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.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE - Con­tact the writer at xuhaoyu@chi­

‘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.

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