A comprehensive story of our Honorable Patron – Madame Yi Jiefang

Hope is on the Earth: the story of a mother of earth

The “Green Mom” Madame Yi Jiefang

“When alive, you stand strong against sandstorms; when fallen, you burn yourself to give light and warmth to others.”

Madame Yi Jiefang (易解放女士), a mother who lost her son, Yang Ruizhe (楊睿哲), in a road accident, has been extending her son’s life by fulfilling his wish of planting trees in the desert.  Over the past ten years, she has donated her son’s  life insurance and accident compensation, and used the money from selling her own  properties, including selling her two houses, on a project of planting trees in an Inner Mongolia desert.  She led volunteers from different countries and employed local peasants to plant 1.5 million trees and turned 13,000 mu (8.67 million square meters) of desert into green land.

Note: mu (畝) is a Chinese unit of measurement of area: 3 mu = 2000 square meters, 1 mu ~= 667 square meters. 

She launched the “Million Moms, Million Trees” campaign. She urges all moms on the Earth that to love kids, we need not only leave houses, cars and money to them; more importantly, we need to leave a good living environment of green land, blue sky, clear water, etc.

Her effort has been appreciated by many people and organizations.  She has received many awards and honours, among them, she has notably received:

  • UN Women cum Netease’s top ten female role models award 2011
  • the 10 Best Female Individuals Award of the First National Female Philanthropists Awards in 2011

Receiving awards is not just an honour, it helps her endeavour – she has donated the awards of almost RMB $1,000,000 to planting trees. She tells us a simple environmental equation:  If everyone of the 1.3 billion Chinese population donates RMB $50 to plant 5 trees a year, in three years’ time, all the deserts in China will have 50% vegetation cover and we can say goodbye to sandstorms!

Chapter 1: Year 2000 – why?

“There is a broken watch in my home, left behind by my son after a car accident. It froze at 9:20 am on May 22, 2000; his life ended at that moment.”

Madam Yi Jiefang

Madame Yi went to Japan from Shanghai when she was 38. After years of hard work, she and her husband, Dr Yang Antai, finally settled down in Japan. Her son, Yang Ruizhe, went to Japan when he was 13. After graduating from high school, he was admitted to the prestigious Chuo University in Japan majoring in Commerce and Accounting.  He was  the pride of his parents. Like many immigrant families, the Yang family lived a hard-working and stable life. However, they did not expect the imminent disaster that was  to devastate the family.

On the morning of May 22, 2000, Yang Ruizhe rode a motorcycle to school as usual. Before leaving, he told his mother that he would come home at noon, but he never did. Madame Yi had just gone to work when she received the news that his son was involved in a car accident.  After 2 hours of attempting to save his life , the doctors announced her son’s death. But she refused to give up, screaming and crying, trying to do artificial respiration…… His body was still warm, and she wanted him back. None of the comforting words made sense to her. With a sallow face, and eyes opened, the body was as if saying to her in an expression of helplessness, “Mom, I got into trouble. I will never come back again.”

A youth with a good future and a happy family of three was suddenly ruined.  The aim and the hope that sustained Madame Yi to work hard in Japan collapsed. For a long long period, the parents could not face the reality that their son would never come back.  It was most painful in the first three months. Loneliness was difficult to bear.  For several times, Madame Yi was afraid of returning home herself after work. She would wait for her husband at the station and return home together.  The house was full of the son’s relics, his books, his clothes, his room, but without him. When someone stepped on the stairs, if it sound like her son’s steps, she thought that her son was coming back, but every time she despaired.  On Saturday and Sunday, when her husband was busy working at hospital, she would be alone at home.  Sometimes, she would cry loudly for a long time. She would also turn on the TV loudly, so that her neighbours would not hear her crying.

It was very sad that disaster struck, the son died, the family disintegrated, and everywhere seemed to be dark. When a close family member dies, what determines a person to be desperate or to be strong?  This is a process that tests a person.  Choosing is difficult.  Why can she eventually bravely stand up to live again?

That was the darkest and hardest period for her.  Her colleagues and friends in Japan gave her great comfort. The colleagues who were usually close to her, dared not speak to her, for as soon as they asked if she was better, Madame Yi’s tears would stream down. Nevertheless, everyone wanted to encourage her, the young would ask her out, while her peer department heads took turns to comfort her. They visited her home on Sundays, to comfort her and chat with her. They even said that if she wanted to cry, cry on their shoulders until no more tears could be shed. Some colleagues recorded the chirping of birds and the sounds of flowing water to her, telling her that these are voices of her son right now.

