Nobody doubted the dead man's identity. He had been disfigured in the crash, but the white hair, the short stature — it all pointed to Ma Jixiang, who had gone missing in 2009.
Still, officials required a DNA test, and its results quelled any doubts.
His brother wept at the news. He had the body cremated and built a lavish tomb in the mountains. He put the tragedy behind him. No more waiting anxiously, no more haunting dreams.
And then, late last year, Ma Jixiang came home.
Now 58, he is still unable — or unwilling — to account for his six-year absence, but his family believes he was kidnapped by human traffickers, sold to an illegal brick factory and released when he was too old and frail to work.
And although his story still contains unanswered questions — who actually died in that collision? — the astonishing mix-up shines a light on the invisibility of China's mentally disabled and the reality that despite being ruled by one of the world's most control-obsessed governments, citizens regularly manage to slip through the cracks.
A walk, then no trace
The Ma brothers, Jixiang and Jianjun, had lived separately in Xinlong village, a remote sprawl of rice paddies and tile farmhouses in the mountainous, southeastern province of Hunan. In summertime, the heat was crushing, and insects buzzed in the trees.
Jixiang had no friends. A mental disability, never diagnosed or treated, made him erratic. Before he vanished, he spent his days wandering the village's paths, shouting nonsense at other villagers.
But Jixiang wasn't always disabled, said Chen Xiaofen, his 70-year-old sister-in-law, as she sat in her spartan home in Xinlong village beneath a poster of Mao Tse-tung.
As a young man, he was extraordinarily diligent, she said. He often woke at sunrise to plant rice and never complained about the village's many hardships — the backbreaking labor, the occasional shortages of food.
According to Chen, he began showing signs of mental illness in the spring of 1982, after failing repeatedly to find a wife. He would go on blind dates, set up by village matchmakers, but the women's families would refuse him. He was too short, his family too poor.
The rejections made him taciturn and withdrawn, and gradually, he vanished into himself. He began yelling at other villagers in long, incoherent tirades. He stopped working and began wandering the village for hours at a stretch. Most heartbreaking to Chen, he ignored her dinner invitations, preferring to cook and eat alone. He stopped calling her "sister."
As the decades passed, Jianjun and Chen had two sons, both of whom found work in Jinan, the capital of eastern China's Shandong province, a long train ride to the east. Jixiang, who was unmarried, had no children; he remained in the village.
In late 2009, he went for a walk and didn't come home. Jianjun went looking for him, but discovered no leads. The following day, he went to the police.
"The police never showed any willingness to find him," Chen said. Desperate, Jianjun and Chen posted missing-person fliers around the area, but nobody came forward.
Jixiang began appearing in Chen's dreams. In one, he suddenly came home carrying bundles of firewood. "I also dreamed that he was taking a bus to go away," she said. "My husband called for him to come back. But he never looked back. He just got on the bus and left."
Then in February 2012, the village mayor called. There had been a car crash late at night on a windy provincial highway in a nearby city, Hengyang, according to a police report obtained by the news website NetEase. Authorities said a man from Xiangtan named Yang Zhiguang was responsible. He drove a minibus. No other details have been made public.
Chen and Jianjun were in Jinan visiting their children, so they sent Jianjun's older brother and a neighbor to identify the body. The subsequent DNA test was performed by a lab in Hunan province. It found striking similarities between the DNA of the dead man and Jianjun, and concluded that it could not "exclude the possibility" that they were brothers.
Upon hearing the news, Jianjun broke into tears, Chen said. She had never seen him cry.
He hired a local artisan to build a lavish concrete tomb in the mountains, with thick concrete monoliths and high golden eaves. He had the body cremated and buried the ashes within the tomb. His sadness slowly faded into relief.
Then, late last year, the Hengyang County Rescue Station, a temporary shelter for the county's lost and homeless, gained custody of another man who fit Jixiang's description. He had white hair and was short. He could recall little about his past, but he knew he came from Xinlong village.
Two days later, Chen walked outside her home and found a car idling on the patio. Out stepped the Xinlong village party secretary and Jixiang. He had acquired a terrible limp — perhaps he'd been beaten, she thought — but it was clearly her brother-in-law.
"It's not possible," she thought. She felt like he had come back from the dead.
Jixiang looked at her. "Sister," he said.
Chen and Jianjun believe that Jixiang must have been kidnapped. His sudden disappearance, his long absence and his injury comported with news reports they'd seen about illegal brick factories — secretive institutions that prey on the mentally disabled.
"The cases are extremely common," said the director of a Beijing-based disability rights advocacy group, who requested anonymity as his organization has been under intense government pressure amid a crackdown on civil society groups.
Human traffickers often target mentally disabled people in China, he said, especially in the countryside. They're easy prey, he said. They can do "heavy but simple" work as well as anyone, and yet "they're lacking in capabilities to rebel, and to escape."
"These cases are only the tip of the iceberg," he added. "Because in the end, there's no well-established support system [in China] for mentally disabled people. That's the real issue — because a lot of the disabled people, they're physically capable of doing work, and they have the willingness to work. Yet there's no way to match them with proper jobs."
The lab that conducted the DNA test and the Hengyang police declined interview requests. Wang Chunguang, director of the Hengyang County Rescue Station, confirmed that the organization rescued Jixiang and "processed his case according to the law," but said that it would be "inconvenient" to provide further details. While Chen still lives in Xinlong village, Jianjun now resides in Jinan with his children, a practice that is common in China. He could not be reached for comment about his brother.
Jixiang now lives in the Baishi Town Central Elderly Home, a low-lying white building surrounding a grassy courtyard a few miles from Xinlong village. He has a small room, furnished with only a bed, a dresser and a television.
On a scorching day in late June, he offered cigarettes to two guests, nodding his head politely in greeting. Yet he was unable to respond to questions; he glanced around the room uncomfortably and spoke in short, indecipherable bursts.
"Aside from having lunch and sleeping, he just wanders around," said Ma Guangquan, the home's director. He said that Jixiang generally keeps to himself and that his leg has healed over time.
He added that the government provides $50 monthly subsidies to keep residents fed and sheltered. They spend their days eating, watching television and playing cards. Their lives are calm and simple.
"The government takes good care of these people," he said.
Yingzhi Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.