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Keeping the Legend of the Fish Skin Tribe Alive

By staff reporter JIAO FENG

BEFORE synthetic fibers were invented and their prices were brought down within the reach of the populace, people clothed themselves with the natural materials available in the surroundings where they lived and worked everyday. These vary from bark of trees to hide of animals. In the case of the Hezhens, an ethnic group in northeastern China, it is fish dermis.

The Hezhens live in the plains along the Heilong, Songhua and Wusuli rivers in northeastern China. With a population of just 4,600, it is one of the smallest ethnic groups in China. Traditionally this people live by hunting and fishing, and rivers provide them many of their living necessities. Early Hezhens invented methods to make clothes, bedding and thread with fish skin, which won them the name the Fish Skin Tribe.

In summer, the peak fishing season, the group would wear fish pellicles, while in winter they were clad in furs like other groups in the chilly north. When the rivers froze, they headed into the forests to hunt game on dog sleds.

Fish skin remained a major fabric for the Hezhen people until the 1960s. In the following decades the increasing influx of migrants into northeastern China brought about profound changes to the local society and economy. The Hezhens could no longer feed their families by simply fishing and hunting, and began to turn to farming and business. As they relied less on the river for their livelihoods and spent less time out on the water, fish played a smaller and smaller part in their lives. It made little sense to continue to spend the time and effort needed to make clothes out of fish skin when they could simply buy an outfit in the store. For most, the tradition gradually receded into a distant memory, and the craft was learnt by fewer and fewer people.

By the generation of You Wenfeng's mother You Cuiyu, the older You was the only tribe member left who knew how to make fish skin clothes, and because of the high cost and long and arduously complicated process she seldom made any.

In the early 1990s the state launched a nationwide census of folk arts and crafts in an effort to preserve them. It was through this project that the fish skin culture of the Hezhens was rediscovered and brought back into the public's awareness. In 1996 the Ethnic Costumes Museum of Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology received a set of fish skin clothes made a century ago, which intrigued the curator Yang Yuan. In the winter of 1999 Yang made the journey to Jiejinkou Township, a Hezhen settlement in Heilongjiang Province, where she met You Cuiyu.

Unable to find sufficient fish in the freezing weather, the old lady couldn't show her visitor how to make a fish skin coat, so Yang Yuan returned that summer, and waited at a dock for a week to collect the required amount of fish, which she brought to You Cuiyu. She watched You process them to produce a leather-like substance and then turn that into a gown. This turned out to be the final piece that the old lady would make. She passed away soon after Yang Yuan's visit, leaving her daughter You Wenfeng, who had begun to learn this peculiar craft at the age of 15 and had herself become an expert, to carry on the tradition.

In 2006 the Hezhen method of making clothes with fish skin was listed a national intangible cultural heritage, and You Wenfeng was appointed its heir. As an object that had already faded out of daily life, fish skin clothing seemed doomed to extinction. It however saw a gleam of hope with the boom of tourism in the region. The local government set up a folklore village in Jiejinkou, and You Wenfeng rented a booth to sell fish skin products.

Soon someone ordered a fish skin coat priced at RMB 5,000. Her sons, who before had turned their noses up at the age-old craft with the belief it was nothing but a time-consuming and unprofitable pastime, were flabbergasted at the money You's business brought home and asked her to train them. They later persuaded their wives to join the enterprise. Suffice to say, this turnabout delighted their mother.

The idea of being dressed in fish skin clothes amazes people outside of this small region. At the 2009 Exhibition of China's Intangible Cultural Heritage Crafts, held in Beijing, You Wenfeng was invited to give a live show. With fish skin hat lined with snow rabbit furs and fish skin boots, she demonstrated needlework on this special material before a huge crowd of spectators, who flooded her with all sorts of questions.

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VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us