She used the pen to study and write diaries that were picked up by a French journalist and published in 13 countries as The Diary of Ma Yan.
Thanks to the publication of the diaries, Ma earned enough money to go to school and her family's situation – living under the roof of an uneducated migrant worker and a mother who defied serious illness to put food on the table – became more bearable.
Ma's life, similar to the lives of a few hundred million peasants across China, stands in stark contrast to the lives of China's new yuppies: the citified, urbanized, egocentric, shallow, materialistic and image-obsessed crowd portrayed in Annie Wang's The People's Republic of Desire.
Over the course of 400-plus pages, Chinese-American author Wang paints a picture of a people self-obsessed to the point of inhumanity, narcissistic to lengths unheard of since the days of Caligula and about as deep as a drop of water on a spoon.
Wang's book, based on her columns published in the South China Morning Post under the same name, follows the life of Niuniu, a Beijing-based correspondent for a fictional news organization.
Niuniu has three friends, each one more shallow than the next. Their lives are focused on appearance rather than substance, image rather than depth.
They are obsessed with finding better men, richer men, men with bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger incomes and bigger egos. Armani suits are good; personalities bad. Harvard is the only university that counts while personal achievement is nothing compared to being born into the right family.
Niuniu herself wants to be one with the Chinese people she now embraces as her own. To do this, she finds and remodels a courtyard home into a luxurious den in the heart of the city and drives around in her SUV. She seeks fulfilment but seldom misses an opportunity to shop, drop names or bask in the praise of others.
Speaking in the first person, Wang showers Niuniu with compliments. She is intelligent, beautiful, a talented writer and lives a wonderfully bohemian lifestyle.
Niuniu goes shopping in Hong Kong and on long holidays in the US where she has a fling with a man she leaves because he is too redneck to fit in.
All about the ego
Her friends live similar lifestyles: obsessed with finding not love but a picture-perfect appendage of a man to compliment their egocentric view of the universe.
This is a (hopefully not completely accurate) description of a segment of Chinese society best left to its own devices. The book could easily be the first step in a smear campaign against China. The People's Republic of Desire is trying hard to create a new "Sex and the City" set for China but, whereas one was witty and tongue-in-cheek, the other becomes tiresome.
Does it take that many pages to describe four career women – and the various satellites that hang around them – who live in a cocoon of their own self-described urbanism, cosmopolitanism and yuppie-hood?
And Niuniu is probably the most blessed person on the planet – or at least the focus of some strange god that gets a kick out of creating statistically impossible coincidences time and time again.
At one point she looks on as a man on a bicycle solves an altercation at a Beijing parking lot. In the middle of Beijing, one of the largest cities in the world, the man turns out to be her grandfather. Another scene sees Niuniu shoving with an old woman in a museum ticket queue; the woman turns out to be her mother's neighbor.
Every single one of her schoolmates has grown up to become the best and the brightest of China.
But the best coincidence is the one at the end of the book when she discovers that her latest "bosom buddy" – a rich lawyer who likes to help poor people from her US$10,000 per month home in a Beijing suburb – was the woman who, once upon a time in the US, left the one true love of Niuniu's life emotionally unavailable.
I suppose it is possible that two women live in the same city in the US, love the same ophthalmologist, move to the same city in China, move in the same social circles and end up becoming friends. Stephen Hawking can probably work out the odds.
While he is at it, maybe he can also work out the odds of reading this entire book without getting incredibly irritated.
The People's Republic of Desire by Annie Wang, Harper Paperbacks, US$13.95
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