The Lost Daughters of China

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The Lost Daughters of China

Karin Evans 2000

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Karin Evans's The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past (New York, 2000) is an account of the experiences of Evans and her husband as they adopt a baby girl from an orphanage in China. The book interweaves Evans's personal story with information about Chinese culture and society. Of particular importance is the Chinese population policy that began in the 1980s, which restricted families to one child. This policy was established because China's leaders believed that the country, with one billion people, was overpopulated and would only be able to achieve economic prosperity with rigidly enforced population control. The result was that thousands of babies, almost all of them girls, were abandoned by their parents and had to be placed in orphanages. Many were adopted by American parents who, like Evans and her husband, had to go through a long bureaucratic process with many delays before they could connect with their new daughters in China.

In addition to providing a moving account of how two American parents bonded with a Chinese baby and brought her back to live in San Francisco, The Lost Daughters of China also raises many issues that Evans discusses in an accessible and interesting way: the challenges of raising a baby who has a different ethnicity than its parents; the place of women in Chinese society, both in history and today; and the origins and consequences of China's one-child policy.

Author Biography

Karin Evans is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, San Francisco Examiner, Boston Globe, and other publications. She was a founding editor of Rocky Mountain Magazine, was an editor at Outside magazine, and was a senior editor for the San Francisco Examiner Sunday magazine and for Health magazine. Evans spent two years working at the Newsweek Hong Kong bureau, where she became familiar with Chinese culture. She has commented that she felt drawn to that part of the world and felt at home there.

Evans lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband, attorney Mark Humbert, and their adopted daughter, Kelly Xiao Yu. The couple adopted Kelly in 1997 from Jiangmen, Guangdong, China. Evans's book The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past (2000) tells of her experience adopting a Chinese baby. Evans serves on the board of directors of the Half the Sky Foundation, which exists to help the orphaned children of China.

Plot Summary


In the introduction to The Lost Daughters of China, Evans presents an overview of the topic of the large number of orphaned Chinese babies that have been adopted by American families. In 1997, Evans herself adopted her daughter, Kelly Xiao Yu, from an orphanage in southern China.

Chapter 1

Evans describes the long bureaucratic process that she and her husband Mark went through after they first decided in January 1996 to adopt a Chinese baby. They were both in their forties and had no children. Chinese baby girls were available for adoption because many were abandoned by their parents and ended up in state-run homes.

The process of adopting began at an international adoption agency in San Francisco, where Evans and her husband were informed that the total cost would be around fifteen thousand dollars and that the process would take about a year. In reality, it took nearly two years.

The couple had to apply to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for permission to adopt a foreign baby. This was the first step in what Evans describes as a sea of paperwork, confusing regulations, and bureaucratic delays. Finally, the U.S.-China liaison, a man she calls Max (which is apparently not his real name), calls to inform Karin and Mark they have a baby waiting for them in China. The baby is a year old and healthy.

Chapter 2

Evans describes the trip to China, which she and her husband make in company with several dozen other American adults who are also adopting Chinese babies. They arrive in Guangzhou, on the Pearl River Delta in southern China, eighty miles from Hong Kong. Evans describes the atmosphere of the city, which was hosting a business fair at the time, and notes the presence of twenty McDonalds restaurants. Guangzhou is rapidly growing, and many construction projects are underway.

Finally, along with the other American adopters, Evans and her husband receive their baby, whose name is Jiang Xiao Yu. She is healthy and appears to have been well cared for. The couple rechristens her Kelly Xiao Yu, after Evans's father, who died shortly before the adoption took place.

Chapter 3

Evans discusses the circumstances under which baby Chinese girls are abandoned and some of the cultural history of women in China. All that Evans knew about her new daughter was that she had been found abandoned at a local market when she was about three months old. Her birth parents and place of birth are unknown. This is typical of the Chinese baby girls put up for adoption. Evans points out that Chinese culture has a long history of discrimination in favor of male children. Girls are frequently regarded as just an extra mouth to feed.

Chapter 4

This chapter explains China's population control policy that has resulted in so many baby girls being abandoned or worse. The idea of slowing China's birthrate took root in the 1970s. China's population stood at one billion, and its leaders decided that the best way of producing economic growth was to instigate population control. The argument was that fewer people would lead to a rising standard of living and this in turn would produce political stability. In 1980, the policy became official. It was known as the one-child policy. Families were restricted to one child, and this policy was enforced with some brutality, including forced abortions. Given the cultural preference for male children, baby girls were often abandoned, thus giving the family a chance to produce a son. The population policy created an imbalance in Chinese society: by 1990, five of China's thirty provinces had 120 boys for every 100 girls.

Chapter 5

Evans describes the ten days she and her husband spent with Kelly in Guangzhou before they returned to the United States. They bonded with the baby immediately, and Evans could hardly recall what life had been like without her, so perfect was the match. The new family spent their time sightseeing and wandering the streets of the city. Kelly and the other babies adopted by the American group were blessed in a Buddhist ceremony in a temple. On her arrival in San Francisco, Kelly quickly learned to adapt to her new environment.

Chapter 6

Evans's thoughts turn to the many Chinese babies that are orphaned but not adopted, noting that there may be as many as one million children in institutional care in China. She also comments that children with disabilities or major health problems, as well as older children, have only a slim chance of being adopted. Evans then discusses a television documentary, The Dying Rooms, which paints a grim picture of abuse in China's orphanages. She examines differing opinions about whether the documentary was an accurate portrayal of conditions in China's orphanages and points out that many problems are caused simply by poverty and lack of resources rather than intentional neglect.

Chapter 7

Evans describes the attempts of Americans who have adopted Chinese daughters to raise their children with an awareness of their Chinese heritage. Because of the large Chinese-American community in San Francisco, it is relatively easy for Evans to give Kelly some exposure to Chinese culture, and they celebrate the Chinese New Year and other occasions in the Chinese calendar. However, for people living in other parts of the country, such exposure may not be so easy. Evans describes some of the organizations that have been created to foster understanding of Chinese culture. She also explores the issue of ethnic identity and speculates about whether as they grow up the Chinese daughters will want to know more about their heritage or will regard themselves as completely American.

