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'Goodbye to being illegal'

By Shen Yang 沈阳, translated by Nicky Harman, and reprinted with the kind permission of Balestier Press (2021)

Read in Chinese here.

More Than One Child: Memoirs of an Illegal Daughter - Chapter 3

The fifteenth day of the first lunar month was the Lantern Festival. The city streets were crammed with people and cars, and the trees were hung with the prettiest, cutest lanterns. My aunt always liked a good festival, and was in high spirits when she took me to see them. But the streets were too jam-packed to move, and she quickly lost patience. She looked around her, and came up with what she called a ‘perfect solution’. She got onto a big stone at the side of the street and lifted me into the fork of a tree about two metres up. ‘You sit here and watch the lanterns. I’ll come back for you later.’

Before I could say anything, Auntie Wenjie had disappeared into the throng. In front of me was a great sea of humanity, a heaving dark mass as far the eye could see. I had never seen anything like it. Ten minutes passed, then half an hour, then an hour, then two. My bum had gone numb from sitting in the tree fork, and I was in a panic because I couldn’t see my aunt anywhere. The beautiful lanterns had completely lost their attraction and I began to wail,

‘Auntie! Auntie!!’ I was sobbing my heart out, ‘Auntie! Auntie!!’

I was overwhelmed by that familiar feeling of helplessness and terror. I had been abandoned again.

I heard voices, ‘Eh? Who does that little mite belong to? How could they have left her alone in a tree?

‘She’s a clever little girl! She climbed that tree all by herself when she got lost.’

‘Don’t cry, little girl, your mum’ll be back soon.’

By now, I’d collected quite a crowd around the tree, with everyone arguing at once.

Suddenly I heard a strident voice, ‘Ai-ya! Damn brat! You never stop crying!’ My aunt grabbed me by the collar and pulled me down forcefully. ‘I told you I’d be back for you, you had nothing to cry about.’

The harder I cried, the angrier she got. She kicked me hard with her foot. It was a cold day, and we were out on the street, and I was getting a terrible telling-off from my aunt, surrounded by a throng of curious spectators, as if I were a monkey. I was mortified, and terrified. I put my reddened, chilblained hands over my eyes, and tried to stop crying, but the tears kept leaking through my fingers.

Many years later, I realized that crying never aroused her sympathy, only her desire to hit out. Luckily, girls were considered worthless back then. If I had been abducted by a trafficker, how could she have faced my grandparents in Shandong? She had been full of enthusiasm when she took me on, but in fact, that was all she had to offer, enthusiasm, nothing more.

Her impatience, her fiery temper, and her carelessness were evident in all aspects of her life. That was the same year that the streets were full of women with permed hair. Auntie Wenjie bought the kit, and did a home perm, which gave her a head of hair like an exploding cauliflower. Then, on a whim, she smeared lotion all over my head, put the plastic cap on me, and plugged it in. I was not at all happy. What six-year-old wants a ridiculous head of big curls? But my aunt made me sit in the salon chair. I was going to get a perm, willy-nilly. And pretty soon, I got an electric shock too.

I don’t know what went wrong. I just remember that when I put my hands on the metal armrests, needle-sharp pains shot up my arms. I screamed, and passed out. That scared my aunt, and she never tried to force me to have a perm again.

‘I work my fingers to the bone for this family, morning, noon and night, where am I supposed to find the time to do things carefully?’ was a frequent cry of hers.

When she was young, she and my uncle were forever at each other’s throats. The years went by, and the children grew up, but their fights didn’t stop. It seemed like they’d been saving up all the seething resentments they hadn’t had time to get off their chests in their younger years.

One night, at dinner, we all sat around the table and watched the TV news. There were a couple of stir-fried dishes in the middle, and we each had a bowl of sweet potato and maize porridge. Suddenly, my uncle frowned, put down his bowl and stuck his hand down his throat. Out came a long thin bit of wire wool.

‘What the hell is this?’ he stuttered, bug-eyed and literally spitting with rage. ‘Are you trying to kill me?’

Auntie Wenjie looked at him rather unwillingly, ‘Eat it or not, as you like. If you’re so pissed off, why don’t you do the cooking?’

My uncle trembled with rage and went purple in the face. He looked like he was going to explode, and I slipped out into the yard with my bowl, and hid as far away as I could get. A few seconds later, I heard the sounds of a massive, ear-splitting row breaking out indoors.

