CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 19, September 2009


Fifty Thousand Orphans and the Road Home | China Heritage Quarterly

Fifty Thousand Orphans and the Road Home

An Oral History Account of a Legacy of the Great Leap Forward.

By Sang Ye

Translated by Linda Jaivin

At the time of this oral history interview in 2008 Lü Shunfang was a 59 year-old female rural worker living in Yixing City, Jiangsu Province. In it she describes one of the abiding and heart-rending effects of the Great Leap Forward launched by the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1950s. This material is from Sang Ye and Geremie R. Barmé's upcoming book entitled The Rings of Beijing: China's Global Aura. We are grateful to the Sydney-based novelist and essayist Linda Jaivin for translating and annotating Lü Shunfang's account for China Heritage Quarterly. For more on the Great Leap in our journal, see '1959 & its Aftermath: New Years Past' in the Features section of Issue 18 (June 2009).

During the Great Leap Forward, they set up People's Communes and communal kitchens. Then famine struck. The poor were unable to feed themselves. Their children had no chance of survival at home. But there was nowhere to send a child already half-dead from starvation. Their only hope was to leave them where people with food might notice and take them in.

The whole country was suffering from famine. Everyone was hungry. The people who abandoned their children this way hoped that their kids would be fed. So they did their best to leave them in busy places. On the verge of starvation themselves, they couldn't travel very far. But if they abandoned their children close by where they lived they'd starve for sure. The best bet was to take them to Shanghai. Shanghai was a big place. It wasn't that no one tried closer to home. But when they did, no one paid any attention. There was a chance the children might survive in Shanghai. Abandoning them there was the only thing to do.

That's why the phrase 'Shanghai orphans' doesn't necessarily mean the orphans are Shanghainese. Parents from neighbouring places like Yixing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Yangzhou and Nanjing all abandoned children in Shanghai. So when we say 'Shanghai orphans' [Shanghai gu'er 上海孤儿], it's a catch-all term for the more than fifty thousand children the government picked up in Shanghai and then sent out to places in the north.

The Shanghai orphans are all old now, some nearing fifty, and others even older. Having learned of their history in different ways, they are increasingly anxious to locate their biological parents as well as any sisters or brothers. Their parents and siblings are also searching for them. So we gradually began organising activities by which the Shanghai orphans and their families might find one another and founded the Great Leap Shanghai Orphans Association [Shanghai Gu'er Xunqin Hui 上海孤儿寻亲会].[1] In addition to collecting information and doing liaison work, the association organises at least one reunion a year to give Shanghai orphans from all over China and their families an opportunity to identify one another. The venue for our annual reunion is the sports field of the primary school here in Guanlin Township. I'm the founder of the association. My home is the association's base and a home away from home for Shanghai orphans during their travels. The Shanghai orphans and their parents call me Big Sister Lü 'Family Reunion' Shunfang [Xunqin dajie Lü shunfang 寻亲大姐吕顺芳].

I'm looking for a relative myself—my younger sister. My family had five children at the time. By 1960, we had even eaten all the weeds. My mother left my younger sister in the doorway of a restaurant in Shanghai. She was lost to us then. But we never forgot her; we could never forget that final parting.

After Deng Xiaoping's reforms began [from late 1978], life gradually got better. Yet Mother's eyes often filled with tears, especially on such occasions as the New Year's dinner when the whole family ought to be together. Mother always cries at the thought of my sister. Finding her has become my greatest desire. Beginning in 2000, I started making inquiries in Shanghai. The government said that the number of children abandoned during those years was huge. Shanghai couldn't absorb them all, and so the government sent them in stages to Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hebei, Liaoning, Henan, and Inner Mongolia. And so I went to Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hebei, Liaoning, Henan and Inner Mongolia looking for her. I covered half of China. But I still hadn't found her when my mother died and I still haven't found her today. After my mother passed away, I continued to search. I'm determined to find her. I'll never forget my mother's tears on her deathbed.

