XIAN, China — When “Black Bean” was 4 years old, his mother and her lover stabbed his father to death. The lover was executed for murder and the mother was sentenced to 15 years in prison as an accessory to the crime. Yet the little boy’s nightmare had only just begun. Reviled by the whole village, including many relatives, he was abused by adults and children alike.

“I cried while I was filming him,” remembers Li Yaming, a documentary maker who trekked to Black Bean’s remote village in Shaanxi Province, northwest China. “At 5, he was under a meter tall, with severe burns, scars and wounds all over his tiny body. His right leg was crippled, either from being beaten or from a fall he had while minding goats. Some of the villagers said Black Bean would die if he stayed there.”

His mother cried when she saw how her son had changed since she was jailed. Again, Li and his camera were on hand to capture the moment when the scarred little boy first limped into his mother’s prison in the provincial capital of Xian. Yet the tears were mixed with relief — and overwhelming gratitude to maverick prison officer Zhang Suqing.

“Black Bean,” 10, whose mother is in jail, was rescued nearly five years ago by prison officer Zhang Suqing. Today, Black Bean appears healthy and happy at one of the Children’s Villages Zhang founded in Xian.

Rescuing Black Bean, in April 1996, was just one more small victory in Zhang’s struggle to help some of China’s most destitute families. For the last five years, the feisty grandmother, a 52 year-old divorcee, has battled social prejudice and government indifference to establish what she calls the Children’s Village in Xian. This center for the offspring of convicted criminals serving time in prison is the first of its kind in China and one of the country’s few nongovernmental organizations worthy of the name.

Li has recorded every major step of Zhang’s crusade. “Anyone less determined than Zhang would have given up long ago,” he says. “We went down to the villages to bring back children and met suspicion and hostility. Some people called us bad names, even spat on us, while some thought we would try and sell the children.”

The journey has taken Zhang into the darkest reaches of modern Chinese society. Far from the bright lights of Shanghai and the political pomp of Beijing, centuries-old customs and attitudes persist in the villages where most Chinese still live. Black Bean’s mother, Han Jing-en, had herself barely turned 11 when she was sold into marriage to a peasant farmer from a neighboring village. The match was brokered to enable her older brother to marry the farmer’s sister.

Thrust into the roles of wife and mother, Han found a refuge from her abusive husband in the arms of his younger brother. When the older man refused to give her a divorce, the pair killed him in a flash of long-repressed anger.

When Han heard from other prisoners about Zhang’s plans for a children’s refuge, she applied for places for Black Bean (the nickname of her son, Chen Xin) and his 6-year-old sister, Chen Jun.

The children had been separated since their mother’s imprisonment, after Han’s brother refused to look after his nephew and niece. The local government promised a monthly subsidy of 110 yuan to any family who would take the children, no small amount in an impoverished community. Chen Jun was taken by the village head’s family, while Black Bean changed hands four times before ending up with a fellow outcast, a midget who lived alone.

Besides the welcome subsidy, the boy’s new guardian found a useful slave, whom he beat into cooking for him and tending his herd of goats in the mountains. The villagers were unsympathetic. The children threw stones at Black Bean, while their parents hurled insults: “Little criminal,” they called him.

Scars still cover the child’s scalp, and he remains shorter than his playmates, but today Black Bean, now 10, is doing well. On a winter’s day in the Xian suburbs, he cavorts in an oversize coat donated by a local company. Here at Xincheng Children’s Village, Zhang’s second center, almost everything is a castoff, from the shaky dining tables to the old school benches and bookshelves.

Black Bean is too shy to answer questions, but he explodes in laughter as he foot-juggles a homemade shuttlecock. Other children crowd round their common savior, grabbing her hands. “Granny Zhang, how are you!” She basks in their attention, asking one girl if she is warm enough, and joking with a boy about whether he still wets his bed.

Her roles range from fundraiser and manager to lobbyist and social worker. “Many of these children are traumatized,” she explains. “Chen Jun was so quiet and unsmiling when she first arrived. One year, I took her and other kids home for the Spring Festival. We were washing up together, when she suddenly told me in tears how her father had been stabbed in the chest and how the blood spurted everywhere. She had been having nightmares every night. I comforted her, saying her mother and all of us loved her. It was good for her to let it out and gradually she became more lively.”

