How 3,000 Chinese orphans survived famine

Updated 2017-08-07 11:06:57 Xinhua

Over half a century ago, Huang Zhigang was a starving orphan in Shanghai. Along with 3,000 other orphans, he only was saved when he was taken to Inner Mongolia.

It is not customary for Mongolians to have a tombstone, but Huang, his brothers and sisters set one up for their foster parents Dowge and Zhang Fengxian in the Xianghuang Banner of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Every year in July, Huang, who has retired from his government post, and his wife visit the tombstone to honor their late parents, bringing peaches, liquor and flowers.

"If it were not for my parents, I would have died of starvation during the three years of difficulties," said Huang, kowtowing before the monument.

From 1959 to 1961, natural disasters and famine claimed staggering death tolls in China. In Shanghai, orphanages were crowded and welfare institutions could not feed the huge numbers of children.

Zhou Enlai, then Chinese Premier, met with Ulanhu, secretary of Communist Party of China Inner Mongolia Committee and decided to send the children to the grasslands where there was enough milk and meat to feed them.

From 1959, over 3,000 orphans from Anhui, Jiangsu, Shanghai and Zhejiang were put on trains and taken 1,400 kilometers to Inner Mongolia.

"We had no names when we left Shanghai. Each of us had a piece cloth sewn on to our clothes with a number on it," said Huang Zhigang, who was five when he was brought to Xianghuang Banner.

The birth rate in Inner Mongolia was low in the 1960s. Many ethnic Mongolian couples wanted to adopt children, said Yun Shubi, daughter of Ulanhu, who also took part in the mass salvation plan.

"My father said, herdsmen like children, no matter where they come from," Yun told Xinhua, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the autonomous region. Ulanhu promised Zhou that he would make arrangements for the mass transfer.

In general, the government allowed each a couple to take only one child. Many newly-weds and even old grannies rode or walked hundreds of miles to apply to adopt, she said.

Some children in the poorest of health were put in clinics before being adopted, Yun said.


In 1961, Zhang Fengxian was a nurse at a commune in Xianghuang Banner. Six orphans from Shanghai, including Huang Zhigang, were staying at a school next door.

"We were all about the same age, four, or five at the time. We called each other sisters and brothers, and we refused to be separated. When our prospective parents came, we hid so they couldn't find us," said Huang.

Zhang liked the children. "She wore khaki clothes, seemed plain and nice. She came from next door to see us, helped us wash our faces and hair. Sometimes she brought candy. We grew to like her," said Huang.

The children called Zhang the "red-faced aunt" - her face was tanned due to exposure to the sun. The four boys and two girls stayed at the school for months, but when winter came they needed to be put in private homes with stoves.

Zhang had no children of her own, and when she offered to adopt all six kids together, the local government agreed because both she and her husband had stable jobs.

Zhang raised them with her husband Dowge, but she passed away in 1991. One of the sons died while serving in the army. The rest went to university and found decent government jobs.

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