Monday, April 14, 2008

"Love Marks"

"She loves math and science, likes to draw and ride her bike. She also carries a small scar on her left shoulder. Mothers in China who abandon their babies will sometimes cut them on the arm.

'To show them that they love them, and didn't want to give them up,' said Buhai."

I was forwarded this newspaper article today, with the question, do birth mothers really mark their children before abandoning them?

When I adopted Meikina back in 1998, "love marks" were a topic of frequent speculation. I noticed that Meikina had two scars on her leg, right at the crease of her groin, and I too believed that she had been "marked". What else could it have been?

I returned to Meikina's orphanage a year later and asked the director if Meikina had borne those scars when she arrived in the orphanage. He assured me that she had no obvious wounds, and when I asked if there was any Chinese tradition about "Love Marks," he assured me that there was no such thing. Many conversations over the next seven years convinces me that this belief is an Adoption Urban Legend.

I have seen hundreds of people in China, for example, that exhibit scars similar to those described in the newspaper story above. A large, deformed and often protruding scar on an upper left or right arm, often looking like a cigarette burn. In every case I have investigated, the cause for these scars is the same: An infection resulting from the use of a dirty vaccination needle.

One girl I did some research for in Jiangxi Province had a large, three inch half-moon scar on her right buttock. It looked to the adoptive family like someone had taken a hot iron and "branded" her at a very young age. It was assumed it had been done by her birth mother as a "love mark."

However, when we located her foster mother, we asked if she had come to her with this scar. "No," the foster mother admitted, "she got that scar when she was with me." One day the little toddler was playing in the kitchen, and had sat down on the five-gallon can that held the heating coals. As anyone who has been to China knows, most homes are heated with compressed coal-slurry, which are usually in a cylinder-shaped. This girl had burned herself on half of one of these cakes.

It is of course possible that some birth mothers intentionally mark their children, but in my experience I have found no woman in China who knew of this idea, and almost all of them are revolted by the idea of intentionally hurting their child. Additionally, directors of the orphanages have no knowledge of this practice, and if any tradition existed they would be the ones who would know about it.

I believe that this "urban legend" arises out of our own expectations that birth mothers might want to one day locate their abandoned daughters, but as I have written previously, I don't see this expectation exhibited among birth mothers I have located and talked with.

So, while we can't definitely say that no scar was intentionally made by a birth mother, the evidence strongly suggests that the vast majority of scars are the result of accidents or poor sanitation.


Anonymous said...

It's actually amazing that our children come to us without broken limbs or anything LESS THAN a minor scar. My daughter was in the orphanage from 4 days old till 17 months old. That's a long time to be without a mother or a father watching her every move. And to think she was there with at least a constant 20 children at any given time, and that her diapers were not changed when they always needed to be changed, and that there were many opportunities to obtain war wounds from other babies/toddlers.....I'm surprised she came to us as physically whole as she did.

Anonymous said...

My daughter has a prominent mark on her cheek, close to her mouth. Since I adopted her when she was only five and half months old, I don't see how she could have received this mark, unless it was intentional. It really shows up, even all these years later. (Now she is 9 years old.) It does not look like a burn. It looks like a cut which curves slightly. It can't be the result of a vaccination, unless Chinese babies are given shots in their cheeks. I suppose she could have been dropped and accidentally cut. Other than that, it has to be an intentional marking. Anyone else have any ideas?

Anonymous said...

One of my daughters has a deep scar on her upper left arm. We were recently able to locate her foster mother and this was the most pressing question I had for her because I know the day will come that my daughter will ask me how she got the scar and I wanted to be able to have an answer. We were so sure that she had been cut, but of course had no idea if it was an accident or purpose. Her foster mother informed us that is was a scar from an incoculation. I suspect that it scared because it was infected, just as Brian suggested.

Anonymous said...

Our daughter, adopted at 9 months of age, has a scar in the same location as Brian's daughter, only on our daughter it is only on one side. I asked her pediatrician about it and she said it looked like a scar from an infected wound. The location led her to believe that it was caused by a diaper or other article of clothing digging into her, and combined with repetition and dampness could have caused a wound.

Anonymous said...


Regarding your daughter's cheek scar, it could have been caused by an insect bite/sting, deep scratch by an animal or accidental scratch by a person or another child...there are many ways a young baby can be scarred without it being intentional.

Anonymous said...

My daughter, adopted at 11 mos, now 7 yrs. old has a straight line mark on her upper left arm. It is perfectly straight and approx 1/2" long. Though we tell her it is from a vaccination, it looks like a cut and it doesn't have any irregularities that would suggest it was an infection from a vaccination. No other children from her group have this same "vaccination mark".

Anonymous said...

