Shanghai’s Forgotten Children
INNER MONGOLIA, North China — At the age of 61, Sun Baowei still has no idea where he was born, or who his parents were. Neither do dozens of his former schoolmates.
Sun’s life today appears as a picture of calm. He runs a small store in the place where he grew up: Dorbod Banner, a remote expanse of grassland on China’s border with Mongolia. But like so many people his age in this region, his childhood was marked by trauma.
Locals here have a name for people like Sun: Shanghai dolls. They are an entire generation of children who grew up in the shadow of one of the worst disasters in China’s modern history: the Great Famine.
In the early 1960s, thousands of babies arrived — pale, frail, and emaciated — in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. They had been sent from faraway Shanghai, abandoned by starving families who were no longer able to take care of them.
The nation had experienced a succession of disastrous harvests from 1959, the result of a series of natural disasters and the impact of a collectivization campaign known as the Great Leap Forward. What followed was unspeakable horror, as mass starvation took hold in large parts of the country.
China’s densely populated eastern coastline was hit hard by the famine. By 1961, tens of thousands of babies had arrived in Shanghai from the surrounding countryside. Many were orphans; others were abandoned by desperate families who hoped there might be enough food in the city to feed the children.
They were mistaken. Despite being one of China’s most affluent cities, Shanghai was unable to provide for all the infants. The central government was forced to intervene, arranging urgent talks and pushing officials in northern China, which had been spared the worst effects of the famine, to provide emergency assistance.
Ulanhu, the founding chairman of Inner Mongolia, was one of the main power brokers during these negotiations. Shanghai asked Inner Mongolia — which has a huge dairy industry due to its rich pasturelands — to send emergency supplies of milk powder to feed the babies. Instead, Ulanhu offered to provide some of the children with refuge.
And so, over the following years, more than 3,000 infants were transported from Shanghai to Inner Mongolia, over 1,500 kilometers to the north. It was part of a much larger evacuation: over 50,000 children were sent out from Shanghai and the neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces in total, according to government records.
The evacuations would permanently alter the children’s lives, and reshape entire communities. Yet, for decades, China barely acknowledged they had taken place. It is only recently that the country — and the children themselves — have begun to come to terms with this troubled past.
Into the north
The relocation process was often chaotic. In some cases, trains filled with orphans chugged across northern China until they found a place willing to take them in. Some children ended up as far away as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which borders Central Asia.
No records were kept of where the children had originally come from — or even of the children’s names. To this day, many have never been able to find their birth families.
Sun made the journey north in 1961. After arriving in Dorbod Banner, he and 27 other children — mostly girls — were taken to a state-run nursery, which the local government had hastily set up to receive them. There, they were placed under the sole care of a young woman named Duguima.
Inner Mongolia had struggled to settle the children. It was a poor, rural region, with a vastly different climate and culture to eastern China. The locals were mostly herders, living in yurts and consuming a diet heavy on meat and dairy. Unlike the humid south, the Inner Mongolia winter is bitterly cold, with frequent, biting blizzards.
Several children died shortly after arriving in Inner Mongolia. Though the exact causes of the deaths were not recorded, local officials decided that they needed to do something to ease the transition, and began creating a network of nurseries and hiring locals like Duguima to run them. They were tasked with helping the children adapt to the grassland, before they were adopted by local families.
Duguima was just 19 years old at the time. She was unmarried, and had no previous childcare experience. But she applied for the job out of a sense of duty, and was accepted as the officials considered her morally “pure,” she recalls. Now, she found herself in a clay-walled house, looking after 28 children aged between a few months and 5 years old all by herself.
Now 81, Duguima still remembers how tough those months were. She barely slept at night, as each time a baby started crying, all the others would join in. Unable to speak Mandarin Chinese, she expressed her affection for the children by knitting them deels — traditional Mongolian tunics — in different colors.
“I felt for those orphans, and I wanted to take care of them and help them adapt to life here,” Duguima tells Sixth Tone.
But over the next few months, the nursery finally began to empty, as the children were taken to live with local families. The Inner Mongolia authorities had set rules to guide the process: to ensure the children were treated well, only infertile couples with a certain level of savings were eligible to adopt.
In reality, however, things weren’t so simple. Sun — who was then just 1 year old — was adopted by a local Mongolian family after two or three months, but they abandoned him again shortly after. Fortunately, a well-off migrant couple soon agreed to adopt him instead.
Sun’s foster father was one of many Han Chinese who had settled in China’s ethnically diverse border regions as part of a government development campaign during that period. He had moved from his hometown in north China’s Hebei province to Inner Mongolia to work in a local court.