In the course of my own searching I discovered many other people who had suffered a similar fate. There were parents searching for children, children searching for parents. The children had already grown up and become parents themselves. The parents were already elderly. Yet they all still missed one another so much, and were all still searching. So I came up with the idea that I wouldn't just look for my sister. I'd help others find their missing relatives too.

The famine left a deep impression on me, even if I can't recall many details. I was eight years old, and didn't really understand what was going on, although I remember the hunger well. People blamed it on natural disasters, saying that the whole country was suffering from them. Suzhou, Wuxi and Yixing, which border Lake Tai, were renowned for having an abundance of fish and rice, and yet even we were said to suffer from natural disasters.

After Deng Xiaoping began the reforms [in 1978], it became clear that the 'natural disasters' were in fact the Great Leap Forward and the establishment of the People's Communes. They'd boasted that the padi fields could produce ten thousand, one hundred thousand catties of padi per mu,[2] and that food would be free. We were going to experience Communism in practice. The crops rotted in the fields but no one paid any attention because they had to devote all their energy to the production of steel. People ate in communal kitchens. When the grain rations ran out we ate the seed grain. When that ran out, the communes closed their kitchens and that was it, no more food. No more food and nowhere to go to escape the famine. Everywhere in the country people were starving. And so with no escape, people starved to death. But you weren't allowed to call it starving to death; you'd have to call it dying from oedema. At that time final partings were quite common. It was horribly sad to abandon a child to orphanhood in Shanghai, but it did mean one less mouth to feed at home and the possibility that the abandoned child might live. And so people had to part with their own flesh and blood. There was no way around it.

Our association has already reunited well over two hundred families. We've collected many other names of Shanghai orphans and their parents, descriptions, blood types and contact information. The Shanghai orphans are scattered across a dozen provinces. Every day I receive calls from all over. Because I started my search relatively early, and thanks to the orphans' grapevine, I've become the person the orphans and their parents want to see. The association sprang up spontaneously, from the grassroots. The orphans contact me on their own initiative, as do the parents. More and more of them come forward all the time. I'm very happy doing this volunteer work. My phone has become a hotline. My home has stacks of information sent to me from everywhere. And that's how I became the founder of the Great Leap Shanghai Orphans Association, and known as Big Sister Lü 'Family Reunion' Shunfang.

Our families were all torn apart by natural disaster. The association was formed as a public service, spontaneously, at the grassroots level. Sons looking for their mothers, older sisters looking for their younger sisters—none of this could be construed as doing today's society any harm. I am a volunteer, looking for my own younger sister. This does no damage to today's society. In fact it's beneficial for the building of a harmonious society.[3] So not only does the government not interfere, it's also helped out a bit, for example providing the venue for our annual reunion.

I couldn't say for certain how many Shanghai orphans there were in all. The government says there were more than fifty thousand. I've learned lots of things in the course of this work. Only after getting someone to go through the archives of the Shanghai People's Government did I realise quite how many children really were affected.

In the three months of the spring of 1960 alone, which is when we lost my sister, there were 5,277. Over one hundred were found on one particular day. But the people in Shanghai were also starving. The grain stores were already empty. They sent people to the northern provinces to ask for help, but the northerners were also starving. One more person was one more mouth. No one was capable of solving the crisis, no one at all. So Shanghai told [the central government in] Beijing that there was no food. Even if there was, these children wouldn't be able to eat it. They asked if the Centre could possibly get some of the grasslands to donate milk powder. That's when Chairman Ulanhu of Inner Mongolia stood up and said, we in Inner Mongolia are also starving, so there's no milk powder—but we have the steppes and there are cattle on the steppes. If no one else in the country has the ability to take them, send the children here and I'll have the herdsmen raise them. They have cows and so they have milk.

