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January 22, 2013

Where the Boys Are

da ling

Daling Huang, 27, was sold as a wife — a common form of trafficking — to a man in Da Xin.

Photo Credit: Eric Rechsteiner/Panos Pictures

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Located high in Hunan's mountains in south-central China, Jin's village sits atop a perilous road with hairpin bends that takes six hours to climb on foot. The locals grow rice, potatoes, and corn. They earn around $150 a year, or less than 50 cents a day. This extreme poverty is a critical factor in the bachelors' predicament. Since the mid-1980s in this and many other villages, an average of only between 60 and 70 girls to every 100 boys has been born. The scarcity of women means they can choose to marry men from the towns, where life is much more modern and comfortable.

Evenings in the villages are bleak. The bachelors sit outside their houses, smoking and drinking cheap alcohol. In these empty hours, Jin admits he often broods about a girl who, six years ago, agreed to marry him. "Before the wedding, I was involved in a truck crash and split my head open," he says. All the money his parents had saved for his wedding went to his hospital bills, and he was left with a limp and slight facial paralysis. His fiancée left him. "She thought I was damaged goods," he says.

That, Jin believes, was his one and only shot at matrimony. In China, the man usually pays a "bride price" to the woman's family. Jin's mother, Huanxiu Luo, 61, says that in her day, a bride price was "a bag of sweet potatoes and a goat." Today, the rock-bottom rural minimum is 7,000 to 8,000 yuan ($1,100 to $1,250) — or more than seven years' worth of salary. Jin has tried to save up again for a bride price, but his hopes have dwindled with each passing year. Rural Chinese couples marry in their early 20s, and singletons of either sex beyond the age of 27 are considered "leftovers."

Some desperate bachelors resort to buying a wife from organized gangs of traffickers. The ancient practice of bride-kidnapping was largely stamped out under early communist rule. Now it's back. The gangs travel to poor provinces and either kidnap women or trick them with the promise of jobs before selling them through marriage brokers to bachelors in faraway regions.

Predictably, the outcome is rarely happy. Villager Xuncheng Lei, 38, paid a broker 3,000 yuan ($470) for a bride from the neighboring Guizhou province. The woman, a teenager named Zhongli Han, spoke a different dialect than Lei. "Even though we couldn't communicate at first, she didn't try to run away," says Lei, a man who was probably once quite handsome but now looks lined and worn-out. Han gave birth to three sons in quick succession. Family life was "harmonious and lively," Lei thought, despite the fact that laboring in the fields was grueling and mountain winters were punishingly cold.

One day in April 2009, however, seven years after she was sold to Lei, Han dropped off the three boys at their local primary school halfway down the mountain, then continued walking to the bottom. She never returned. "She just left us with no warning," says Lei. Afterward, he learned that she had applied for a replacement identity card in town, so he knew she hadn't been hurt or abducted. "The boys still cry whenever her name is mentioned," he says sadly. "So we don't talk about her anymore."

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