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One woman’s mission to help China’s abandoned babies find their families … including her own sister

Six decades ago at the end of 1950s and in the early 1960s a serious famine struck the Yangtze River Delta, a traditionally rich region of China. Tens of thousands of babies were abandoned by their families, who were facing starvation. The babies were then taken in by the local welfare authority and sent to provinces in the north with more food. Over the past 16 years, many of these orphans, now in their 50s or 60s, have been looking for their biological relatives with the help of Lu Shunfang. Lu, 67 is a farmer from Yixing in Jiangsu province. She says part of her work is to realise her mother’s last wish – to find her youngest sister, also abandoned as a baby at that time.

What happened to your family during the famine?

In the spring of 1960, my mother abandoned my youngest sister Lu Yafang, who was 26 months old, in Shanghai. Local residents in Jiangsu thought there was no famine in Shanghai and so leaving the baby there meant she would have a greater chance of survival. They thought authorities in Shanghai would house abandoned babies in welfare institutes where they would be fed. I was 10 years old that year and I remember clearly that my sister was able to speak, but she was so malnourished that she couldn’t stand up. We didn’t have any food at home and lots of people in my hometown were starving to death. So, I believe what my mother did was right. My parents loved my sister and leaving her was their last option. They would rather be accused [of losing her] for the rest of their life than leaving my sister no chance of survival.

How did you start the initiative of helping others seek relatives?

I began to search for my sister in the mid 1980s when I had opportunities to go on business trips to northern provinces. Years later, the minute before my mother died, I promised her that I would definitely find my lost sister. That’s why I have been doing this all these years. I understand the deep sorrow of family separation and I’m aware of the vast difficulties in finding lost family members. So it’s a natural thing for me to look for my own sister and in the meantime help other people with the same family plight. Since 2000 I have been collecting information in the media about people seeking relatives and made piles of files of this information at home. Many people call me or visit my home to ask me for help. I record their information and hunt for people that match their request. If there is someone whose information matches what the relative seeks, I will call the two parties. I will ask them to contact each other and do a DNA test as well. As of today, I have helped 300 families find their beloved family members.

In your opinion, why did the famine happen?

It’s a sensitive issue. On the mainland, the authorities call the period from 1958 to 1961 “three years of hard times” and blame it on natural disasters. But I think the hardship in people’s lives was caused more by human factors than by natural elements. The Great Leap Forward movement was carried out from 1958-1961 with the aim of rapidly transforming China from an underdeveloped agricultural country into an industrialised one. Grassroots officials were overstating agricultural output, resulting in farmers having to hand in much more food to the government than they could afford.

We heard that the state authorities levied food to support poor countries in Africa, Latin America and other parts of Asia. But we farmers in China were on the edge of starvation. So a lot of families had to give up their youngest kids who were too young to remember or tell their home address. Parents left babies on the street hoping the authorities would pick them up and take them to welfare centres. As this was going on, the public-run orphanages also ran out of food and the authorities had to send these children along rail lines north, to cities in Shaanxi, Henan, Hebei, Shandong and Inner Mongolia where the situation was better than in the south. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of orphans were taken from their home towns in this way.

Have you ever received government help in searching for the orphans?

Little substantial help, I would say. I have been contacting families and orphans and travelling around the country to hold search events for relatives. I have been operating a website that serves as a people-search information platform. All this was done by me alone. Some orphans asked, why don’t the authorities support them in finding their biological families? I said it’s not possible for the government to do that. Decades ago the authorities called on couples in the north to adopt orphans transported from the south. Now these parents are in their 80s or 90s, and encouraging or funding the orphans to look for their original families would hurt these old people. I have received numerous rewards from the authorities for my public welfare cause. In 2007, I meet then president Hu Jintao and was honoured as an ethical role model. I think this kind of honour is the biggest support the government can give us.

What are the current challenges you face?

It’s more and more difficult for orphans to find their biological families because their original parents are either too old or have died and their siblings are not so enthusiastic about searching for them. Over the past 10 years I have been advocating DNA tests which I think are the most accurate way to identify blood relationships. But many people complain that the cost – 1,500 yuan ((HK$1,700) for each test – is too high and they say the government should cover this expense. I tell them this request is ridiculous.

What do people do if they’re lucky enough to find their original family?

I have only seen one woman stay with her biological family and most orphans don’t stay. For these orphans, it’s not realistic to move to the south as they have spent most of their life in the north where their own families and social networks are. Orphans know that finding their original families is like finding a needle in a haystack, but still they search. For many years, they have been wondering where they’re from and it’s their wish, and a secret at the bottom of their heart, to find where their roots are.