In a society in which tradition holds powerful sway, especially when it relates to the family, there is considerable negativity surrounding the issue of adoption. Adopting an orphan in China comes with the added stress of confronting attitudes which place great importance on the continuation of the family bloodline.
The general reluctance to adopt is reflected in the figures. In 2016, there were 460,000 orphans registered nationwide, but only 16,000 successful adoptions.
One of those who has been prepared to confront the challenges is a single mother named, Xu Fang. Already with a teenage daughter of her own, she decided to foster a little boy who goes by the name, Xiao Bao. He had been growing up in a care home in Henan Province, before being placed with Xu Fang in Beijing when he was five years old. After six years of caring for Xiao Bao, she launched the formal adoption process.
Compared with bringing up her daughter, Xu found that parenting an orphan brought some unique challenges.
As Xiao Bao explains, an early challenge was the negative reaction among his peers.
"One day I was given a piece of paper," he says. "My name, ID number and two Chinese characters meaning 'NONE' were on it. One of my classmates saw those two characters and said in surprise, 'You don't have a father or mother!' Later, they all shouted: 'You don't have a father or mother, you sad case.' I said to them, 'Who cares if I grew up in an orphanage? What's wrong with that? Does that make you better than me?'"
Initially, Xu Fang did not feel it be necessary to discourage Xiao Bao from publicly sharing information about his background. Experiences such as this soon made her change her mind.
"At first, I didn't try to stop him telling people he was adopted. But this didn't work," she says. "One day he got back from school and told me he was upset because he knew I didn't give birth to him. He hadn't even understood what it means for a mother to give birth until he was about six. He thought that all children were adopted from an orphanage... That all mothers got their children there. I replied, 'Though I didn't give birth to you, you're still with me. What's the difference?' But he was unhappy for the rest of that day."
The struggles faced by Xu Fang and Xiao Bao reflect a deep-seated aversion towards adoption in China, where there is tremendous pressure on parents to produce children of their own, to continue the family bloodline.
Xu even faced opposition from her parents, both highly-educated former professors at one of China's top universities. Speaking about her father, she says, "He asked what his (Xiao Bao's) background was. He was worried about hereditary diseases, genetic problems and other things." Still, with time, Xiao Bao has managed to win over his grandparents, in part because he is doing well at school.
Another commonly-held concern that tends to discourage potential adoptive parents is that their adopted children might abandon them in favor of the birth parents if they discover who they are.
"Some people who adopt a child won't even tell them about it," says Xu Fang. "Instead, they keep it secret. Maybe it's something to do with the idea that the purpose of raising a child is for you alone and the expectation that as a parent you should be rewarded after the years of bringing up a child. This mentality still exists."
The idea that nature always overrides nurture has meant it is seen as a big risk to take on paying for a child's upkeep when there is the possibility they may later refuse to do the same for their adoptive parents in return. However, Xu Fang is optimistic that a cultural shift is taking place.
"With social insurance, people can now live without counting on their children's support," she says. "So, things will eventually get better."