The distraught woman lies in a hospital bed, her eyes dry and closed. Slouched on one side, her large frame barely moves except for an occasional twitch as she lets out a half-cry, half-moan with the words, “Wuhai!”
She has no idea of the whereabouts of Wuhai, or her “Child No 5”. What she knows is that the 20-year-old young man, who was mentally disabled and had a deformed hand and a severe limp from poliomyelitis, was dead. He was killed, along with six other children aged from seven months to five years, in a fire that gutted her house. He was last seen that morning feeding breakfast noodles to a younger boy who didn’t make it out of the fire.
The fire broke out at about 8.30am on January 4, an hour and a half after Yuan Lihai left home on her daily routine of taking four children to school on her rusty tricycle. According to local officials, one of the dead children was found with a cigarette lighter in his hand. Thus, they had determined the cause of the fire.
Local police removed the children’s remains immediately after the fire was put out. They wouldn’t tell Yuan if the children were lying in a steel casket in the same hospital’s morgue, or if they had been cremated and buried somewhere in Lankao county, Henan province.
The tragedy crushed her. She had returned home only to find flames and smoke shooting out of every window of her house. None of the children inside answered her desperate calls. When local civil affairs officials took away the other 10 children under her care – who were living in other houses owned by Yuan's friends and family – she fell ill with chest pains and high blood pressure, and was taken to the hospital. 
After remaining almost catatonic for a week, Yuan started talking to some of the journalists parked outside her hospital ward.
“I dreamed that the children came to visit me last night. They just sat in the room and wouldn’t call me mum, no matter how many times I called out to them,” she told reporters a week after the fire.
Loving mother or negligent?
"China's orphan saviour devastated by deadly fire", Video by Wu Nan
Illiterate, diabetic and estranged for years from many of her family members, the 47-year-old woman may now face criminal or civil charges of negligence over the deaths of the children. Old allegations of negligence, even welfare fraud, have also been brought up. Her reputation as a local hero and “Mother with a Loving Heart”, of which she seems to be extremely proud, now teeters dangerously close to collapse.
These were not her biological children. She found the first one, a baby boy born with a cleft palate, abandoned in a bathroom at Lankao People’s Hospital, in 1987.
“After these children were born, no one wanted them. All I wanted was to let them live. It breaks my heart to watch them die in the street,” Yuan said. So, she took him in, without proper paperwork or help from the authorities.
He lived. And others kept coming. Yuan says she has lost count of exactly how many she took in, but probably more than 100. They came with all kinds of defects – cleft palates, albinism, poliomyelitis, cerebral palsy – or different levels of mental disability.
More than half of the children she took in eventually died of the diseases or defects with which they were born, Yuan said. Before and after the fire, she had been pestered with questions about the lack of proper care for her children, and the high fatality rates. She seemed tired and angry at the questions. Some of her children had grown up, found jobs, and now had their own families; some even went to college, she said, as if in defence.
Several of these children had heard the news and raced back to her side in support. “My early memory of my mother was that she opened the street stall every day, no matter it if rained or blew. But the business could not support us, because there were too many children,” said Du Panle, the oldest adopted daughter of Yuan, who is now 23, married, and lives in the neighbouring province of Hebei.
Immediately after the fire, some local officials had accused her of illegal adoption, which she quickly dismissed.
According to China’s adoption laws, abandoned children can only be legally adopted if they are recognised as “orphans” by local authorities. To do that, a potential adopter needs to prove both biological parents are dead, or have a court declare them missing for more than two years. The burden of proof and costs are on the potential adopter.
Yuan Lihai, who still runs a street stall across the street from the hospital, says there was no way she could afford the legal costs.
“I tried to seek help from the Civil Affairs Bureau for my children’s welfare and disabilities, but I could not even afford to pay for the procedural fee and medical exams,” Yuan said. “Most abandoned children were given to me anonymously How could I find out who their parents were and prove they were missing?”
No room for orphans
The problem is, Yuan’s home county – with three quarters of a million people and a decades-old reputation as one of China’s poorest areas – has nowhere else to put its abandoned children. According to local media reports, plans to build the county’s first children’s welfare centre were only approved as recently as December, as part of a national push by Beijing to build at least one such centre in every county across China over the next five years.
Lankao’s dilemma offers just a glimpse of the national problem of insufficient care for abandoned children. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 children abandoned every year in China, according to the China Children Welfare Policy Report 2010. In the same year, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs said that there were 712,000 orphans nationwide. Only about one seventh of them entered the public child welfare system. Many of those who could not, remain under the care of people like Yuan. However, the government provides subsidies and assistance only to legitimate children’s welfare centres – and not to individuals.