Four months after the death of her son, Madame Yi went to Europe, bringing her son’s ashes and photos with her. He liked European medieval literature and History, but he had not been to Europe during his lifetime. So she brought his son’s cinerary casket to Paris, Brussels, Rome, Vatican City, Florence, Venice, Milan and Berlin.  She took her son to a lot of places.  Bringing someone’s ashes around was a taboo for the Chinese, so Chinese people avoided her, but western people did not. They took photos for her, and some comforted her. Some strangers even dined with her, afraid that she was lonely and sad.

One day, Madame Yi arrived at the Louvre to take photos of the paintings with his son’s cinerary casket, but she was prevented to do so by the staff there.  Meanwhile, a European tour group came over and Madame Yi unexpectedly received help from them – A dozen European women saw the commotion and asked her what had happened. After knowing that Madame Yi’s son had died in a car accident, they were moved, some even shed tears, and they criticized the staff for being cold-hearted. They helped her take photos of her son’s casket with the paintings. They patted her shoulder to comfort her, and said that her son is so handsome and must be an angel in heaven. Madame Yi was deeply moved. She realized that motherly love was not separated by language or nationality. It is a common sentiment: sympathy and support are always by the side of a mother whose son died an untimely death.

The Europe trip was a healing journey for Madame Yi. After a year of adjustment, she slowly recuperated and began sorting out her child’s possessions. During the process, she also sorted out her own state of mind. Her thoughts cleared up gradually. She was a strong woman. She knew that she could not sit idly, crying every day. Her son, who respected her very much, would want her to move on. She remembered that her son once said that he wished to contribute to the Sino-Japanese economy after graduating from university and he would like to do something against sandstorms. Her son had suggested that she returned to China after retirement to plant trees, and he had said that, “If we want to do something, then we do it big.” Madame Yi thus decided to continue her son’s dream.

In 2002, Madame Yi went back and forth between Japan and Shanghai, and started organizing the non-profit organization “NPO-Green Life”.

Chapter 2: Year 2003 – Set Off to Planting Trees and Afforestation to Control Sandstorms

To realize the wish of her deceased son, Madame Yi resigned her job and declined her company’s request of wishing her stay. She used RMB$250,000 out of the life insurance of her son as a start-up fund to set up a non-profit organization “NPO-Greenlife”.  She embarked on a 8000km journey in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and visited the Desert of Taminzhagan (formerly the Horqin grassland area), a desert called notoriously  “the Sea of Death” by locals in Kulunqi district of Tongliao city, and the Desert of Alashan. Afterward, she signed the first agreement with a local government:

  • She set up the noble goal of planting 1.1 million trees in 10,000 mu (6.67 million square meters) of desert in 10 years with funding from NPO-Greenlife;
  • the local government would manage the growth of the trees with her together;
  • no felling of trees was allowed in 20 years; and
  • after 20 years, all trees would be donated to the local people. 

Then  her friends were supporting her as a despaired mother who lost her son but they did not know how far she could go.

NPO-Greenlife (Non-Profit Organization Greenlife)

To raise funding for planting trees and for the operation of the organization and the endeavor, Madame Yi eventually spent all the life insurance and accident compensation of her son, sold two houses, and spent all her savings from working for 20 years in Japan.  She devoted herself whole-heartedly in the endeavor of planting trees and raising funds, with the aim to turn the desert into green land.

In 2003, she chose an afforestation site in the Desert of Taminzhagan (formerly the Horqin grassland area) in Kulunqi, Inner Mongolia.

Chapter 3: Year 2004 – Planting 10,000 trees – a start

On April 22, 2004, the first tree was planted in the afforestation site in the Desert of Taminzhagan, which is also called “400 kilometers of dry sea”.  Madame Yi’s son died on May 22, 2000, what a coincidence that his mom planted the first tree on the 22nd day of a month.

Over 300 student volunteers and peasants joined the tree planting.  Madame Yi represented NPO-Greenlife in organizing the tree planting.  Many difficulties were encountered – the site was remote; they had to walk for a half day to buy the saplings, transporting them over the difficult path to the sand dunes by humans and horses, and hired peasants to plant them.  On the next day, the team went to examine, but found that the saplings were blown to the ground by the strong wind.

Photo: a cart of goods pulled by horses.  Madame Yi is by the side.

They learnt that they need to dig a hole so that the saplings would be held firmly. It would be more efficient to use a tractor to dig a one meter deep trench, and then dig a deeper hole for each tree.  Getting water from remote site was also a problem. 