Chapter 8

Evans speculates about who Kelly's birth mother might have been and the circumstances that may have led her to give up her daughter. In general, few statistics exist to describe the families who abandon their babies. One study suggested that in half of all cases, the decision was made by the father; in 40 percent of cases, it was a joint decision. Only seldom did the mother make the decision on her own. The typical abandoned child was a healthy newborn girl who had one or more older sisters but no brothers.

Chapter 9

Evans considers the issue of whether it may be possible in the future for the adopted daughters from China to learn specific details about their birth families. There may, for example, be an increase in DNA testing, which could provide such information, although for that to occur the political situation in China would have to change.

Chapter 10

The author observes that as long as China's one-child policy continues, there will continue to be thousands more orphans, far more than can ever be adopted, since the pace of the adoption procedure is not likely to increase. But, she points out that the one-child policy is already being officially relaxed in some areas. Also, single children who marry other single children (as will increasingly be the case over the next decade) are allowed by the population policy to have two offspring.

Key Figures

Karin Evans

Karin Evans is a Caucasian woman from San Francisco. She is the author of the book and the person who adopts baby Kelly. Evans is in her late forties and has been previously married and divorced. She has no other children, her only son having died of a cerebral hemorrhage when he was three days old. She has thought of adopting ever since and has waited until the circumstances seemed right. She is certain she is pursuing the correct course as she navigates her way through the long adoption procedure, and she persists in her goal despite the delays and disappointments along the way. When she finally travels to China, meets Kelly, and takes her back to San Francisco, the bond she forms with the baby is immediate and profound. Evans is a thoughtful, resourceful woman who feels keenly her responsibilities as a new mother and accepts the challenge of raising Kelly with an awareness of her Chinese heritage.

Mark Humbert

Mark Humbert is Karin Evans's husband. He is a lawyer and, like his wife, he has long wanted children. He shares his wife's desire to adopt a baby girl from China. Also like Karin, he bonds immediately with the baby. He is overwhelmed by feelings of love and is surprised at the depth of those feelings and how quickly he is overtaken by them.


Max is the liaison between U.S. and Chinese officials in charge of the adoption process. During the trip to China, Max acts as facilitator for the whole group of Americans. He is extremely efficient, seeming to be everywhere at once, smoothing the way with U.S. and Chinese officials, as well as with hotels, bus drivers, and waiters. Karin is extremely grateful for his help and calls him Uncle Max (and sometimes even Saint Max). She believes she owes as much to him as to anyone in her life.

Kelly Xiao Yu

Kelly Xiao Yu is the Chinese baby girl adopted by Karin and Mark. She is about a year old. The name given to her in the orphanage near Guangzhou is Jiang Xiao Yu. Jiang means "river," Xiao means "little," and Yu means "education." Evans never discerns what the significance of "little education" might be as a name. One Chinese woman tells her that the word Yu, depending on the pronunciation and how it is written, may mean "jade." Whatever the name means, Evans decides to retain it. However, she replaces the name Jiang with Kelly, in honor of Evans's late father. Evans and her husband soon discover that Kelly is affectionate and easy-tempered, with a full zest for life.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the issue of world population growth and write an essay about it. Do you feel it is desirable to reduce the world's population, and if so, by what methods?
  • What might be some of the difficulties encountered by someone of Chinese ethnicity growing up in America? Should such a child be raised with an awareness of his or her Chinese cultural heritage, or is it more important for him or her to identify with mainstream American life and culture? Explain your answer.
  • Should the state have any say in regulating reproductive practices, or should this be a private decision by the individual people concerned? Might a country like China have different needs than the United States in that respect? Explain your answer.
  • Research the position of women in Chinese society today. How do their lives compare with the lives of women in the United States? Have Chinese women made progress in the last thirty years? What are some of the central issues they face today?



The Lost Daughters of China is a love story. Although Evans discusses the larger issues of China's one-child policy, the book is primarily a human story rather than a political or sociological essay. The love story functions on several levels, and Evans takes care to emphasize all of them. Although she knows nothing at all of Kelly's birth mother, she feels confident in making certain deductions. She believes that the mother gave up her daughter only with great reluctance and grief and that she placed her in the market to ensure she would be quickly found. Evans believes without a doubt that Kelly's mother loved her. The baby's ready smile confirms it. Evans exonerates the mother from any blame for her actions and believes that she probably suffered in many ways because of them. The fact that the mother did not abort the baby is another sign that she loved her even before she was born, since abortions are easy to obtain and are even encouraged in China. Evans thinks of Kelly's birth mother as her Chinese soulmate.

The second level at which love occurs is in the orphanage. Although there have been reports of abuses taking place in China's orphanages, Evans is at pains to emphasize that Kelly received excellent care. She is well dressed, with brand new yellow corduroy shoes; she has been breast-fed (whether by the mother or the staff at the orphanage); and she trusts people and displays affection. The staff knows her as an individual, and the caregivers give Evans plenty of details about her: the baby can crawl and walk, she likes rice cereal and little pieces of apple and banana, and she can be mischievous. When Evans takes her away, one of the women waves to the baby, who responds by blowing a kiss and waving.

Finally, there is the love story between mother and daughter. For Evans, the experience is almost overwhelming. On their first full afternoon together, for example, "We looked into each other's eyes and I covered her with kisses. It was a transcendent couple of hours, fixed in my memory now, both physical and mental." Shortly after they return to the United States, Evans has another realization. Holding Kelly in the kitchen, she knows suddenly and absolutely that she could not love the baby any more than she does at that moment: "I loved her without condition, without reservation. There was simply no room left in my heart to love her more." Evans knows that even if she had given birth to Kelly herself, she could not love her more. She also knows that the difference in ethnicity means nothing; she and Kelly are mother and daughter in every sense of the word.


