The Fish­net and Fish­ing over the Ages

China Scenic - - Contents - Story & Pho­to­graphs by Sheng Wen­qiang

Be it work­ing a deep-run­ning river or a shal­low lake, fish­er­men are rarely with­out a fish­net. This is hardly sur­pris­ing. But since cur­rents and prey vary, so do the fish­nets. Over the mil­len­nia, this hum­ble gear has un­der­gone many changes, rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity and high­light­ing mankind’s stature vis- à- vis Na­ture.

Be it work­ing a deep-run­ning river or a shal­low lake, fish­er­men are rarely with­out a fish­net. This is hardly sur­pris­ing. But since cur­rents and prey vary, so do the fish­nets. Over the mil­len­nia, this hum­ble gear has un­der­gone many changes, rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity and high­light­ing mankind’s stature visà-vis Na­ture. Gen­e­sis of the Fish­net

In Greek mythol­ogy, Po­sei­don is the God of the Sea. Ac­com­pa­nied by dol­phins and tuna, he typ­i­cally grasps a tri­dent, his hall­mark. For this divin­ity, how­ever, the tri­dent was not sim­ply a weapon. Even to­day, an item of fish­ing equip­ment widely em­ployed by Euro­pean fish­er­men — the fish spear — is also known as “Po­sei­don’s Tri­dent.” For the Greeks and Ro­mans, it is the fish spear that sym­bol­izes fish­ing ac­tiv­ity, not the fish­net; for them, catch­ing fish with a net and other fish­ing tech­niques were sec­ondary.

In China, how­ever, the fish­net has long been the most im­por­tant item of fish­ing gear. The in­ven­tion of the fish­net has tra­di­tion­ally been at­trib­uted to Fuxi, China’s first em­peror in pre­his­tor­i­cal times. Leg­end has it that the net­ting he created was very strong and could be used not just to catch fish, but to cap­ture birds and beasts too.

How could such a key piece of fish­ing equip­ment ac­tu­ally have come to be?

Among our an­ces­tors who resided near wa­ter­ways, a ma­jor skill for en­sur­ing their liveli­hood was fish­ing. This was safer than chas­ing beasts of prey, but it was no easy task ei­ther. There were four prim­i­tive meth­ods: strik­ing, pierc­ing, grab­bing and clamp­ing. “Strik­ing” meant at­tack­ing fish with a branch or stone, mak­ing a catch by wound­ing it. “Pierc­ing” was a way of killing a fish by spear­ing it, of­ten by us­ing a sharp­ened tree branch. “Grab­bing” was done with the bare hand, while “clamp­ing” was used to har­vest shell­fish. Since all four meth­ods were es­sen­tially “man­ual,” we can imag­ine how poor pro­duc­tiv­ity was.

At what time in his­tory did fish­er­men be­gin to em­ploy the fish­net? An­cient ex­am­ples long ago de­cayed and per­ished, but for­tu­nately there are ex­tant images in which we can ob­serve them. At a site in present- day He­nan named Yang­shao Vil­lage — af­ter the Ne­olithic cul­ture that ex­isted there more than five thou­sand years ago — a boat-shaped and ce­ramic jug has been ex­ca­vated, and even to­day a dark ocher paint­ing of mesh is clearly vis­i­ble on its two sides.

Early fish­nets were sim­ple and crude and net­ted small amounts of fish. These nets were equiv­a­lent to a small bag, but even so their catches were far and away su­pe­rior to us­ing a rock or pole to stun fish. It is not known ex­actly when, but even­tu­ally fish­nets with sinkers ap­peared. The sinker was part of the net, lo­cated at its lower edges. They func­tioned to pull the net­ting rapidly sunk into the wa­ter, and also helped pre­vent fish from es­cap­ing once in­side.

Based on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies, dur­ing the Ne­olithic Pe­riod that be­gan 10,200 BC and ended some­time be­tween 4,500 and 2,000 BC, a large num­ber of net sinkers made of stone ap­peared, fol­lowed by ce­ramic ones, and af­ter metal­lic sinkers, iron ones also be­came pop­u­lar. More so­phis­ti­cated sinkers even had notches that al­lowed rope to be tied more tightly around them, pre­vent­ing a heavy sinker from slip­ping off the fish­net.

Via these tiny net sinkers, we have a snap­shot of a sud­den “boom” in fish­ing ac­tiv­i­ties dur­ing the Ne­olithic Pe­riod. With the sinkers in place, cast­ing the fish­net and haul­ing it in

The Wide Net The Pond Net

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