On May 26, 1988, Wen Chuanying's life changed for ever. She was kidnapped, drugged and bundled on to a train that would take her thousands of kilometres from home. The next day, she was sold to a farmer for 3,200 yuan (HK$2,976). Overnight the 14-year-old became a bride. On the first day at the home of her 'husband', Ms Wen knelt in front of him and begged for freedom. 'My parents will return your 3,200 yuan,' she promised. But he was not interested. 'What I want is a woman, not money,' he yelled. Around the time of Ms Wen's abduction from her hometown of Guiyang, Xu Jinfeng, then 16, was snatched from her home in rural Shanxi by a village cadre from Hebei, according to a recent report by the Beijing newspaper China Youth Daily. The kidnapper forced her to marry his brother, who was more than 50 years old. To prevent the girl from escaping, the family locked her in a small, dingy room for 10 years, which ultimately drove her insane. Then in April, an unidentified villager contacted the newspaper, which alerted the police. Though Ms Xu's husband was arrested, his brother remains at large. The traumatic experiences of Ms Wen and Ms Xu are shared by thousands of women and girls in China who are abducted each year and sold mainly to farmers who cannot or will not marry a local bride. Many prefer to buy a wife than go through the expensive process of an arranged marriage, which can cost more than 10,000 yuan because of the requisite dowry. After the founding of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong introduced strict social policies that banned not only the age-old custom of wife-buying, but also forced marriages and other feudal practices such as child marriage and polygamy. But with Deng Xiaoping's reforms and the opening of China in the late 1970s, millions of rural folk began to migrate to urban areas for better-paid jobs and the hope of a better life. To continue the family line, many farmers left behind had little option than to buy a wife from outside. The official Xinhua news agency reported that between 1991 and 1996, police country-wide caught 143,000 slave traffickers, rescuing 88,000 women and children. But as much information is kept under wraps and the true tally is believed to be much higher. Not surprisingly, the press has traditionally tiptoed around the subject. However, in September, 1988 Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekend broke the taboo and featured the story of a graduate student from a prestigious Shanghai university who had been sold to an illiterate peasant, Gong Changen, in a mountain village. The piece underscored the suffering of abducted women and drew nationwide attention, prompting other papers to report on similar cases. Yet to this day, the trafficking of women remains a sensitive subject in the Chinese media. The suffering is not confined to abductees. After Ms Wen's disappearance, her parents, both railway workers, spent months searching for her. They asked the police for help and after being told she was probably taken north, made numerous trips to search for her. The Wens even decided against moving to a new apartment because they worried she might not find her way home. Their despair grew with every passing year. But on one November day last year, their long-lost daughter appeared on their doorstep, clad in torn, shabby clothes and accompanied by her own daughter. Wen Chuanghong recalled her shock at the dramatic change in her sister. 'My sweet little sister turned into this tough woman with dark skin and coarse hands. She must have suffered greatly.' Though Ms Wen lived with her husband for nine years in the remote northeastern Anhui village of Youji, she never knew his real age and could guess only he was in his 30s when he bought and brought her home as chattel. But she remembers how his appearance terrified her. 'I was frightened to death,' she says in her parents' home in the city of Guiyang, in southwest China's Guizhou province. 'He was so dirty and smelly.' Her fear and repulsion did not thwart her new husband's advances. At 16, Ms Wen gave birth to a son and, three years later, a daughter. She named the boy Huangyan (return to Guiyang) and the girl Yuanmeng (fulfil dreams). Becoming a mother gave her a will to live (she had attempted to commit suicide twice by slitting her wrists) but did not still her dreams of escape. 'Those 9.5 years were hell,' she says matter-of-factly. 'The only thing that kept me going was my burning desire to go back home.' Youji is so remote it lacks even a postal service. Worse still, Ms Wen had no access to television or radio because electricity had yet to reach the village. She had nothing to read because her husband was illiterate and kept neither books nor newspapers at home. He did not even own a pen. Followed everywhere by members of his family (she lived with her husband and nine of his relatives), she was foiled in each of four attempts to escape and was punished with a beating each time. But last October, when the village was finally connected to the electrical grid - refreshing Ms Wen's memories of civilisation - she made another dash for freedom. With her daughter in tow, she hitched a lift on a tractor to the nearest county and from there made the journey home, begging for help along the way. Ms Wen was lucky to escape because, according to social worker Liu Bohong, many abducted women stay in forced marriages, especially if they have children. 'Although they encounter many difficulties, they tend to follow tradition and stick with their husbands after marrying them,' she says, adding, 'As the old Chinese saying goes, 'Marry a dog, stay with a dog; marry a rooster, stay with a rooster'.' But many may stay with their husband for another reason. 'They worry they'll be unable to find another man, as they've lost their virginity,' says Ms Liu, who works at the Women's Research Institute in Beijing. Lan Jinghong's story is typical. Eight years ago, a man visited her poverty-stricken village in Guangxi province, offering work at 'an amazing place with lots of jobs and plenty of chances to visit Beijing'. At 21, Ms Lan was sold into marriage in a village called Baoantun outside Hejian in Hebei. She was bought by the parents of a 24-year-old man who was mildly retarded. 'My heart sank at the first sight of my new husband who dribbled all the time,' says Ms Lan. 'I did think of running away but knew I would never make it. I had no money, no idea of how to get back home. 