China's lost girls

Xinran knew about the problem of female orphans in China, daughters abandoned in favour of sons in a country where only one child is allowed. But the fate of just one baby brought home the true heartache and horror

Xinran already knew the plight that befell many girl babies in rural China: 'Girl babies don't count,' the older woman had told me. 'The officials don't give us any extra land when a girl is born, so girls will starve to death anyway.' Photograph: Natalie Fobes/Getty Images

I once lost a little girl who was like a daughter to me. It was the winter of 1990, and I was working as a journalist and radio presenter in Nanjing when I was sent to a hospital in Zhengzhou, Henan, to interview people who had been injured in a snowstorm. There, I came across a newborn girl. Her birth had been difficult, and her mother had haemorrhaged and died when she was only three days old. Although she had not even had a chance to put her daughter to her breast, she did give her the name Xue'r (Little Snow), after the great snowflakes that had floated down outside on the day she was born. On the baby's forehead was a dark pink birthmark – the nurses believed it had been etched into her skin by a tear the dying mother shed as she held her daughter in her arms.

Her parents had been deeply in love and after his wife died, the husband, a surgeon, had taken large quantities of sleeping pills, slashed himself with a scalpel and lain down to die next to her in the mortuary. He left a simple farewell note: he could not leave his beloved wife alone in the Under­world. There was no mention of his daughter.

Little Snow lay quietly in a cot in the empty children's ward and, looking at her, I felt tears come to my eyes. I picked her up and kissed her "teardrop mark", and she opened her bright eyes and seemed to look into mine. The nurse said that neither side of the family wanted her because she was a girl, so she would be sent to an orphanage.

On my way home, Little Snow kept coming back into my mind. As soon as it was light the next morning, I made my way through the whirling snow to the hospital. The nurses there told me she would be taken to the orphanage that afternoon, when the weather had improved. I found the staff nurse and said I wanted to foster Little Snow.

"You can't rush into something like this," she said. "Never mind all the procedures to be gone through – and I doubt they'd accept you – there'd be problems when she's due to start school. Besides, you already have a child; you wouldn't be allowed to adopt another under the one-child policy."

"But – if I just foster her?" I begged. "It'll reduce the burden on the state."

"How can we let you foster her? Only grand­parents have the right to foster, even uncles and aunts can't. The family planning authorities would worry about setting a precedent. The relatives of couples who have 'extra' babies might want to adopt them. We can't do it. We'd get into trouble."

I went to see someone higher up in the hospital, an old friend. He made a wise suggestion: I should take her home now, while Little Snow was still down in the hospital records as their patient. In a couple of months it would be Chinese New Year, and policy might change or be relaxed.

I already knew about the problem of orphaned girls in China. In 1989, I had started presenting a programme for women on Nanjing Radio and many of the women who phoned in were mothers who had been forced to abandon their babies.

Female babies have been abandoned in farming cultures of the east since ancient times. In commu­nities that rely on primitive methods of farming, or on hunting, gathering and fishing, hard manual labour is necessary for survival, so a preference for boys is inevitable. But there is also, in China, the one-child policy, drawn up in 1979 by the then vice-premier Chen Muhua (the first woman premier in China's history), who convinced ­delegates that limiting couples to one child could slow the rapid rate of population growth. Then there are the ancient systems of land and food distribution, which, I discovered, still persist today.

While doing a story in the Shandong province, I visited a peasant family. We had scarcely sat down in the kitchen when we heard a moan of pain from the bedroom next door. The village head's wife said politely, "Pay no attention. My daughter-in-law is in labour. We'll just eat our dinner."

The cries from the inner room grew louder – and abruptly stopped. There was a low sob, then a man's gruff voice said accusingly: "Useless thing!"

I thought I heard a movement in the slops pail behind me and automatically glanced towards it. To my horror, I saw a tiny foot poking out of the pail. It wasn't possible. The midwife must have dropped that tiny baby alive into the slop pail! I nearly threw myself at it, but two policemen who had accompanied me held my shoulders in a firm grip. "Don't move, you can't save it, it's too late."

"But that's... murder... and you're the police!" I was aghast. The little foot was still now. The policemen held on to me for a few more minutes.

"'Doing' a baby girl is not a big thing around here," an older woman said comfortingly, seeing how shocked I was.

"That's a living child," I said in a shaking voice, pointing at the slops pail.

"It's not a child," she interrupted. "It's a girl baby, and we can't keep it."

"A girl baby isn't a child, and you can't keep it?" I repeated uncomprehendingly.

"Around these parts, you can't get by without a son. You city folk get food from the government. We get our grain ration according to the number of people in the family. Girl babies don't count. The officials in charge don't give us any extra land when a girl is born, and there's so little arable land that the girls will starve to death anyway."

This was 1989 and I did not know until then that a 2,000-year-old system for allocating land was still in use in Chinese villages near the end of the 20th century. I certainly had no idea that, because of it, so many baby girls had lost the right to life. As time went by, and I travelled around China, I found out that the old village custom of killing girl babies was extremely common in provinces such as Henan, Shandong, Shanxi and Northern Jiangsu.