No special training

Zhang has no formal qualifications to fit her for her multiple roles and responsibilities. Her career and interests have been shaped by the five-decade history of Communist China. Born into a poor family in Baoji City, west Shaanxi, she was sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants during the Cultural Revolution.

In these backward, mountainous areas, Zhang got her real education — as a nurse and, later, as a barefoot doctor. But it was her writing hobby that finally won her return to the city in 1984. A job at Public Health News in Xian brought official permission to leave the countryside and a long-anticipated reunion with her husband. However, it proved impossible for the pair to pick up where they had left off, and Zhang and her husband divorced.

She won custody of their two daughters and put her energy into another career move, becoming a prison officer running a newspaper for the Shaanxi Prison Bureau. The job opened doors onto desperate lives.

“In 1987, I interviewed a couple who were serving prison sentences,” she recalls. “The women knelt down and begged me to go and see their five young children, all under their grandmother’s care.”

She kept her promise and trekked into the loess hills, where millions of Chinese still live in caves. “When I reached the cave, I was shocked by what I saw,” she says. “The old woman was sick and the four kids were curled up on the mud-brick bed. The eldest daughter had already died.” Zhang offered what help she could and went home with a heavy heart. The need for humanity became the abiding theme in the prison-life stories and scripts she wrote for TV dramas.

In 1995, Zhang launched her first independent effort, the Xian Returning To Society Research Association, which offers legal and other advice to released prisoners. Rejections from government offices meant having to register the association as an NGO. At the opening ceremony, her proposal to open a care center for the criminals’ children aroused strong opposition. One city leader said, “Why don’t you care for children from decent families, such as laid-off workers or even martyrs?”

Funding was her main obstacle. But China’s vicious recent past proved the catalyst for Guo Jianhu, a wealthy entrepreneur, to donate housing in an area 65 kilometers from Xian. Guo’s own children had suffered discrimination when he was wrongfully imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. After much pleading, a nearby schools agreed to take the children free of charge.

On May 26, 1996, the Xian Children’s Village formally opened with 26 of the neediest children selected from 90 applications submitted by prisoners in Shaanxi. “It was a victory for human rights,” says Li Yaming. “It’s a big step toward a more civilized society. Traditionally, people believe that criminals and even their children deserve to be discriminated against and despised. To them, that’s justice.”

When funds from his TV station dried up, Li used his own money to film more stories from the new “Children’s Village.” His documentary “The Story of Black Bean” was a hit in China, but Li was still criticized by his superiors as recently as month for showing the program to a British reporter. Its images of China are considered too “negative” to reveal to foreigners.

Faded glory days

As the starting point of the Old Silk Road, Xian was once the most prosperous city in the world, home to the remarkable terra-cotta army. Those glory days have long since faded, leaving the region a conservative stronghold where poverty fuels a rising crime rate. Although prison statistics are guarded as “national secrets,” estimates suggest there are over 30,000 prisoners in Shaanxi and a million nationwide.

While China’s crime situation still compares favorably with that of other developing countries, the number of murder cases has jumped 40 percent over the past decade. In one women’s prison in Shaanxi, Li Yaming noted that nearly all the 200 inmates had murdered their husbands. Why? Divorce is still socially unacceptable and too hard to get, explains Zhang. “Some see murdering their unloved spouse as the only way out, without realizing the legal consequences.”

Sisters Guo Xiaoyan and Guo Xiaoqin dance at the Xian Children’s Village.

Or the bleak consequences for their children. After their mother was jailed for killing their father over a love affair, sisters Guo Xiaoyan and Guo Xiaoqin were treated little better than slaves by their two uncles. “There was panic in their eyes — anything unusual could lead to a beating,” remembers Zhang of the moment she reached the dark cave where the girls lived. “Granny Zhang looked kind and she said she could take us to see our mother,” says 13 year-old Guo. “So we went with her. We’re glad we did.” The two have blossomed at the center, studying hard and learning dance routines they proudly perform for visitors.

The hard-won establishment of the Children’s Village and its offshoots has bred rumors about Zhang and questions about her motives. Some accused her of using the center to further her own political ambitions. Yet Zhang is not even a Communist Party member. Others have criticized her for courting publicity, suggesting that she exploits the children for money.

