Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/March 1885/Fish and Fishing in Chinese Waters


THE Yellow Sea is distinguished above all other things by the abundance of the life it sustains, both on its surface and in its depths. Everywhere that there is enough water to carry them, in the numerous rivers and canals, and on the coast-waters of China, there are coming and going constantly boats of every shape and size, in fleets. The activity of this marine life is owing not more to the comfort with which the abundance of water-surface and the frequency of harbors allow it to be kept up than to the intense vitality and fruitfulness of the denizens of the water itself. Wherever there is a little water, organized beings increase and multiply so rapidly that the most industrious labors of the fishermen impose no check upon them, and measures to protect them would be superfluous.

Once, as I was crossing the marshes between Tientsin and Peking, I noticed here and there little ponds of water that had been left by the melting of the ice in the spring. I should have given them no attention if I had not observed some peasants wading through them, as if they took pleasure in the occupation, I asked my driver what they were doing, and he said they were catching fish. Hardly believing him, I went up to one of the ponds, and found two men engaged there, one scooping up little fish with a hand-net, and filling a basket with them, and the other catching with his hands frogs to keep company with the fishes; and this in a puddle which a European tadpole would have hardly deigned to live in.

The great abundance of ichthyic life in the Chinese waters is frequently ascribed to the high development which pisciculture has attained in the Celestial Empire. I should say, from what I have observed, that it is due to the wise pisciculture of the past, under which a reserve of aquatic life has been accumulated, so abundant that years of improvidence and waste have not been sufficient perceptibly to reduce it; for the art of pisciculture, like some other arts which once flourished in China, and are now in decay, has of late years fallen into comparative disuse.

With oysters the case is different, and the Chinese are still obliged to keep up a systematic cultivation. At Ta-kao, in Formosa, two methods of propagation are employed. The first consists in, casting here and there on the mud-banks, stones, which are to be taken up again five or six months afterward, when they will be found to be covered with oysters. The other method, called by the natives bamboo-culture, is more complicated, but also more productive. In August or September the oystermen prepare a number of bamboo sticks, of about the size of a walking-cane, by pointing one end and splitting the other end to about half-way down. They wedge a flat oyster-shell into the cleft, and, bringing the splits together at the top, insert them to be held into a hole they have bored in another oyster-shell. They then plant the stakes, in close rows, where they will be covered at high tide, so that the fry can attach themselves to them. As soon as the little oysters have formed on the sticks, the latter are transplanted to the mud-bank, whence they are pulled out, in time, covered with oysters large enough to eat. The Chinese pretend that the fry forms on the oyster-shell, and can be preserved there indefinitely. All the pains we have described are taken to promote the hatching of the eggs with which the old shells are supposed to be already covered.

The Chinese aquatic fauna is exceedingly varied, and contains representatives of nearly all the kinds that are found in the waters of Western Europe. The fishermen have given to each species a particular name, which is generally suggested by its form, or by some other distinctive characteristic. Thus, they have the war-god crab, so called because its head looks like the head of that divinity; the little bonze crab; and the all-sour crab, so named from its bad taste. The scientific disciples of Confucius have adopted these names in their more or less fantastic works on the natural history of the Middle Kingdom, and the painters have enriched these works with illustrations intended to facilitate the understanding of the text. Frequently the pictures, notwithstanding their imperfections, give a more exact idea of their subjects than the pretended descriptions by which they are accompanied. The last are, in fact, so fanciful that it is impossible to form a conception of the creatures to which they are supposed to relate. Thus, we may learn from them that frogs have only three feet, while lobsters are provided "with so great a number that the most patient man can not count them." The accounts of the habits of the creatures are even more fabulous than those concerning their structure. Some are said to live without eating; some to increase by breaking into pieces; and others to be able to live as well on the land as in the water.

Authenticated by the signatures of the disciples of Confucius, and by appearing in print, these fables are believed by the people more readily than even the observations they may make on the animals themselves The fanciful descriptions of three-legged frogs, made by a literatus who lived three hundred years ago, is to-day accepted by all the Chinese who pride themselves on being in the least degree familiar with the classics. Thus, in spite of the protestations of the poor frogs, who gambol in their best style on the banks of the ponds to show everybody that they are planted on four feet, the Mongolian painters and sculptors, regarding the writings of the literati as oracles, persist in representing them with only three feet! But the painters, even the most violent partisans of the romantic school, do not allow themselves to amputate a limb except when dealing with a purely artistic work. For common scientific books, they do not give themselves the trouble to put on a surgeon's apron for so little, and it is on account of this indolence that the plates that adorn the works on natural history are more true to the representation of nature than the text they illustrate.