Brian, what you say rings true for me. My daughter, adopted from China, has a tiny round scar on her lower back close to her spine. I, like other adoptive parents, have long heard the hypothesis that birth families may intentionally place scars on children prior to abandonment in order to identify them later. I am grateful to you for presenting some evidence that refutes this. The idea of intentionally scarring a child for the purpose of later identification, I believe, would be repugnant to most parents. It seems more logical that the majority of birth families realize that the irreversible loss of the child is the main and most painful consequences of abandonment, a consequence which would preclude abandonment as an option for them if they were not prepared to accept it. Kay Johnson points out in her book "Wanting a daughter, needing a son" that many more families choose to raise their daughters than to abandon, underlining the reality that abandonment is still a choice, not an inevitability for those who resort to it.

The period between abandonment and adoption for most of our children runs from 8 months to upwards of 2 years. During this time, there is ample opportunity for scarring to occur via injuries or infections, in the orphanages and in foster care. In the absence of hard evidence to the contrary it would be rather more sensible to assume that the scars that we see on our children occur during this period. Further, the idea that some birth families may have branded our adopted children like livestock will surely be unsettling or even repulsive to our adopted children. It would be silly at best and harmful at worst to suggest it may be so, when there is an entirely more logical explanation for their scars.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,
Thank you for researching and publishing this information; it clears some things up for me.

Anonymous said...

Someone Anonymous stated --
My daughter, adopted from China, has a tiny round scar on her lower back close to her spine. --- Mine does too. Actually there are 2 of them right where the top of the diaper hits. They are equally distant from her spine. Her doctor thought they were a birthmark but I am still wondering.
Where is your daughter from? Mine is from Xiushan. This is not a place where they vaccinate. I have thought that the birth parents did it or it was from the rubber band thingy that they used to hold her "kotex style" diaper into place. None of the other girls in her gruop have this.

Anonymous said...

RE: "tiny round scar on her lower back close to her spine..."
Our daughter is from Changsha, Hunan Province. Our pediatrician, who also runs an adoption clinic, did not think it was a birth mark, nor the result of a medical intervention. To me it looks like a very tiny burn, but also like the point of injection for a needle, or perhaps an insect bite as it has a "hole" in the middle. I must emphasize that it is a small scar, not bigger than the head of a small nail. I am thinking, insect/spider bite that later got infected. Thanks for posting that your daughter has a similar scar.

Anonymous said...

Both of our two sons adopted from China have limb differences, so it seems they would be relatively easy to identify in the future, based on this and other finding location/time information.

Still they both came to us with scars. One with a quarter-sized scar on his scalp where no hair will grow. This is most likely from a "heat-boil" which became infected.

Our other son has a most disturbing scar which appears could only be from a very serious burn. It spans the area on his upper back between his shoulder blades, and would be very difficult to have been caused accidentally. More than one person has commented that it looks like he had his wings torn off. Still my guess is abuse not a "Love Mark".

I have been reading "Monkey", the Arthur Wailey translation of Journey to the West. The Monk who is chosen for the quest, Hsuan Tsang, was abandoned at birth by his mother who marked him by cutting off the end of his little toe. They are later reunited. I found it interesting that this concept of marking an abandoned child appears in this classic and widely popular Chinese novel.

(...I don't usually post anonymously, but this comment contains personal information about my children.)

Anonymous said...

Recognition on account of a scar is common in Western literature too, going back Homer's Odyssey. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca in disguise after a 2-decade absence, his own wife does not recognize him, but the woman who had been his wetnurse does - by his scar.

Anonymous said...

Our daughter, adopted from Cambodia, has two scars at the top of her ears, on both sides approx. at the same place. We assumed they are from marking the baby with a hot needle or something like that. But we would only be sure when we find the birthfamily of course.

Karen said...

Interesting article..
My daughter adopted at 2yrs, 7 mos has big thick scar on her hip. For the life of me I could not figure out what it was from. Especially due to the thickness. However, after a year of searching for the foster mother, and finding her, I now know that at the time my daughter was about 1 year old they were trying to keep her warm with a glass bottle filled with hot water and the bottle broke and she got scalded. I'm glad to know this now as she asked what the scar is from. She also has a scar on her eyebrow. I figured she had fallen as a lot of kids do and this is also what the FM confirmed. I think a lot of accidents probably happen but b/c they would be different accidents then would happen here we have a harder time identifying the scars.
Mom to sweet Quinlyn

Anonymous said...

So interestingly, my neice adopted just about a year ago at age 11 is starting to come to terms with her past. As she recounted to me how she had just been left under a bush, she also said with no clothes and no mark showing me her arms....Granted her English is still not always clear, but she was pretty specific. And she has not been exposed to the adoption community or these conjectures. Just something to consider.

Anonymous said...

I posted about my daughter's facial scar. Let me clarify - I adopted her at five months, so she did not have an extended time period to receive a scar, and she certainly didn't get it during playtime. She was only in the orphanage over winter months (October to March), so I doubt it was an insect bite or sting. She could have been scratched by another child, but I doubt they let older childer hang over the cribs of newborns. I'm not satisfied the scar wasn't intentional.

Anonymous said...

My daughter has a obvious scar on her hand. Who knows if it got there on accident or on purpose?