Alongside the love story is a story of loss. In the case of an adopted child from China, the two go hand in hand. Although Evans is understandably overwhelmed by her own experience of love for her new baby, she is also keenly aware of the other side of the coin. For her to have the chance to adopt the beautiful baby, many things must also be lost. First, there is the loss experienced by Kelly's birth mother, and Evans also spares some thoughts for the thousands of other Chinese women who give up their babies in similar circumstances. Their loss can never be calculated; the women themselves stay silent and anonymous. There are also many babies who are not so fortunate as Kelly and find no one to adopt them.

Evans wonders also whether, in spite of the joy Kelly shows, there may also be some lurking sadness, some sense of loss at what has happened to her. Evans herself feels great sadness when she leaves China, since that is all Kelly has ever known in her short life, and she may be leaving it behind forever. Kelly would never know for certain her origins or the way she had spent her first year of life.

Back in the United States, these thoughts continue to trouble Evans. When Kelly wakes at night and cries loudly, Evans wonders whether she is having a nightmare of being left in the market, of missing the orphanage, or about one of her early caregivers. Evans knows that that gap, that loss, in Kelly's life can never be filled. Kelly will never know her birth mother, who is untraceable, and her origins will always be shrouded in mystery.


Figurative Language

Evans uses figurative language to explain the mysterious process of how and why adoptive parents get connected to their future daughters, who have been born on the other side of the world. She cites a Chinese story that describes how lovers are predestined to meet: a red thread connects them, no matter how far away they may be from each other. Evans explains that the Chinese-American adoptive community considers the expression to include parents and the children they adopt. The idea of the "red thread" gives expression to Evans's idea that there is an order and purpose in the universe. The way people become involved with each other is not random. It is part of a destiny that each person has to fulfill. This explains Evans's strong sense that it was absolutely right and inevitable that she and Kelly would become mother and daughter.

Evans notes that no one can prove one way or the other whether the thread—the hidden connection between two people that manifests itself at a certain time—really exists, or why, or how. She contents herself with this explanation: "Maybe the thread is woven partly from strands of destiny, partly from gratitude, partly from love. Maybe it's all a tribute to the openness of the human heart, both young and old."

On another occasion, Evans creates a symbol out of an everyday object. She is awakened one night by the prick of a needle that has been left in her hand-stitched, made-in-China quilt. She feels as if she has been poked by the anonymous seamstress, and in that small reminder of an absent craftswoman, the spirit of the seamstress comes through. Evans is able to imagine her at work. Evans moves from that thought to imagine the unknown, anonymous lives of the birth mothers of the adopted daughters. She realizes how closely connected these mothers still remain to their offspring, even though they gave them up for adoption, just as the needle connects the quilt to the seamstress. In the case of Evans's daughter, Kelly's ready smile is the clue that reveals the nature of her mother: even though she relinquished her baby, she loved her.

Creative Nonfiction

As a mixture of personal memoir, objective reporting, and historical analysis, with elements of travelogue thrown in as well, the book is not easily classified under traditional literary forms. This type of work, which has become popular over the last two decades, is referred to under a number of different names: creative nonfiction, personal journalism, the new journalism, or literary journalism. According to Theodore A. Rees Cheney, in Writing Creative Nonfiction, this new form combines "the skill of the storyteller and the research ability of the reporter." In this case, Evans tells a very personal story, of wanting a baby and of going through all the bureaucracy associated with adoption. She also tells the reader how she feels when she finally meets the baby and how she bonds with her. But Evans weaves into this personal memoir a wealth of factual information about the history of Chinese society, its attitudes toward women, and how China is changing today. The result of such an eclectic approach is usually a more interesting narrative, appealing to a wider group of readers, than a more scholarly approach that would exclude personal factors and confine itself to description and analysis of factual matters. It is not surprising, given that the author is a journalist rather than an academic, that she chose the livelier method. It presents history and current events with a human face.

Historical Context

China and Population Control

China is a huge country and has always had a large population. For much of its history, millions of Chinese peasants have lived in dire poverty. Floods and famine have frequently ravaged the land, and the death rate has always been high. During the 1930s, for example, in many rural areas the infant mortality rate was three hundred to every one thousand people, and average life expectancy was only twenty-four years.

The communist revolution in 1949 at first improved the fortunes of the country. Economic reform gave peasants greater security, and social welfare legislation in the cities gave many people retirement security. But as Evans points out, Chinese leader Mao Zedong's overambitious attempts at agricultural reform resulted in a huge famine. Between 1959 and 1962, famine claimed twenty million lives. It was the largest recorded famine in human history. The effects of famine and malnutrition were especially severe on children. In 1963, half of those people dying in China were under ten years old.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Mao Zedong did not believe that population control was necessary in China. He encouraged women to have more children. Like leaders in many developing countries, Chinese leaders regarded the population control movement as a Western idea designed to thwart their progress. In 1974, at the World Population Conference held in Bucharest, Romania, 136 countries attempted to reach a consensus on the need for population control. China, along with the Soviet Union, refused to support the movement.

But times were changing. When a new set of leaders came to power, especially Deng Xiaoping, limiting the population became Chinese government policy. The rationale was simple: fewer people would mean that China would be better able to feed its people and to make economic progress. The policy was reinforced by the findings of the 1982 census, which showed the population of China to be one billion. The aim of the one-child policy was to reduce the population to 700 million by 2050.

The policy had three main points. It advocated delayed marriage (at age twenty-two for men and twenty for women, although for women twenty-four was considered ideal). Childbearing was to be delayed, and there should be only one child per family. Ethnic minorities, however, were allowed to have two children.

The one-child policy announced in 1980 represented a drastic change, since at the time, as Evans points out, it was not uncommon for Chinese to have five or six children. The policy was often enforced cruelly, with millions of forced abortions and sterilizations. In cities, having a second child was punished with the loss of a job and a fine equivalent to three years' salary for each parent. Many families found ways of skirting the law, such as sending a pregnant woman to relatives and then failing to register the birth.

The policy also produced an increase in infanticide of girls. There were many reports of parents drowning or suffocating baby girls (as well as abandoning them) so that they could have another try at producing a boy. In one village alone, forty baby girls were drowned between 1980 and 1981.

In the late 1990s, there were signs that China's one-child policy might be easing. Laws that required parents to register for permits before having a child were abolished in some places, and it was no longer lawful to force women to undergo abortions and sterilization.

