Peng Qinglan's Long Road Home


On November 16th, 2010, an All Girls Allowed staff member received an email forwarded by one of our volunteers. It was written by a woman who was abducted as a girl:


"Original name: Peng Qinglan.  Date of birth:  September 12th, 1979.  Father: Peng Guanglin. Mother: Wang Xinmei. A brother named Xiaogui. Two sisters. At that time, because my father worked at a factory, he sent me to stay at the house of a neighbor whose husband and son were co-workers of my father's. During our summer break in June, 1988, I went swimming with the neighbor's daughter. The two of us were kidnapped together.  I vaguely remember that I lived in Liuzhiping Village. I was in second grade at that time. The elementary school was across from my house, several rice paddies away. I also remember that there were many fireworks workshops in the village. Other than that, I couldn't remember much more information."


From the staff member:


I transferred the email to Mr. Chen Fuyu, All Girls Allowed's anti-trafficking volunteer in Guiyang. Mr. Chen was also a parent searching for his son, who had disappeared seven years ago. During those years, he was not only looking for his own son, but also became the organizer of networks in Guizhou province searching for kidnapped children. Other than some small businesses to support his livelihood, Mr. Chen spent almost all his time in the service of the parents of trafficked children. He had so far found five such lost children and reunited them with their parents.


After our discussion, Mr. Chen immediately left his business to travel to Liuzhou County. He arrived in the county seat on the night of the 17th and reached Pingzhai Town police station the next morning. However, after going over the residential records of the local villages, he could not find a match with the information in the email. The government was conducting the national census, so record-keeping should have been reasonably good. Pingzhai's government officials and police were very confident that there was no such Peng family in their jurisdiction. Mr. Chen went to Pingzhai with great enthusiasm and a fair hope of success, but this pronouncement was like a bucket of cold water poured over our heads.


I told Mr. Chen not to give up. Peng Qinglan was already eight to nine years old when she was kidnapped, so her memory should be fairly accurate. Mr. Chen went to a local internet café, and together we analyzed the situation and strategized online. At the same time, I was on the phone with Ms. Peng. While looking at Liuzhi's surrounding areas on an online map, I noticed a village called Xiaping near the Machang River. I asked Peng if her family lived by a river. She said “yes”. I asked if she remembered a place called Machang. "Yes, I used to go there often." Did she remember a village named Lizhai? "My sister was married there. There's also a Miao village up the hill." There was a Miaochong Village nearby on the map. Other geographical features also fit her recollections.


Mr. Chen and I became excited again. I was beside myself: "Found it! We found it!" Peng Qinglan, who was still on the phone, was also ecstatic.


By then it  was night time, and Mr. Chen was still in Liuzhi, about 20 kilometers away from Machang over mountainous roads. He went to the neighborhood committee and found the officials there very accommodating; they were moved by the enthusiasm of the AGA volunteer. One of the workers phoned a relative living in Machang, telling him to go to Xiaping Village right away and to call back with a message as soon as possible.


It was a long night. Mr. Chen and I could not sleep as we waited for the phone call. It must have been a sleepless night for Ms. Peng as well. Mr. Chen and I waited for one sleepless night, but Ms. Peng had been waiting for 22 of her 30 years on earth.


On the morning of the 18th, Chen Fuyu rented a car to drive to Xiaping Village in Machang Town. He went to the Peng family house as soon as he arrived in the village. “I’m here. I’m at Peng Qinglan’s home,” he called me.


I asked Mr. Chen to hand the phone to Peng’s relatives to confirm our findings. As soon as the elderly Mr. Peng received the phone he asked me in a shaking voice, “Is it my daughter looking for us? Was she looking for us?” I quickly answered yes. “Where is she?” He asked in such desperation that I abandoned thoughts of further confirmation. It had been a wait of 22 years. There was no reason for us to force the man and his family, who must have felt as if in a trance, to wait another minute. I gave him Peng Qinglan’s number. Afterwards, her phone remained busy for the rest of the day. She told me when I met her days later that the call lasted uninterrupted for some twelve hours. She talked to most of her relatives in the village.


On the afternoon of the 21st, I arrived in Putian. Peng Qinglan and her Putian relatives welcomed me at the station and found a hotel for me. I called Mr. Chen, who was in the hotel to e-mail pictures he took of the Peng family in Xiaping village. Peng Qinglan waited anxiously by her laptop. I could only wish that the online speed would accelerate.


“Papa looks the same, only older. My mother was a little pudgier back then, but much thinner now. Even my sister looks old now,” said Peng as she looked over the photos. We onlookers didn’t say anything, sharing in the silence through all of her emotions of deep joy and sorrow.


I interviewed Peng about the circumstances of her kidnapping and the rest of her life. It was one day during summer vacation in 1988, the eight-year-old Peng Qinglan and a neighbor’s daughter went to visit her father who was working about 20 kilometers away. On the way, they met a middle-aged woman who was holding a boy. The woman told the girls she was going the same way. The girls were trusting, so they went with the woman, who spoke the local dialect. When they felt something was wrong and wanted to go home, the woman told them she was going to buy some pretty clothes for the girls. By this point, they already had no idea where they were. The woman brought the girls on a bus, then a train—all the way across southern China to the coastal province of Fujian. Peng Qinglan was then sold to the Wu family.  There has been no news about the other girl since then.