I don't believe the Chinese parents mark their children so that they will someday be able to find them. I do think it is possible that some observe an underground tradition of marking the girls before abandonment, a sign of some kind, perhaps too much to claim that it is a sign of love. I am not surprised that intentional scarring, if it occurs, is denied. It would not be surprising for someone to invent an excuse (a heater, a broken water bottle).

Anonymous said...

Actually the arm scar is the result of smallpox vaccination, as china is one of few nations that still has that as a mandatory vaccination.

Anonymous said...

This is so interesting to have found... Sitting at breakfast one morning in the White Swan Hotel my husband and I overheard another couple discussing these "love marks" and wondered if that is where our daughter received the two round burn marks on the back of her neck. It not only breaks my heart, but also makes me feel that this was no mistake, accident, or vaccination. The markings look just like a cigarette and/or lighter. She also has two unusual scars on her legs, which the nanny attributed to a fall, or bug bite. She was in foster care most off the 11 months and was quite behind developmentally. I wonder how traumatic, or how joyful those 11 months could have been. Would unlocking the past be more helpful, or hurtful?
Thanks for sharing all of your stories.

Anonymous said...

Our oldest daughter from China, adopted at 15 months, has two coin size marks on the outer back edge of her heels - one on each foot. The marks look like they were the result of a burn, and they are exactly the same size and have a raised/bumpy pattern. I doubt it's a location where a child would have been vaccinated or accidentally burned (if it was an accidental burn, it wouldn't be either so localized or so symmetrical between feet). The scars are permanent - you can still see them today, seven years after she was adopted. Does anyone else here have a child with similar marks?

I have no idea what they were caused by, but remember way back not long after we'd first come home with her reading about an ancient tradition in which children or other people are marked with hot coins so that after they've lived their lives and go on to the after-life, there relatives could find them.

Anonymous said...

my daughter is now 15 and we adopted her when she was 18months. She was badly burned on her neck and chest when abandoned and it was still untreated when we adopted her 5 months later. Our doctor said it looked like she was burned with boiling oil. When we brought her back to the States, we were stopped in public 3 or 4 times by Chinese women who, when spotting the scar, confidently told us her mother had tried to kill her but couldn't follow through. They told us that it is common in the rural areas when a woman remarries or has a second pregnancy, that the husband would order her to get rid of the child - and that burning with oil is also common. I have tucked this away for years, but now our brilliant and loving daughter is beginning to experience the effects of trauma. Has anyone here heard of any such thing?

Tomas said...

This message is in response to another anonymous 11/19/2009.
We have an adopted daughter in Yugan, Jiangxi. Our daughter has two round marks, one on each heel.
Vaccines are not put in the heels. It is very difficult to do two equal marks in heels in an accident. We believe we are the trademarks of love.
We would like to share our story with other families with similar marks.


BellaSmileLove said...

Hi, I was adopted from Jiangsu Province, China. I have a scar on my lower back, above the spine. My grandmother says in mandarin there is a symbol on it that looks identical to the word "Silver". It seems like a burn but also the word is very distinguished. Of course I am biased as an ex-orphan. The family I have is incredible and I am so glad I was put in this situation but am also clinging onto the idea that my parents branded me in hopes of seeing me again. I understand how you may think it is gross that I find hope in the matter that my parents may have hurt me, but I am still alive.

I can't help but wonder.

Anonymous said...

My husband was adopted as a preschooler from South Korea. He has two parallel scars on either side of his lower spine. They look somewhat surgical in nature as the center of each relatively round mark has a thin line. I have always wondered what they are from . . . we've never been given an answer. Strange such marks are so common.

Unknown said...

My daughter was adopted at 11mos From the yugan swi. She came to use with a round burn mark on the back of her thigh and also a nick on the top of her right ear lobe toward her temple. We always thought the burn mark was a result of them heating the bath water with hot coils and the nick.. We never thought anything about. Just recently we ran across another child adopted from the same agency who is 7 yrs older than my daughter and looks a lot like an older version of my daughter and she has the very same nick in the same exact ear and spot. Starting to wonder if this isn't just coincidence.

Anonymous said...

DD adopted from Jiangxi has 3 scars on her legs. Two roundish burn marks on her calves (about 1.5 inches diameter each) and one long thin deep scar, possibly a burn on the outside of one leg near her knee (about 1.5 inches length). DD was not abandoned at birth and signs indicate that her birth mother wanted to keep her. Her true age at abandonment is unknown, but probably about 3 years of age. She spent 18 months in an orphanage.
The orphanage said that she had the burns when she arrived at the orphanage - our adoption agency pointed out that the orphanage would not want to admit to being responsible for her being harmed. I think that it will always be a mystery. She has a very happy go lucky and trusting nature and I find it hard to believe that she would be so trusting of others if someone had marked her intentionally. Certainly if they are 'love marks' then they were done very clumsily.
DD is oblivious to the marks on her legs.

We made her paediatrician and social worker aware of the markings soon after adoption encase of any repercussion.

Similar to others, I wish to remain anonymous due to the personal content of this posting