As Yuan’s reputation spread around Lankao and neighbouring counties over the years, more and more people started taking abandoned children to her, including hospital workers and even policemen. She soon ran out of names and nicknames for her new children, and started naming them randomly, sometimes after daily objects, sometimes simply a number, or even naming them by their deformities.
Among those killed in the fire, Xiaoyu (Little Rain) was a girl of about five, Zha Gen (Set Roots) was a boy of four, Shani (Dumb Girl) was three, Xiao Yaba (Little Mute) a boy of two, and the two youngest were male babies less than a year old, whom she had not yet named.
Peddling daily goods and snacks across the street from the county’s main hospital might have made it easier for Yuan to take in more abandoned babies, but wasn’t enough to help her raise them, said her family members. She also sold breakfast at her stall, raised pigs with friends, and occasionally worked as a go-between when real estate developers wanted to buy land parcels from local residents.
Still, she complained she barely could afford to buy formula, food or other necessities for more than a dozen children and infants. “I could only give them one diaper per child per day. It was too expensive,” she said.
Along with unwanted babies, neighbours and local volunteers also brought whatever help they could to help her – food, toilet paper, baby clothing and used furniture. Older children’s dirty, worn clothes were passed onto younger ones when they outgrew them. At night, the children squeezed into dusty wooden beds with threadbare futons covered in blackened blankets and sheets.
Lankao Civil Affairs Bureau deputy director Li Meijiao said her bureau had been trying to persuade Yuan to send children to official welfare centres for better care. “We talked with the children. They cried and refused to leave her. And she did not want to give up those children,” Li said. After many attempts, officials were finally able to convince Yuan to part with five of her children last year. They were taken to the nearest Children’s Welfare Centre, in the city of Kaifeng, 43 km away.
Ironically, Yuan did not seem to mind sending one of her three natural children away.
“I still find it difficult to understand how my own mother could send me away to grow up in a relative’s home, while she took care of children others abandoned,” said Du Ming, Yuan’s youngest child. While his older brother and sister grew up with the throng of adopted children, Du did not return to his mother’s side until he was 13. “There has always been a barrier between my mother and I,” he said.
The son is not the only one who doesn’t understand her. Yuan’s husband moved out a few years after she started taking in abandoned children, and they have lived apart since. Yuan’s own parents, both in their 70s and living on a state pension of a few hundred yuan per month, were also heartbroken about the fact their daughter had no time for them. Still, Yuan’s mother, Zhang Jinye, came to her house to help cook for the children from time to time.
Other relatives complain that the only time Yuan talks to them is to ask them to take in a child or two under their roof, when she runs out of money or space in her home.
News of the deadly fire triggered heated discussion in Chinese cyberspace. Local officials’ criticism of Yuan Lihai stirred outrage among netizens.
“Chills ran through my heart when I heard that each of the abandoned children [under Yuan’s care] was given only 70 yuan (HK$87) minimal living allowance per month,” Ma Weidu, a famous historian, wrote on weibo, the mainland’s Twitter-like service.
While most of the children under Yuan’s care were ineligible for the 350-yuan child welfare allowance due to the lack of proper adoption papers, some local officials, perhaps inspired by Yuan’s dedication, found ways to bend rules and offer some help. Civil affairs officials were able to get the minimum living allowance, another form of state assistance, for some of the children. It paid about 200 yuan per month. The police department also found ways to issue residency permits to almost all the children, which made it possible for them to go to school and work when they grew up.
A service to society
“Yuan Lihai has been adopting abandoned children for 25 years without taking care of her own children. She is undertaking a social responsibility as an important supplement to social morality. That’s why we all respect her,” Qi Jinli, the Communist Party chief of Kaifeng City, which governs Lankao, told reporters last week.
Within a week of the fire, authorities announced that six junior local officials had been sacked. But questions remain as to what kind of legal consequences, if any, Yuan might face. Thousands of comments have been posted online supporting her and denouncing the Lankao bureaucracy for decades of inaction. Dozens of media outlets around the nation have published lengthy stories about her. Local officials face mounting pressure to drop any potential legal action they might be considering.
To Yuan Lihai, the only big remaining questions are when she can retrieve the guardianship of her other 10 children, and when she can start taking in more children.
“I feel a string tugging at my heart with the children away,” she said. She has repeatedly asked local officials if she can visit her children, now housed in a Children’s Welfare Centre in Kaifeng. But doctors have ordered her to remain in bed for the time being, and her grown children – biological and adopted – agree with the doctors.
Du Ming, the youngest son who still can’t help frowning while talking about his mother, said: “She will never give up those children. It’s her life.”