For years, Ling Dong didn’t want to find his parents. In 1999, he was abducted from Shanghai while his grandmother wasn’t paying attention. At the age of four, he was taken across the country to the southwestern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Like thousands of other Chinese children, he had been trafficked to be sold to childless — or sonless — couples.
But growing up, Ling was told his biological parents had abandoned and sold him. He developed a hatred for them. In recent years, as child abductions have become rare in China, the country’s thousands of victims are trying to find their biological roots aided by a national DNA database. But Ling didn’t feel a need to start searching until, in 2019, his curiosity got the better of him.
The following is his account, which he shared on the condition of using a pseudonym:
I was abducted in the fall of 1999. I only remember being taken to Guangxi by a man, first by train, then by boat, and in the end being carried into the mountains on his back. He used a large leaf to scoop mountain water for me to drink. When I cried, he played hide-and-seek with me and warned that the police would arrest me if I didn’t quiet down.
I arrived at a remote place, where “mom and dad” were waiting for me. There were small rivers, mountains, trees, and chickens and ducks. My original home did not have these things, so I was both scared and curious.
One time, I broke a vase at home, and my “mother” called me a nuisance and said she didn’t want me anymore. Within a few months they had a child of their own, and handed me over to my current family.
That winter I left my first adoptive home, and then slept with my “grandmother” in the new home. One night, I wanted to pee but was afraid to say anything. She figured out my dilemma. From then on, I felt safe sleeping with her. She kept my legs warm.
Not long after I arrived, my new “parents” made me learn to do things around the house. I started to cook for them, and one time I sneakily put an egg into the almost-cooked rice. The half-cooked egg seeped onto the surface of the rice. As punishment, my adoptive father didn’t give me any food that night and sent me to sleep in the pigsty.
My adoptive older sister secretly pocketed the meal and rolled it into a ball for me to eat, saying, “Little brother, eat. The night will pass and light will come soon. Don’t eat the eggs; those are for selling.”
Another time, I wanted to eat some crackers. My adoptive sister took ten yuan from my adoptive father to buy them for me. I didn’t want to eat them all at once, so I nibbled and nibbled, smiling and laughing.
I would always ask my adoptive sister what she wanted to do when she grew up. She would say that she wanted to eat well and wear pretty dresses. Now, every year, I buy her a few dresses. She was my protector during my childhood; in my heart, she was my mother figure.
Sometimes I felt for my adoptive parents, thinking that they must have been exhausted from working in the fields. They might not have shown much love to me, but it was there. For example, when I was sick, they gave me money to get medicine from the village doctor. When I was bullied, my adoptive mother would step in and get angry on my behalf. Thinking I wasn’t smart enough, she told me to hide next time.
I didn’t have much interest in school. In the summer of the second grade, I was swimming in a pond, which I wasn’t allowed to do because it wasn’t safe. When my adoptive father showed up, I was terrified. I knew I couldn’t hide. He didn’t scold me directly, but he took all my clothes away and said, “Don’t eat; just keep playing until you get it out of your system.”
But it hurt my pride. When people passed by, I squatted in the water to conceal myself. I sat soaking in the water for a long time, my arms and legs weak. Finally, when it was almost dark, I began crying. I hated my biological parents at the time, thinking that they had abandoned me to suffer like that. That was the first time I thought about suicide — but all my courage was gone. I had no choice but to go home with my head hung low.
Whether I was behaving myself or not, my adoptive parents often said that my real parents didn’t want me at all. In my heart I agreed with them, and I feared that one day they too would send me away. By the time I was eight, I was able to fry many dishes, feed the chickens and ducks, and gather grass for the cows to eat. I washed the dishes. I put away clothes. I knew what my adoptive parents wanted just based on their facial expressions.
By fifth grade, I dropped out of school and became a cowherd. Whenever I felt bad, I went to an ancient tomb on the back of the mountain and secretly wrote in a diary and drew pictures — my reveries of my real mother, far away. I hated her, but I missed her as well. I figured she must be beautiful, and wondered whether I resembled her in any way.
A view of the hill near his adoptive family’s home where Ling Dong likes to spend his time, Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Courtesy of Ling Dong
Growing Up Without Them
At the age of 15, I started to work with a man in the village, moving bricks, pounding cement, and hefting sand. After about six months, the boss saw that I was a hard worker and let me learn to drive an excavator so that I could find more work later on.
While I worked, I had that sense of freedom that only comes from leaving home, getting paid monthly, and eating what I wanted. I would occasionally think of my biological parents bitterly — even without you, I have a job, I’ve grown up, and I’m earning money.
But when my coworkers got off work, their parents would often call them and send them food. My adoptive parents would only call around payday to ask when I was getting paid. They would remind me to take the money home and ask me to buy whatever they needed. I could only keep a small portion of my wages as pocket money; I had to give the rest to them.
When I was 18, I built myself a hut at the back of the mountain and often sat there for long periods of time, imagining that everything could change for the better and that I wasn’t inferior to others.
