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He carried a map in his head for decades after his kidnapping as a boy in China. It helped him find his mom

Man pointing to his hand-drawn map
Li Jingwei points to a map he drew from memory of his childhood village, from which he was kidnapped as a young boy.
(Li Jingwei)

Since he was a child, Li Jingwei did not know his real name. He did not know where he was born, or for certain how old he was — until he found his biological family last month with the help of a long-remembered map.

Li was a victim of child trafficking. In 1989, when he was 4 years old, a neighbor lured him away by saying they would go look at cars, which were rare at the time in China’s countryside.

That was the last time Li saw his home, he said. The neighbor took him behind a hill to a road where three bicycles and four other kidnappers were waiting. He cried, but they put him on a bike and rode away.

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“I wanted to go home, but they didn’t allow that,” Li said in an interview with the Associated Press. “Two hours later, I knew I wouldn’t be going back home and I must have met bad people.”

He remembers being taken on a train. Eventually he was sold to a family in another province, Henan.

“Because I was too young, only 4, and I hadn’t gone to school yet, I couldn’t remember anything, including the names” of his parents or hometown, he said.

A real-life fairy tale several times over, “Lion” is blessed with a Ripley’s Believe It or Not story line that would warm the heart of a stone.

Etched in his memory, however, was the layout of his village in the southwestern city of Zhaotong, in Yunnan province. He remembered the mountains, bamboo forest, a pond next his home — all the places he used to play.

After his abduction, Li said he drew maps of his village every day until he was 13 so that he wouldn’t forget. Before he reached schooling age, he would draw them on the ground, and after entering school he drew them in notebooks. It became an obsession, he said.

More than 30 years after his abduction, a meticulous drawing of his village landscape helped police locate it and track down his biological mother and siblings.

He was inspired to look for his biological family after two reunions made headlines last year. In July, a Chinese father, Guo Gangtang, was united with his son after searching for 24 years, and in December, Sun Haiyang was reunited with his kidnapped son after 14 years.

In China, family reunited with son kidnapped three years ago

Reports of child abductions occur regularly in China, though how often they happen is unclear. The problem is aggravated by restrictions that until 2015 allowed most urban couples only one child.

Li decided to speak with his adoptive parents for clues and consulted DNA databases, but nothing turned up. Then he found volunteers who suggested he post a video of himself on Douyin, as TikTok is known in China, along with the map he drew from memory.

It took him only 10 minutes to redraw what he had drawn hundreds, perhaps thousands of times as a child, he said.

The post received tens of thousands of views. By then, Li said police had already narrowed down locations based on his DNA sample, and his hand-drawn map helped villagers identify a family.

Li finally connected with his biological mother over the telephone. She asked about a scar on his chin which she said was caused by a fall from a ladder.

“When she mentioned the scar, I knew it was her,” Li said.

Other details and recollections fell into place, and a DNA test confirmed his heritage. In an emotional reunion on New Year’s Day, he saw his biological mother for the first time since he was 4.

As Li walked toward her, he collapsed on the ground in emotion. Lifted up by his younger brother and sister, he finally hugged her.

Li chokes up when speaking about his biological father, who has died. Now a father himself of two teenage children, Li said he would take his family to visit his biological father’s grave with all his aunts and uncles during Lunar New Year celebrations next month.

“It’s going to be a real big reunion,” he said. “I want to tell him that his son is back.”


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