Since the land was dry, digging well was a solution.  The cost was high.  A very small plastic tube well required two days of digging and would cost RMB $4000-$5000. A well could provide water for an area of 100 mu (66,667 square meters).  However, the rate of evaporation was very fast.  The first batch of 10,000 trees nearly died due to dryness.  Maybe it was a miracle or a Chinese proverb realized: “Heaven will help those with  heart” – rain fell for several days and nights in the Desert of Taminzhagan which had not occurred  in the spring seasons of the past 10 years!  The result was 75% of the saplings survived.

Year 2004 plantation area [photo taken in 2010]

Chapter 4: Year 2005 – Planting 20,000 trees – encounter difficulties

In April 2005, Madame Yi’s endeavor planted 20,000 poplar saplings.  Luckily, during the planting period, it rained.  The survival rate was above 75%.

Madame Yi’s team also tried planting 5000 wild apricot saplings. However, this kind of ancient tree did not survive in the hostile area.

Madame Yi had to face the death of saplings over a large area. The tremendous hard work of fund raising vanished in this trial.  Would she give up?  She thought carefully – her son had gone; she could not express her love to him again; but there are so many lovely kids in the world, she would plant tree as a public welfare endeavor to build a better living environment.  Her goal was clear.  She decided to donate all her savings for tree planting.  Her husband, Dr Yang, objected initially, because since they returned to China from Japan, they had no income.  But Madame Yi persisted. This would be her endeavor, and had become part of her life.  Dr Yang has ever since supported her whole-heartedly.

(Later, Madame Yi learned how to plant different kinds of saplings in different desert environments.)

Chapter 5: Year 2006 – Planting 30,000 trees – working hard

In 2006, Madame Yi planted poplar saplings in spring and pine saplings in summer. A total of 30,000 saplings were planted.  As the survival rate of pine was lower than 70%, the total survival rate was about 75%.

The target of planting a million trees in 10 years would mean about 100,000 trees each year.  However, due to insufficient funds, only 60,000 trees were planted in the first three years.

Year 2005-2006 plantation area [photo taken in 2010]

Chapter 6: Year 2007 – Planting 30,000 trees – if one works hard enough, one can grind an iron rod into a needle

From 2004 to 2006, only Madame Yi was running the planting endeavor and essentially no outside help was available.  In 2005, Dr Yang and Mr Gaolin, a member of NPO-Greenlife, helped.  In 2006, again only Madame was working on the endeavor.

Difficulties like standing against the sandstorm and loneliness were minor to Madame Yi.  Her real worry was the running out of funding and manpower to plant trees.  Many times she had thought about giving up, but once she recalled the unfulfilled wish of her son, she felt his force was supporting her, and this force made her  journey lighter.

In 2007, all her savings and the life insurance and accident compensation of her son were spent.  She sold her houses in Putong, Shanghai.  In spring and summer she was planting trees while in autumn and winter she was travelling around to raise funds.  

There is  a Chinese saying that if one works hard enough, one can grind an iron rod into a needle. Madame Yi knew that she had to persist for three to five years.  2007 was the fourth year of her endeavor.  Her action had gained the support of non-government organizations working on environmental protection.  A lot of young people came to help.  “I finally had a new force”, she said.  Moreover, the support was multi-national – besides Chinese, Americans, Canadians, Japanese and Singaporeans came to Inner Mongolia to help Madame Yi.

In April 2007, she brought a group of young volunteers of different ages, different occupations and coming from different countries to the afforestation site.  These youths were used to living in cities.  They for the first time realized that there was other kind of reality in life.  In such hostile environment, planting trees was not just a burning passion, but it was related to the livelihood of the local people.

Surprisingly, in the harsh natural environment of the desert, worms can still live and destroy trees.  In the  summer of 2007, Madame Yi accompanied famous forestry expert Professor Ross to visit Kulunqi of Tongliao city.  Professor Ross had been visiting  third world countries and had good experience in afforestation in sandy ground. The experts from the Tongliao City Forestry Bureau also came.  They showed Madame Yi and the local peasants how to prevent worms from destroying the trees, and by choosing the interbred poplar saplings from the United States and Tongliao, the survival rate would be much higher.

The original goal of planting trees was to fulfill the wish of her son. Now, the green land inside the desert signified many volunteers’ heart and effort.  Madame Yi regarded that this had redefined her meaning of life, and her understanding of mother’s love.