A small house built by Ling Dong. Courtesy of Ling Dong
I once saw, by chance, the TV program “Waiting for Me” on CCTV, China’s state broadcaster. A mother named Zhang Xuexia was looking for her son. Her husband couldn’t take it any longer and committed suicide, only leaving behind the sentence, “All I wanted was my son.”
I began to wonder: had I also been abducted? But then I would instantly turn it around in my head: I was definitely abandoned. The villagers used to say, “Your parents sold you to someone, and they likely have their own children — they probably don’t want you. Your parents here raised you, so you should be good to them.”
My “grandmother” often told me that if someone gave birth to a child but didn’t raise it, the child could repay them by chopping off one finger — that was the value of the birth; if someone didn’t give birth to a child and still raised it, the child could only pay them back by chopping off its own head.
She was worried that I would one day leave, so she gave me a role model: another family also raised an abandoned girl, and the girl was particularly filial. In order to show her loyalty to her adoptive family, the girl wouldn’t look at her biological parents when they came back to find her.
For a few months before my adoptive grandmother died, I was the one who fed her three times a day, bathed her, and clothed her. On the night she passed away, I helped her take a bath and fed her a thin porridge. She was very lucid, saying that she had no expectations — only that she wanted me to be dedicated to the family, and that all of it would be mine in the end. I accepted my fate — they raised me when I was small, I would take care of them when they grew old.
In the middle of the night, my grandmother passed away in my arms. Just before that, unable to speak, she gestured with her finger to the ancestral tablet and the row of incense dedicated to the ancestors, signaling me to grant her request.
A screenshot of a missing person’s poster for Tang Weihua’s son which was later edited by Ling Dong. Courtesy of Ling Dong
When I came across a livestream of Tang Weihua, a woman whose son had been abducted, I was at the lowest point of my life. I was afraid that I really had been abandoned and that my parents had never looked for me. Every time Tang was livestreaming, I would hide from my adoptive parents and watch the videos from the back of the hill.
At that time, I was included in a group as, possibly, Tang’s lost son. Through the administrator, I got connected with Tang through a private chat. I couldn’t help but tell her about my childhood, and she said something like, “Don’t be afraid, my child, I’m here.”
Growing up, I hadn’t been called that by anyone. We chatted late into the night. I asked her to sing a song for me live the next day. She was busy that day, but she still sang specifically for me on her live feed. Then, every day after that, she and I would chat late at night on WeChat. She patiently comforted me and also gently pushed me to get a blood sample taken.
Soon after, my adoptive parents began to notice changes in me. They forbade me from watching the livestreams. That day, my adoptive mother and I had an argument. I was in a bad mood, drank too much, and ran to the back of the mountain to watch Tang’s broadcast. I tripped and hit my head — the villagers had to take me to the hospital. It was on that day that my adoptive mother began to watch me like a hawk, confiscating my phone and blocking Tang on WeChat.
While in the hospital, I thought about sharing with others my experiences with my adoptive family. Someone on the internet happened to question whether I had been made up by Tang for ratings. After giving it much thought, I put together a letter for Tang to read during a livestream.
Because of the letter, some people were even more convinced that I was a fake, making up heavy stories just to gain their sympathy. There were also a lot of people who were moved by it, and weren’t happy about my adoptive parents’ behavior: “To buy a child but not love it? Why buy one in the first place!?” Social media users advised me to have a blood sample taken to find my real family.
But I was worried about my adoptive parents, fearing that they would feel bad and that a rift would grow between us after they learned about it. I also feared that the villagers would find out and scold me for being ungrateful.
I eventually decided to have a blood sample taken, if only just to show my biological parents all that I had, 21 years later, grown up without their help. I still had nagging and very complicated feelings about them. I was desperate to learn about them, to see them, and to confront them face to face.
A few days after the blood sample, Tang arrived in Guangxi. My adoptive mother was resistant to our meeting, but she didn’t know about the blood sample yet. She made me promise to absolutely not look for my real home. Tang wanted to see me during her last few days in Guangxi, but my adoptive father watched me closely. He even followed me to my workplace.
That night I planned to drive an excavator to another county to meet Tang after work. But my adoptive father followed me and forced me to turn back; he hit a car as a threat. Our fight got physical, and I had no choice but to return.
After that, I was even more determined to meet Tang when she came to Liuzhou. But my adoptive mother had a breakdown and drank pesticide.
On the fourth day of my adoptive mother’s hospitalization, I was officially notified that, after two rounds of comparison, my DNA was successfully matched with a couple in Zhejiang, the province south of Shanghai.
Klaus Ohlenschläger/500px/People Visual
After the successful match, I neither talked to nor met my biological relatives in Zhejiang — much less asked for a reunion. I had suffered so much because my biological grandmother lost sight of me — I took the blood test only to find the truth and take revenge.
At the time, I was in the hospital looking after my adoptive mother. The authorities and volunteers came to advise me to reconnect with my biological family, but my willpower was strong. My biological family didn’t give up, however, and they sent me the fruits I loved as a child.
