An oft-repeated story about a Chinese man suing his wife after she gave birth to an 'ugly baby' is currently doing the rounds of the blogosphere: it's false.
Here's the most common version of the tale: A northern Chinese man, Jian Feng, was shocked when his wife gave birth to a startlingly unattractive child which bore little resemblance to either parent. Initially he accused her of infidelity, but after a DNA test proved the baby was his, Feng’s wife revealed that she had undergone over 600,000 yuan ($98,500) worth of plastic surgery which drastically changed her appearance.
Feng filed a divorce suit against his wife in which he claimed she convinced him to marry her under false pretences.
A judge agreed, awarding the aggrieved ugly-baby-daddy 730,000 yuan ($120,00)
The reality: Tracing this story to its source was a difficult task; the earliest reference we could find was not – as one might think – in Chinese media, but published by a Pakistani newspaper in 2004. In that piece, Feng was awarded 538,000 yuan ($88,000) by the judge.
The story went relatively quiet until it was repeated by the Macedonian International News Agency (MINA) in 2012, with the settlement jumping almost 200,000 yuan (inflation takes its toll even on fake news stories). Around that time, the story was also repeated by many of the usual suspects, including the Daily Mail and Russia Today.
This month, the story resurfaced on Buzzfeed-lite gossip blog CocoaFab, in a post which referenced the Irish Times as a source. As far as we can tell, the Irish Times has never covered this story. There is a post in the Irish Examiner, published in October 2012 which repeats the same story as laid out in by MINA.
After the story again went viral this month, the Huffington Post updated its original 2012 coverage with a post warning that the Feng family’s plight was most likely made up. The HuffPo based this conclusion on the fact that a photo often attached to the story – showing a pair of attractive parents with non-conventionally attractive children – was actually part of an advertising campaign by a Taiwanese plastic surgery.
In our research, we discovered that the other image often used to illustrate the story – a before and after shot of an Asian-looking woman – comes from the website of a Japanese plastic surgery, not any Chinese news organisations or a South Korean surgery where the wife is generally alleged to have had her surgery.
A fake image does not a fake story make however, and plenty of blogs (including us) use images for illustrative purposes only.
After digging into endless rehashes of the same story, we were able to track down a 2012 Xinhua article in which the reporter actually bothered to do some reporting. Like us, the reporter was perplexed that all the coverage of this Chinese story was on foreign media. Eventually Xinhua managed to find the original court case, which took place in Heilongjiang in 2002.
In the actual case, Feng’s wife did give birth to a child which looked nothing like him, and he did demand a paternity test, but she refused. Feng, assuming his wife had been unfaithful, threatened divorce, and this is when she claimed to have had extensive plastic surgery. Though the couple did eventually divorce, and the court found in Feng’s favour, it was due to his wife’s infidelity, rather than any plastic surgery “trickery”.
In a statement to Chinese reporters, a court official who worked on the case said he barely heard mention of the plastic surgery which was supposedly the heart of the matter. The settlement granted to the husband was a usual divorce settlement, nothing to do with ugly babies or being deceived by plastic surgery.