1. Who Could Ask For More?
The mid ‘80s kicked off to an amazing start for Xi’an natives Li Jingzhi and her husband Mao. Not only had love sparked between them some years earlier, but in 1985, Li found out that she was pregnant with a baby boy.
She gave birth to bundle of joy on February 23, 1986. While they named the child Mao Yin, they eventually settled for calling him Jia Jia, which translates to ‘great’ in Chinese. From then on, Li Jingzhi would enter the two best years of her life. As Mao and Li embraced parenthood, it soon became apparent to them that their Jia Jia was unlike most children.
2. Not Your Normal Baby
It became clear quite quickly that Jia Jia wasn’t the average baby. He was charming, extremely intelligent, and had an infectious personality. Li Jingzhi recalls, “Jia Jia was a very well-behaved, smart, obedient, and sensible child. He didn’t like to cry. He was very lively and adorable. He was the kind of child that everyone liked when they saw him.”
Li recalled a particular time when she took her baby to the Xi’an zoo. “He was very curious and pointed to the worm saying ‘Mama, worm!’ And as I carried him out of the zoo, he had the worm in his hand and put it close to my face.” Although Li would’ve spent all her time with Jia Jia, given a very controversial policy in China, she instead found herself working extra hard.
3. Jia Jia Was All She Had
With the goal of slowing down an explosion in their population, the Chinese government put into action the one-child policy in 1979. This meant that Jia Jia would be Li’s sole child. There would be no brothers or sisters to keep him company. With that, Li decided that she was going to put all her efforts into raising him right.
Li brought to light just how much love and care she put into the boy when she stated the following during an interview, “Every day, after leaving work I played with my child. I was very happy.” He was literally the light of her world. Sadly, that light would dim far sooner than it should have.
4. An Urgent Call
Despite wanting to spend every waking second with her beloved child, Li had a demanding job with a grain exporting company. This meant that she’d have to leave Xi’an for several days on end and visit suppliers from all around China.
When Li was out on business, Jia Jia stayed at home with Mao. During an October 1988 trip, Li got a fax from her employers who demanded that she return to Xi’an immediately. As she booked it back to Xi’an on an express train, the young mother had no idea what news lay in store for her.
5. Devastating News
Once back in her Xi’an office, Li’s manager looked her in the face and simply uttered, “Your son is missing.” Li went on to describe how she felt, “My mind went blank. I thought perhaps he had got lost. It didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be able to find him.”
At the time, Jai Jai was only two years and eight months old. If lost, certainly someone would pick him up and take him to the local police station. In a surreal daze, Li returned home to find out from Mao how this all had happened.
6. Under Father’s Watchful Eyes
When Li arrived home, her husband Mao was beyond the point of grief. Facing his wife would be no easy task, especially considering how he lost track of their beloved Jia Jia. Probably dreading Li’s reaction, he explained how it happened.
Mao went out to pick up his son at the local nursery. On the way home, little Jia Jia asked his father for some water, so Mao pulled over in front of a hotel. As he was preparing a cup of water for his son, he looked away briefly and that’s when his life would change forever.
7. Where’s Jia Jia?
In the brief second it took to prepare a cup of water, Jia Jia mysteriously vanished from the scene. Mao immediately sprang into action and began looking around the hotel and in the surrounding neighborhood for his missing son.
He maneuvered through Xi’an’s sea of human traffic and screamed Jia Jia’s name through the chatter and honking horns of the urban jungle. It soon became clear to Mao that Jia Jia had been swallowed by the hustle and bustle. There was only one thing that the father could do.
8. Placing The Blame
Mao went home, informed his wife’s company about what had happened and waited for her return. After hearing the news, Li immediately placed the blame on her husband. Resentment immediately filled her — in her eyes, he was the man who had carelessly lost her child.
At this point, while worried, the young mom figured that someone would find Jia Jia. She stated, “I thought perhaps my son was lost and couldn’t find his way home and that kind-hearted people would find him and bring him back to me.” Sadly, things wouldn’t be that easy.
9. Keeping Her Fingers Crossed
For one week, Li and Mao sat anxiously hoping that someone would find little Jia Jia and turn him in to the police. After seven days, Li decided that she’d need to take action. She began asking around if anyone had seen her son.