Critical Overview

The Lost Daughters of China received generally appreciative reviews. Eleanor J. Bader in Library Journal praises Evans's "riveting" examination of misogyny in China, pointing out that Evans does not "demonize" the Chinese people: "Instead, she eloquently assesses the conditions that force couples to abandon their offspring and chronicles the emotional anguish that accompanies the decision to give up a child."

For Vanessa Bush in Booklist, Evans "brings a mother's and a reporter's perspectives to this moving account of China's troubling [population] policy." The reviewer for Publishers Weekly, how-ever, has mixed feelings. He or she finds the book strongest when Evans describes the way she and her new daughter quickly created a loving bond. But other sections of the book, in the reviewer's opinion, are not so strong. When Evans describes Chinese history and culture, her "lack of familiarity with China" leads her to rely on secondary sources, resulting in a lack of "fresh insights."

The most critical review of the book was written by Susan Greenhalgh in the journal Population and Development Review. Greenhalgh is herself a scholar of China's population policies. Although she acknowledged that The Lost Daughters of China is "finely crafted and deeply felt," she also feels that it presents a "romanticized portrait" of the situation, "whisking from view the behind-the-scenes political dynamics that allowed the transfer of Chinese child to American parents to appear as a gesture of generosity and love." According to Greenhalgh, Evans ignores the fact that the adoption process was carefully stage-managed by Chinese officials who want to obscure the reality that the adoptions are the result of a population-control policy that depends on coercion.


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the pressures that drove Chinese leaders to adopt the one-child policy in the early 1980s.

In her review of The Lost Daughters of China, Susan Greenhalgh, herself an expert in China population studies, criticized Evans for sugarcoating the story of Evans's adoption of Kelly. According to Greenhalgh, Evans too readily accepted the image that Chinese officials wished to project—that the orphans were being tenderly cared for and were handed over to their adoptive parents with love. In Greenhalgh's view, this obscured the political dynamics that operate behind the scenes in China. Rather than being lavished with love, the orphaned babies were in fact the victims of a deliberately coercive political policy that forced their abandonment and neglect.

In fairness to Evans, however, although she emphasizes the personal story of her adoption, she does not ignore the cruelties of the one-child policy. Indeed, it would be hard for the average reader not to feel indignant at her descriptions of some of the excesses of the policy, including forced, late-term abortions and compulsory sterilization.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Christine Hall's Daughters of the Dragon: Women's Lives in Contemporary China (1997) is a very readable account—much of it based on personal interviews—of all aspects of the lives of women in contemporary China. Hall examines topics including education, careers, sex and relationships, living conditions, fashion and beauty, leisure pursuits, religion, and politics.
  • Adeline Yen Mah's bestselling memoir Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter (1997) describes her turbulent life, which began in an affluent family in the Chinese port city of Tianjin. She was emotionally abused by her stepmother but fought for her independence and went on to build a successful medical career in the United States. The memoir tells of her triumph over despair in a long search for love and understanding.
  • The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001), by Amy Tan, explores the Chinese immigrant experience in America and the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. The novel weaves together two separate narratives: the story of LuLing, a young girl in 1930s China; and that of LuLing's daughter Ruth as a middle-aged woman in modern San Francisco.
  • Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1992), by Jung Chang, is a dramatic and sometimes horrifying account of China as seen through the eyes of women of three different generations: the author, who left China in 1978; her mother, who married a communist revolutionary soldier; and her grandmother, who was sold as a concubine to Beijing's police chief.
  • Wuhu Diary: On Taking My Adopted Daughter Back to Her Hometown in China (2001), by Emily Prager, is another story of adoption and China. Prager adopted an unwanted baby girl from Wuhu, a village in southern China. This mixture of memoir and travelogue is the story of her return to China with LuLu, her five-year-old daughter, to reintroduce the girl to her roots.
  • The contents of China Today: How Population Control, Human Rights, Government Repression, Hong Kong, and Democratic Reform Affect Life in China and Will Shape World Events into the New Century (1995), by Donald Shanor and Constance Shanor, are clear from the title. The Shanors cover history, economics, foreign policy, and other fields as they examine the many different aspects of contemporary China.

People in the West have long known that such practices exist in China, ever since Steven W. Mosher revealed them in his 1983 book, Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese. The one-child policy has aroused fierce criticism in the West and has had repercussions on U.S.-Chinese relations. For example, during the Reagan administration of the 1980s, the United States withdrew its support for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which supports voluntary family planning and prenatal and maternal health care programs around the world, including China. The United States refused to support the fund because of domestic conservative opposition to birth control and abortion. The decision not to support UNFPA was reversed by the Clinton administration in 1993, but in 2002 President George W. Bush announced that the United States would withhold the $34 million voted by Congress for UNFPA. The official reason for this policy was that money given to the United Nations' agency would help the Chinese government to maintain its policy of forced abortion. Critics were swift to point out that the United Nations opposes forced abortions and sterilizations and that the money used by UNFPA in China is intended to show that voluntary family planning can be effective in tackling China's population crisis. However, the Bush administration declined to change its view.

Western distaste for the draconian nature of China's one-child policy is understandable, but what perhaps has been lacking is a full understanding of the pressures that drove Chinese leaders in the early 1980s to adopt the one-child policy in the first place. This is covered only very briefly in The Lost Daughters of China. A more detailed examination is contained in China scholar Jonathan D. Spence's book The Search for Modern China.

According to Spence, by 1981 it was clear to Chinese leaders that in the absence of population control, any economic gains China made through modernization would be cancelled out by the need to support a rising population. Such had been the case in other developing countries. Confirming these fears, the results of the 1982 census indicated that China's population had grown to over one billion, up from 694.6 million in 1964 (according to an earlier, and probably not entirely accurate, census).

The idea of instituting population control was not a new one. In the 1950s, some Chinese economists, as well as influential leaders such as Zhou Enlai, were advocating reductions in the birth rate. But the triumph of political extremism during the 1960s, with its belief that the revolutionary will of the people, if properly organized, could ensure progress whatever the rise in population, ensured that the issue was not effectively addressed.