I was so fortunate as to find one day, in a curiosity-shop in Canton, an old album in which were represented, in fifty-two brightly-colored plates, the principal fishes of the southern littoral of the Celestial Empire, which I have studied with much interest. I can not undertake to describe all the plates here, but will limit myself to the accounts of the species which would be regarded with most attention by the inhabitants of the West.

One of them is a singular animal, shaped somewhat like a whale, but with a head so like a woman's that we have to believe that the artist, rather than Nature, has been indulging in a little fancy-work. The accompanying text informs us that it is a shark of the species "three women with a long tail" (à longue queue des trois femmes). It is one of the most remarkable of the numerous sharks of the Yellow Sea. The Chinese pretend that its head resembles a woman's, whence its name; then, they ascribe to it the power of the evil-eye, but only under particular circumstances. Thus, if they take a three-women shark in their nets, they think it a bad sign, and throw it back into the water to ward off the evil spirits. But, if they take one of these same sharks with a hook, they regard it as a good sign, and the poor animal pays with his life for the happy message he brings the ungrateful fisherman. Another plate represents a shark of the kind called bird eaters. The animal derives its name from a fondness for winged flesh, which is in singular contrast with the habitual voracity of its congeners. In seeking to gratify its taste it lies upon the water as if dead. The sea-birds, taken by the trick, settle down upon what they think is a carcass out of which they can make a feast. When a sufficient number of them to give him a good taste have gathered upon his belly, Master Shark begins to sink his body slowly into the water, commencing with his tail, so as to drive his victims up to his head, and within reach of his capacious mouth. The whole operation, including the swallowing, is performed with such facility that we have to admire it at the expense of our sympathy for the victims of it.

The sharks play an important part in the life of the Chinese people, both of the coast and of the interior. The Yellow Sea is infested by the numerous species, and has acquired a dreadful celebrity among the fishing and sailing population. In return, they pursue it with great ardor, and, thanks to its greediness in biting at all kinds of bait, with much success. The meat is eaten with relish, but the cartilaginous fins being much sought for by epicures, are too dear to be within the reach of the common people, and appear, along with bird's-nest soups and trepangs, only on the tables of the rich. The trepang, or holothuria, the third favorite viand of the Celestials, along with its concomitants, the sharks' fins and the bird's-nest soups, bears a very high price. Hardly any amount, even up to its weight in gold, is considered too great to pay for this exquisite dish, which, besides its delicate taste, is supposed to have the precious quality of assuring to those who eat it a numerous posterity. The animal, so great is the demand for it, is now rarely found in the Yellow Sea, but those which are consumed in the restaurants of Peking and Canton are brought from Australia and the Marianne Islands, and this fact goes to enhance their price. The Holothurius is, moreover, a very difficult one. The animals live upon the rocks at considerable depths. The fishing is carried on by Malays, who go out in April or May in little boats, providing themselves with long rods armed at the end with a sharp hook that fills the office of a harpoon and a dredge. When the sharp-eyed fisherman discovers a trepang in the depths, he takes his rod and with a dexterous stroke sweeps the animal from the rock and lands it in the boat. The trepang-catchers are, however, much aided by the marvelous clearness and smoothness of the water in the regions where their game is found.

Chinese fishing-nets are made precisely like those used in the West, preferably of hemp; but, in very large nets, the silk of a wild silk-worm is used, to make them lighter and more manageable, as cotton is used by the Dutch fishermen. Before casting a new net into the sea, it is dyed a suitable color. For this purpose, it is dipped into a solution of mangrove-bark, to preserve it from rotting, and is then colored with hog's blood. The new net is then spread upon the beach; candles are lit, and tapers of paper and incense are burned about it, to secure the blessing of the Queen of Heaven. If the net is of cotton, maceration in oil takes the place of the dipping in the solution of mangrove-bark. The harpoons and the hooks are of iron, the lines of hemp, straw, and bamboo-fiber; and the boat-sails are also generally made of straw or bamboo-fiber, as Western canvases are still beyond the means of the fishermen.