My grandmother and uncle also drove all the way from Zhejiang to Guangxi. My grandmother was desperate to see me, but I rejected her.
After a few days of hemming and hawing, my heart slowly calmed. I thought, I have to get this old lady to leave, otherwise I can’t be at peace. The meeting was in a government office. She might have been afraid that she would shock me, so she held back her tears and restrained herself from hugging me. I didn’t look directly at her either.
They told me that my grief-stricken biological parents had looked and looked for me. My mother had passed away early on, and my father had just died less than four months before we met.
Upon hearing the news, all these burdens that had piled up inside me collapsed. I squatted on the floor and wouldn’t let anyone come near me.
After dinner, I went to Zhejiang with my uncle and grandmother. The whole way, I didn’t say a word. When we arrived at my hometown, my relatives came out to greet me, beating gongs and drums, and setting off fireworks.
Everyone came up to check my hands and hair, inspecting my features for confirmation. I saw for the first time the clothes I wore as a child, as well as my little bench and little toothbrush.
My mother’s mental state oscillated between good and bad since my abduction. Sometimes she went out for days without coming home, and my father had to go out carrying two photos — one of her and one of me.
She died when my younger sister was only a few years old, leaving me with nothing but two photos that my father kept for me.
My sister was given to my grandmother to look after. My father worked away from the family to support them, and also to inquire about my whereabouts. As for how they looked for me, my grandmother was reluctant to say much.
My grandmother and sister were with me throughout the day, and though they didn’t easily cry in front of me, I truly felt like I was home. These family members were really the closest people to me, and their every move made me feel a warmth that I never experienced in my adoptive home.
My grandmother said she had to feed me my first meal at home, and my sister fed me milk tea from her own hands. They prepared seafood that I had never eaten in my adoptive home, including drunken shrimp and mud snails — both local specialties. I had rarely eaten things like this and didn’t even know how to eat the snails. Although I was a little uncomfortable, I was touched by their love in the most tender part of my heart.
That night, in the room where I slept, my grandmother set up a sofa for herself to guard me, saying that she was afraid I would be taken again. After I fell asleep, she secretly patched up the holes in my torn jeans.
She had lived a hard life after I was taken from her hands. She used to say that she didn’t dare die without seeing me again. My uncle was also affected by my abduction. Together with my grandmother, he spent a lot of time taking care of the family, and didn’t get married until he was in his 40s.
A soup Ling Dong’s grandmother cooked for him. Courtesy of Ling Dong
Because of my abduction, my family had stopped holding worshipping ceremonies for their ancestors, ashamed to face them since the male heir to the family line had gone missing. On the day of the reunion, the ancestral tablets that had been stored for 21 years were placed in the main room of the house, and I made a formal bow. Afterwards I went to my parents’ resting place and offered incense to them.
I felt guilty. I had blamed my birth parents for so many years, but I knew full well about the TV program called “Waiting for Me” and about the national database that took people’s blood samples for free. I had only been one drop of blood away from my parents. If I’d had my blood taken a year earlier, I would have had the chance to meet my father.
As for my adoptive family, the secret was out. They knew everything and began to pressure me to come back immediately. I was caught in the middle, torn. My adoptive mother even threatened that she'd come to Zhejiang to drag me back.
I didn’t want to upset my biological grandmother, and so I had to go through all of this without letting her know. I reassured my adoptive mother every day that I would support her when she got old. In any case, I lived in that home for 21 years and developed a lot of affection that wouldn’t just vanish.
Last year, my biological grandmother asked me to come home for Chinese New Year’s Eve. I said that, as I had recently married, the traditional rule was that I had to see my whole adoptive family clan in Guangxi for Chinese New Year. I would discuss it with them to see how to arrange it. My grandmother hesitated for a moment and said, “Don’t come back. We’re all fine.”
The family reunion meal Ling Dong shared with his birth family in Zhejiang province, February 2021. Courtesy of Ling Dong
In the end, I compromised. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, I traveled to Zhejiang for a reunion dinner and to celebrate the New Year with my grandmother, sister, and uncle. I then left for Guangxi at two in the morning and arrived on the afternoon of the first day of the New Year. I genuinely just wanted to do my best for everyone.
I miss my biological parents, and sometimes I text my father’s former WeChat to tell him what I’m doing and what I’m thinking. The day before the anniversary of my father’s death, I sent a message: Dad, tomorrow is the day when you left us, a year ago. Although we haven’t seen each other for such a long time, we will never forget each other — right? I want to happily say to you that though we suffered in the past, grandma and sister will be fine from here on out. Because I’m here now. Please rest assured that I will go home often, and I’ll take care of grandma and my sister. I’ll let my sister live like a princess, I will try my best to make our home into a new home.
I believe that although my parents are in another place, they felt the change within me.
A version of this article was originally published by The Paper. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Xue Yongle and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Galih Setia Wiguna/EyeEm/People Visual)