The gibes soon turned personal. Not only are the very concepts of charity and NGOs new to most Chinese, let alone charity that involves such controversial recipients, but Zhang is a divorcee who enjoys smoking and drinking, flying in the face of traditional criteria for “decent women.” “At first, I was upset by such attacks,” she admits. “And then I thought, say anything you like! I don’t care as long as my accounts are clean and I don’t abuse the children.”

Whatever the pressures, Zhang keeps a ready smile, her morale boosted by positive media coverage, financial help from strangers, and the reaction of grateful parents. At the end of 1997, a survey showed that 98 percent of prisoners with children at Zhang’s centers won praise or reduced sentences for their improved behavior.

Her successes encouraged Zhang to build a second children’s village, with public donations and free land from the district government. But construction halted when several promised donations failed to materialize. By New Year’s Eve 1998, Zhang was down to only 600 yuan. “I stayed up all night, drinking by myself, thinking hard,” Zhang recalls. “I drifted to sleep with the idea of attempting to get a bank loan with my flat as deposit. Then, the very next day, I was informed that a Hong Kong businessman had just donated $HK150,000 (about $21,000).

Zhang has won over many of the people she has met. Journalist Huang Ruizhen came to interview her for local radio, became a part-time volunteer, and then a full-time member of staff, despite having to take a large pay cut. Sculptor and entrepreneur Zou Renti made regular donations after his first visit.

As her charges grow up, Zhang badly needs the support of people like Zou to meet the challenges of further education and employment. When Wen Long graduated in 1998 with an elementary-level education, he was already 17, too embarrassed to continue sitting with students six years his junior. After numerous rejections, Zhang turned to Zou, who owns a studio producing silica gel “waxworks.” Zou remembers the interview: ” ‘Do you know what sculpture is?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘but I’ve played with mud before.’ ‘That’ll do!’ “

Wen Long, the first graduate of the Children’s Villages to secure a job

Mindful of his status as the first graduate to land a job, Wen has worked tirelessly to return the favor. The studio atmosphere is a world away from the traumatic childhood he tries to forget. “It pains me to look back at the past,” Wen says. His father was executed after summer floods revealed the body of his mother, buried months earlier in a dry riverbed. Relatives in the same village abandoned Wen and his sister. They had to steal to survive. “I really don’t dare think what would have happened if I’d stayed there,” he says now.

“It’s easy to imagine what would have happened,” says Zhang. “He might have committed more serious crimes than stealing. That’s why I tell villagers and officials not to treat the children of criminals too harshly. They are innocent. But if we don’t give a damn, they may become the second generation of criminals.”

Expanding nationwide

Zhang Suqing and her charges at one of the Children’s Villages in Xian recently

As requests for help flooded in from across China, Zhang made a daring move to Beijing last year. Her four children’s villages in Xian have provided a refuge for over 150 children, aged between 4 and 17, mostly from Shaanxi and neighboring provinces. “If we are successful in setting up a model, people in other parts of China may try to do the same,” hopes Zhang. In central China’s Hebei Province, a businessman named Su Xuxiang has housed 17 prison children for the past two years.

But Zhang’s battle in Beijing proved no easier. After six months of failure to win official approval, she was ready to concede defeat when the China Charity Federation, a nationwide nonprofit organization, took her project under its wing, though it remains financially independent. “It is still very difficult for China’s NGOs to develop, as the government is too used to looking after everything,” she explains. “Yet things are changing.”

She has reason for optimism. The Beijing Children’s Village was given a free home in the Shunyi County suburbs by a sympathetic Beijing entrepreneur and opened last month. Seventeen children have already moved in and more are being received daily. Yet expansion will sorely test Zhang’s small organization.

Even in the capital, Zhang is still consulted over day-to-day affairs in Xian. Sometimes there are problems. One former prisoner who worked for her after his release alleges that some Children’s Village staff members engage in small-scale corruption such as embezzling the meager funds earmarked for the children’s meals. “Because of the low pay, the quality of some staff is also low,” he told The South China Morning Post, on condition of anonymity.

But there are good things, too. In December, Zhang was back in Xian to discuss potential cooperation with Oxfam and Medicins sans Frontieres in providing further help to the families of serving prisoners. As she was leaving her fourth Village, a girl handed Zhang a letter from her sister, now studying computer science at a polytechnic. In the letter she had written, “Your warm hands saved many poor kids like us who were struggling in the bitter sea.”

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