I knew all about my aunt’s carelessness from personal experience. Once, I was astonished to find a worm in my bowl of sesame leaf noodles. I put down the bowl and ran into the yard to retch, but Auntie Wenjie was quite unperturbed. ‘What are making such a fuss about? Eat it up, it’s extra protein!’

Cooking aside, her washing-up left a lot to be desired too. I always insisted on washing my bowl again before serving out the food. Leaving them greasy didn’t matter so much, but bits of dumpling dough from two days ago were still stuck on them, as well as yesterday’s porridge, and now there was a bit of wire wool thrown in for good measure. If it weren’t for my sharp eyes, heaven knows what I would have been putting in my stomach every day.

She was slovenly, unkind, ignorant and stubborn, and you could see that in every part of her life all the time. Once she hung her trousers over the back of the chair and her money fell out. When she went to put them on in the morning, the pocket was empty – and she accused me of stealing it. For that, I got a box on the ears with a spatula, and she grabbed my mouth and twisted it hard. And guess who found the money scuffed into a corner? She did. Another time, she lost a gold earring. On no evidence at all, she decided to blame me for taking it, and beat me till I howled. Soon after, I was hunkered down in the yard washing the dishes, and I found the earring glinting in the mud. Even then, she insisted that I’d stolen it and thrown it there deliberately.

The house was always full of mosquitoes in summer. She never lit the mosquito coils before they arrived. She waited until we went to bed to close the window and light the coils. The smoke was thick in the room, and we humans almost choked to death before the mozzies did. The point was, she was incredibly stubborn, and the more you complained, the more coils she lit, until we were practically hallucinating on the fumes.

One summer, all the neighbours went on a trip to swim in the Baihe River. My aunt refused to buy me a flotation ring, and she certainly didn’t have the patience to teach me to swim. When we were in deep water, without any warning, she got me under the armpits and dunked me under. I was so scared that I wailed when I came out of the water.

‘Crying again! How many times have I told you, relax! Relax! And don’t breathe, don’t breathe!’

I was still crying, with my mouth wide open, so she ducked me again. And that time, it really shocked the neighbours. What kind of a way was that to teach a child to swim? She might drown!

‘Ai-ya! Mrs Shen! Mrs Shen! Why are you trying to teach her like that? That’s enough. You go off and have a nice swim and I’ll take over with Yangyang,’ said one of the men.

If this kindly neighbour hadn’t intervened, she really might have been the death of me.

In the early 1990s, every household used honeycomb briquettes for cooking. Every day, the cooker had to have the cinders at the bottom removed with a pair of long tongs, then two smouldering briquettes were put back in, and finally a fresh briquette was added on top. The same operation, every single day.

Auntie could not even manage this simple everyday task. Either the briquettes she picked up were soft or they were crumbly. Even when luck was on her side and she got them to light, for one reason or another the briquettes always went out.

‘Yangyang! Put a new briquette in!’

‘Yangyang! Come and use the bellows!’

‘Yangyang! Take this briquette and go over the road, and get them to give you a lighted one!’

Auntie Wenjie and briquettes just did not get on, but I was at her beck and call to help. In those dark days before the gas became popular, I became known as the village ‘briquette girl’. Every other day, I could be seen carrying a fresh one in a pair of tongs to a neighbour’s, and then running back home carefully carrying a flaming briquette.

My aunt didn’t give a button for these trivial domestic things, or for her family, but she was different when it came to outsiders. She was full of enthusiasm, and endlessly patient. Sometimes too enthusiastic, but she never got tired. One summer night, after dinner, she went out alone, and about half an hour later, she ran back in in a great hurry.

‘I just met X and Y having a fight with kitchen knives when I went out! What a coincidence that I happened to bump into them! I went up to the man and grabbed the knife off him.’  She stood in front of the TV, gesticulating as she described the alarming scene proudly to the family.

My uncle was not impressed, ‘Are you dopy or something?’ He glared at her angrily.

‘Mum, that’s dangerous, and you’re an old woman! Why are getting involved in a ruckus like that? You might have got slashed yourself, then what?’ Mingze muttered, frowning.

‘That’s right, steer clear of that stuff,’ my girl cousins ​​chimed in.