Li printed out 100,000 flyers and posted them all over the city — she even put ads out in newspapers across China. She explained during a BBC interview, “My heart hurt… I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I felt as though my heart had been emptied.” It’d turn out that things were more serious then she could have ever imagined.
10. China’s Big Problem
During that time, one of China’s biggest issues was child-trafficking. Most of this stemmed from the country’s one-child policy. The policy would allow urban couples to have only one child, while those in the countryside were allowed to have a second child if their firstborn was a girl. Many Chinese couples wanted boys, as they would be able to carry on the family name and take care of them in their old age.
This want for boys led to a spike in child abductions across China. Li said, “Sometimes on TV, there would be notices about missing children, but I never thought that they had been abducted and sold. I just thought they were lost.” This would have a horrible effect on Li and Mao, as they realized they were the parents of a kidnapped child.
11. The Point of No Return
Li and Mao’s lives were torn apart by the loss of their beloved child. The life the two had together became a shadow of its former self. Their once romantic relationship quickly transformed into a loveless one and every conversation between them would be about Jia Jia.
Frequently, things would turn nasty between them, as Li grew to resent Mao more and more with each passing day. After four years on the rocks, it became quite clear that their marriage had no future and they filed for a divorce. Despite how devastating everything was, that’s not the only big change that Li would face.
12. Searching Solo
Despite Mao and Li parting ways, Li did not stop looking for her kidnapped child. Every Friday Afternoon, Li would get out of work and immediately take a train to one of the surrounding provinces to look for her missing baby boy.
She’d then return Sunday night and prepare for another week of work. Her lifestyle quickly became strenuous and her constant searching eventually caught up with her. Burnt out, Li quit her job and dedicated all of her time and energy to finding Jia Jia. Thankfully, she wasn’t alone, as many people would do what they could to help her. Then, she got a lead, but it seemed too good to be true.
13. Possibly Jia Jia
Word got around that a couple from another town in the Shaanxi province had adopted a child from Xi’an that looked like Jia Jia. This resulted in Li embarking on an epic journey to find her kidnapped child. She went to their village and waited for the couple to come home from their jobs in the fields.
When the workers returned to the village, Li was told that the couple had gone to Xi’an. With that, Li went back to Xi’an and arrived there in the early morning hours. Upon arrival, she began searching throughout the city for the apartment the couple were renting. She was in for quite the surprise when she found it.
14. A New Lead
When Li arrived at their apartment complex, the landlord broke the news to her that the couple and baby had just departed to a different city. She hurried back to the train station and caught the first train out to her next destination.
Sleep deprived and exhausted, Li arrived in the late night hours and began going from hotel to hotel with the hopes that she’d find Jia Jia in one of them. After hours of searching, Li finally found what she was looking for. She showed the receptionist a picture of her kidnapped child and he immediately recognized the baby.
15. Closing In On Her Son
While the receptionist recognized the boy from the photo, he told Li that the couple had already checked out hours earlier. She took down the info the hotel had on them and rushed out. Despite not sleeping for two days, Li took off to the husband’s family residence. Sadly, they were not there.
Completely drained, Li decided to get some sleep before continuing onward. Once she regained some of her much-depleted energy, she went straight to the woman’s house and when she answered the door, Li couldn’t believe who she saw in the woman’s arms.
16. The Results Of An Epic Search
While similar looking, the baby in that woman’s arms was not Li’s kidnapped child. The journey across three days was all in vain. With her spirit completely broken, Li walked away. She explained her disappointment in an interview with BBC.
Li said, “I thought for sure this child was Jia Jia. I was very disappointed. It had a huge impact on me. Afterwards, I kept hearing my son’s voice. My mum was worried I would have a mental breakdown.” Li had to make some major changes in order to cope.
17. A Doctor’s Advice
Li would think about Jia Jia 24/7 and even dream about him as she slept. Her life as a whole had become crippled. She knew at that point that she needed help and checked herself into a hospital. It was there that a doctor told her something that changed her life.
He said, “I can treat you for your physical illnesses, but as for the illness in your heart, that’s up to you.” It was at that moment that Li knew she had to either learn how to control her emotions or run the risk of losing her mind and losing her chances of finding Jia Jia. This is when she did something every parent would dread.
