SICHUAN, Southwest China — When Xiao Renchun was four months pregnant in 2011, her belly had already grown much larger than expected. Even for a resident of Guxian Town, which has a high birth rate for twins, her stomach looked enormous. She visited a county clinic for an ultrasound, which showed she was pregnant with triplets. Thinking this couldn’t possibly be true, she visited a hospital in a city nearby to make sure. There, another scan showed that she wasn’t expecting three, but four babies.
“It was bittersweet,” Teng Demei, the children’s grandmother, tells Sixth Tone. “We were all excited about the quadruplets but were afraid they wouldn’t all survive the pregnancy.” Luckily, all four children were born healthy — further validating the legend of Guxian.
“Many people believe it’s the water in the well,” says Zheng Zhilin, an official in Guxian’s Xiaomenlu Village, the quadruplets’ hometown. Until 2016, when Xiaomenlu residents received access to running water, the village’s main water supply came from a single well. “People from the surrounding villages would come and drink our water if they wanted to have twins,” Zheng chuckles. Currently, the village of 1,400 residents has 13 pairs of twins, a trio of triplets, and one set of quadruplets.
There is no official data on twin births in China. However, Zheng says that the local government previously calculated the rate of twin births for Xiaomenlu and five nearby villages. Of the 240 children born between 2006 and 2010, 14 were twins — accounting for nearly 6 percent of the new births. Naturally, only around one out of every 100 newborns is a twin, Wu Xin, a doctor at Shanghai’s Obstetrics & Gynecology Hospital of Fudan University, tells Sixth Tone.
The frequency of twin births in China has risen significantly since the implementation of the two-child policy in January 2016. Older mothers taking the opportunity to have another child often resort to assisted reproductive technology. Currently, 20 to 30 percent of women who conceive through treatments like in-vitro fertilization become pregnant with two or more children. But the mothers in Guxian Town say that they all got pregnant naturally.
Another popular theory for the region’s numerous twin births is the local DNA. There has been no research into Guxian genomes, but scientific research into twins shows that this line of thinking could hold more water than the well theory. Most twins in Guxian are believed to be fraternal — where two eggs are fertilized by two separate sperm cells, as opposed to identical twins, where one egg is fertilized by one sperm and then split into two. A 2016 study of mothers in Iceland identified two genetic variations that together increased the likelihood of a woman giving birth to fraternal twins by 29 percent.
The ancestors of some Guxian families moved here in the early 1900s from Yongzhou, an area in central China’s Hunan province — as is evidenced by the unique Guxian dialect, a mixture of Sichuanese and the dialect spoken in Yongzhou. Guxian locals say that before these migrants arrived, twins weren’t nearly as common, and so the migrants must have brought the genes to the area when they came.
Nevertheless, the well remains alluring. Sometimes people travel a long way to visit, and the government of Guxian Town, which oversees Xiaomenlu, hopes to turn this into a steady stream of tourism money. In their vision, villagers will open guesthouses for out-of-towners coming to see the well. The name for the main attraction hasn’t been decided yet, but Zheng says he likes “Water of the Many Children.”
Guxian made national headlines when Xiao gave birth to her quadruplets — two boys followed by two girls. She delivered her children in the West China Hospital in Chengdu, touted as southwestern China’s best medical institute. Chinese parents often choose a nickname for their children’s early years that is known and used only within the family. In the case of Xiao’s children, these are Chengcheng, Dudu, Huahua, and Xixi — after Chengdu Huaxi, the hospital’s name in Chinese.
As Chinese people have an affinity for “double happiness and blessing,” having twins has been seen as enviable — especially during the decades of the one-child policy, when having twins was a legal way to circumvent family planning restrictions. However, for many families, the financial pressures of raising more than one child are high, especially when they are the same age, and even more so when there are four of them.
The quadruplets’ family decided their old house was too small, so they knocked it down and built a three-story dwelling. When the children were born in October 2011, the family had only finished building the first floor. While Xiao was “sitting the month” — a Chinese tradition that dictates mothers to stay at home for a month after childbirth — construction was going on all around her. The new house cost the family about 200,000 yuan ($31,000), almost their entire savings.
Luckily, media attention inspired a local dairy company to provide the family with free milk powder for one year, worth more than 100,000 yuan. “Without [the company’s] help, they might not have been able to survive,” says their 58-year-old grandmother, Teng. The quads’ parents left home when the babies turned 1 year old, and now work in the coastal province of Zhejiang. They manage to send home around 3,000 yuan every month. Teng and her husband hardly make any money, spending their time on subsistence farming and taking care of the children.
The eldest child, Chengcheng, is the naughtiest among the four. “He always starts fights, but I know how to deal with him,” says Teng, adding that she plays the “bad cop,” as Grandpa is too soft and gentle. The younger boy, Dudu, is stubborn but clever. Huahua, the elder girl, is quiet, and the youngest girl, Xixi, is outgoing and talkative.
Now 6 years old, the quadruplets started preschool last September. The grandparents bought a three-wheeled tuk tuk to bring the children to and from school — it proved too difficult to keep an eye on four rambunctious children walking next to traffic.
To help the family out financially, the local government pays for the kids’ tuition, which is 650 yuan per child per semester. “Although China has not yet drafted a national policy to help families with multiple births, there is no doubt that there are financial difficulties in raising four kids,” says Yu Yang, deputy Party secretary of Guxian Town. Additionally, the family receives a 495-yuan monthly subsidy from the town’s government.
Long Xiaomei, also a Xiaomenlu mom, gave birth to twin girls in 2004, Mengting and Yuting. Because of the financial challenges of taking care of two newborns at once, “Concerns outweighed joy,” Long, 34, admits. Back then, the couple earned less than 600 yuan a month. She and her husband left Xiaomenlu to make money in the city when the girls were just 7 months old.
To Long’s shock, she got pregnant again three years later. And again, it was twins. Her husband urged her to get an abortion, afraid the family wouldn’t be able to provide for two more children — and she did. Then, in 2014, when Long and her husband were working in Shanghai, Long unexpectedly found out that she was expecting once more. Fearing it would be twins, she went to get an ultrasound. “The first question I asked the doctor was how many babies this time,” Long tells Sixth Tone. She decided to keep the baby after confirming “it was just one.”
Long’s youngest daughter, Fengting, was born in February 2015. By then, the Chinese government had amended its one-child policy to allow couples to have two children if either parent is an only child, but a third child still meant Long and her husband were fined 12,000 yuan. They started out raising Fengting in Shanghai, but mother and daughter moved back to Xiaomenlu earlier this month. “The twins are 14 and they need their mother during their adolescent years,” Long says.
Mengting, Yuting, Fengting, and their mother now live in Guxian, where the twins attend middle school. Long rents a room from distant relatives for 1,000 yuan per year. It has two beds, a table, and a couple of chairs. They share the kitchen and bathroom with the neighbors. During the weekends, all of them return to the village to help with farm work and take care of their grandparents.
Yuting and Mengting — one looks like their father and the other looks like the mother — enjoy wearing the same outfit, down to matching gloves. “We often have the same grades and say the same things at the same time,” says Yuting. However, being twins can be frustrating, especially when you don’t want to stand out. “Everyone knows [everything] about us and we are a bit [embarrassed] because our grades are not good enough,” she adds. To Long’s disappointment, the teenagers don’t seem to be too happy about being around their mother every day. “I’ve never been there for them,” she says. “They still see me as a stranger.”
Long still thinks about the twins she aborted a decade ago. “The doctor later told me they were boys,” she recalls, sobbing. “I sometimes see them in my dreams.”
This article was published on Sixth Tone.