HU MANLI hardly planned to mother dozens of abandoned children.
But when a co-worker at the Wuhan Iron and Steel Works was killed in an industrial accident in 1989 and relatives ignored his two orphaned children, Ms. Hu took in what would be the first of many youngsters cast aside in a fast-changing China.
Today, Hu, a former middle-school teacher and mother of a 12-year-old daughter, runs the private Green-Shade Children's Village of China. It is a refuge where ``children can grow up under the green shade without being exposed to the sun and wind,'' she enthuses as she leads visitors into the cheery, two-story structure, hugging children clustering about her.
In one classroom filled with rocking horses; stuffed animals; and pictures of Donald Duck, cows, and pandas; four youngsters noisily slurp down steaming bowls of Chinese dumplings. In an upstairs nursery, three newborn infants coo contentedly from cribs, their tiny faces alertly peering out from heavy swaddling against the cold.
In a nearby bedroom, Su Dan, a former factory worker and now one of Hu's several live-in foster mothers, pulls a coat on one of the four children, ranging in age from 10 days to 11 years, under her charge.
``We don't want the kids to feel that this is an orphanage,'' says Hu's assistant, Tian Xuanchuan, explaining that the 28 children in the home, aged 10 days to 18 years, live under the care of foster mothers. ``We want the kids to have their own homes and parents because the love of a mother is something unique in the world.''
But starting and maintaining a private orphanage in China's socialist welfare state has been daunting.
In recent years, Chinese newspapers have reported an increasing number of incidents of abandoned babies and the start-up of a number of private orphanages as an alternative to miserable conditions in state-run facilities.
Still, some officials resent the existence of Green-Shade and view the home as a disgrace in a Communist country that still claims to care for every social need. An orphanage is also something of an embarrassment in China where families take great pride in children and dote over the single child allowed under the rigid government family-planning policy.
hen I started the orphanage, some people said I just wanted to be well known. Others accused me of making a fortune from the orphans by accepting donations,'' recalls Hu, who has taken in more than 60 children since the home opened in May 1993. ``Others even blamed me, saying that since I take in abandoned children, people will continue to abandon their unwanted kids.''
But Hu, who herself was left alone at the age of 14 after her parents were sent to prison and reeducation camps during the Cultural Revolution, blames the callousness of Chinese society today.
Although market-style reforms have brought prosperity to many Chinese, economic reform has torn at the family fabric. ``Everyone is focusing on his personal interest without showing warmth and concern for others,'' she says.
The number of abandoned children is on the rise, says Hu, who finds them on the streets and along the nearby Chang Jiang, or Yangtze River. All the youngsters in the home with no name or birthday are given the surname Jiang after the river on whose banks many are found. Several others bear the first name Mao after the late Chairman Mao Zedong, whom Hu admires.
Four-day-old Jiang Cunzi was discovered close to death near the Yangtze. A note was pinned to her blanket, explaining that her mother had died in childbirth and her father had no money to support her. Hu took in the baby, who, six months later, is healthy and growing.
``Most of the abandoned children are girls. Their parents do not regard them as human beings and discard them just like grass,'' Hu says. ``In rural areas, parents just want males. If the mother gives birth to a female, the family abandons it. They are even willing to pay fines to go on giving birth until a male is born.''
Since opening her home, Hu has captivated the Chinese press and received prominent coverage. She has met high-ranking leaders in Beijing and even inspired an opera, ``The Heart of a Mother Shines Like a Bright Moon,'' that was performed in Shanghai and Beijing.
A slender, soft-spoken woman who plays the guitar, violin, and piano; loves the outdoors; and often reads the Bible; Hu has taken both the adulation and the criticism in stride. Since rescuing her first two orphans who were almost forced to work in the steel factory, she has placed 30 youngsters in foster homes and is conducting a campaign to find more households willing to take abandoned children.
Since she and her husband, engineer Gui Biqun, decided two years ago that she should quit her job and devote full-time to the orphanage, Hu has sought financial help in China and overseas. To start the facility, she used $1,200 in her own savings set aside to buy an apartment.
She persuaded the Wuhan municipal government to appropriate eight acres of land for the orphanage and to donate $12,000 for the children's education.
The local village council of Yajiatou, where the orphanage is located, donated the 12-room building originally built to house factory workers.
But officials refuse to help Hu meet the monthly $1,200 operations costs, saying the state already runs its own welfare homes. Hu hopes to raise more than $1 million to run and expand the children's home, and she has turned to foreign businessmen and donors in economically booming east-coast provinces and Hong Kong for help. She has also started a small factory to make dish towels to support the orphanage.
In the future, Hu says it will be a struggle to educate the children, since no schools will waive tuition fees for her. She faces the additional problem of obtaining the residence registration cards that are required of all Chinese for the youngsters who have no family background.
``I have given the children their todays,'' she reflects. ``But I'm not sure of their tomorrows.''