How the world’s most endangered species are making new homes in China
One morning in the autumn of 2009, I was walking along the banks of the Yangtze River in northern China, a busy stretch of the Chinese capital.
A Chinese fisherman’s daughter and her young children were enjoying a picnic, when the mother came to tell me that her daughter had just died.
The young woman had been struck by lightning and died of shock, she told me.
“This is my child,” she said, pointing to her face.
She is in my home.
I just want to tell you that she is my daughter.
She’s my only daughter.”
She gave me a smile and said, “Your Chinese mother is my mother.”
In her speech, she had spoken of her life and her family, and of the fact that she was the only surviving daughter of a fisherman who had worked in the Yanggakou River, a tributary of the Yellow River, for more than three centuries.
“It’s very important for people to know that there are no more children in China, that there’s no more motherless children,” she told the group, adding that she believed in a return to a traditional, mother-to-child relationship.
This is why she was there.
The fisherman who brought the news to me was one of the few Chinese in the village who had seen the child.
He said that he’d come to collect her body, but when he arrived at her home, his mother was gone.
“I told her I loved her and I’d never leave her.
That’s what I do,” he said.
He was so distraught by the news that he took the child and returned home.
But for other Chinese families who had lost their children, it was a different story.
“A woman went into the market and saw my mother lying on the ground,” one of her children told me, adding, “It was like she was still alive.”
Her mother was dead.
In the next village over, a young man named Wang had been taken to the hospital.
“He told me his mother died,” Wang said.
The man said that the father of his two children was his son, and that his mother had died in childbirth.
“There’s no other way to explain this,” Wang told me with tears in his eyes.
“We’re the ones who brought this news to you.
We’re the one who brought her to this hospital.”
The father, Wang said, had a family of his own and that he had to leave.
“You’re not the one in charge of my life,” Wang added.
“But I’m going to tell the truth, and I’ll be here.”
He said he was taking the child back to his parents, who live in China’s Fujian province.
I asked him what he would tell them.
“Why did you do this?” he asked me.
The father was angry.
“Don’t say that,” he told me angrily.
“That’s my mother.
That is what my mother is.
That was all I wanted to say.”
After a few minutes of waiting for my interpreter to arrive, Wang took the young man back to the village and gave him a few words.
“Your mother was an honorable woman,” he insisted.
“She was good to me.
I’m so proud of you.
Don’t make me go to jail.”
The young man nodded his head.
“Yes,” he agreed.
The villagers looked at him in shock.
“No one can help you,” one said.
“When you have the children in your care, you are the family that you have to look after,” the other replied.
The children’s father looked on in shock and frustration.
The mother’s family had come to take care of him.
“What’s wrong with me?” he said, to no one in particular.
“Do you know how important she was to you?” he replied, adding in a tone that seemed to imply that he didn’t understand what was going on.
“How is it that you’re so sad?
How can you be so angry?”
He seemed to be struggling with his words.
He didn’t know what to say.
“Listen,” he finally said.
His father nodded and then went back to working.
“Are you sure?” he told the other villagers.
“If you think about it, your mother is the one to take over,” he continued.
“The whole village knows it.
You’re the people who bring this news.
She knows the family.
And she knows how to care for it.”
The village, which is called the Hui, or people, in Mandarin, is a mix of families who all speak the same dialect, Chinese, and are descended from a common ancestor, the Hsiung-chu.
In this village, the children are considered family, as are the women who work the fields and the men who farm the land.
In their homes, the women have their own room with a television and two beds.