Thirty years ago, when Li Jingwei was four years old, a neighbour abducted him from his home village in China’s Yunnan province and sold him to a child trafficking ring.
Now he has been reunited with his mother after drawing a map of his home village from his memories of three decades ago and sharing it on a popular video-sharing app in the hope that someone might be able to identify it.
“I’m a child who’s looking for his home,” Li said in the video. Unable to recall the name of his village or his address, Li’s recollection and reconstruction of the village’s key features – including a school, a bamboo forest and a pond – proved crucial.
“I knew the trees, stones, cows and even which roads turn and where the water flows,” Li said in an interview with the Paper, a Chinese media outlet.
Shared on Douyin – known outside China as TikTok – on 24 December, the map was matched by police to a Yunnan village where there was a woman whose son had disappeared.
That son was identified as Li through DNA tests, leading to an emotional reunion on Saturday. Video footage showed Li carefully removing his mother’s mask to examine her face before breaking down in tears and embracing her.
“Thirty-three years of waiting, countless nights of yearning, and finally a map hand-drawn from memory, this is the moment of perfect release after 13 days,” Li wrote on his Douyin profile before the reunion. “Thank you everyone who has helped me reunite with my family.”
He told the Paper: “My mother cried as soon as I got on the phone. After the video call, I recognised her at a glance. My mother and I have the same lips, even my teeth.”
Abducted in 1989, Li was sold to a family in Lankao, more than 1,100 miles away. Child abductions are common in China and Li was probably taken because the family wanted a boy.
Li said he was inspired to look for his biological family after seeing high-profile stories in the media describing two other abduction cases that ended in reunions.
He mentioned the case of Guo Gangtang, who became a media celebrity after searching for his missing son for 24 years, travelling more than 300,000 miles by motorbike in his eventually successful search.
“When I saw the story of Guo Gangtang, I thought to myself: I should try to find my biological parents … I wanted to see them when they are still alive,” Li said.
“I realised I could not wait any longer because my parents should be getting older now. I worried that when I figured out where I am from, they might have passed away,” he told Henan Television after posting his map.
Now living in Guangdong province in southern China, Li had had no success in asking his adoptive parents – who he said had brought him up well – or consulting DNA databases about his origins.