Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Glimpse at Education in China (& Book reviews)

The most recent Chengyu "Light Reflected by Snow and Collected from Fireflies", based on the story of two young men determined become educated despite the hardships, seemed timely with the end of the school year upon us, and Pea bemoaning the influx of schoolwork she's been receiving. 

Free education, available for all, is something we take for granted here in Canada, and something kids often consider a nuisance. And I remember feeling the same way :) But that isn't the case in many places, including China. 

School exercise in Guangdong, China
Photo Credit: Steve Monty
We took a few minutes and looked at these "Amazing Snapshots of Education Around the world" and were shocked at the lengths students will go through in order to feel prepared for college entrance exams - the stress of which seems unimaginable. We were also floored to see the classroom taking place inside a cave in a remote Miao village, that students have to walk one to three hours to attend. It puts a new perspective on getting up early to catch the school bus.

School in rural China
Photo Credit: Sameer Vasta
In China, there is a 9 year school system that is required and "free" (though there are still school fees for books, uniforms, heating and food), beginning from age 6 to 15. However, in rural areas, due to the difficulty in paying the school fees, and the labor required at home, many must leave school before the age of 15, most often girls. 

Below are two books, the first a picture book, the second an edited diary of a teenager, both true stories, and both bringing about interesting discussion about education and opportunities, or the lack thereof. 

Ruby's Wish  by Shirin Yim
This picture book is a historical story based on the true story of the author's grandmother. Ruby is an engaging character, a young Chinese girl who lives in a wealthy household, and has the opportunity to attend grade school. However, the expectation is that she marry once she graduates, while her brothers attend university. Not content with this, Ruby does manage to persuade her grandfather, the patriarch who makes these decisions, to allow her to attend. The story emphasizes her blessings as well as her challenges, which can lead to some interesting discussions. Elle found it difficult to wrap her head around the idea of being denied simply because of being a girl. It was a lovely, inspiring story, with sweet illustrations we all enjoyed. 

The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl  edited by Pierre Haski. 

No more money for school this year. I’m back in the house and I work the land in order to pay for my brothers’ education. When I think of the happy times at school, I can almost imagine myself there. How I want to study! But my family can’t afford it..” – Ma Yan, May 2, 2001

This book contains the entries of Ma Yan's diary, written by Ma Yan, a young girl from a remote village, thousands of miles from Beijing. The entries start in September 2000 at the age of 13, and ends in December 2001. It came into the hands of Pierre Haski, a french journalist, when Ma Yan's mother thrust it into his hands while he and his crew where stationed at her village working on a documentary.

Ma Yan lives a life of poverty and desperately wants to attend school, to make a better life for herself and for her family. Her diary entries chronicle this - her desire to attend school, the struggles in getting to and from school when she does attend, the poverty that keeps her from attending on a regular basis, the priority placed on the boys attending school, her parents sacrifices, the hardships endured at home and at school. 

The publication of the book was very successful and brought about the Children of Ningxia, a fund set up to send Ma Yan and children like her to school. Thanks to this book, she has since been given the opportunity to study at a university in France. Furthermore, 25% of the earnings from this book are given to the Children of Ningxia, which has helped, and is helping hundreds of kids attend school. 

Pea and I both read this book. Pea, 14, found it a challenge to remain interested in this book. The diary entries are repetitive, which made it difficult for her to stay invested. I would bring up discussion points throughout, which I think is important and helped encourage her to keep reading, knowing this young girl of her age was living a remarkably different life. When discussing it, Pea did note how disturbed she was when she truly grasped the poverty and hunger Ma Yan experienced, the hardships endured just to get to school (12 1/2 miles away, which she treks in all sorts of weather to come home for the weekend), and the school system with very demanding teachers (corporal punishment being accepted at school). I particularly appreciated the informative introductions by the editor at the beginning of each set of entries.

It's the story, rather than the writing, that makes this book an inspiration, and, in my opinion, important to read. I do recommend this book as an eye opener, and a testament to Ma Yan's willpower, though open discussion about it might help with those less interested in non fiction. It is a book that has stuck with Pea, and what she has learned has come up in conversation on many occasions.

I've linked up this post to this great blog hop of reviews and activities for Children's books the Kid Lit Blog Hop

Books are a wonderful way to experience new worlds and ideas. Our house is filled with books, most of which are borrowed from our public library. Public libraries are an incredible resource, making books accessible to everyone, and we highly encourage everyone to discover theirs. If you are hoping to build your own home library, I've made it easy by linking book titles to Amazon.com. Please note that I have become affiliated with them, which means that if you make a purchase, you are also supporting this website.


  1. Thanks for this interesting posts. It is both saddening and inspiring to hear the stories of the hardships children will endure to get an education when going to school is more of a chore than a privilege for many children in Western English-speaking countries. I, too, really enjoyed Ruby's Wish and will look forward to reading The Diary of Ma Yan in the future. Thank you for writing on such an important topic and sharing on the Kids Lit Blog Hop!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! It is incredible how much we take for granted, and I've found that studying other cultures often puts that in perspective for us.

  2. Wow, what an interesting, yet heartbreaking story. I just read (and reviewed) A Girl Called Problem. It has a similar theme only this is a girl in Tanzania who wants to go to school, but school has always been for boys only. It is linked in the kid lit blop hop.

    Question. Why the deep interest in Chinese culture?

    1. I read your (great) review actually of A Girl Called Problem, and will definitely read with the girls.

      To answer your question, I'm deeply interested and fascinated with all cultures, and in order to get a better idea of a culture, our family chooses one country/culture each year, and follow along over the year in order to get more than a cursory perspective. This year we're doing China, but we've done Greece, India, Mexico, Scotland and France. (I was hoping to get most of what we've done up, but it's been rather overwhelming and taking so long!) The Chinese culture does offer so much to explore, with such a rich history, there has been no lack of ideas to explore!

    2. I was just sent a craft book to review. All of the crafts relate to China and use bamboo for the most part. You might be interested in this book when my review is done. It is not in front of me, so I cannot tell you the title, but if you are interested let me know. You can use my email address, if I had to enter it, or the contact form on Kid Lit Reviews. It is an interesting book. I was going to keep it but it sounds like your family might get better use of it.

    3. wow, Sue, that's very generous! And it sounds great! I'll be in touch via your contact form, and hammer out the details. Can't wait to read your review :)

  3. I read Ruby's wish sometime back and loved it. DD was especially fascinated by the fact that only boys would get an education in the olden days. THanks for the lovely post.
    Thanks for sharing on Kid Lit Blog Hop.

  4. Wow, these are fascinating and thoughtful choices for the current KidLit Blog Hop. Thanks for discussing these titles!

    1. Thank you, these books, and their issues, have continued to come up with our family and friends, and its great to hear how our daughters respond to the information. Thanks for dropping by!

  5. Thank you so much for linking up to Multicultural Children's Book Day!! What a great post. I love how you tied in current times in China to children's books!


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