eventually rewarded for her fortitude."

"Ma Yan's Diary" may describe the dark side of China's integration into the global economy, but Ma Yan's life illustrates its bright side.