The road from Shanghai to Inner Mongolia is long and arduous. I found out just how long and arduous when I went there looking for my sister. But it was the way out of a desperate situation. Inner Mongolia took in more than three thousand Shanghai orphans. But Shanghai didn't deliver them there, in the end it was Ulanhu who took charge and said they'd come and collect them. The Shanghai orphans in Inner Mongolia were called 'the nation's children', that's what the herdsmen called them. The Shanghai orphans of Inner Mongolia still call themselves by this name. The 'nation's children' have regular get-togethers, also self-organised. At the get togethers not only do they discuss the problem of finding their families but they also talk about how to make life better for their Inner Mongolian foster parents and the Inner Mongolian guardians who collected them from Shanghai. Ulanhu's own daughter was one of those who participated in this work. She says that life in Inner Mongolia at the time was also very tough but the herdsmen were good, kind-hearted people, and some families even took in two or more. The most taken by one family was six. My sister might have been among them, but then more likely she wasn't. And if she had been she'd speak Mongolian now: she wouldn't understand me and I wouldn't understand her and she'd probably have no idea that she had a sister looking for her.

Whether or not my sister was among them, I pay my deepest respects to Inner Mongolia. I am so grateful to the herdsmen for giving my brothers and sisters a lifeline. But there were so many Shanghai orphans, more and more all the time. Inner Mongolia couldn't take them all. They took three thousand. That still left over forty thousand. So Shanghai had people take the children in groups along the railway line to Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, Shaanxi, Liaoning, Jilin, Gansu and even as far away as Xinjiang—they'd go a ways and drop them off. They'd leave them wherever there were people willing to take them. At the time, Shanghai called this task 'sending out'. Anywhere the railway went there'd be Shanghai orphans 'sent out'. They didn't think to leave any sort of individual documentation with them. The people who did the work of sending out say they had a very tough time. 'The children would cry the whole way and we'd cry too. It's not that we were heartless—there was nothing else we could do. We were hungry too, and so were our own children.'

Why should we hate the parents? Sure, they abandoned the children, but it wasn't out of cruelty or heartlessness either. The parents couldn't even look after themselves, much less their children. The Shanghai orphans who are looking for their parents today aren't rich people, and neither are their parents. Back then they were ordinary families whose lives had been fine until then. But some of the Shanghai orphans aren't doing so well these days, so there's another situation that has arisen: some of them are afraid that their parents won't want to know them.

Wu Xiuqin lost the use of her legs in the Tangshan earthquake.[4] She's confined to a wheelchair. I met her when I was looking for my sister up north. She wanted to find her parents but didn't dare search for them. She wasn't confident they'd want to accept her as their daughter. Holding my hand, she told me that after much thought she'd decided to give it a try. She'd never rest easy otherwise. If by some miracle she found them, but they wouldn't have her, then she would let go her cherished dreams.

After I returned to Yixing, a person from Wuxi searching for her older sister came to look through the files. She thought that Wu Xiuqin might be her. When I told her what had happened to her the woman said without hesitation that so long as she was her sister, she'd accept her as such, whether or not she was crippled.

Further investigation made it seem likely that Wu Xiuqin was indeed her sister. I called Tangshan and invited Wu to come to Wuxi. She was still anxious about whether they'd accept her or not, and kept asking me if I thought they might have a change of heart once they saw her. I said I couldn't guarantee that all would be well, because I couldn't say for certain that they were really related, but I could promise that if she really was the woman's sister, she would accept her. I told her she had survived great disasters, and so had her family. We all had. We've all suffered as much as is humanely bearable. No one is going to object to you being in a wheelchair. She came. I met her at Wuxi Railway Station and accompanied her to the meeting. Later, they had a DNA test and sure enough, she was from this Wuxi family. Wu Xiuqin thus found her younger sister and her parents too. When they heard the result of the test, the whole family cried their hearts out, reunited at last.

