Adults abandoned as babies and sent across China search for lost families

By The Beijing News – Global Times Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/21 18:53:39

Between 1959 and 1961, over 50,000 infants and children were abandoned by their starving parents in East China and sent to the country's north to be adopted by better off families. Now in their late middle age, some of them are traveling south to search for their birth families, but many will return disenchanted.

Wu Yan, who was abandoned by her family on a train 53 years ago, hugs her sister Yang Kailan at a family reunion on May 15 in Hefei, East China's Anhui Province.Photo: CFP

Wu Yan, who was abandoned by her family on a train 53 years ago, hugs her sister Yang Kailan at a family reunion on May 15 in Hefei, East China's Anhui Province.Photo: CFP

During his adolescence, Wang Jinhu used to gaze into the mirror at the two scars on his left ear and ask himself: who am I?

There are two hardly discernible marks on his left ear. Just two white lines. When he was 13 years old, he read that these marks are the way farmers in East China used to mark their livestock.

They have to be marks his birth parents left on him, Wang, who grew up in Luoyang, Henan Province, told himself.

Wang has known that he was adopted since he was six years old.

"So that's the Shanghai baby that you adopted?" Wang used to hear people asking his mother.

Now in his 50s, Wang later learned that he was abandoned in Shanghai during the "Three Years of Natural Disasters," which lasted from 1959 to 1961, and was then sent to a Luoyang orphanage.

The massive famine that blighted the country deprived many children of parental love and care overnight, as their parents, unable to feed them, had to give them up. Some abandoned them by the roadside or in busy city centers, hoping some good-hearted people will offer them shelter and food. Some sent them to government-run welfare homes or orphanages.

When even these orphanages weren't able to shelter these children, they were sent to be adopted by better-off families in northern parts of China, including the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Shandong, Henan and Shaanxi provinces. It's now estimated that over 50,000 children, abandoned by their parents, were sent to China's north by the government during that time. These children have been dubbed "the abandoned children from Jiangnan," or "the Nation's Children."

Many of these lost children, including Wang, grew up feeling curiosity, shame and resentment, and have been searching for their birth parents for more than a decade.

From the welfare center

The first stop for these lost children searching for their family is usually the local welfare center in their cities of origin, to which most of their birth parents initially sent them.

In 1993, Yu Hao, director of the Wuxi Welfare Center in Jiangsu Province discovered over 30 files of orphan rosters, written on rice paper.  According to these records from 1960, the center sent 2,000 children to North China that year.

An employee at the welfare center told Yu that most of these children were around one year of age, and many were abandoned at the city's bus terminal, train station or port on Tongyun road, about 2 kilometers away from the welfare center.

As there were so many abandoned children, the welfare center had to borrow a building from a State-owned factory to use as a nursery. Once these children filled up the building, the welfare center chartered a train carriage and send them all to the north in preparation for the next batch of abandoned babes.

Initially, only families working for the government with a stable income were qualified to adopt these children, and each child's adopted family was carefully recorded. But as the number of these children surged, management became much more relaxed, and in cities like Kaifeng, Henan some couples would just grab a kid when they arrived at the train station without any record being made.

On the "health condition" column of the records, over 90 percent children were described as "thin and weak."

Before he retired, Yu copied all these records and brought them home, and allowed people who were seeking their family members to check the records. For many abandoned children, the first thing they do after they arrive in Wuxi is to visit Yu's home and check the records.

Wang has visited Shanghai over 10 times since the 1990s. With little knowledge of his birth parents, Wang said the only thing he can do is to look at people on the street and see if they resemble him.

Wang was able to find his relocation certificate in the police bureau of Jiading district in Shanghai. According to the certificate, he was taken in by Jiading District's Welfare Center and was renamed Mao Fan - during that time, all abandoned boys were given the surname "Mao," and girls the surname "Liu," meaning they are all the children of Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi, leaders of the government of China.

Yang Kailan displays pictures of her abandoned sister, which she had kept with her since she first saw them on WeChat. Photo: CFP

Yang Kailan displays pictures of her abandoned sister, which she had kept with her since she first saw them on WeChat. Photo: CFP

Traveling north

While some people who were abandoned as children are traveling south to search for their biological parents, some are planning to go north to search for their relatives.

Wu Nansheng, aged 75, is searching for his younger brother who he abandoned over 50 years ago. Wu said his brother should be 59 years old, and yet the only thing he knows that can help identify him is a birth mark on his left arm.

In 1960, 19-year-old Wu abandoned his 2-year-old brother at the entrance of the Yixing Department Store. Two days after the boy was abandoned, Wu's 42-year-old mother starved to death.

This is in line with what was recorded by Wuxi's local chronicles, which said that from 1959 to 1961, the monthly grain ration per person was only 7.5 to 10 kilograms, and deaths from starvation and children being abandoned was common during that time.

Although Wu has long passed the age at which his mother died, his tears still gush when he recalls that difficult period.

"I'm always haunted by dreams of my brother, leaning in a ramshackle old house, his eyes drooping and his breath feeble. 'I'm hungry,' he cries to me," Wu said.

Also haunted by her missing sibling is Lü Shunfang. Before Lü's mother died, she often mentioned her younger daughter Lü Yafang, who was abandoned in April 1960. Lü Shunfang promised her mother that she will find her little sister, and has since devoted herself to helping families who lost each other during the famine to reunite.

For the past 16 years, Lü has run a website which allows those who are searching for their relatives to post their information and share their experiences of searching, and has organized many gatherings in cities like Nanjing, Wuxi, Changzhou and Jiangyin, the cities that saw the most abandoned children at that time.

However, most of the people who attend these gatherings are the abandoned children themselves, and few parents come.

Lü conjectures that many of these parents have either passed away or are too old to attend these meetings, or don't know about them.

"Of course it's also possible that they have no intention of seeking their abandoned children, as each family had many children at that time and they didn't mind losing one," she said.

No need to keep in touch

The advance of DNA technology once filled Wang with the hope that he may one day use his genetic information to find his birth parents. But when he found that only two people had put their DNA info in Jiading district's DNA database to help them search for missing relatives, he felt despair. "No one is looking for us. Who do we match our DNA with?" he said.

Lü Shunfang has helped over 200 children find their parents with her website in the past 16 years. But the reunions can be complicated.

A rich businessman who grew up in Luoyang managed to find his relatives in Shanghai last year. Before doing a DNA test, he kept his financial status a secret just in case his wealth would change the attitude of his relatives.

A woman from Luoyang who was abandoned as a child managed to find her brother two years ago. But he told her that as their parents are no longer alive, he doesn't want to keep in touch with her.

Lü said this is a common situation in families with multiple children. Most of these siblings would say that "it's great to see you alive, but there's no need for us to keep in contact."

Many abandoned children have given up their efforts to find their birth parents. Yu has seen many people visit him with hope and leave disenchanted. Some would leave with a bag of earth from the city or a bottle of water from Wuxi's Tai lake as a token.

Yu used to try to mobilize the local government to help these former lost children find their parents, but few responded. "It's a tragedy of a bygone age. Who would dare to reveal those scars?"

Newspaper headline: Children of Mao

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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