Madame Yi recalled: “During a visit to Europe, I saw that a local mom was holding a cute little girl. The girl said hello to me. At that time, I was holding a cinerary casket with   the ashes of my son. The mom saw my admiration and asked me whether I would like to hug her girl. It was too good! I had not had this feeling of hugging a child for a long long time. It was such a fortunate and fulfilling feeling. Although my son had gone, many children are worthy of my love. I will continue to plant trees for those lovely living children. Now, 21 hectares of desert in the once called “400 kilometers of dry sea” of Horqin grassland has gradually been covered by green. Over 100,000 trees are growing well. While the dead could not be resuscitated, the living parents have the task to fulfill the son’s wish. I made an unusual decision – continue to plant trees to commemorate my love of my son.”

Year 2007 plantation area [photo taken in 2010]

In the first three years of the endeavor (2004 to 2006), only Madame Yi was planting trees.  Starting from summer 2007, many youths came to help. The words of Madame Yi’s endeavor had spread!

Madame Yi used RMB $250,000 out of the life insurance of her son to build a Hope Primary School in the home town in Hunan Province of Lei Feng, a famous youth role model in China in the 1960’s.  The School was named after her son, and later became a sister school with Yato Primary School of Nakano district of Tokyo, the primary school that her son attended in Japan. 

In commemoration of her son, Yang Ruizhe, the people of Kulunqi established a monument which was engraved with the wording “You are a tree, whether you are alive or fallen, you are always a valuable asset.  When alive, you stand strong against sandstorms; when fallen, you burn yourself to give light and warmth to others.”

The monument commemorating Madame Yi’s son Yang Ruizhe
set up by the people of Kulunqi

From 2007, the story of Madame Yi became more well-known. TV, newspapers and magazines in Shanghai started to report her tree planting stories.  Donations started to improve.  She also visited organizations, universities, secondary and primary schools and Japanese enterprises in China to promote the importance of tree planting in deserts and to solicit donations and volunteers.  As a result, in spring and summer, 30,000 saplings were planted.

More and more organizations and volunteers joined the tree planting. The positive results encouraged Madame Yi. This reinforced her decision to take up planting trees as the career for the rest of her life.

From 2004 to 2007, a total of 90,000 trees were planted and the survival rate was 90%.

Chapter 7: Year 2008 – Planting 112,000 trees – persistence brings results

On April 9, 2008, Madame Yi and 34 volunteers visited the Desert of Taminzhagan and witnessed the deterioration in the environment.  This was a big shock to them and they deeply felt the importance of the promotion of environmental protection.

Madame Yi continued to work dedicatedly . 

In 2008, the first major change came – Madame Yi received the honorary award of “100 Excellent Mothers in China”. Under the support of the All-China Women’s Federation, she set up the “Mothers’ Green Project Fund” and promoted the “Million Moms, Million Trees” campaign which advocates mothers to donate RMB5 for planting a tree in the desert.

The many media reports brought more donations and volunteers to join Madame Yi in planting trees.  The target of planting 112,000 trees was achieved and the survival rate reached 90%.

Year 2008 plantation area [photo taken in 2010]

Chapter 8: Year 2009 – Planting 300,000 Trees – Benefits of afforestation realized

In 2009, a total of 300,000 trees were planted and the survival rate reached 85%.

With the support of various sectors in the communities, more than 500,000 trees were planted in 6 years from 2004-2009.  The saplings planted in 2004 had grown to over 10 meters tall and those planted in 2005 had also grown to 7 to 8 meters tall.  All of them had become forests.

Forests could resist sandstorms and retain ground water effectively.  Peasants grew crops like soybean between the trees and sold them for money.  With more rainfall, wild chickens also came back, and wild animals and birds returned to the Desert of Taminzhagan.  Madame Yi now regarded that while it was very hard to plant trees in desert, it had become her responsibility to  society, and it became more and more meaningful while seeing the homeland turned green.

The Desert of Taminzhagan has an area of 280 square km.  It means “the devil’s desert” in Mongolian and is also known as “400 kilometers of dry sea”.  It is the largest desert in the northeastern China.  Originally there was little vegetation. The whole area was covered with golden sands except some yellow wickers in some inner areas.  By 2009, the “heroic mother” Madame Yi had covered it with green clothing.

Year 2009 plantation area [photo taken in 2010]

The green mom’s love turns dry sea into green land

Every time after returning from planting trees, Madame Yi would visit her  son’s tomb in Pudong, Shangshai.  By 2009, she could tell her son that over 500,000 trees had been planted.  She was grateful to her son that when it was very dry during the planting period, she prayed and her son would bring rain and alleviate the irrigation difficulties.