Lao He's story was more complicated. He'd been taken to Shaanxi. When his parents left him he was three years old, just old enough to retain some memories of the time. Five years ago he came to me from Tongguan.[5] What he told me about the timing of his abandonment in Shanghai, and when he'd been sent away, and especially his impressions of his parents and two older brothers seemed to match what I knew about the family of Old Woman Zhao. I went to see her. Old Woman Zhao is eighty-six years old. She repeated in detail what she'd already told me about that time. The situation of the family and family members as described by both parties was completely identical and she had abandoned her child in Shanghai at the same time he said he was left there.

So I introduced them at the annual meeting. At the sight of Lao He, Old Woman Zhao's eyes popped out of her head. She exclaimed again and again how much he resembled her late husband. She brought her other two sons over and they really did look like brothers. Judging from appearances, they were surely a family. Old Woman Zhao wept and wept, and embraced Lao He, never letting go of his hand, and calling him son.

I was happy for them. But I reminded them they ought to have a DNA test just to be certain. Old Woman Zhao cursed, calling me a good-for-nothing so-and-so and rubbishing the suggestion. She took Lao He straight home, and four generations of family members threw themselves into preparations for a massive reunion feast with good wine and food. Lao He spoke Shaanxi dialect, which was mutually incomprehensible with the local language, so they gestured as they spoke, crying and laughing, laughing and crying.

Several days later, just after the reunion meeting had come to a close, a man called Mr Lan arrived from Suzhou. He was looking for his younger brother. He said that his parents had been forced to give him up. As they couldn't bear to do it themselves they had him take his brother to Shanghai. He was thirteen at the time. His brother was three. He left his brother at the door of a canteen, thinking that this might mean he'd have a chance at getting something to eat. Mr Lan had been searching for his brother for years. In Shanghai he was told that several days after he'd left his brother there a group of orphans had been taken to Shaanxi. He'd heard that there was a man who'd come to our meeting that year from Shaanxi, and wanted to know more about him.

Everyone's story was pretty similar; the tragedies are nearly identical. But Mr Lan provided a very important detail. He said there was a red birthmark on his brother's right arm. I looked closely at Mr Lan's face and thought again about Lao He, who'd already been claimed by Old Woman Zhao. Mr Lan and Lao He also looked a lot alike—and Lao He had himself mentioned the red birthmark on his right arm.

I called Old Woman Zhao. I didn't say anything about someone else thinking Lao He might be from his family, only that someone wanted to inquire about the situation in Shaanxi. But she went into a panic and said that no one was to come near Lao He, that he was hers, and anyone who thought of taking him would have to fight her to the death.

The only thing I could do was meet Lao He on the sly. I put him in an awful position. He said that given how good this mother and these brothers were to him, he was happy to call himself part of their family. He stayed with the Zhaos for quite a few days. Mr Lan stayed with me for a number of days too, waiting. When Lao He left, the Zhaos saw him off, only leaving the station when the train pulled out. So in the end Mr Lan and Lao He weren't able to meet. But Lao He returned secretly last year and met Mr Lan at my place. Mr Lan is really his brother but neither he nor Mr Lan dared go public about it for fear of hurting the feelings of Old Woman Zhao. Lao He said that he did eventually want to tell the Zhao family the truth because if he doesn't, they'll never find their real son. Yet unable to work out when or how to tell them, he returned to Shaanxi without having done so. It'll have to wait. We're already used to waiting—we're used to waiting and suffering.

The search for my sister hasn't been so straightforward either. When a Shanghai orphans group from Hebei organised a visit to Shanghai to look for their families, I went to see if she was among them. I met a woman called Zheng Lanfen whom I felt could be her, and the facts matched up, too. I took the preliminary step of saying that she was my sister. Zheng Lanfen then came to my home. My mother was still alive at the time. When they met, Zheng cried and called her 'mama'. But the results from the DNA tests revealed that she wasn't my sister after all. I took the news really hard, and so did she. She fell into a terrible state and couldn't eat or sleep.