By the early 1980s, the population issue was no longer possible to ignore. Statistics showed that in 1981 in China, 6 million babies were born to couples who already had one child; 1.7 million babies were born to those who already had five or more children.

Spence explains that as they pondered their decisions, Chinese leaders had to bear five crucial factors in mind. First was the availability of suitable land for cultivation. Although its land area is larger than the United States, in the late 1970s China only had half as much cultivated land. In addition, China's larger population meant that the amount of cultivated land per capita was only. 25 acres, compared to 2.10 acres for the United States. Not only this, the amount of available land was declining. In 1952, the per capita figure had been almost double, at. 46 acres. Some of the decline was due to the construction of new homes, factories, and road and rail lines; much of the rest was due to badly planned government policies that produced industrial pollution and extensive deforestation.

The second factor, according to Spence, was the demographics of the population. In 1982 in China, there were many millions of women of childbearing age—over 81 million in their twenties and over 60 million in their thirties. There were also over 125 million girls aged ten to nineteen who were shortly to enter their childbearing years. This meant that unless measures were taken, there would soon be a sharp rise in the birth rate.

In addition to the youthful population, the number of old people was growing as well. This was due to improvements in diet and also in medical knowledge, which resulted in many dangerous infections and parasitic diseases being brought under control. Life expectancy in general rose by an average of eight or nine years over a period of only twenty-four years, from 1957 to 1981.

"China's many well-wishers will hope that a move to voluntary family planning quickly makes coerced birth control a thing of the past."

A third factor was the increasing urbanization of the population. This has implications for population size. In some rural areas, the death rate for infants under four was six times that in China's large cities, and life expectancy in China's cities was on average four years higher than in rural areas. Therefore, increasing urbanization was sure to lead to a rise in overall population.

The fourth factor in Spence's list was the nature of the Chinese labor force. Compared with other industrialized countries, China's workforce started younger and retired earlier. Nearly one in five Chinese workers (18.09 percent) was between fifteen and nineteen, whereas in the United States the figure was less than half of that: 7.94 percent. These young workers did not have any opportunities for further education, and this reflected the fifth and final factor identified by Spence, the fact that the overall level of education of the population was low. Less than 1 percent of the workforce held college degrees, and nearly 74 percent of Chinese peasants had no education beyond elementary school level. Just over 28 percent of them were classified as illiterate or semi-illiterate. These low levels of education did not augur well for the modernization of Chinese society, which was the goal of the Chinese government.

Such were the factors that weighed upon the minds of the Chinese leaders when they made the decision that eventually led to Karin Evans and thousands of other American adoptive parents making their way to China to adopt an orphaned girl. Spence points out that China might have tried another approach than the one-child policy, that of encouraging women not to marry. This possibility was never seriously considered. Chinese women expected to marry. According to the 1982 census, over 94 percent were married by the time they were twenty-five, and over 99 percent by the age of twenty-nine.

Spence's list of five crucial factors in Chinese society makes it clear why Chinese leaders felt they had to take swift measures to curb population growth. Their actions can be further understood in the context of the world population control movement. China did not act in a vacuum; there had been efforts to curb world population since the 1950s. Experts warned of the dangers of overpopulation that would follow the decrease in infant and child mortality that had occurred since the end of World War II in 1945. In 1952, India became the first country to institute a government policy aimed at reducing the birth rate. However, many developing countries were slow to endorse the goals of the population control movement. It was not until the 1984 Second World Population Conference in Mexico City that the majority of developing nations, including China, gave their support to the movement. In 1994, at the United Nations Conference on Population in Cairo, the declared aim was to stabilize world population at 7.27 billion by 2015. Unless this is achieved, some experts warn that the population could reach 10.9 billion by 2050, a figure that many consider unsustainable, given the limits of the Earth's resources.

Seen in this light, it is clear that the concerns of the Chinese government about rising population, and its attempts to curb it, were entirely legitimate. Its coercive methods, most observers would agree, were not. The government was able to impose such methods because of a political system and ideology that are vastly different from those that operate in the West. The West prizes individual rights and freedoms, and has, especially in the United States, historically resisted any encroachment on those freedoms by the state. In China, however, traditionally the interests of the society and the family have taken precedence over the rights and interests of the individual. This has been even more apparent since the communist takeover of China in 1949, since communism is a totalitarian ideology in which the state assumes the power to regulate the lives of individuals.

As for the future, according to several reports, China's one-child policy was not being as rigidly enforced in the late 1990s as it had been earlier. If this also means a reduction in forced abortions and sterilization, it can only be welcomed. Another factor may provide some encouragement too. It has long been known that in countries where women are well educated and have economic independence and choices about how they will live, rates of childbirth are much lower than in countries (such as China) where women are poor, with low status and little education. It is because of this that in the 1980s and 1990s, the population control movement has emphasized, in addition to contraception and family planning, improvement in the status of women. This includes improvements in women's rights and their status in the family and the community. Another encouraging sign was the fact that China hosted the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995. This drew national and international attention to the status of women in China.

China's many well-wishers will hope that a move to voluntary family planning quickly makes coerced birth control a thing of the past. They will also hope that a new emphasis on the rights of women will gradually reverse the historical bias in Chinese society in favor of men and male children—a bias that since 1980 has led to many cruelties against women and thousands of abandoned baby girls.


Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

Michelle Prebilic

Prebilic writes children's books, analytical essays, and technical publications and assists students in San Ramon, California, with language and reading skills. In this essay, Prebilic explores the book's obscure element—the violence towards, and belittlement of, women and children.

It may be tempting to read Karin Evans's book The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past in terms of the facts of her international adoption. Evans wonderfully articulates her adventures and trials in becoming the new mother of an adopted girl from China. As a journalist by profession, she has the ability to sculpt imagery to describe the places on her journey. Her vivid and moving descriptions of Guangzhou in southern China draw for readers a virtual paradise in their hearts and minds. She gives well-worded imagery that helps the reader "taste" and "touch" the landscape of China and its people.