18. Clearing Jia Jia’s Room
The mere sight of Jia Jia’s clothes or toys would send Li into a tearful frenzy, so her sister came over and put all of Jia Jia’s things into storage. Li knew that she had to do what she could to avoid getting upset. It was the only way she could be productive about the search.
Li connected with other mothers who had lost their children and created a giant network across China. They began sharing thousands upon thousands of fliers and spreading them around every region of China. And luckily, the new network came with some amazing news for Li.
19. Li’s Community
While the network helped Li garner tons of new leads, they ultimately went nowhere. However, the work helped her find true purpose in her life. She eventually got deeper into the field and volunteered with the website Baby Come Home and was able to reunite almost 30 lost children with their families. Every time something like this happened, she’d wonder why it couldn’t be her and Jia Jia.
In 2015, Li’s 94-year-old mother had fallen ill and was fading with each day. During their final conversations, the old woman would talk about missing Jia Jia. It was at that moment that Li promised her mother that she would find her kidnapped child.
20. A Mysterious Call
Throughout the years, Li had talked about Jia Jia on Chinese talk shows and radio programs. She hoped that eventually the exposure and her efforts would lead to a reunion with her long-lost baby boy, and on May 20, 2020, her dream came true.
Xi’an’s Public Security Bureau called her up and told her that Jia Jia was found. For an instant, she didn’t believe them — could it be true? However, she took a DNA test and it turned out that they were a match. After 32 years and hundreds of leads that hit dead ends, Li finally found Jia Jia. Now all they had to do was meet.
21. The Big Reunion
The chosen day of their reunion was May 18, 2020 at Xi’an’s Public Security Bureau ceremony hall. As you can imagine, the anticipation was immense and Li and Mao were both shaking. Li said, “Before the meeting, I had a lot of worries. Perhaps he wouldn’t recognize me, or wouldn’t accept me, and perhaps in his heart he had forgotten me.”
She further stated, “I was very afraid that when I went to embrace my son, my son wouldn’t accept my embrace.” This clearly wasn’t the case. As soon as Jia Jia entered the hall, he literally ran into his mother’s arms. The two burst into tears, as all of China watched on their TV screens.
22. A Media Sensation
Over the years, Li had become a household name in China and the whole country was standing behind her when she was reunited with her son. Moved to tears, Jia Jia also embraced his father who was the last man to see him. Despite the happiness between the three, there were so many questions that needed answering.
For one month, Jia Jia stayed in Xi’an and spent half the time with his mother and half the time with his father. From there, the mystery behind his disappearance would unravel. Finally Li and Mao would find out what really happened to little Jia Jia on that day back in October 1988.
23. Kidnapped and Sold
During Jia Jia’s stay, Li and Mao learned that he had been abducted and sold to a couple in the Sichuan province for only 6,000 yuan. That adds up to about $840 dollars. Not knowing his name was Jia Jia, they renamed the child Gu Ningning and raised him as their sole child.
He was brought up in Chengdu, a city positioned nine hours south of Xi’an. Jia Jia attended school there, got married, had his own kids and even runs his own small business now. While Li is proud that her son turned out to be a success, there is one thing that continues to trouble her.
24. No Memories
Jia Jia was only two-years-old when he was kidnapped. This means that he has no memory of the days when he lived with Mao and Li. Li has tried to help him remember by describing the life they had together back in the 1980s, but the memories just won’t come.
She went on to say, “This is something that makes my heart ache. After my son came back, he also wanted to find an image or memory of the life he had when he was still with me, but as of now, he still hasn’t found it.” Despite the joy of finally finding Jia Jia, Li carries with her one dream that she knows will never come true.
25. Can Never Go Back
While Jia Jia was visiting his mother in Xi’an, they went on a scenic mountain hike together. On the way down, she wanted to carry him, but he was much too heavy. In that moment, Li wished she could get her time back. She wanted nothing more than to return to 1988.
She said, “I felt if we could start all over again from when he was a child, we could fill this 32-year gap. I said to my son: ‘Jia Jia can you shrink back to the way you were before? You start at age two years and eight months and Mama will start at age 28 – let’s relive our lives all over again.” However, she knew it wasn’t possible. Jia Jia has his own life and the parents that raised him will always come first.