China’s abandoned daughters search for their parents

Al Jazeera April 16, 2017

The stories of three women who were abandoned by their parents during China’s one-child policy.

Han Meng is a photojournalist and filmmaker based in Beijing.

Cai Fengxia: ‘Being reunited feels like a dream’

Cai Fengxia’s adoptive father cooks for her in Dangshan, eastern China [Han Meng/Al Jazeera]

Cai Fengxia cried as she had dinner with her biological parents for the first time in 38 years.

She had spent the past 12 years looking for the people who had wrapped her in white cloth and left her at the gate of the people’s commune of Qiaoqi Town in Jiangyin city, eastern China, when she was 25 days old.

But as she shared a meal with them she could only think about her elderly adoptive father, who was back home in Dangshan, hundreds of miles away.

“I missed him so much, and I was wondering if he had eaten dinner or not,” she said.

While her parents and siblings were smiling, Cai felt lonely. It didn’t help that she spoke a different language to her biological family.

Cai was born in 1979, the year the one-child policy was introduced in China to curb the country’s explosive population growth. Violations were penalised with hefty fines.

Zhou Maodu, Cai’s father, had wanted a son. Then his wife gave birth to a second daughter. Raising three children was not feasible: the fine they would face was too steep. And as a manager at a local factory, Zhou was under pressure to be a model citizen and comply with the newly implemented “family-planning policy”. A third child would certainly lead to his dismissal.

So Zhou made a decision that several others in his community had made before him: to abandon his newborn daughter and try for a son. Zhou said he cried for days after leaving Cai at the people’s commune. Two years later, he had a son.

Cai Fengxia and her husband sit at the house of her birth parents. It is the first time Cai has met them since they abandoned her when she was 25 days old [Han Meng/Al Jazeera]

According to Jiangyin’s Civilian Statistics, 425 children were orphaned in Jiangyin in 1979 alone – a number that includes children whose parents died as well as those abandoned by their parents because they didn’t have enough money to raise them, in part due to the one-child policy fines.

The vast majority of the abandoned children were girls. Parents often thought it worthwhile to pay a fine for a son: they would pass on the family name and, in China’s patriarchial society, once he reached adulthood a son would be in a stronger position to financially support his parents.

Growing up, other children would often tell Cai that she was adopted. But when she would confront her adoptive parents about it, they would dodge the question, telling her: “Don’t listen to them, they are adopted themselves.”

In 2012, Cai joined the Jiangyin Relatives Searching Volunteer Association. It was founded in 2010 by Li Yongguo, a civil servant who, after reuniting one woman with her family in his hometown, realised that there were many others in a similar position.

When she joined, Cai gave a DNA sample which was sent to a pool at the Institute of Forensic Sciences at Soochow University. Four years later, in May 2016, she was told that a 99 percent match had been found in Qiaoqi Town; her mother had taken a DNA test three months before.

On the morning after Cai had her first dinner with her parents, her father apologised to her with tears in his eyes. He said that there had been no other way but to leave her. That day, Cai returned home to her adoptive father. She has been in touch with her parents a few times since and returned to Jiangyin for Chinese New Year with her adoptive father, husband and two sons.

“Being reunited with my biological parents feels like a dream. Nothing has changed, life continues,” she said. “I just have more relatives.”

Cai Fengxia (facing away from the camera) with her birth parents, older sister and younger brother [Han Meng/Al Jazeera]

Lin Chunhong: ‘I never fully experienced a father’s love’

Lin Chunhong cries as she talks about how others often made her feel inferior when she was a child because she was adopted [Han Meng/Al Jazeera]

Lin Chunhong was left in front of a factory in Qinyang, Henan province, when she was two days old. It was 1979 and she was the third daughter of Wang Xing, who – just like Cai’s father – was a senior manager in a local factory. Barely able to feed his two oldest daughters, and faced with a fine or dismissal from his job, Wang asked his sister to leave the baby in front of a factory. She was wrapped in red clothes without a note or any form of identification.

But Wang felt torn about his decision. A few hours after his sister returned he went to the spot where Lin had been left, secretly hoping she was still there for him to take home. But a stranger had already found her and taken her away. Wang said he cried for days.

