Liu Dehai and Hai Hongmei's matrimonial bed is laid with a thick quilt embroidered with the characters for "double happiness," words meant to augur good fortune for just-married Chinese couples. This should be a room of joy and hope, but Liu's mother doesn't want anyone investigating too closely. "Please," she says, "do not speak of this room." The marriage of Liu and Hai is a subject of shame, for they are not just husband and wife; they are also first cousins.
Their marriage, and others of cousins and even siblings, is the latest consequence of China's profound shortage of females. For two decades, the government has tried to control population by limiting most rural families to one child, two if the first is a girl. Because boys are prized in rural areas--they can work the land and give more support to their families--this has led many couples to abort female fetuses, kill newborn daughters or neglect them to death. The result: China, according to the World Health Organization, is short 50 million females. The first wave of children born under the policy is reaching marriageable age, and there are far too few brides to go around. The most desperate bachelors have taken to marrying relatives. In a few places, the practice has become so common, the communities are referred to as "incest villages."
Liu Dehai never imagined he would marry his shy first cousin Hai. Though intramarriage was common in imperial days, it is taboo in modern China. But at age 20, with his friends already paired off, Liu found himself the odd man out. His parents, farmers in the village of Nanliang in Shaanxi province, could not raise the $2,000 required to attract a woman to Nanliang to marry their son. With so many men to choose from, women are loath to settle in hardscrabble villages like Nanliang. Desperate, Liu's mother contacted her sister and requested a favor: Could she ask Hai to be Liu's bride? Young women like Hai are not apt to defy their parents. And so Liu and Hai were wed.
While a recent U.S. study concluded that the odds of first cousins producing children with birth defects may have been overstated, the risk is still almost double that for unrelated couples. Denizens of the incest villages see ample evidence of this. Near the city of Yan'an, a brother and sister squat in the mud-brick slums, signing a secret language to each other: both Cao Shuai and Cao Jing were born deaf, to parents who are first cousins. This spring in Yan'an county, a severely retarded newborn girl was found abandoned beside a road. Authorities tracked down her parents, only to find that they were brother and sister.
The female shortage in China is only worsening. In 2000, 900,000 fewer female births were recorded than should have been, based on male births. In 1990 the shortfall was 500,000. Some of that owes to parents giving up daughters for adoption without registering their birth. But population experts at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing estimate that up to one-third of the girls are missing because of gender-based abortions. Rural Chinese women also tend to breast-feed girls for shorter periods, providing less hope for survival. Chinese demographers estimate that in some rural areas, 80% of children from ages 5 to 10 are boys.