BEIJING -- The photo was undeniably cute: a studio portrait of eight babies in identical onesies and perky white cotton hats, sporting an array of expressions from giggly to goofy, baffled to bawling.
Intended as an advertisement for the studio, the photo grabbed a different kind of attention: In a country that limits most couples to one child, many Chinese were amazed to learn that a couple had spent nearly a million yuan ($160,000) and illegally enlisted two surrogate mothers to help have the four boys and four girls.
The incident has highlighted both the use of birth surrogates, a violation of Chinese law, and how wealthy Chinese do as they please, with scant regard for the rules that constrain others. The most common reaction, though, has been simple disbelief.
"Heavens. To have one family with eight kids ... in an era of family planning where most people have just one, the contrast is just too much," said popular Chinese Central Television news anchor Bai Yansong as he introduced a 20-minute special report on the babies last weekend. "It doesn't sound like news. It sounds more like a fairy tale."
Chinese media are calling the mother "babaotai muqin," or "octomom," a reference to the American woman who gave birth to octuplets using in vitro fertilization.
Much remains uncertain about the family from Guangzhou, the capital of south China's Guangdong province. According to the Guangzhou Daily, a government newspaper, the biological mother carried two of the babies, while two surrogates gave birth to three each. After the babies were born in September and October last year, 11 nannies were hired to help take care of the children, the report said.
While some suspect a hoax, a media officer with the Guangdong Health Department said the case was real and under investigation. He declined to identify the couple, citing privacy concerns.
The story has captivated the public because it symbolizes a bold defiance of the country's strict family planning rules, said Liang Zhongtang, a demography expert at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
"People are very interested in the policy these days and the need for changes to it," he said. "A lot of people think it should have been dropped a long time ago, or relaxed at least."
A 2001 law prohibits Chinese medical institutions and personnel from performing gestational surrogacy services, in which an embryo created from a couple is implanted into another woman who carries the baby to term.
Still, an underground market is thriving as more couples put off marriage and childbirth until later in life, only to find they are unable to conceive. The law forbids only the medical procedures, and agencies connecting couples and surrogates are easy to find online.
The Guangzhou Daily said the octomom couple resorted to in vitro fertilization and surrogates after years of failed attempts to conceive.
A manager for the Guangdong branch of the Daiyunguke surrogacy agency, Liu Jialei, said that this has been the busiest of his company's seven years in business, with more than 600 surrogates matched to families. His customers are Chinese, but the medical procedures are carried out abroad, in Southeast Asia and Japan, to circumvent the law.
Chinese media reports say many procedures are also done illegally at hospitals in China.
Many Chinese frown on surrogacy, which is often portrayed as a way for the rich to avoid going through pregnancy.
An opinion piece about the eight babies in the China Daily denounced surrogacy as something done by wealthy women unwilling to disrupt their careers or ruin their figures.
Author Cai Hong, a senior writer for the newspaper, wrote that the practice would inevitably give rise to "a breeder class" of poor women who end up "renting their wombs to wealthy people."
But Therese Hesketh, a University College London professor who has done numerous field studies in China on family planning issues, says that her impression is that Chinese who can afford surrogates tend to seek out attractive university graduates, not the underprivileged.
Chinese media say octomom and her family have gone into hiding. A Chinese Central Television investigative report could only dig up former neighbors who described seeing a pack of nannies taking the babies for strolls and to a toddler center for playtime.
A series of outtakes from the portrait session posted to a blog show the logo for the QQ Baby studio prominently displayed in the background, but staff at the shop in Guangzhou denied knowing anything about the photos.
Only the relatively well-off can afford in vitro fertilization and surrogacy or to live in a villa, as this couple reportedly did.
The rich also find it easier to flout the one-child limit, because they are better able to afford the hefty fines for doing so. Some also acquire foreign citizenship, which exempts them from the birth quotas.
On the popular Sina microblog, one user posted an article about the couple and commented: "If you have money, what does the law mean?"
All the hoopla may be boosting the surrogacy business. At Daiyun.com – an agency whose website is splashed with photos of babies nestled in flowers – a manager said all the attention made it inconvenient for any staff to speak with reporters.
"But one thing is for sure, our business is getting better and better," said the woman, who would only give her surname, Liu. "More and more people come to us for services."
Associated Press researchers Zhao Liang and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.