‘Why should it matter to you all if I die in the street?’ was my aunt’s riposte. She imagined herself as a swashbuckling hero from The Water Margin, Lu Zhishen for instance, but in her family’s eyes she was more of a simple-minded hunk like Zhang Fei, from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. She was so annoyed with them that she didn’t speak to them for days. In the meantime, she was on a very short fuse, and took out her resentments on me.

When I was living openly at my aunt’s house, and suffering all this abuse, three-year-old Fourth Sister, Star, was carefully being kept out of sight of the officials. My grandparents were popular with the villagers, and every time the family planning squad were planning a raid, someone would warn them. The officials got so frustrated that they rented a place to stay in Sunzha and settled in.

In desperation, Grandad stayed in Sunzha to hold the fort on his own, and Dad took the risk of fetching Star and Nana and taking them to live in Jining. It was hiding in plain sight. No one would suspect him of hiding his child in his own home.

But a kid is not a hamster. Star was fed up with being shut in, and naturally wanted to get out of the house. Although the grownups had told her over and over that she was never to go out, she took her chance one day when Nana was napping. She got onto the stool, quietly opened the gate and sneaked out.

She certainly caused a stir. Anyone in the village only had to look at her to know she was Shen Wenming’s little girl. If it hadn’t been for my Granny who spotted her as she stood gossiping in the street, the village officials would have had Star in custody in no time at all.

When Nana woke up and couldn’t find Star, she was frantic. She was rushing out to look for her just as Granny arrived at the door, ‘This little one scared the living daylights out of me! She ran into the street alone. You better pack up straightaway, and go. Otherwise, they’ll be here looking for both of you!’

My father and mother were due to do their factory shift early next morning, so they got their eldest nephew to pedal Nana and Star to another aunt’s house in the north of the city on the bicycle. The nephew was a sturdy young man in his early twenties. Dad told him to be very, very careful – he should leave out of the back gate and take the lanes. He patted his chest confidently, ‘Uncle, you can depend on me, I’ll get them there safely.’

He cycled steadily away, with Nana clutching Star in her arms on the back. But in no time at all, he was back again, with the bicycle but without his passengers, and looking panic-stricken. Mum and Dad had been about to leave for work. They looked at his bleeding hand and got a terrible fright. ‘What happened with you? What’s up?’

‘Uncle, Auntie, hurry! They’re down that lane there. I – I was pedalling alone fine, when – when suddenly we hit a big rock that some idiot had left in the middle of the street, I didn’t have time to brake, and Nana fell off, with Star in her arms.’

‘What?!’ Mum and Dad pushed the boy out of the way, and headed off on the bike.

They found Nana sitting on the ground, still holding Star. She was groaning, and her head was bleeding heavily. The blood had flowed down her face and neck, and soaked into the front of her jacket. Star was frightened but uninjured.

Dad put Nana on the bicycle and very carefully pedalled off to the hospital. Mum picked her daughter up, ‘Star, Nana’s had a nasty fall, so you’ve got to be a good girl in future.’

Star’s little mouth turned down. She was only just three, and the tears welled in her eyes as she nodded obediently. Many years later, talking about the hair-raising events of that day, my mother was still traumatized, ‘If Nana had suffered serious injury, I would never have forgiven myself for the rest of my life.’

Nana had stitches in her head, and Star and she returned to Sunzha. Back in Jining, the family planning officers, who had amassed a good deal of evidence, didn’t let the grass grow under their feet. It wasn’t long before they found out that my parents were out for the day, and arrived at our house with a posse of men armed with a stout wooden stake.

The thuds on the gate were deafening.

‘Who is it? What do you want?’ my big sister, Moon, hands on hips, yelled from inside.

‘Open up! Open the gate! Otherwise we’ll break it down!’

‘Wah!!!’ There was a wail of terror from Third Sister, Serene, who was only four-and-a-half.

‘Don’t cry, Mum’ll be back soon!’ Big Sister put her hand over her mouth to stifle the wails.

There was a crash, and our big iron gate suddenly fell in.

The whole posse rushed through the yard and straight into the house. They yanked the cable out of the TV where a cartoon film was on.

‘Mummy, Mummy!’ Third Sister’s cries rose to a shriek.

‘Stop crying! We’ve got to stop them!’ Big Sister rushed forward and grabbed the leader’s arm. The man tried to shake her off, but she got her arms right around him and wouldn’t let go. Third Sister went to her defence, throwing her small arms around his calf and sinking her teeth in hard.