Yet a deeper, more powerful meaning lies underneath the adoption journey itself. Much like a quilter uses stitched designs to hold together the two layers of cloth, Evans unfolds the myriad political and historical events that have created China as it is today. Evans did her homework; with 130 notes and an extensive bibliography, her book weaves together volumes of historical and political data with her personal adoption experience. These historical and political events, hidden within China's lush subtropical climate and rolling green fields, don't make headline news. "Another baby abandoned" has become a daily event like the weather. Perhaps the belittlement and violence towards women and children remains an obscure undercurrent amid the hustle and bustle of industrialized China. The good that arises out of these bad circumstances, suggests Evans, is the development of multicultural families. As people from the United States and other countries adopt Chinese girls, they make warm and loving homes for them. These lost daughters have a chance at life far better than they could find in China.

Evans's profound experience with adoption adds meaning to her journey towards motherhood. As she describes the Asian landscape, observes the Chinese people, or gazes down a river, she divulges her hopes and fears about her soon-to-be child. She uses the book as a way to divulge her personal experience. She selects her words artistically to present the full depth of her journey. Her words jump from the history of China's policies to her present adoption process, almost as if random thoughts develop her story. As her story unfolds, she imparts the wisdom that readers need to understand China's one-child policy, pointing out the less obvious yet troubling facts of China's human rights issues.

In this venue, Evans traces the history of China's one-child policy, accenting the culture's preference for males. She lists the tremendous pressures that led to stringent family planning: overpopulation, recurring natural disasters, and devastating poverty. These events put the country in crisis. At the same time, the belief that males take care of parents in old age and provide income fueled preference for male children. These factors coalesced to create a system of beliefs that allowed the Chinese government to implement a rigid family planning practice. The Chinese government meant well but failed in the implementation. Perhaps it failed because it tried to control the uncontrollable—women's fertility. Where did things go awry?

Perhaps, as Harry Wu speculates in China's One-Child Policy Violates Human Rights, it came from "a top down system of control" that emerged as the Chinese government mandated the practice of family planning. According to Wu, when the "central government establishes general policy guidelines, and local governments institute and proscribe specific directives and regulations to meet these guidelines.…[they can take] remedial measures." Could it be that the dire need to reduce the population led to trying to enforce something—procreation—that cannot so easily be controlled? So although the idea may have been sound, even necessary, the crisis caused horrific actions. Evans grapples with these concepts as she presents the many facets of this one-child policy. She, like Wu and many other authors, indicates that the government goes to such extremes that it hunts women down and enforces sterilization or performs mandatory abortions at any stage of a pregnancy.

Why does the government choose to single out women? Some experts suggest that China still carries an archaic misogynistic view. According to a summary by the U.S. Department of State in Human Rights Abuses in China Are Widespread,

[t]he People's Republic of China (PRC) is the paramount source of power.… Violence against women, including coercive family planning practices; … prostitution; discrimination against women; trafficking in women and children; abuse of children; and discrimination against the disabled and minorities are all problems.… Therefore, the PRC commit[s] wide spread and well-documented human rights abuses in violation of internationally accepted norms.

With great respect for the Chinese people, Evans explores the violence against Chinese women. Using grace, she presents the facts in a respectful way that seeks improvement and compassion. Avoiding blatant criticism and condemnation, Evans explains that women in China have limited professional opportunities. If they work, they stay at the same job, accepting careers that usually don't pay well. Furthermore, the Chinese government controls women's reproductive lives—having a child requires permission. Not obtaining official permission can result in harassment, fines, and forced abortions. Although some of this control seems to be relaxing, experts believe that the damage caused by its procedures will be felt for many years.

Besides misogynistic views, Evans introduces readers to a deeper problem. Why are so many children, especially infants, abandoned? Perhaps, as Laura Sessions Stepp puts forth a universal truth in Infants Now Murdered As Often As Teens, "Infants are the most defenseless members of … society." Or as Stepp quotes Robert W. Block of the American Academy of Pediatrics child abuse committee, "stress … can trigger violent behavior.… Babies are easy targets." China's attitudes and policies have created intense stress on its families, similar to an earthquake that shakes a home's foundation.

Evans tackles infant desertion throughout her book. How could someone abandon her precious daughter in a marketplace among the melons? On one hand, Evans expresses deep gratitude for the opportunity to raise her Chinese child, saying that she could not love her daughter more if she were the biological mother. On the other hand, Evans questions the systems that have created an environment where a mother would purposefully get rid of her child. Evans's honest narrative does not turn the reader against China or its people but skillfully raises the question of human imperfection.

If babies are easy targets, then why don't all babies in China experience this demise? Evans voices the one question that reverberates throughout her masterpiece: "Why … were almost all the lost children in China girls?" Evans cannot provide a conclusive answer. Perhaps there is not one. However, she gives us insights that show readers how this might happen were they confronted with the same dilemma; a family could disown a woman for having a baby girl. The woman could lose her job and her home, and face a life of poverty.

Evans writes a passage where she places herself in the shoes of the biological mother. This helps readers appreciate the Chinese woman's plight. It gives honor to the courage and sorrow that the other human being must have felt in discarding her female infant. Evans interprets the action of abandonment to be an ultimate act of maternal love.

Is China alone in this belittlement of women and children? Certainly not! Other nations devalue women and children. Most recently the world has learned of the plight of Afghan women. Controlling governmental attitudes have prevented women from wearing what they wanted and from coming and going as they wished. According to Mavis Leno in an interview on the lives of Afghan women, the Taliban regime "punished if more than three unrelated women are found gathering together, if their windows are not painted dark so that no one can see in, or even if their shoes make a noise when they walk." Years of conflict and no investment in health care have contributed to some of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. Men have been affected too. As Leno continues in her interview, oppressive Taliban attitudes caused widespread poverty: "Men who depended on their wives' income as well as their own now are responsible for the total support of their family, and often had to help widowed family members." Belittling women hurts the entire population.

"China's attitudes and policies have created intense stress on its families, similar to an earthquake that shakes a home's foundation."