Peng’s name was changed to Wu Yuqin. The Wu family had seven children, including Peng. She had three new elder sisters, three younger brothers and a younger sister. She helped her “adopted” mother with chores and didn’t attend school after that time. She was married at age 19 to a famous local opera singer. The local opera was a nationally recognized cultural heritage and was subsidized by the government. She now has an eleven-year-old son in school and works in a factory. She told me that life was relatively good and her adopted parents treated her well. Relations with her adopted siblings were also very good. After she found her biological Guizhou family, a brother in the Wu family actually came back from work in Xinjiang (northwest China) to visit.


Peng Qinglan’s Putian house was located in a village on the edge of the city. Of her adopted parents and seven siblings, most traveled to other cities for work. When I visited, only a brother and a sister-in-law were present. Families of this size were quite common in this village. People here did not have a tradition of heavy emphasis on children’s education. None of the five daughters in the Peng family finished elementary school. Two of the sons only went up to eighth grade, and only one graduated middle school. It was local opinion that kids only needed to be able to read and count some money to get by. Without much education, they were almost all working in labor-intensive industries such as masonry and commercial fishing. Such work required large numbers of male laborers; thus, it was understandable that families would often want seven, eight, up to a dozen children.


Sons who were born in the family were “supplemented” by additional boys who were trafficked and bought. All of them would need to get married in adulthood, so more girls would have to be bought as well. One human tragedy followed another.


Villagers told me that almost every house had children who “came” this way (a common euphemism). Peng recounted that one of her three sisters was also a kidnapped girl and hoped that one day we would be able to find her original family as well. If every family in this medium-sized village of 300 households had one trafficked child, a township comprising ten villages would have 3,000 such children. Putian County had 53 townships. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to estimate that the total number of trafficked children would number in six digits in this county alone.


All Girls Allowed had already helped a woman who was sold into the same village less than a year ago, Xiao Guangyan. Because of our prior work with Ms. Xiao, we already had some contacts in the village who were friendly towards us. But it was easy to see that many other families were avoiding us at all costs. They were afraid that the children they bought would leave once they found their real parents.


Xiao Guangyan invited me to her house at noon. Peng Qinglan came as well, along with many friends and relatives of both families. Both women came from Guizhou province. They not only wanted to thank us for fulfilling their wish to reunite with their families, but also hoped that we would do the same for many of their friends. During the meal of seafood dishes, they told me that many villagers with similar experiences wanted to search for their families after Xiao and Peng’s successes. Many, however, were reluctant both because they did not know where to start and because they did not want to irritate their current families. They hoped that All Girls Allowed would start by quietly helping them.


When we were helping Xiao and Peng, I never considered that thought. Now we were faced not with one or two people looking for their family, but with the missing children in this village and town, and the hundreds of thousands in Putian. We had to consider all the missing children in Fujian and Guangdong, the two rich coastal provinces where the problem was particularly widespread. It was a sobering thought.


Comparatively, life in Putian was richer than in the Guizhou hill country. But it didn’t mean a happy life for trafficked children who were sold here. They seldom could make their own decisions about marriage when grown up. Girls who were bought as child brides had no choice at all.


During the day I spent in the village, I tried to strike up conversations with as many people as possible. I passed our cards to everyone, hoping many more people would find All Girls Allowed through the cards, to know more about AGA, to be helped by us one day and to become a volunteer as well.


At 8:30pm, November 24, the crowd stood along both sides of Liuzhi Tequ Street. Among them were local residents and the Peng family and their friends who came from 30 kilometers away. As soon as our small convoy drove into the street, throngs of people surrounded our vehicles to catch a glimpse of the woman who had disappeared for 22 years. Peng Qinglan, who had been talking with us lightheartedly a minute ago, broke into tears as she stepped out of the car. Peng cried in the embrace of her mother and sister. Twenty-two years of heartbreak came out at that moment.


Mr. Chen Fuyu and I received flowers and pennants from the Peng family, thanking us for our service. After a brief interview with the media, our cars drove straight to their home village of Xiaping. Three miles away from the village, we heard the sound of firecrackers going off in celebration. Fireworks lit up the night sky and painted colors on the dark mountainsides.


Childhood memories came rushing back to Peng Qinglan. The river and the elementary school were still there. The old family mud house was not, as it had been replaced by a three-room brick house. Friends and classmates of the past had all grown up.


The most awkward reminder of the current reality was the difficulty with language. Peng could not speak a sentence of the local dialect. Any conversation between the blood relatives had to go through a translator.


Peng’s husband, a brother and cousin from the Wu family, also made the same trip. The atmosphere was amicable, other than a briefly uncomfortable exchange between Peng’s sister and the Wu brother. “Your family had seven siblings, why kidnap our sister?” Others laughed, but the brother was downcast. “We didn’t kidnap her. We only paid so she would be with us. Now that we are all one family, let’s not talk any more about this.”


It was a raucous party for the whole village till dawn. Peng’s family would not allow us to travel through the hills by night, so we stayed. But the noise kept us from sleeping anyhow. When I awoke, Peng’s family volunteered to lead me to see the fields, school and the river, which I had only known as topographical features on a computer map when we were searching for the family.


After breakfast, we prepared to leave the village. All the Peng family came out to say farewell, plus many others from the village. An elderly woman waited by the village gate the longest. She was the mother of Peng Simei, the girl who was kidnapped with Peng Qinglan 22 years ago. We waved at her so she could leave before the chilly mountain air came in the morning. The night before, I had explained to her again and again that it was much harder for parents to look for children than for kidnapped children who reached adulthood to search for their parents. We would look for information about Peng Simei everywhere.  Since she was kidnapped at the same age as Peng Qinglan, we believe that she must remember her village and family just as clearly.


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