The man yelled, snarled, and flung both of the girls away with all the strength he could muster. There was mayhem. Big Sister and Third Sister sat on the ground bawling their eyes out. The man sat down too, rubbed his bitten leg, and ordered his companions to take all the furniture out of the house.

My two sisters watched wide-eyed as the bastards carried everything out and took it away: TV, washing machine, sideboard, sewing machine, pots and pans, even a torch and a cigarette lighter. When we were all grown up, whenever Big Sister described the events of that day, the four of us couldn’t help laughing. Amazing that the dramatic events of twenty years ago could still make us laugh!

That evening, Dad arrived at the Family Planning Office with Third Sister in his arms.

‘Fuck it, we have laws in this country, right? Look what you’ve done to my kid!’

‘Your kid?! That fucking brat almost chewed my leg off!’

The officer yanked up his trouser leg angrily.

‘It serves you right, you fucker! You’re just a thug!’

And Dad handed my sister to Mum, who was standing behind him, and squared up to the family planning officer.

‘Who fucking gave you the right to break into our house? I want every single one of those things you stole back right now! Otherwise, you’ll see what I’ll do to you!’

Dad’s spittle sprayed the man’s face. He wiped it off with his sleeve. His lip twitched, and he narrowed his eyes as he spat out scornfully, ‘Do you really think we don’t know what’s going on in your family? Let me tell you, I know just what you’re hiding in Sunzha village!’

My parents were taken aback. It had never occurred to them that these thugs at the Family Planning Office already knew about Fourth Sister, Star.

‘Eight thousand yuan, that’s what you owe us. Go and sort it out. When you bring it to us, you can have this trash back again, every single bit of it!’ The officer dropped into his chair and looked at Mum and Dad in disdain.

‘Eight thousand yuan? Where are we going to get eight thousand yuan from?’

‘Borrow it! You can pay it back in dribs and drabs.’

‘I don’t know how they found out. However will we pay so much money back?’ Mum said frowning, as they returned home. Dad walked in silence, carrying Third Sister in his arms.

‘It means Yangyang may not be able to come back for a while.’

‘Well, if she can’t, she can’t.’

The road back seemed endless to my mother. She was overwhelmed with despair. Many years later, she told me that, at that moment, she could hardly see the way home, let alone how all this was going to end.

At the height of the family planning campaign, the officials in charge of it were universally loathed. In China, raising children, caring for the elderly, and keeping the family line going, were deeply-rooted cultural traditions. As far as sons went, it was the more the merrier. But nowadays the government enforcers had their eyes glued to every woman’s belly, carried out inspections and raids on a regular basis, confiscated cattle and pulled down houses, and carted pregnant women off to have forced abortions. The implementation of the law left a lot to be desired, as did the calibre of some cadres, and excessive brutality was common, especially in the countryside. At that time, everyone was poor, and few people could afford the fines that were the only way to keep your children with you. Violence between cadres and the villagers frequently flared up, and the latter gave as good as they got.

It was tit-for-tat: if the cadres confiscated a family’s food grain, they’d find their own crops destroyed; the cadres pulled a family’s house down, and their livestock would be poisoned; if the cadres used violence against a pregnant woman, her family would attack the cadres’ old folk or kids; ‘If you kill my child, I’ll do the same to yours,’ was a threat that was carried out. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Cadres and villagers fought running battles, the one openly, the other by subterfuge.

Of course, rules were sometimes bent. Even among the cadres whose job it was to enforce the law strictly, quite a few were supportive of the villagers and were as lenient as they could be. They would let it be known that pregnant women should hide themselves; someone who had been arrested might find themselves surreptitiously released; some cadres preferred persuasion and went to visit excess birth families over and over again to try and change their thinking; when a family’s house was demolished, they would make sure the roof tiles were carefully stacked in the yard, and they’d leave one room undamaged for the family to take shelter in; when they confiscated grain, they quietly left half behind, enough to keep the family alive.

Theoretically, family planning work should have been done by women, but most were men. Why? Because as soon as the officers arrived in a village to enforce the law, the villagers set the dogs on them. When the women heard the dogs barking, they didn’t dare go into the village, let alone bang on someone’s door.