Perhaps even if the goals of such cultures have merit, oftentimes the execution of said goals fails. As Wu states in China's One-Child PolicyViolates Human Rights, China's population policy "should be based on volunteerism and education, not coercion and intimidation." As education and knowledge increase, prosperity rises. People understand their choices and feel safe. Choices lead to empowerment of every individual, which means people can work together to conquer complicated problems.

Evans started out to adopt a daughter so that she could raise a child with her husband. She displays courage in writing this bold and interesting book. Typical of a journalist who aims at communicating with a large audience, Evans states facts without judgment. It seems that she proposes more questions than answers as she successfully balances the Chinese weaknesses with positive aspects of its vibrant culture. In doing so, Evans refuses to limit herself to what one American university professor specializing in Chinese history tells her, "There's a limit to what people speak out about." To Evans, there is no limit.

In this way, she intricately pieces together the ideas as an intricate design on her quilt; Evans examines one idea at a time, developing her thoughts thoroughly. These ideas come together to encourage understanding and compassion for the Chinese struggles. With new knowledge, Evans gives readers a chance to support a healthier view of human rights in China. In asking the question why, Evans suggests that the problems and the answers are both in the unforeseen—what we cannot see "will always loom as an added obstacle" in the search for unity. The unforeseen in adoption is particularly troubling to Evans, for she will one day face this question of abandonment with daughter Kelly Xiao Yu. Nevertheless, just as Evans can present a difficult issue so admirably, she must have hope that only good will come. As Evans concludes, "May things improve for children everywhere."


Michelle Prebilic, Critical Essay on The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

Allison DeFrees

DeFrees has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Virginia and a law degree from the University of Texas and is a published writer and an editor. In the following essay, DeFrees discusses author Evans's use of personal experience to bring a more evocative understanding of, and to make a more resonant argument in support of, female children adopted from China.

How does an author meld the contradiction of the vast sorrow of losing a child with the joy of gaining a new life? One effective method is through a careful distillation of fact and personal experience. In Karin Evans's history, The Lost Daughters of China, she writes a factual, nonfiction account of the adoption process for United States would-be parents to adopt female babies from orphanages in China. However, her account carries with it the weight of circumstance—Evans herself is an adoptive parent, and indeed, her inspiration for the book emanated from her own experience of going through the trials of the adoption process. Because Evans intersperses personal experience throughout the facts and secondary accounts, the reader observes both a personal and objective version of the adoption process and thus is able to glimpse life through the eyes of the anxious adopting family, the hopeless, anguished Chinese mothers and families, and the unassuming eyes of the children. It is a subtle and powerful method of persuasive writing, for in the end, Evans is trying to persuade herself, her husband, her adopted daughter, the government, and the Chinese mothers left with no choice but to give up their female babies that out of the horror of loss and abandonment there is hope, that for the barren there is new life, and that the circle of life can continue on a global scale.

In her introduction to the book, Evans claims three goals for the book, broad and far-reaching aims by anyone's standards. For herself, she wrote the book to begin to understand what life was likely to be like for her adopted Chinese daughter. For her daughter, she wrote the book to provide an opening for her to understand the world into which she was born. And for her reader, "the world at large," Evans claims that she wrote the book as "an attempt to fill in the blank spaces in a profound human exchange." How she knows it is profound, and how she can have the temerity to qualify the timbre of the experience, is because she has lived the experience. Thus, despite the enormousness of these desired aims, once the book reaches the hands of an anonymous reader, the goals are narrowed to a singular focus: to tell a story of what it means to love and to lose a child, with all of its ramifications. Again, Evans is in a unique position to relate this story. As she relates to her audience, several years before she and her husband embarked on the adoption process, she gave birth to a child who died a few hours after being born. In addition, Evans lived in Hong Kong for several years as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek and followed the political movement as China adopted a strict one-child-per-family law. Evans is a writer particularly attuned to loss, and again, her empathy provides a jarring vision of loss and fear and despondency among the Chinese women who are faced with the difficult position of deciding what to do with their "unwanted" daughters.

The bulk of the book is concerned with telling the stories of the men and women in China who gave up the thousands of babies that end up in Chinese orphanages each year. It is difficult to ferret out any specific information about the circumstances of each child's—for lack of a better word—abandonment, as the penalties by the Chinese government for abandoning a child are unforgiving, and mothers or families almost always do so with great secrecy, leaving their swaddled infants in the reeds of the river banks, on the doorsteps of orphanages, in marketplaces, anywhere the child might be found and rescued from infanticide or sex-selective abortion. Thus, it is difficult to trace the story of an adopted child from her roots to the cradle of her new, foreign parents, as the roots begin with the orphanage and, perhaps, a comment as to where the child was found: "under a bridge," one couple was told; another told, "beside a freeway"; and to the author and her husband, the adoption facilitator simply said, "in a market." Which market? Which section of the market? By whom? Was she crying? How was she dressed? No answers? The anonymity of the situation and its similarity to so many other situations of abandoned girls threatens to meld each child into the fold of statistical data. However, it is here that Evans's personal vantage point enters to individualize things and to build a three-dimensional life of both the abandoned daughter and the lives she was entering and leaving:

Like most other parents who've adopted children from China, we know nothing about the circumstances of our daughter's birth or about her birth parents. Once we were home, I asked a pediatrician whether her belly button would offer a clue as to whether she'd been born in a hospital or not. It didn't. Not that that particular information would have told us much—but I was straining to picture all the events in her life that I'd missed.

Evans's personal connection with her material becomes the vital component in her cache of storytelling techniques, because it offers an empathic, rather than a merely sympathetic, view. The reader is one step closer to the realities of the experience, one step less removed from the confusion and horror and saving graces of the story of a child lost to her parents, through any variety of unfortunate circumstances, and bundled into the arms of a totally foreign culture. Evans writes about how she believed that her daughter—named Kelly Xiao Yu, a combination of her American name and her name given her at the orphanage (there is no trace of what name she might have had before she got to the orphanage)—must have been nursed, as she was prone to crawling on top of Evans and laying her cheek on Evans's breast. "She sought out that warm spot as if she'd known it well, nestled, nudged me like a kitten." She seemed to have been treated with kindness and affection, but by whom? Who had bundled the child up for a last trip to the marketplace "while [Evans] was at home in San Francisco, fretting about bureaucratic logjams?" The question burned so brightly in her mind—and undoubtedly in the minds of thousands of adoptive parents enduring the same experience—that Evans often found herself "trying to conjure the story from the few details [she] knew."

