As a child, Li Yantao wondered why her mother, with her high forehead, protruding cheekbones and receding hairline, looked so different from others in their village in Henan province in central China.
Her mother was often referred to as “deaf-mute” and someone who made strange noises, as she spoke a language nobody understood.
Li only found out the disturbing truth when she was 11 years old – her mother had been abducted and sold to her father as a bride, years before Li was born. Nobody knew her mother’s name or age. She would sit in front of the house, gazing blankly at the road to the east.
She kept a knife under her pillow. Sometimes she cried and would say to herself that this was not her home.
Li can remember her mother once trying to run away with her and her younger sister. Feeling deeply sorry for her mother, she decided to help her return home – not knowing 19 years would pass before she could do so.
Now 30, Li has realised her childhood dream. She knows her mother is 59 years old, of the Buyei ethnic minority group and was called Dezliangz as a child.
In October, Dezliangz was reunited, 40 years after her abduction, with her parents in Shazi township in Guizhou’s Qianxinan Buyei and Miao autonomous prefecture in southwest China, 1,800km (1,100 miles) away from her home in Henan.
“She was completely changed among her old folks. I have never seen her smile so much in my entire life. They talked while holding hands. My mother was like a young girl around her parents,” said Li. “My mother has had a bitter life, being abducted to a place so far from home, repeatedly trying to escape and being beaten up before marrying my father.”
Dezliangz was sold several times in the four or five years between being abducted and ending up with Li’s father. “She never stopped missing home. I feel so lucky that she could see her parents again,” Li said.
China saw a surge in the trafficking of women and children in the 1990s. Two anti-human-trafficking action plans – which end this year – were initiated, resulting in a significant reduction in those crimes.
In 2014, police rescued more than 30,000 trafficked women. Two years ago, that number had dropped to just 434. There is no number for how many members of ethnic minority groups are trafficked, as factors like language barriers and poor education make rescuing them harder.
Dezliangz is a good example of why ethnic minority women struggle to make it home despite their best efforts.
In Guizhou, Dezliangz told her family that she was tricked by a neighbour and abducted after leaving her home. Being illiterate and speaking no local dialect because of hearing loss (possibly the result of being beaten), she could not tell anyone where she was from.
While Li could understand some basic words her mother spoke, she could never have a conversation with her. They had to pat Dezliangz on the shoulder to get her attention, and they used hand signs to communicate things like “go work in the field” or “time to go to bed”.
Li sought help from a local television station, but was told the information she gave was not enough to track her mother’s place of birth or family.
At middle school, Li spent one night a week at internet cafes talking to strangers from Sichuan to help her mother. Her father – who died three years ago – had once told her that her mother might be from an ethnic minority group in Sichuan province.
“I still have about 50 chat room groups on my phone but nothing useful has come up,” Li said.
At 17, Li begun using her phone to record her mother talking to herself in the hope someone could identify the language.
In high school, she ate other people’s leftovers for two months instead of buying food. She used the money to pay for a linguistic expert in Sichuan – only to learn that her mother did not speak any Sichuan dialect .
Her search of missing children websites proved futile, as she could not add any details, such as where the missing person came from.
Her break came in September this year, when Li came across Huang Defeng, a public servant in Qianxinan prefecture, promoting the Buyei language on social media, and she sent him a recording of her mother.
“I played the recording and could hear a woman crying in a desperate voice that she could not find her home and that she wanted to go back home so much. I then asked Li to send me a picture of her mother. I knew instantly I was looking at a Buyei woman,” Huang said.
Huang sought help from Wang Zhengzhi, a Buyei language translator at Qianxinan Broadcasting Station. Wang had previously helped a man, sold to Hebei province as a child, find his home in Huishui county in Guizhou two years ago.
Wang had done so based only on the man’s ability to count from one to 10 in Buyei, memories of his mother wrapping towels on peoples’ heads, and details of funeral customs.
Wang turned to a linguistics professor and friends who spoke with the same accent as Dezliangz. Based on her pronunciation of certain words, they identified that she was likely from one of four neighbouring counties in southern Guizhou.
Wang formed a WeChat group and invited Buyei people she knew from these four counties to send pictures of the land, clothes and customs for Li to show her mother – who recognised a waterfall and began talking excitedly.
Li recorded this and shared it with the group, who concluded that Dezliangz could have lived very close to Qinglong county.
They sent Li a photo of a famous road in Qinglong that Dezliangz also remembered – she could even name some of the households living nearby. Volunteers believed that Dezliangz must have lived quite close to this road.
A well-connected businesswoman, Luo Qili, sought help from a friend from that area to ask village elders if they recalled if a young woman had gone missing decades ago. Within a day, Luo came back with two names.
When Li shouted the second name “Dezliangz!”, her mother looked up with a shy smile. “Yes, I am Dezliangz. Now you know my childhood name,” she said.
The video was shared in the WeChat group, which exploded with messages. “It took only two-and-a-half days to find where my mother came from. They were exhilarated,” Li said.
Dezliangz returned home on October 18. It took two buses, two taxis, a three-hour flight and an hour-long car ride before Li, her husband and Dezliangz finally reached her home in Guizhou.
Her mother was waiting outside. She fed her a spoonful of rice – a Buyei tradition done for the return of a missing child. Take a bite of home-made food, and the child will never go missing again.
“Dezliangz’s mother could not take her eyes off her. Tears were in her eyes as she held Dezliangz’s hand and talked to her,” said Wang, who drove the family from the airport to where her parents lived.
As her parents lived with their son, Dezliangz’s brother, she could only stay for 12 days before returning to Henan, to avoid being a burden to her impoverished family.
“She wouldn’t talk to me after we came back, and stopped eating or drinking for two days. I had to live with my mother-in-law for a week to avoid her,” said Li. “But I can’t really blame her. She had suffered so much. I will bring her back to Guizhou for Lunar New Year .”
Wang said the WeChat group, with its more than 40 Buyei volunteers, would not be disbanded. They were helping three others, who believed they were abducted from Guizhou and who wanted to find their homes, too.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.