There were considerable risks in having excess births, yet families did it, putting up stubborn resistance, and never giving up. Some women bought forged ‘tubal ligation certificates’ or made a small wound in their bellies and stuck a dressing over it to look like they had been sterilized; women would hide away anywhere they could, or the family would pay for a sterilized woman to have her fallopian tubes reconnected, or they would try to pull strings. There was no limit to what they could do, only a limit to what people could dream up.

Family planning was supposed to benefit the nation and the people. ‘Have one, have the best.’ ‘With only-child families, the government will look after the old folk.’ Everyone knew the slogans, they rang out loud and clear. What effect family planning would have in the end was anyone’s guess, however.

In any case, China used to be an agricultural country, and feudal attitudes linger: a big family is a thriving family; more children means more workers and a stronger family; a single, solitary child has no one to help if things go wrong, and no one to stand up for them if other villagers cheat them. In the countryside, only a son is considered to belong to the family, able to set up a household and keep the family line going. Daughters will marry out, so they don’t count. A family with only daughters will be mocked because the line will soon die out. In any argument with the neighbours, you’ll hear someone shouting, ‘When you die, there’ll be no sons to lead the mourning ceremony!’

As far as country folk are concerned, the only thing they can control is their bellies. The one thing they long for is children, and children are also their support in old age.

Compared with the family planning battles in rural areas, enforcing the policy in cities and towns was a simple matter. Government organizations, public institutions, state-owned enterprises, and the military were ideal for implementing the policies, because employees had no land to live off and had to rely on their jobs to support their families. If a couple dared to have a second child, then both husband and wife would be kicked out. What else could they do except obediently toe the line? Of course, some did manage it. They were either people with the right connections and power and courage and money, or those like my parents with no money, or power, or connections, but the determination to do whatever it took to have one child after another, and hide the evidence.

At the beginning of 1993, when my parents had paid off the fine, Fourth Sister, Star, finally got her wish and was able to go home to Mum and Dad. She had spent three years in hiding, being shuttled from pillar to post. I was not so lucky. I had spent five years hidden away in Sunzha with Nana and Grandad but ‘home’ for me was further away than ever.

Meanwhile, in Nanyang, my uncle and aunt grovelled and pulled strings, and scurried from one office to another for several months, and spent 3,000 yuan, and finally managed to get me a hukou residence card.

A girl cousin called Wu Shanying had had a hukou in another city bought for her at great expense, so that she could apply for college there, and of course the hukou was in a different name. As a result, she did not need her own hukou and my uncle managed to wangle it for me, for the exorbitant price of 3,000 yuan. Of course, it was my aunt and uncle who paid up. After that, my cousins used to make fun of me by calling me Three Thousand Shen when the grownups weren’t listening.

But things were rather more complicated than just buying a hukou. My aunt and her family lived, and were registered, out of town. If I registered myself as living with them, I would have a rural hukou just like they did. Back then, the document that everyone wanted was a city hukou. So my uncle went and talked to his older brother and sister-in-law in the city again. After some discussion, I was finally added to their urban hukou, under the name Wu Shanying.

In law, I had taken someone else’s name (not that I minded that) and become someone else’s niece. However, on the hukou, I was registered as, ‘Wu Shanying, female, date of birth 24th December 1984,’ instead of ‘date of birth 1st January 1986’, my real date of birth. In other words, two years had been added to my age, which made me a very late starter at school. My uncle thought he had been very clever and done me a favour because I’d be able to retire early, though actually it meant that I was teased mercilessly by my classmates.

‘Auntie, why do people call me ‘illegal’? What does it mean?’

‘It means you don’t have a hukou.’

‘What’s a hukou?’

‘It’s a document that proves who you are, it means you can go to school.’


‘Your aunt and uncle scraped together the money to buy you a city hukou, they paid 3,000 yuan for it. Don’t forget, your name’s Wu Shanying from now on. When you get to school, you make sure you do what the teacher says and work hard. And don’t let us down – we spent a lot of money on you.’

On 1st September 1993, I, Shen Yang, was seven years old. Except that in the eyes of the law, my name was Wu Shanying and I was nearly nine years old. At least I was no longer an illegal, a girl who didn’t exist. I really did start school, at the newly-built Changzhuang Primary School.

In the meantime, Star, my fourth sister’s name was finally entered onto the Shen family’s hukou, and in the position where I should have been, Third Sister’s name appeared as, ‘Second Daughter, Serene’.