Economies of scales
Traditional fishskin crafts of China’s Hezhe ethnic group are driving new business opportunities, Xu Haoyu reports in Tongjiang and Fuyuan, Heilongjiang province.
‘Fishskin is as soft as that of any other animal. Its beautiful colors reflect the magnificence of the sunlight. Make clothes and socks with it, it’s the brocade bestowed on fishermen.” This is how Shen Zhaoshi, a poet from the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), praised the beauty and practicability of fishskin.
Today, a Chinese ethnic group named Hezhe still heed the poet’s mantra. According to the last national population census of 2010, the total population of Hezhe was 5,354, with 3,613 living in Heilongjiang province. Liu Guiling, the head of the Heilongjiang Provincial Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee, notes that Hezhe people mainly reside in seven villages spread across three towns, Jiejinkou and Bacha in Tongjiang city and Sipai in Raohe county of Shuangyashan city.
The name of the group can mean “people in the East”, as well as “people living along the river” and fishing and hunting have shaped their way of life for more than 6,000 years. They have been making clothes from fishskin for at least 1,000 years.
The fishskin outfits, including the thread used for sewing, are usually made of materials harvested from bighead, pikes, sturgeon, carp and keta salmon. These particular sources are chosen to ensure the clothing become water-resistant and able to withstand wear and tear, allowing the Hezhe to hunt and fish in inclement weather and the sometimes harsh natural environment.
One set of clothes will usually employ between 100 and 200 sheets of fishskin and requires a craftsman to put in more than 50 days of painstaking work.
According to Sun Yulin, a 62-yearold representative inheritor of Hezhe fishskin art from Heilongjiang, the process is rather complicated.
As soon as the donor fish dies, the craftsman must act quickly, peeling off its skin in one single sheet and mounting it on a flat wooden surface. When the sheet is dry, it is laid on corn flour and squeezed to remove any oil still on the surface or inside the skin. It is then rubbed with the hands until it becomes soft.
But Mother Nature’s bowl is not a bottomless one, and the fish stocks are not inexhaustible. As such, fishing as a main source of income for the Hezhe people was abandoned decades ago. In recent years, they have developed a tourism industry designed to help spread their ethnic culture and crafts to the wider world.
Sun had been a full-time fisherman before a folk customs park was built in his village in 2000. Under the tutelage of his third uncle, Sun Youcai, a famous fish bone and fishskin artist, Sun Yulin began learning to cut fishskin. Soon, he was capable of making small, two-dimensional animal collages from the material. As he grew more adept, he began creating larger, one square meter pictures of landscapes and animals with a more realistic appearance.
In June 2006, Hezhe fishskin handicraft was among the first batch of skills inscribed onto China’s intangible cultural heritage list. This national recognition of the traditional craftsmanship of Hezhe motivated Sun Yulin even more.
He currently owns a small store selling Hezhe fishskin art in Jiejinkou town, Tongjiang, Heilongjiang province. It is the birthplace, and still a main habitation, of the Hezhe — one of the smallest ethnic groups in China. There are over 1,500 people living there now, accounting for about one-third of the group’s total population.
Wearing a blue silk top with black linen trousers, Sun Yulin points to a fish-skin jacket hanging in his store. He says it required the skins of more than 70 keta salmon to make — each of which weighs around 4.5 kilograms.
“The price of a fishskin jacket is more than 10,000 yuan ($1,415),” Sun Yulin says, before explaining the reason for the jaw-dropping figure. “The tension of fishskin is seven times stronger than cowhide, it’s unbelievably airtight and sturdy. A fish-skin suit will last a hardworking fisherman for six or seven years.”
He adds that, as the full outfits are required less in the modern era, smaller-sized products perform better on the market.
Sun Yulin reveals that it’s also easier to create the best-selling item — fishskin pictures. After the subject is settled and the draft is drawn up, it is just a case of dying the sheets of fishskin into different colors, or simply separating them by their natural hues (usually white, yellow, gray and black) before cutting them to the required size and shape to splice and sew together to form the image. Sun Yulin has further developed his skill and has produced over 100 three-dimensional images, boasting multiple layers.
As well as the pictures, that cost anywhere from 100 to 1,000 yuan, there are also a wide selection of accessories that add to the turnover of his store, such as mirrors, phone chains and scented sachets.
Sun Yulin has shipped his creations all across the globe, to countries including Japan, South Korea, Germany and the United States, securing a regular annual income for his family of around 50,000 yuan over the past few years.
As a provincial-level representative inheritor of fishskin craftsmanship, Sun Yulin is often invited to present his skills and techniques in other places. Many institutions from first-tier cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, have offered him high-paying jobs, but he has politely turned them down. “I am a Hezhe native, I want to pass down my culture in my hometown,” he says.
“With more folks practicing fishskin art techniques now, I don’t think life could be better, as we are earning money and passing on the traditional craftsmanship at the same time,” Sun Yulin says, with a glowing smile.
Fishskin craftsmanship is not just limited to the small ethnic group, some Han people also share the skill.
Li Chunxi, 50, was born in Yanan village of Fuyuan county-level city, Heilongjiang. He has never stepped out of the village.
His life has been a catalog of misfortune.
When Li was only 3, an age full of fun, jumping and running, he lost his left leg in a fire. “Only in dreams can I have the freedom and happiness as an ordinary kid,” Li recalls.
Li’s mother suffered a stroke in 2008, and she lay paralyzed in bed until she died late last year. His father died in 2013 because of tuberculosis, leaving the family a debt of over 20,000 yuan.
However, Li’s life finally took a positive turn when the village started to support rural industries and share the profits from them with its impoverished residents. After border trade between Fuyuan and Russia was opened in July 2015, Li was entitled to 1,000 yuan annual subsidy as an inhabitant who benefited from the trade policy.
What’s more, a photovoltaic power station was built in 2016 and Li, regarded as unable to work, received further subsidies of around 2,000 yuan per year.
Li overcame poverty by the end of 2016, but he didn’t stop fighting for a better life.
On May 2 in 2017, Dong Lijuan, the vice-chairman of Fuyuan’s ethnic and religious affairs committee, visited Li’s house. Dong still clearly remembers what she saw.
“His mother was lying in bed, covered by a ragged, greasy quilt with exposed cotton. The washing machine was trying to rinse another quilt, but the water was filled with black bubbles.”
After learning that Li enjoyed paper cutting and was good at needlework and mending shoes, Dong suggested that Li learn the techniques of fishskin crafts.
Considering Li’s inability to walk, Dong invited a fish-skin art teacher to his home. After only a morning of learning, Li successfully completed a Chinese zodiac painting of snake and gained huge confidence. He believes practice makes perfect, so he took up formal study and kept in touch with experts and teachers through video call. He gradually mastered many techniques and is now able to create innovative designs.
In 2018, Dong encouraged Li to attend an e-commerce seminar organized by Fuyuan local government. With help from the professionals, Li opened an online shop and has sold his products to different cities.
In September of the same year, Li finally got married.
“I used to be too poor to even think of marriage, because the debt and the pressure of life were very heavy to bear,” Li says with a relieved and cheerful tone. “But now I earn enough money, I couldn’t be happier.”
In more than a metaphorical sense, he leans on his skills as a craftsman — the cushion of his crutch is wrapped up with a layer of white fishskin that glints in the sunlight. Some, especially Shen Zhaoshi, might say it’s almost poetic.
Top: Li Chunxi, who learned fishskin crafts to rise above poverty, presents fishskin sachets that he made. Above: Sun Yulin, a representative inheritor of Hezhe fishskin art from Heilongjiang province, and his wife pose with their works.