Sun had lucked out. His foster father’s salary was double the local average, but he had very few relatives to support: no elderly parents, and almost no extended family. The couple was able to provide Sun with a good education, the finest clothes, and even luxury items like a bicycle.
Other children had a tougher time. Jalgamj arrived in Dorbod Banner together with Sun, but he was already 5 years old. After six months, he still hadn’t been adopted. When the original nursery was shut down, he and the few other remaining children went to live with Duguima in a yurt on the prairie.
Eventually, a family of herders offered to take in Jalgamj. Duguima, who by then had grown fond of him, would often ride horses out to visit the boy. One day, she saw Jalgamj — then 7 years old — carrying a heavy sack of cow dung in the freezing cold. The fingers of the boy’s left hand had frozen stiff, unable to uncurl. Duguima was furious. She scolded the family, and took Jalgamj back to her yurt.
Duguima felt badly for the orphans. She had lost her own parents at the age of 4, and had been raised by her aunt. She wanted Jalgamj to have a name, a life. She thought about adopting the boy herself, but her aunt said it was inappropriate to have a child before marriage. So, she rode out to speak with a local family for whom she used to herd sheep.
“Do you want a child?” Duguima asked the couple, who were then in their 50s, before telling them about Jalgamj’s situation. “Sure, why not? If you give him to us, we’ll take him,” the couple answered. They decided to name the boy Jalgamj, which means “continuous offering.” They treated the boy like their own child, and sent him to school.
Learning the truth
For decades, many of the Shanghai dolls knew almost nothing about these turbulent events, which ended up shaping their entire lives.
Ulanhu, the leader of Inner Mongolia, was removed from his position in the late 1960s, and his legacy became controversial. Discussion of the Great Leap Forward was also considered sensitive. And Han Chinese families tended to avoid the subject of adoption, viewing it as a dark secret that should be covered up.
That wasn’t the case for everyone. The Mongolian family that adopted Jalgamj used to openly discuss their infertility and his past. When he was 12, his foster parents took him to visit Duguima. Jalgamj didn’t remember her, but his parents explained who she was and asked the boy to call her Eej, which means mom in Mongolian.
The pair have stayed in close contact ever since. When Jalgamj married a local woman during his 20s, Duguima was invited to the wedding. Even today, they still live close to each other, and often spend time together. The same is the case for several other of Duguima’s former charges.
Sun, however, had no idea that Duguima existed until 2006, when Inner Mongolia held a series of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ulanhu’s birth. (By this point, the former leader had died, and his reputation had been rehabilitated by the Chinese authorities.)
Sun’s foster parents — like many Han families — had always refused to discuss their son’s origins. To their dying day, they maintained the illusion that he was their natural-born son. “My parents regarded it as taboo to talk about adoption,” Sun recalls. “They tried to keep this a secret from me for their entire lives.”
But Sun figured it out by himself. Dorbod Banner spans a huge area, but it’s a small community: only around 10,000 people lived there in the 1960s, Sun recalls. And people gossiped.
At primary school, the other kids would call Sun and the other adopted children Shanghai dolls. When he got into fights, he remembers his classmates shouting: “You’re an orphan that no one wants!” One day, after one such confrontation, he went home and asked his mom directly: “Am I adopted?”
Sun’s mother was outraged. “Who said that?” she yelled, and marched straight to the kid’s house. She refused to leave until the parents had given the child a beating. After that, Sun learned to avoid the topic.
Yet his doubts continued to eat away at him. He began to notice that he was missing from all the family photos from 1960, the year of his birth. Eventually, he realized the rumors must be true. In reality, even his parents probably sensed that he knew the truth, he says. But they never acknowledged it.
“My mother was a housewife,” says Sun. “Being unable to give birth was a huge thing for her — it probably made her feel that she wasn’t a complete woman.”
It took Sun years to come to terms with his identity. Despite his classmates’ taunts, he says he always felt welcome in Dorbod Banner. The Shanghai dolls were never made to feel inferior or discriminated against, he stresses. But he couldn’t stop wondering about the life he had lost.
In 1983, Sun — now 22 years old — visited Shanghai for the first time since he’d left the city as a baby. He hadn’t traveled there specifically to find his birth family: He had started a business selling frozen meat, and was in Shanghai on business. Yet he still spent much of the trip making inquiries, trying to find out where he’d come from.
One day, Sun hired a motorcycle taxi, and drove out to the orphanage where he’d stayed before being brought to Inner Mongolia. He stood outside, gazing up at the four-story, mahogany-colored building. He lingered by the door for what felt like an age, then peeked inside.