Even if she wasn't really my sister, we were like bitter melons that had grown on the same vine. I insisted she sleep with my mother on her big bed, took her to town to cheer her up, and to the Shanjun Caves. I bought her husband and children new clothes and as she was leaving gave her some money as well. And so I acquired new family. Ever since then Zheng Lanfen has considered me her older sister and I look at her as a younger sister, but she's still looking for her real sister and so am I.

Some people are full of hatred. There's a fellow called Wang Haigeng who used the 'Great Revolutionary Link-ups'[6] of the Cultural Revolution to try to find his father and has been searching for his sister since the start of Deng Xiaoping's reforms. He's full of hatred. Back then his father had been made a counter-revolutionary. His mother was crippled, so she had to abandon his little sister. He's full of hatred. But most people don't talk about the problem this way. Some people call the Cultural Revolution a natural disaster too and say there's nothing you can do about natural disasters.

You could say that Wang Haigeng was among the first to embark on the search for family, and the one who covered the most distance. He's a Shanghainese. When his father was made a counter-revolutionary and sent to labour reform in Shanghai, he was seven and his baby sister only a few months old. His father then disappeared. His mother was crippled in both arms. She had no job, and, as the family of a counter-revolutionary, they had no other income. You couldn't move heaven or earth to help; she cried herself blind. One day Wang Haigeng returned from school to find his sister gone. When he asked his mother she said that to keep his sister from starving to death she'd abandoned her at the door of the hospital.

Like the rest of us, Wang Haigeng struggled in the face of adversity. But his case was more tragic than most. He also had to deal with prejudice.[7] He comforted himself with the thought that whatever else had become of her, his abandoned sister would at least have the advantage of no one knowing their family's political status. No one would know she belonged to the Five Black Categories.[8] If she'd been adopted by a working class family or by revolutionary cadres, she'd even have the advantage of a good class background and would be enjoying a better life than him.

During the Cultural Revolution, Wang Haigeng pretended be a Red Guard in order to take advantage of the free train tickets they got during the 'revolutionary link-ups'. He travelled to Lanzhou in Gansu Province. From there he went on foot to Qinghai to look for his father's labour camp. He was only fourteen. He was very brave, but he didn't find him.

More than ten years later, in 1979, they began to reverse the verdicts in unjust cases. Only then did he learn the name of the labour camp where his father was held. He immediately sent a letter to him. His father wrote back to say that he hadn't written for twenty years because he'd never been allowed the freedom to write or receive letters before. The situation was improving. Wang Haigeng sent another letter but before there was even time for a reply his father was released and returned from Qinghai. He says that on the day his father returned, his parents embraced, weeping. His father's first question was, 'Where's my other child?'

So Wang Haigeng embarked on the search for his sister. This was much more difficult than finding his father. His situation was the same as the rest of us. He put missing person notices in the paper and collected every bit of information he could gather about the Shanghai orphans and their quest to find their families. Every time he found information that might possibly lead to his sister he followed it up, no matter how far he had to go. He still hadn't found her by the time his father passed away in 2001. Wang Haigeng says that even on his deathbed his father refused to close his eyes until he promised to find his sister and bring her home. But that was eight years ago and he still hasn't found her. His father disappeared, his mother cried herself blind and his little sister was lost. These troubles that he has experienced have nothing to do with natural disasters. They are completely man-made disasters. He's spent his life looking for people and he's almost used it up and still hasn't found his sister. He carries a lot of rage and hatred in his heart.

Ever since I began work on the association in 2000, my monthly telephone bill has run to hundreds of yuan. If you add on the cost of looking after Shanghai orphans from all over, my expenses have been considerable. I'm not that well off. I use all the money that other people might spend on eating or drinking out, or buying clothes or playing mahjong or cards for this. Some people don't believe it, and suspect me of getting some secret income for my work. But what possible secrets could there be in a grassroots association founded to help people find their families? Some people who end up finding their families try to give me hundreds or even thousands of yuan, and others who haven't found their families do the same, but I don't accept any of it. If I did, the whole nature of the association would change. And if the association ran into trouble it wouldn't be able to help build bridges between the people it's trying to support. But it is true that running this association has in fact led to my gaining some advantages.