"Furthermore, by creating a fresh approach to the subject, Evans lends authenticity to the book, further engrossing the reader in the epic tale of an abandoned baby girl, a hopeful father and mother-to-be, a Chinese mother and family caught in the pendulum that swings between modernity and the arcane past."

Evans goes on to reenact the possible circumstances of that day in the market that her now-daughter was discovered, abandoned, and in doing so, paints a wrenching portrait of desperation and loss. The baby, stuffed in among fruits and vegetables and turtles and water beetles, would be discovered—by someone, a farmer, perhaps—cries would ring out, and then it would be announced that it was a baby girl. "Enough said. Someone called the police and they came, as they'd done any number of places before, and took the child off to one of the nearby orphanages.…" Evans again effectively intermingles her personal imagination with the plight of all the Chinese daughters being abandoned, bringing a face to so many faceless children.

In a later chapter, Evans discusses the persistence of the problem of abandoned female babies in China. She notes that the desperate measures resorted to by women and families faced with an additional female daughter will continue until the one-child policy is completely lifted, the Chinese economy improves dramatically, or "some kind of pension is in place for rural poor people." She returns to Guangzhou, the city where she adopted her daughter, and pulls the reader back to burgeoning life in her daughter's would-be town. "In Kelly's hometown at this time of year," she writes, "the market would be busy as usual." Evans goes on to detail the bustle of the city, the shoppers, the motorbikes, the fisherman, all crowded into the marketplace, where women may be carrying vegetables, fish, or, perhaps, a baby. She then notes that over time, her image of the circumstances of her daughter's abandonment have altered. "No longer does it seem fair or accurate to say that she was abandoned or left there. Rather, I think, she was 'delivered' to safety in that busy place—so clearly was it her mother's intention to save her."

The Lost Daughters of China is a deeply moving factual account of the current state of affairs regarding abandoned children and adoption in China. The book depicts, through simple first-person accounting and straightforward factual and secondary accounts, true triumph over tragedy. But even more so, by telling the socio-political history of modern adoption in China—and of immigration policy in the United States—from a personal point of view, Evans universalizes her microcosmic experience. Rather than charting the thorough government censuses and facts and relying on the secondary accounts of professors, historians, adopted daughters, Chinese family members or villagers who might, in anonymity, talk, and American families who have successfully or unsuccessfully tried to adopt a Chinese baby daughter—all of which are valuable resources, and all of which provide vital information for Evans's book—and guessing down to the specifics of the experience, Evans begins with the specific, creating a powerful drama within the historical context of the Chinese adoption movement. Furthermore, by creating a fresh approach to the subject, Evans lends authenticity to the book, further engrossing the reader in the epic tale of an abandoned baby girl, a hopeful father and mother-to-be, a Chinese mother and family caught in the pendulum that swings between modernity and the arcane past. Finally, The Lost Daughters of China is about human loss and longing and the inevitable global reach of the desire for family and community.


Allison DeFrees, Critical Essay on The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.


Bader, Eleanor J., Review of The Lost Daughters of China, in Library Journal, Vol. 125, No. 11, June 15, 2000, p. 101.

Bush, Vanessa, Review of The Lost Daughters of China, in Booklist, Vol. 96, No. 18, May 15, 2000, p. 1707.

Cheney, Theodore A. Rees, Writing Creative Nonfiction, Writer's Digest Books, 1987, p. 3.

Evans, Karin, The Lost Daughters of China, J. P. Tarcher, 2000.

Greenhalgh, Susan, Review of The Lost Daughters of China, in Population and Development Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, September 2000, p. 613.

Leno, Mavis, "Lives of Afghan Women," Interview in the chat room via telephone,, Los Angeles, CA, Friday, November 9, 2001 (2 p.m. EST).

Mosher, Steven W., Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese, The Free Press, 1983.

Muriel, Diana, "Afghan Women Dying in Childbirth at Staggering Rates,", December 6, 2002 (last accessed December 2002).

Review of The Lost Daughters of China, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 16, April 17, 2000, p. 67.

Spence, Jonathan D., The Search for Modern China, W. W. Norton, 1990, pp. 683-90.

Stepp, Laura Sessions, "Infants Now Murdered as Often as Teens," in the The Washington Post, December 9, 2002.

U.S. Department of State, "Human Rights Abuses in China Are Widespread," in Opposing Viewpoints: China, edited by James D. Torr, Greenhaven Press, 2001; excerpted from "1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," by the U.S. Department of State, February 25, 2000.

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Further Reading

Croll, Elisabeth, Changing Identities of Chinese Women: Rhetoric, Experience and Self-Perception in Twentieth-Century China, Zed Books, 1995.

Croll discusses the successive revolutions attempted by Chinese women—within their society, communities, families, and themselves. The text is sometimes weighed down by scholarly jargon, but there is much useful information, including a discussion of female infanticide as a result of the one-child policy.

Faison, Seth, "Chinese Are Happily Breaking the 'One Child' Rule," in New York Times, August 17, 1997.

This article discusses how the one-child policy is currently being eased as China's economic growth has eroded the state's control over individual lives, creating many loopholes in the official enforcement of the policy.

Hartman, Betsy, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control and Contraceptive Choice, HarperCollins, 1987.

Hartman covers many topics, including the causes and consequences of population growth; the history of the population control movement; and the forces behind the development of contemporary contraceptive technologies. She also examines societies that have reduced population growth through social and economic development.

Reese, Lori, "Children's Palace: China Copes with the One-Child Policy," in Time Asia, Vol. 154, No. 12, September 27, 1999.

This article claims that Chinese parents in the cities are raising a generation of spoiled single kids. The parents, who had almost nothing in their youth, over-compensate now that times are more prosperous by indulging their child's every whim.