“I couldn’t help imagining what kind of life I would have had here if I hadn’t gone to Inner Mongolia,” Sun recalls.
Yet Sun never walked through that door, and he never tracked down his birth parents. In 2009, China created a DNA database to reconnect displaced children with their birth families, but Sun didn’t sign up. He still struggles to explain why.
When state broadcaster CCTV launched “Waiting for Me” — a reality TV show about helping abandoned children find their families — in 2014, Sun did apply, but he never heard back from the producers. At the time, Sun says he was bitterly disappointed. Now, however, he insists that he has made peace with his past.
“I’m content with life here, it’s simple,” he tells Sixth Tone, sitting in his apartment in Dorbod Banner. “The only disadvantage is the windy climate.”
Many of the Shanghai dolls have been on the same journey. Over the years, Sun has met dozens of others who were evacuated from Shanghai to Inner Mongolia. A number of them had also traveled back to Shanghai, but not a single one had registered their DNA to look for their biological families, he says. Jalgamj fits into this category, too.
“I wanted to see the place where I was born,” Jalgamj says. “But that’s it. I regard Inner Mongolia as my home.”
A complex legacy
In recent years, the Shanghai dolls have belatedly formed a close bond, as China has finally begun to acknowledge the evacuations.
When Inner Mongolia commemorated the life of Ulanhu in 2006, Sun and 20 other Shanghai dolls from Dorbod Banner were invited to attend a special ceremony in Hohhot, the regional capital. As he boarded the bus, Sun was astonished to find several of his former classmates sitting there. They laughed. “You’re an abandoned child, too!” they said.
Since then, the group has kept in touch. They have formed a Shanghai doll chat group on the social app WeChat, which has nearly 500 members, and organize meet-ups several times a year.
Despite all being born in eastern China, which is overwhelmingly Han Chinese, the group today is a diverse bunch. They were adopted by Inner Mongolian families from a range of different backgrounds — Mongolian, Hui, and Daurs, among others — and have completely assimilated into these communities.
Sun and Jalgamj today look strikingly different. When Sixth Tone met the pair in early September, Jalgamj arrived wearing a blue, shiny deel with purple hemlines. He was bald, tanned, and plump, and spoke almost only Mongolian.
Sun, meanwhile, was tall and lanky, with hair neatly combed into a side parting, and dressed in a high-necked, crimson sweater, navy blazer, pencil pants, and black leather shoes. He barely spoke a word of Mongolian, and complained that he often felt stupid when he’s around a group of ethnic Mongolians.
But the pair have become friends thanks to their shared history — and affection for their Eej, Duguima.
Since 2006, Duguima has been plucked from obscurity in her old age to become a national heroine. For the Chinese authorities, which are increasingly focused on promoting inter-ethnic harmony, the story of the Han children saved by a selfless Mongolian woman has become a powerful symbol.
Duguima has been showered with honorary titles in recent years, including “China Top 10 Extraordinary Mother” and “Nominee for National Ethical Role Model.” In 2019, President Xi Jinping named her a “Model of the People.” Even the bus stops in Dorbod Banner are now splashed with Duguima posters.
For Duguima and the children she helped, it has been a strange reversal after decades of silence. But Sun is proud of the recognition Duguima has received. Until 2006, he had no idea who she was, yet she almost certainly saved his life, he says.
The only problem with all the publicity, Sun says, is that it makes the Han foster parents uncomfortable. Now in their 80s, many still become uneasy when they see their children gather with other adoptees.
“These foster parents are so old that they’ve forgotten many things, but they are still sensitive about this particular topic,” says Sun. “Their children usually lie, and tell them they’re simply going to a class reunion.”
Over the next few years, however, Sun and Jalgamj are likely to see less of each other. Jalgamj, now 66, plans to stay in Dorbod Banner forever. He spent almost his entire life on the grasslands, leading a team of herders. His three daughters were raised as Mongolians, and now live in Dorbod’s urban center. “I am a Mongolian, from Inner Mongolia,” he says.
But Sun will soon move to central China’s Henan province, where his daughter now lives. Though he’s reluctant to leave Dorbod Banner — “the sky is always gray in Henan,” he sighs — he can’t bear to be separated from his family. And he’s used to being uprooted, he says.
“Sometimes I joke to my daughter that I don’t care where I was born — I don’t even need a tomb,” says Sun. “Since I came from nowhere, I might as well leave without a trace.”
Additional reporting: Huang Tao, Huang Tianyu, Huang Yaping, Jin Mengyuan, Li Haoyun, Nihaa; editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Children from East China pose for a photo in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, 1960s. CCTV News)