She told her son that more individuals donated and more volunteers were helping to plant trees.  She had been longing for enterprises to help provide  regular operational funding, but it had not yet materialized.

Chapter 9: Year 2010 – Planting 500,000 trees – 10-year project completed ahead of time

In April 2010, during the spring tree planting period, NPO-Greenlife completed the 2010 target of planting 500,000 trees.  With the support of the China Women’s Development Foundation and many volunteers, and with the extensive coverage by mass media, Madame Yi’s dream of “Million Moms, Million Trees” succeeded.  She was awarded the first class award of the “10 Extraordinary Dreamers” by Minsheng Bank, the “Ford Environmental Award and “the China Baosteel Environment Award”.  The three awards providing RMB700,000 as  funding which enabled the completion of the original target of 1.1 million trees, and it was completed 4 years ahead of the target date.

Chapter 10: Year 2004 – Year 2010 – Desert yesterday, oasis today

Seven years had passed, NPO-Greenlife started with Madame Yi laboring alone in the desert.  Now there are thousands of supporters, donors and tree-planting volunteers.  They come from many countries and from all walks of life. There are Chinese, Americans and Canadians, Europeans, Japanese, Koreans, Malaysians, Singaporeans, etc. They are students, teachers, office and factory workers, artists, scientists, civil servants, entrepreneurs, housewives, retirees, etc.

A mom’s love and persistence have aroused thousands of people’s environmental concern!

On April 26, 2010, with the support and participation of volunteers, government departments and mass media, NPO-Greenlife completed the target of afforestation of a million trees in 10,000 mu (6.67 million square meters) of desert and the tree survival rate was generally above 85%.  It was 4 years ahead of the target schedule.  All who had visited the NPO-Greenlife’s afforestation base regarded  it as a miracle. This was the reason why the Chinese State Forestry Administration, the National Afforestation Committee and the All-China Women’s Federation decided to hold the 2011 International Forests Symposium in the the NPO-Greenlife’s afforestation base, and established a monument of “Model Afforestation Base of Mothers’ Public Welfare Forest” there as appreciation.

Chapter 11: Continuous effort

By 2012, with additional effort, Madame Yi and her supporters had planted 1.5 million trees in Inner Mongolia and turned 10,300 mu (8.67 million square meters) of desert into green land. 

Thanks to the forests, rainfall is now sufficient in the afforestation site.  The peasants have good harvest of the agricultural crops they grow and they can gather fallen branches for keeping warm in the winter. The grass is sufficient for the cows, sheep and horses to eat, and they need not spend money to buy fodder. The land is not a desert anymore and sandstorms become infrequent. With a better economy, the children can go to school and life has become more settled.

Environmental protection and fighting desertification should not be done only by one mom or one environment protection organization. It needs all  human beings to show their concern and invest their effort.  Planting trees not only helps reduce the size of deserts, it also reduces the use of energy, the emission of greenhouse gases and  global warming.  NPO-Greenlife is working with China Women’s Development Foundation to launch the “Mothers’ Green Engineering” project. It calls for all mothers to mobilize their families to plant trees for present and future generations of children. With millions of people planting trees, this is an environment protection project with good results for  the current generation and in the future generations.

Madame Yi continues her effort of planting tree and is now working on another two afforestation projects at Dengkou and Duolun in Inner Mongolia.

Start planting Haloxylon trees in an area of 10,000 mu (6.67 million square meters) in Ulan Buh Desert, Bayan Nur city, Dengkou in Inner Mongolia in 2011.
Planting of trees (Pinus sylvestris) started in Duolun county in Inner Mongolia in April 2013.

The first batch of 23 volunteers included FCSI members from Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore, the United Kingdom and France; representatives from “Homeland Green” in Hong Kong, and volunteers from Chengdu and Beijing. They were working in freezing winds to plan the saplings to start the creation of anti-sandstorm forests.

Chapter 12: “HomelandGreen” supports Madame Yi’s tree planting and ecology revival projects

“HomelandGreen” was set up by a group of volunteers based in Hong Kong who support works against desertification. In July 2012, members of HomelandGreen visited the sites of Madame Yi’s Phase 1 plantation base in the Desert of Taminzhagan and Phase 2 plantation base in Ulan Buh Desert to learn more about the projects.  In October 2012, members joined tree planting at Madame Yi’s Phase 2 plantation base at Dengkou.  In April and July 2013, members joined tree planting at Madame Yi’s Phase 3 plantation base at Duolun.  In the coming years, HomelandGreen will support tree planting at Duolun.

We wish that you will show your support!

(written in 2013)