Lin Xiao first replied to my messages at 4 a.m. in China. I received the messages at 4 p.m. in New York.
I had contacted her through QQ, a Chinese instant messaging app, to explain my interest in writing a story about teenage moms in China, a group that has traditionally hidden in plain sight – that is, until their lives were recently put under the spotlight by CCTV, the country’s state broadcaster.
Lin, 18, was guarded during our first conversation and asked for many things to verify my identity: a copy of my press card, a link to my website, a snapshot of the busy morning here in New York. Our conversations continued in spurts over the next several days. But Lin’s messages always came at 4 a.m.
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping at this time?” I asked one day.
“My daughter often wakes up at night, so I have to pat her until she falls asleep again,” Lin replied, sending a picture of a tiny yellow lamp lighting the darkness of her bedroom, along with the emoji for “exhaustion.”
According to research conducted by All-China Women’s Federation on “China’s Happy Marriage and Family,” the average marriage age for women in China was 26 in 2015. Lin’s life doesn’t fit this mold. She married at 16, ten years earlier than the average.
She met her husband in 2015 at their high school in Huazhou, a small town in southwest Guangdong province. She became pregnant by accident a year later. At that time, Lin was living with four younger siblings in the nearby rural village of Maoming. Her mother had just given birth to her youngest sister when Lin found out she was pregnant herself.
There were loads of arguments in her family over whether or not she should keep the baby. Lin wanted to have her child from the very beginning, but her then-boyfriend wanted her to get an abortion because he felt they were too young to raise a child. Lin hesitantly agreed – but she quickly changed her mind after a prenatal examination. It was a girl.
“I can feel her heartbeat,” she said. “How can I deprive her right to be in this world?”
She went back to discuss the matter with her boyfriend and his family. This time, her mother-in-law pledged financial support and said she would help them raise the child.
It was a bold choice for Lin to keep the child. Underage pregnancy has always been deeply stigmatized in China. In Lin’s hometown, a girl marrying before she turns 18 is regarded as a disgrace, so Lin’s parents secretly sent her to her boyfriend’s home 50 kilometers away for the delivery. But this was only the first hurdle for Lin and her baby.
Shortly after Lin had her baby, she and her husband married. Under Chinese marriage law, the minimum marriage age is 22 for men and 20 for women. Younger couples often face legal complications and a difficult choice when they have children. According to Wei Junhui, a family attorney in China, couples who marry early are unable to get the certificate needed to complete the hukou registration for their newborn, an essential document that allows the child to go to school, receive medical treatment, open a bank account, and buy a train ticket.
In an online support group for young mothers in QQ, concern over the hukou is one of the most discussed topics. Some work their way around the system to get their children registered through personal networks, like Lin’s family wound up doing, while others without personal connections are still looking for solutions.
Lin feels fortunate to have a caring husband and supportive families, even though she had to give up her education. Huang Shufen, another teenage mom in Shandong province, has not been so lucky. Like Lin, Huang also grew up in a rural village with younger siblings. She had her baby one year later than Lin, when she was 17. Her marriage, however, reflects a more common phenomenon in rural China. She was married off, unhappily, simply in order to relieve her family’s financial burden.
Huang left home to work in Jinan, the capital of in Shandong province, at age 15. She first worked as a babysitter but soon quit due to sexual harassment from her employer. She then worked as a waitress in a restaurant, where she met her now-husband, the nephew of the restaurant’s owner. They soon got married under pressure from both families in 2016. Huang had a baby, as her mother-in-law demanded, in 2017.
Adolescent motherhood has declined in China since the government initiated its famous one-child policy in the 1980s, but it was a fundamental part of life in China before then, especially in ancient times.
“If you look at the laws of Ming or Qing dynasty, the legitimate marriage age is usually between 14 and 16 years old,” said Tian Feng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. In his opinion, attitudes toward the appropriate marriage age change with society’s needs. The one-child policy created a disproportionate sex ratio, which has led to a shortage of females in the marriage market.
As Defu Wang, an associate professor of sociology in Wuhan University, observed in his field research of early marriage in rural China, the high cost of marriage competition and intergenerational responsibilities have been the leading factors that behind the resurgence of early marriage.
The report Population Status of Children in China in 2015, published by UNICEF, shows this trend. Among 75 million adolescents between 15-19 years old, 1.2 million were married, and teenage women were married at twice the rate of young men. One in every 10 rural women aged 19 or below is married.
Liu Tongxia, a veteran obstetrician in Shandong, said inadequate sex education in China has increased the likelihood of unwanted teenage pregnancies in recent years. Last year alone, Liu met three teenage mothers who gave birth and many young girls who came to her for abortions. Compared to the infant’s health, she worries more about the influence of underage pregnancy on young mothers and their family.
“To have a sexual life too early is not good for women’s health because their reproductive organs haven’t fully developed, and their pelvises are still growing. This may lead to a higher risk of cervical cancer,” she said.
Looking back, Lin wishes she knew more about sex beyond the basic structure of human bodies found in her biology textbook. She enjoys the happiness and tribulations of motherhood, filling her phone with selfies with her daughter, but she still fears identifying herself as a teenage mother. When she watched the CCTV segment criticizing the videos of teenage moms circulating on Kuaishou, a popular online video platform, she felt relieved.
Huang shares Lin’s fear of public shame for being an adolescent mother, but for a different reason: she discovered her husband was homosexual shortly after their marriage. He moved out with his boyfriend last year and now only sends money to help take care of their son. She spends most of her time indoors caring for the child and misses days gone by when she would spend hours watching villagers play Mahjong in the market near her home.
Although they are both mothers, Huang and Lin have child-like faces themselves. Being a mom brings joy – but also regrets for their unfinished dreams.
On another day at 4 a.m., Lin asks me whether I passed a national test for English language proficiency. I tell her I did.
“Can you show me what the certificate looks like?” she asks. “I used to dream about passing these English tests. But I will never have the opportunity to do it.”
Yuhong Pang is a reporter currently studying at Columbia Journalism School.