'But, after overcoming the initial shock, I actually found him a good man and not as stupid as he looks. Then we had a son, and I felt settled.' Ms Lan knows she is among the lucky few, as other women have been sold to old, disabled or violent men. About one in 10 families in the Baoantun area obtain wives from slave traders. Often the women are imprisoned behind barred windows, in courtyards with high walls topped by electric wire. But Ms Lan is so content she has introduced girlfriends from home to fellow villagers tempted by the thought of leaving rural Guangxi for married life in Hebei. Apart from plucking naive young women from rural villages, traffickers prey on migrant women in illegal urban job markets. While some have been known to rape their victims, others prefer to ensure their virginity is intact so they can command higher prices. 'There is lots of money to be made and there is a large market,' says Wang Shan, a renowned writer, sociologist and TV producer. In his recent TV documentary on the trafficking of women in China, two 21-year-old women were interviewed in their prison cells. One, Pu Xiaoying from rural Sichuan, worked at a restaurant in Beijing until falling turnover forced its closure. Having lost her job and desperate for money, she joined a gang of traffickers to lure women into captivity. Asked if she considered the misery she caused other women, she replied: 'I only knew I needed money to support myself and my family back home.' Pu was executed last December. The other, a well-educated girl from prosperous Nanjing in east China, was sold to a farmer in Yi county, near Beijing. For 13 months, she was chained to a pole at the family house and treated like an animal. One night her husband went out to play mahjong, leaving his brother's three children to watch over her. Seeing this as a good opportunity to escape, she made her move but was thwarted by the children. In a rage, she lashed out with an axe, killing two and injuring the other. Asked whether she was afraid of the law, she answered: 'What law? For 13 months, I was a sex slave, held illegally. Everyone in the village knew about it. I tried to set myself free, but I was caught within six hours.' Her fate has yet to be decided. Her case highlights a major hurdle in curbing the underground trade in women and children: sympathy for the buyer. 'In Chinese culture, a man is not looked down on if he buys his wife,' Ms Liu says. 'Otherwise, he would be without wife or offspring.' In the case of Gong, the peasant who bought the Shanghai student, a Communist Party member, punishment for the crime was six years in jail. As the only man to be disciplined out of the estimated 3,000 wife-buyers who had been caught in Shandong's Yuncheng county, Gong received widespread pity and sympathy. 'He is the most decent man in the village,' the head of the village Youth League commented. 'He paid for a wife with his own money. What's wrong with that?' Changing people's mindsets may take time, but the Government hopes to curb the practice of slave trading by introducing new laws and increased legal penalties. In 1996, the National People's Congress passed a decree 'Strictly Forbidding Kidnapping and Selling Women and Children'. And in last year's revised Criminal Procedural Law, specifics on matters such as the punishment of slave agents and buyers of human cargo were added, though the latter are usually given relatively light sentences. While traffickers are sometimes executed, the severe penalty is not sufficient to eradicate the whole trade because, as sociologist Mr Wang says, 'in the end, it is up to the local authorities to enforce the law'. The day after Ms Wen's unexpected return, she and her family filed a case against the two men who kidnapped her from a bookstore near her school, and whom she strongly suspects are locals. Six months have passed, but still they have heard nothing. 'They said they are investigating, but they also think there is no strong evidence,' Ms Wen says. Though she is determined to fight for justice, she has decided not to take legal action against her husband. 'Despite what I feel, I worry that my children might hate me one day if I bring him to trial,' she says, adding that she misses her son terribly but has no idea how to get him back. Under Chinese law, a man who violently rapes a virgin can be punished with a sentence of three to 10 years in jail. Despite attempts to crack down on the pernicious practice, some experts say trafficking in women will grow as China's strict family-planning policy leads to a widening gender gap. Baby girls are still being aborted or killed, especially in rural areas, by parents desperate for a male heir. Professor Pan Suiming from People's University is not convinced of this argument. 'It is true that in certain areas, the ratio of men to women is rising sharply. But I do not see the direct link between that and wife trading,' he says. 'The marriage pattern is, women go for men with more to offer. In the end, poor and unattractive men from impoverished, remote areas are left behind without wives.' And while wife-buying usually involves women or children traded against their will, it can also include those who willingly sell themselves as a means of escaping poverty, Professor Pan says. It is believed that increasing numbers of women from impoverished areas are selling themselves through go-betweens to men in more salubrious circumstances. The bride's family receives most of the money after the middle-man has taken a cut. 'When you are desperate, you will do anything for money,' Professor Pan says. 'And marriage is the only way some know to lift themselves out of poverty.' A further sad twist is that some women have become professional brides, or 'pigeons'. Selling themselves to men, they pocket the money and quickly flee to another part of the country, where they repeat the same scam. In April, the Legal Daily reported a case in Shanxi province in which police arrested a group of 17 women from rural Guizhou. Eight had sold themselves to farmers for 1,100 yuan each and escaped one night. The group earned some 200,000 yuan before their capture. Such reports are of little concern to Ms Wen who wants to start a new life but does not know how. With no skills and an education cut short a decade ago, her chances of employment are bleak. 'I had my dreams. I wanted to go to university,' she says. 'I want a decent job. I want to earn money for my parents, but all my dreams have been shattered.' Still, at least, she has been reunited with her family. Thousands remain trapped in involuntary marriages, a long way from home.