Thousands of women seek their roots decades after being sold in boy-preferring rural China

By Hu Yuwei Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/23 19:38:39

The women were sold, trafficked, and often forced to be child brides

Tens of thousands of adopted daughters from Putian are on a quest to find their birth parents

The women were sold, trafficked, and often forced to be child brides

They were the victims of a local cultural preference for sons

Aizhen and Chen Shufen, who were both sold as infants, hug each other along the seaside in Putian, Fujian Province in June. Photo: VCG

"You are a motherless girl." This is how Ah Lin was repeatedly mocked when she was young. She remembered how she desired a warm hug in the bone-jarring cold, when she was barefoot and shivering in her adoptive brother's worn-out trousers.

Ah Lin is one of a cohort of baby girls from other parts of the country who were illegally sold to families in Putian, East China's Fujian Province, sometimes to be raised as a child bride for one of their adoptive brothers.

These girls were unwanted by their biological families mostly due to a combination of a rural preference for boys and the then-family planning policy that restricted most families to only one child.

An increasing number of these girls, mostly adopted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, are starting to explore their identity now. In a recent "family-seeking" activity held in Gutian county, Fujian Province early in July, many women gathered and registered their information and left blood samples for DNA tracking.

During the Spring Festival of 2018, Ah Lin and thousands of other adopted women attended a large-scale "family-seeking" activity organized by a local NGO named Help Finding Your Family, at Nanshan Park of Changle, Fujian Province.

Each of them distributed leaflets containing any scraps of information they had about their past. They left their DNA samples with the NGO's data hub. And they shared their experience with those having similar dark moments - abandoned at birth to an often cruel fate by a biological family they may never know.

Ah Lin has visited many villages, guessing them to be her own birth place, but she always returned in disappointment after a fruitless attempt to find her biological parents. Other than her baby clothes, she has no clues about her origins. Because abandoning a child in China is illegal, hints of their identities are rarely left behind.

Adopted girls

"For these girls, trying to find their roots is never an easy journey. Some of the abandoned girls have little education and feel overwhelmed when trying to find their birth parents.

Thanks to the rise of DNA testing and the popularity of WeChat groups in recent years, the girls have come together, joining DNA libraries and encouraging each other online by sharing stories of successfully finding their parents.

The Help Finding Your Family NGO began its work in 2015. Most of the volunteers themselves were adopted women coming from many different cities in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. The aggregated data shows that the years of birth of registered women range from 1960 to 1990, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s.

Bill Chen (pseudonym), a volunteer from the group, told the Global Times that their DNA database now has more than 10,000 samples from abandoned women, including those abandoned and adopted by overseas couples. The NGO has successfully found more than 20 pairs of biological sisters and five pairs of identical twins. Overall, 367 people found their families through this group.

"Putian is the hometown of adoptive daughters," Xiao Jing said at the very beginning of her conversation with the Global Times. Although she has a great life as a cherished daughter of her loving adoptive family, Xiao Jing never gives up on any chance to look for her origins.

Her adoptive grandpa, who arranged the deal, hid the details of how she was adopted until he passed away. But growing up in someone else's family made her feel inferior and different as a child. She seldom tells anyone about such "maudlin" thoughts.

"I understand it must not have been easy for my original family. They had to make an agonizing decision which was barely 'a choice' in the context of the one-child policy," said Xiao Jing, who is now 40 and has a family of her own.

According to a conservative estimate by local NGOs, the total number of abandoned girls reaches tens of thousands. Domestic academic reports have revealed that some rural families attempted to dump their baby girls in a bid to have another child, hopefully a son. At the time, China's family planning policy restricted most families to one child. And the preference for sons made the situation even worse.

One rural family in Changle gave birth to a total of eight girls before finally getting a boy. The father, who could not afford to raise so many children, sent five of them to a baby trafficker, reported Caixin Media.

In 2003, the media visited Jingli primary school in Lingchuan county, Putian, and found that among 60 students in grade six, 33 were girls, of whom 14 were adopted. A majority of them were reported to be bought or kept as child brides.

Parents who sold their baby girls as infants read notices from grown women seeking reunions. Photo: VCG

Child brides

At the age of 16, Jin Yan (pseudonym) was abducted and resold as a child bride by a local human trafficking broker.

This nominally adopted girl served as a de facto maid to the other kids - washing clothes, cooking and farming in the scorching summer heat. She was forced to marry her mentally handicapped brother, according to a report by news site

Jin slipped out the door on a dark and windy night to escape the pressure on her to marry her adoptive brother. A large number of abandoned teen girls were forced to marry their adoptive brothers at an early age.

After Jin escaped, she spent nearly three years learning to read and write Chinese, in order to help her find her birth family more quickly. With the money she earned from her hard work, she traveled to almost all of Changle's 18 townships, and paid almost 100,000 yuan ($14,747) in total to informants over the past few years.

Jin is only one of countless adopted daughters who very much desired and struggled to find their biological parents, though they may not be so welcomed as they expected due to years of estrangement.

The government has never released any official surveys or data on child brides in the region. The cost of marrying a bride in local areas was considerable, because of the customary dowry payment. Many local families believed that it was much more cost-effective to buy a little girl and raise her to be a daughter-in-law. This belief led to an industry of selling child brides in Putian.

Human traffickers

The key link of this industry was the local baby traffickers, who sought out families that wanted children.

Some of the adoptive girls have tracked down the former baby traffickers. But the information they get is almost always disappointing, because the business was so chaotic.

The traffickers may have had two or three babies in a basket for a buyer to pick from on a street. Especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the networks were too tangled and fast moving to trace.

Xiao Jing's fellow villager, who's also an adopted girl trafficked by a local well-known broker, has been in contact with her broker in an effort to get more information. However, the broker took her money but gave no useful information.

According to previous media reports, the city of Changle, where Xiao Jing was raised, had always been a notorious crossing point for human trafficking. This coastal city is roughly 100 kilometers from Putian. Many overseas Chinese come from Changle, because smugglers there have been taking groups to work abroad since the 1990s.

Changle was the main supplier of Putian's adopted daughters. News of the baby trafficking scandal first broke here, and police arrested a large number of traffickers who had been selling baby girls. However, many traffickers were never caught.

"I never experienced the feeling of being hugged by my mother when I was a child," Ah Lin said, adding she was not close to her adoptive family. She has been longing for a warm family since her childhood, even now that she has her own happy family.

At the NGO's "family-seeking" activity, she saw a white-haired old man hanging a sign on his chest that said, "Where are you, my daughter?" It made Ah Lin's eyes wet.

"There are still some parents in their seventies and eighties looking for their child. Where are you, my mother?" Ah Lin said in response to seeing the man. The sight made Al Lin feel bitter and abandoned.


Newspaper headline: Town of unwanted girls

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