Six kinds of boats are used, according to the nature of the fishery in which they are to be employed, the largest of which, the ta-tsang, requires a crew of six men. It is fifty or sixty feet long, and, like all the Chinese junks, is flat-bottomed, with square bow and stern. The rudder is rigged in a similar manner to those of our lighters, but is bored with round holes which let the water through and augment its action on the ship. It is also capable of being moved up and down, so as to increase or diminish the extent of the submerged surface. In some junks, it can be let down below the bottom of the vessel, and this property permits the craft to be handled very rapidly, and within spaces in which our otherwise better ships can not turn. The ta-tsang is divided into close compartments, each of which has its particular use; and has two masts, one in the center and the other toward the stern, each carrying a square bamboo-leaf sail. The sails are furled by letting down the upper yard, but are difficult to manage in bad weather, on account of their large size; so that, when at sea, it is deemed prudent to carry only half-sail. These boats are within the reach only of the aristocrats of the sea. The boats of the common fishermen are much smaller and more manageable. The most curious among them is the one which is called the "white jump." It is a long shallop, drawing but little water, and furnished on one side with a broad board painted white, which is fixed so as to slope toward the water. The boats only go out in clear moonlight nights, when the light reflected from the white surface attracts the fish, and they try to leap upon the plank. But they usually leap too far and fall into the boat.

With their nets, hooks, harpoons, and "white jumps," the fishermen of Swatow and Ningpo capture so many victims that there would be danger of their being killed to no purpose, had not Chinese industry found a way to transport them for long distances, to where they may make regal repasts for epicurean mandarins. The fishermen of Ningpo preserve their catches in ice, which they manage, notwithstanding the mildness of the climate, to get made on the spot. The Chinese processes for making ice are servile imitations of those of Nature. The rice-fields are the factories. When the cold begins to be felt, the flats are covered, by the aid of pumps, with a very thin bed of water. The ice which forms during the night is broken up every morning by coolies, who carry it, carefully cleaned from adhering mud, to the ice-houses, and then flood the fields again. The ice-houses are simple in construction, but capacious; for the climate of Ningpo is too mild to permit ice to be formed every year, and the proprietors are required by law to store in them enough to last three years. The ice-house consists of a vast quadrilateral, inclosed in walls made of stones cemented with mud, rising some twenty or twenty-five feet above the ground. The faces of the walls are thickly plastered, and the whole is then covered with heavy bamboo-matting, which is supported by a framework also of bamboo. The ice-houses of the north are smaller and less solidly constructed, for thick ice forms there abundantly every winter, and is more easily kept through the summer. In the vicinity of the capital, the ditch which anciently inclosed its domain is still well enough preserved in some places to serve as an ice-pond, and the ice-houses are built near its banks.

The fishermen also require large quantities of salt, and this is manufactured in a very simple manner by the primitive method of the solar evaporation of sea-water. The salt-factory consists of a large terrace, above which is another terrace of only one sixth the superficial area of the lower one, and of two salt-water cisterns, one at a short distance from the terraces, and the other between them. The terraces having been covered with a bed of gravel, the larger or lower one is filled with water, which is admitted at high tide through a sluice-gate in the dike. After giving a sufficient time for the soil of the terrace to absorb the water, the gravel, on which a considerable quantity of salt has accumulated, is raked up. At a little above the level of one of the cisterns is fixed a filter made of bamboo rods. On this is piled the salted gravel which has been collected from the lower terrace, and through the whole is run a stream of sea-water from the larger cistern. The water, having absorbed the salt from the gravel over the filter, is then led into the smaller cistern—the one between the terraces—and from this is taken and spread over the second terrace, where the solar heat soon removes it by evaporation from the dissolved salt. The salt is then ready for use without any further preparation. Two men are sufficient to work a salt-bed that will furnish an average of seven hundred and twenty kilogrammes of salt every two days—a return that would be extremely profitable were it not for the taxes. But the manufacture of salt is a government monopoly, and whoever goes into the business has to pay the state seven tenths of all that he produces; so that the road to wealth, for the individual, is not, after all, through a salt-marsh.

Busy as he is at his busy time, the Chinese fisherman's life is a hand-to-mouth existence, and it is a great strain upon him to maintain himself through his dull season. Men of this craft have then to resort to other side-trades to eke out their living. Some of them gather up shells on the beach and burn them into lime; some split off the nacreous parts from large muscle-shells and carve them into square semitransparent panes, which serve as substitutes for window-glass; and others, going to the oyster-beds, skillfully pry open the shells so as not to disturb the inhabitants, and slip into them pieces of wood carved into fanciful shapes, which will in time become thinly covered with nacre and be sold for mother-of-pearl ornaments.