For many of the girls who did survive, another fate awaited. Two years later, the same young peasant couple came to the radio station to see me. "I had two more [children]," the woman told me, "but they were both girls, and my father-in-law gave them to foreigners."

"Gave them to foreigners?" Until then, I had not heard of foreigners adopting Chinese children, as there had been no coverage in the Chinese media.

"My parents-in-law said it was better to have them adopted by foreigners than to kill them," she said. Overseas adoption of Chinese children officially began in 1993, yet migrant workers in south China were talking about it as early as 1990.

Millions of families had continued to believe it was their God-given duty to produce a male heir to carry on the family line; it was a sin not to. Once the one-child policy came into force, these people paid a heavy price. Whole families were ruined, homes destroyed and people died at the hands of village cadres who carried out family planning policies crudely and violently. It was illiterate peasant families who fought the local govern­ment most bitterly for the chance to have a boy.

China is a vast country and there are areas where the policy has never been effectively implemented. In contrast, in its eastern urban areas, enforce­ment was and is draconian. Almost everyone lived in the state-planned economy until the start of the 1990s, so having more than one child meant losing your job, home (which was allocated by your employer), food and clothing rations, even your child's right to schooling and medical care.

Despite all this, I really thought by some devious means I'd eventually be able to adopt Little Snow, find loopholes in a policy that grew stricter by the day. I was extremely naive in those days.

As the weeks passed, Little Snow became like a daughter to me. My son Panpan was one and a half, and just learning to walk and talk. He used to muddle up the names Mama (Mum) and ­Meimei (little sister), and when Little Snow cried, hushed her the way I did with him, saying, "Mama, meimei, mama, meimei."

With us, Little Snow got plenty of food and good care; she quickly grew plump and turned into a strong, active baby. Nearly three months passed and it was Chinese New Year. People came to wish us a happy New Year and all fell under the spell of my lively daughter's happy smiles.

Then, straight after New Year, the head of the radio station came to see me for a private chat. He advised me to give up Little Snow. Not long after that, I was warned by personnel that if I did not act soon, the head might lose his job, and I mine, because I had disobeyed the one-child family planning policy. This was equivalent to taking a colleague's dinner bowl away from him, because it was the workplace that administered the almost military-style rationing system of those days.

I had no choice but to give in, at least outwardly. I held off for as long as I could, on the pretext of getting together her medical records. I prayed for a miracle, hoping somehow Little Snow would be forgotten. But the family planning officers were intransigent. Less than two weeks later, the station head came to see me again and gave me a written warning that I'd be disciplined. My offence would remain on my records for the rest of my life.

"Xinran," he said gloomily, "if they kick you out, we'll suffer the consequences, too. At the very least, I'll be demoted. I hope you'll spare a thought for those of us who will share the responsibility..."

At this, I knew I had no choice. It was not only that my boss and friend would be dragged into it, and I would lose my job. It was that I'd no longer be able to provide for my children at the most basic level, and Little Snow would be branded an "illegal" for the rest of her life. That was not fair on her.

Once my decision was made, sleep deserted me and I began to look drawn and miserable. Little Snow had come to depend on me for her happi­ness; she trusted me the way any child trusts its mother.

The day before Little Snow was to leave, I put on the heating and made the flat cosy and warm. Then I tried on her every piece of clothing I had bought for her for the following summer, autumn, winter and spring. I held back the tears as I changed her from one garment to another, imagining how she would look when she was bigger. Then I worked till late at night packing her bags.

The next day we went with Little Snow to the hospital. I told myself we could go and see her in the orphanage, but it was a long and agonising week before I managed to sneak away and see her, without daring to tell anyone. It took three hours of searching before I found the orphanage – a rudimentary shack. The door was battered and the room inside just a dozen square feet. To the right was a stove; in the corner, a few bowls, chop­sticks and kitchen utensils; tucked into the left-hand corner was a shelf made of wooden slats and shaped like wide desk drawers, which held the babies. The smallest had room to spare, but the heads and feet of the biggest touched the wall or the wooden edge. There were nine of them and almost all were dressed in Little Snow's clothes.

I caught my breath, aghast. Was my Little Snow there, too? Suddenly I saw her. It had been only a week but she had grown thinner; her little face was wan and her lively expression was gone. She recognised me and held out her little arms as if in protest at being abandoned there. I was stricken. I picked her up and burst into tears, terrifying the other infants who set up accompanying wails. An old nurse came in and introduced herself as Mother Tang. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she said, "We can't do anything. The government has no money and we don't get support from anyone. It's hard enough just to keep the children alive."

"What about officials from the local government, haven't they visited?" I asked.

"They said they'd come, but didn't. They said this place is due for demolition, the orphanage will be moved and things should get better. But no one's been by since then." Mother Tang busied herself with pouring out the children's rice gruel.