I'm an uncultured village woman who only went through ninth grade but I've learned to use computers, I've learned to use the Internet and even set up a website. Every day I send out news, answer correspondence and collect information. I feel I'm getting younger all the time. I'm an experienced 'netizen'. I've learned just how handy the Internet is. It's not like the way you had to phone people in the past. It saves time, effort and money and you can even communicate with those searching for their families with video conferencing, which saves them having to run all over the place by train with all the expense and hardship that entails.

There are other benefits too. For instance last year I put an old man in his eighties together with his daughter. He insisted on having me to his house. I went. When I got to the village I discovered he had called everyone in the whole village out. They lined the paths to welcome me, applauding and bowing to me. If I hadn't formed this association, I'd just be an uncultured village woman. No one would ever line any footpaths to welcome me. So the association is my proper vocation. So long as I've got the strength, I want to carry it through to the end.

We've put on nine annual get togethers so far. Every year hundreds of Shanghai orphans from all over to take part. They come from as far away as Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Last year we couldn't fit them all in, there were more than five hundred Shanghai orphans, and over two thousand parents and siblings as well. The school sports field couldn't hold everyone. So this year we're going to try something new. We're going to take this out of Yixing and hold get-togethers in different places. The first one will take place in Wuxi on 1 May, the second in Yangzhou on the second of the month, the third in Changzhou on 3 May, and the fourth in Nanjing the following day, and we'll hold the fifth in Shanghai.

We already have more than a thousand Shanghai orphans registered for each of these meetings and even more parents and siblings. In fact we've widened in scope. This year at Spring Festival I went to Sichuan to take part in activities in Chengdu for orphans, taking donations from the people of Yixing to the earthquake-affected areas. I visited villages and schools to place red envelopes one by one into the hands of people and children affected by the disaster. Along the way I collected information from over a hundred people searching for relatives lost in the earthquake. I agreed to help.

The website has also helped us broaden the scope of what we do. Anyone searching for family can register. So other people separated from family members have begun leaving messages. Some people were kidnapped and trafficked over ten years ago, others were children of 'educated youths' who'd been left in the villages more than twenty years after their parents returned to the city. There are also some who'd followed Old Chiang [Kai-shek] to Taiwan and have been separated from their relatives for sixty years already.

Because I still haven't found her, I continue to search. Life itself is a search—a search for food, for one's family, for the thing one needs to do, for a way to achieve that goal.

My mother's name was Xie Xiumei. My sister was called Lü Yafang.

Oh, Yafang, if you are reading, whatever far-flung corner of the world you're in, please come back. Mama's gone. But I have kept a lock of her hair for you.


[1] Literally 'The Shanghai Orphans Finding Family Association'.

[2] 75,000 to 750,000 kilos of unhusked rice per hectare (1 catty=½ kilo; 1 mu=1/15 hectare).

[3] In 2004, the Chinese Communist Party declared that the forging of a 'socialist, harmonious society' to be a strategic goal for the nation.

[4] The Tangshan Earthquake of the summer of 1976 ranks as one of modern China's worst natural disasters. In this industrial city not far from Beijing, hundreds of thousands of people perished and countless others were injured.

[5] A county in Shaanxi Province, on the Yellow River.

[6] Geming da chuanlian 革命大串联, a mass movement approved by Mao Zedong allowing Red Guards and revolutionary rebels to travel free of charge to spread the word (and the devastation) of the Cultural Revolution throughout China in 1966-67.

[7] As the son of a 'counter-revolutionary'.

[8] Landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, bad elements and rightists.