In view of the precarious condition of their existence, the fishermen have formed themselves into societies for common protection against the rapacity of the mandarins and to give assistance to such as may be in need. The society at Hai-Meun constitutes a strong corporation, and possesses a large building, where its business meetings are regularly held and theatrical representations are given; a hall for the public weighing of such fish as are sold by weight; and a temple where sacrifices are made before going to sea, with a space in front of it in which the new nets are spread for the performance of the ceremonies of consecration.

Mr. J. Duncan Campbell, of the Chinese Marine Customs in London, said in an address, in 1881, that "without any acquaintance with the laws of capital and labor, the Chinese fishermen have come to a practical solution, satisfactory to all of them, of the question of cooperation in benefits." This agrees with my own conclusions, and is accurately true of the large masses of fishermen living around Swatow. These fishermen are formed into labor-unions, which are important according to the scale of fishing in which they are engaged. The most considerable companies are those which employ the kaio-kou. Each of them controls two large junks (kaio-kou) having crews of fifteen men each, and forty-five shallops carrying usually three men each; making in all forty-seven boats and one hundred and sixty-five men. Each company is directed by a chief, who has under his orders a steward to keep the accounts and attend to the sales. The systems for dividing the proceeds are different in different places and with different companies. In one of the companies each 10,000 francs is divided as follows: 1,800 francs for the hire of the boats and the fishing-implements, which are let by a capitalist; 250 for the expense of religious sacrifices; 300 for the salaries of men under employ who do not belong to the company; 400 for the helmsman; of the remaining 7,200 francs, half to the captain, and the rest equally among the men of the company. In the smaller companies, which usually employ only shallops, the proceeds are commonly divided into fifteen parts, six of which go to the captain, two to each of the four men of the crew, and one is applied to the sacrifices. Some companies give thirty per cent to the capitalist who furnishes the ship, seven per cent to the chief of the company, four per cent to his steward, seven per cent to each of the junks, and one per cent to each shallop. The boats divide their shares into as many parts as there are men in the crew, plus one, and that goes to the helmsman, who always has two parts.

The river-fisheries are not so lucrative as those of the sea, and less generally give employment to a class of professional fishermen. The tackles used in carrying them on are not essentially different from those employed in similar kinds of fishing in Europe. In the more important river-fisheries, however, two auxiliaries are employed that are wholly unknown in Western fishing—the otter and the cormorant. The otter, which is frequently met in the Blue River, is trained to drive the fish into the nets, and does it as dexterously as the best hunting-dogs bring the coveys within reach of their masters' fowling pieces.

The cormorant does all the work of fishing for his master, who only has to take care of the boat. The birds stand upon the edge of the shallop till the boatman gives the signal, when they spring into the water to perform their task. As soon as they have captured a large fish or filled their throat with smaller ones, they return to the boat and their master takes possession of the prey. If they find a fish too large for one bird to take care of it alone, two or three of them will join to assist in bringing it in.

The cormorants are trained for their business with great care. The most intelligent birds are said to come from the province of Che-Kiang. The eggs of the first spring laying, which usually takes place in February, are collected and put under hens, the maternal love of the cormorant being only feebly developed. The young when first hatched, being extremely weak and delicate, and prone to succumb at the slightest chill, are put into wadded baskets, where they can be kept at a uniform temperature. They are fed with pellets of beans and finely chopped eel, till at the end of a month, when, having become nearly covered with feathers, they are given the eel alone; at the end of another month, they are able to eat small fish whole, and are worth five dollars a pair. When they have got their growth, which is about five months after they are hatched, they are tethered by a string tied around the foot on the banks of a stream or a pond. The trainer, stirring the water with a pole, and whistling an air which the birds learn is the signal for "take to the water," throws in some small fish, which they attack with all the more voracity as they have not been too well fed. The trainer then whistles another air, which is to be the signal for coming back, and, that the birds may not be mistaken as to its meaning, he pulls at the same time upon the cord that holds them. These lessons are continued for two or three months, when the scene of the practice is changed to the boats; and at the end of another month the cord is dispensed with. There are, of course, differences in the capacity of cormorants as well as of men. While the stupid ones are sent to the pot, the most sagacious and best trained male birds are worth seven or eight dollars apiece, females less. The period of service of the cormorants is short. They begin to lose their feathers and to go into decrepitude in their fourth year, and generally die before they are six years old. Whether this brevity of life is due to the peculiar style of feeding the birds, or is one of the inevitable attendants of domesticity, is not known; for we have no authentic information respecting the length of life of cormorants in a wild state.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from, the Revue Scientifique.