"Do the relatives come to see them?" I asked, getting out the milk powder I had brought with me.

"That's wonderful!" she exclaimed. "These girls are so lucky to have Little Snow here… They're orphans – who's going to come and see them? The families can't get rid of them quick enough. If any­one does come, it's only to ask if we have any boys. Haven't you noticed every single one's a girl?"

"What happened to them in the past?"

"I don't know," she said, feeding one of the smallest babies. "This orphanage is temporary, an overflow annexe added on when the old one was full. We don't have the money to buy them food and clothes; they grow so fast, we can't keep up."

That night, I got out every item of Panpan's clothing. I kept just two changes of clothes for him, then packed up all the bedding except one spare set. Next morning, I went back to the orphanage with two large bags. We laid the bedding out on the slats to make them warmer. Then I sent Mother Tang to buy milk products and hanging mobiles for the children. They needed bright colours and sounds to listen to. Back at the radio station, I looked out a big pile of address cards of friends and wrote to each of them, appealing for help.

Two responded immediately, offering support. One was the head of a furniture factory, offering 10 cots and a playpen. The other was the director of a milk products factory, offering to deliver fresh milk free every day on condition that I mention their generosity on my daily programme.

I felt comforted as I saw that dark, lifeless orphanage transformed into a brighter, more cheerful place. Six months passed and soon it would be Little Snow's first birthday. We decided to have a celebration of the western and Chinese New Years and birthdays for all the children. We would buy them new clothes, new toys, then hire a taxi and take them into town to show them the sights they had never seen before. We had it all planned when I was sent to do a story on child miners a day's drive away. I'd be gone two weeks.

The day of my return, I took Panpan to see Little Snow. But the orphanage room held only the new cots – all empty. Mother Tang was not there and all I could make out from the assistant was that the children had been taken away.

"Taken away where?" I was frantic, but she would not say any more.

Over the next two weeks, I hunted desperately for Mother Tang, contacting any government depart­ments that might know what had happened. The upshot was this: four days after I left, Mother Tang had broken her leg and had to go to hospital. She had been told nothing about what had happened to the orphanage in her absence. A young woman fresh out of university had been sent as a temporary replacement, but two days later an official turned up to say the premises were to be demolished within a couple of weeks to make way for a national highway that had to be completed by spring. That's the way the Chinese did things – without any legal procedures and as fast as someone could give the order. The children were redistributed among other orphanages.

"Was each child given a number before they went?" I asked the official claiming to be in charge.

He looked at me in surprise. "What for?"

"Are there files on each child?"

He looked even more taken aback. "What files?"

"Then how will they ever be able to trace their birth families in the future?" I burst out.

He laughed at me: "You must be joking! No orphans ever find their mothers."

When I went back to the orphanage, even the cots had been taken away.

"Who's taken the cots?" I asked the assistant.

"I don't know," she said, looking panic-stricken. In darkened corners of the empty room, a few bits of toys lay scattered on the floor.

If only I had not gone off on that assignment. That's a regret I shall carry with me always. I never stopped making inquiries until finally, in 1996, I learned that all the orphans of Little Snow's age from that region had been adopted. I was told Little Snow was very likely adopted when the first group of Americans came to China, although it was also possible, but unlikely, that she had been adopted by a Chinese family.

In the summer of 1997, I left for England, with the emotional baggage of 40 difficult years in China, all my material possessions stuffed into a single suitcase. I'd had to leave Panpan behind with my parents in Nanjing as I tried to establish myself in London, but two years after leaving China I held him in my arms again.

As the years went by and I travelled around, I could not help searching for Little Snow. And looking at all these Chinese girls who had been adopted by families around the world, I had mixed feelings. Were they China's daughters? What did they know of China? Did their unknown Chinese mothers feel joy or sorrow, knowing their beloved daughters were happy in another mother's arms?

In 2004, I set up a charity in the UK, the Mother's Bridge of Love (MBL), for Chinese children living all over the world, and for the disabled children who languish forgotten in Chinese orphanages. Since then, I have met many groups of Chinese girls and I can never help myself: Little Snow's features seem to be stamped on every one of their innocent, happy faces. In October 2007, I met a group of Chinese teenagers in San Francisco and again shed silent tears. Little Snow might have been among them, I thought. She would have been 17. I scrutinised each face, hoping to see the teardrop birthmark. I did not find it, but I did not lose hope because I knew my Little Snow would be just as pretty as they were, just as full of life.

By the end of 2007, the number of Chinese orphans adopted worldwide had reached 120,000. These children had gone to 27 countries – and almost all were girls. I often think that of all those mothers who have lost their daughters, I am the luckiest because, through my work in the west, I have been able to see these girls growing up. I can tell those young women what their Chinese mothers really felt, and embrace them in a way their mothers will almost certainly never be able to do.

This is an edited extract from Message From An Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories Of Loss And Love, by Xinran, to be published by Chatto & Windus on 4 February at £16.99. To order a copy for £15.99, with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.