The Wisdom behind Fishnets and Fishing
Guangdong’s Qingyuan City holds an annual “Ancient Fishing Festival” in which participants equip themselves with a large coneshaped “fish cover” ( yuzhao ) in their hands and a narrow-mouthed, wide-bodied rattan basket on their backs. Once they catch sight of their prey in the shallow water, they thrust the cone down over it, put their hand into the narrow end of the cone and try to seize the fish. It’s a happy and raucous scene!
Snuggled up against Beijiang River, Qingyuan’s topography is variegated and strange. With rivers and lakes, as well as karst caves and hot springs, this is a special water world where there is an assortment of ways to catch marine life. The place is a virtual microcosm of Chinese- style fishing. In Compendiumof therealmsofheaven,earthandmankind ( Sancaituhui ), a Ming era encyclopedic graphical book, the entry for “netting” notes that new types constantly emerged, because its fabrication varied by region and usage.
Besides the hand-held “fish cover”, there was also equipment such as a square fishnet ( yuzeng ) held in place by thin poles attached at its edges. The fishermen of Qingyuan had a treasure house of traditional tools for catching fish, including fish knives, spears, arrows and all sorts of nets. Only a handful have been “revived” for use in the annual fishing festival.
As illustrated in the Compendium, besides the act of “raising the net” ( banzeng ) — submerging the fishnet, waiting for fish to swim just above it, suddenly hauling it out of the water, and scooping up the netted fish with a dip net — there are an additional eleven drawings, each showing one specific fishing technique that highlights the diligence of ancient fishermen.
The “fixed net” ( zhuwang ) allowed the fisher to relax while his net did the hard work. This piece of fishing gear, designed to remain stationary, was placed near the riverbank or coast facing the opposite direction of the water or tidal flow. Naturally, the force of the current pushed sea creatures into the net. It was normally positioned at night and removed in the morning, which allowed large numbers of marine life to accumulate overnight.
Perhaps the most poetic was the act of “casting the net” ( sawang ). Generally used in conjunction with a boat, the net was thrown outwards with the opening entering the water first. It was then hauled in by pulling on a rope attached to the net’s edge. It was light and portable but required considerable skill. The savvy user cast the net so that it formed a circle in mid-air, but the less skilled fisherman might find himself awkwardly tangled up inside it!
The ancient dangwang — a scoop net — is also known today as a dip net ( chaowang ). It consisted of a long wooden handle and a triangular frame at the other end, to which was attached a pouch-shaped net. The fisher could stand on the bank, extend the long handle and capture small fish or shrimp in the pouch.
Operated by two persons, the chaowang (wide net) was mainly used in shallow inland waterways. There is an illustration, entitled Thewidenet , that shows two people, each grasping a long pole in between which is stretched a very large pouch-shaped net that captures fish and shrimp as the current continues onward. This fishnet is equivalent to an oversize dip net, except that the latter’s single handle has been replaced by two poles, and the former’s pouch is incomparably large by comparison.