Lin Chunhong grew up 500km from her birth parents. She had been adopted by Sun Xian, a 40-year-old single woman, and brought to Shandong province where she grew up in poverty. Sun remarried a number of times and, throughout her life, Lin called three different men “dad”. “I have never fully experienced a father’s love,” she said.

Sun never told Lin where she had come from – all she heard was gossip by classmates and neighbours about her abandonment and adoption. The accusations scarred Lin and for much of her childhood she said she felt inferior to her peers, confused about her identity and resentful towards her biological parents.

Lin Chunhong at a hotel in Jiangyin on March 19, 2016. Lin returned to her birthplace and met her biological parents for the first time when she was 38 years old [Han Meng/Al Jazeera]

While enforcement of the one-child policy was gradually relaxed – by the mid-1990s, rural families were allowed a second child if their first born was a daughter or disabled – it wasn’t fully abandoned until January 1, 2016, when a two-child policy was implemented. According to the Chinese government, the policy had by then prevented about 400 million births.

Lin was affected by the one-child policy again in 2009, when she and her husband had a second child and her husband was jailed for one month.

When Lin’s adoptive mother died in 2004, she started the search for her biological parents. Having children of her own softened her resentment, she said, as she now understood how difficult it must have been for her parents to let her go. She even felt some gratitude towards them. Things could have been much worse. While infanticide and gendercide were a problem in China before the one-child policy, the law exacerbated the issue. In 2010, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicted that by 2020 there would be 30 to 40 million more men than women under the age of 20 in China.

In 2016, Lin was told that a match had been found for her DNA. She cried tears of joy when she met her mother and has been slowly building a relationship with her parents ever since. After their first reunion, Lin’s biological parents travelled to Shandong where they visited Sun’s grave and burned an offering there to show their gratitude towards her for raising their daughter.

In 2016, Lin’s mother even moved in with her to help with the household. “I wanted to make up for lost time together,” she said.

Lin Chunhong (with her back to the camera), her birth parents and her two older sisters in Jiangyin, eastern China [Han Meng/Al Jazeera]

Chen Kaijing: ‘Meeting my parents would be the happiest moment of my life’

Chen Kaijing doesn’t know where or when she was born [Han Meng]

For Chen Kaijing, the story of where she came from is murkier. Her adoptive father brought her to Suzhou, eastern China, from the Jiangyin Welfare Institute in 1982, but she doesn’t know exactly when or where she was born.

Chen grew up in a loving household, raised by her adoptive father – who never married – and his sister. “My aunt loves me like a mother,” Chen said. Nevertheless, she grew up as an introvert, feeling different from her peers and dropping out of elementary school when she was 10 years old.

Boys are still preferred in many Chinese households. When Chen gave birth to her second daughter in 2008, an acquaintance suggested that she give the child up for adoption – but she refused. “I was abandoned and I don’t know where I came from,” she said. “I don’t want my daughter to experience what I’ve experienced.”

While figures for abandoned children in China have dropped steadily in the past decades, the problem persists. These days, it is mostly children with disabilities who are abandoned. In 2014, so-called “baby hatches”, where parents could leave their newborns were installed in several cities. A hatch in Guangzhou was closed after the city’s local welfare institute was overwhelmed by the 262 babies who were left there in under than two months.

Chen Kaijing with her three children. Chen’s adoptive father never married and so she grew up without a mother. Her daughters are now helping her search for her birth parents [Han Meng/Al Jazeera]

Chen further defied the one-child policy in 2009 when she got pregnant with her third child, a boy. To avoid paying a fine, she moved with her youngest daughter to a different city where nobody knew her and gave birth to her son there. Her husband and oldest daughter stayed behind in Xuzhou.

Fearing that Chen would have a future without relatives, her adoptive father told her where he had taken her from on his deathbed, three years ago. Chen has been searching for her biological parents ever since. Her daughters, now 15 and nine years old, help her post information online and Chen has joined the Jiangyin Relatives Volunteer Association.

She said: “Meeting my birth parents would be the happiest moment of my life.”

Chen Kaijing with her three children. So far, Chen hasn’t managed to find her biological parents [Han Meng/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera

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