“The chief flesh food in the erstwhile Celestial Empire consists of the fish found in the streams and canals which everywhere abound. To catch these fishes, the Chinese have probably devised more interesting and ingenious apparatuses than any people in the world.”
So wrote Dr. E W Gudger in an article for The American Naturalist in 1926. As an ichthyologist, Gudger was interested in all things fish, but in this particular piece he was setting the scene for one of China’s most unique and enduring traditions.
Cormorant fishing is a spellbinding example of human synchronicity with nature. While techniques vary from place to place, hatchlings are usually trained from birth, either by socializing with older domesticated birds or through a system of gradual rewards which incentivize them to cooperate with their human masters.
Once old enough, a band is carefully placed near the base of the cormorant’s slender throat which prevents it from swallowing larger fish. Upon the river, fishermen lure their prey with lights or by agitating the surface of the water. This encourages the birds to dive.
The cormorant, master of the shallows, cuts through the water, chasing down fish with remarkable speed and precision. Once a catch is made, the birds instinctively return to the boat or raft, where the fish is removed from their throat and they are rewarded for their efforts with a lesser prize.
This may seem unfair, but the relationship is more equitable than it appears. Cormorants are said to possess the mathematical skill to tally their catch, and if they feel insufficiently compensated for a day’s haul they will no longer cooperate with their partners.
In this age-old fashion, a good cormorant-fisherman team can catch several dozen fish a day.
An uncertain past
Fishing in this way is an ancient tradition. Its exact origins are unknown, and, perhaps surprisingly, the subject of a lively historical debate in Chinese academia.
The first mention anywhere of trained cormorants being used to catch fish is in the Book of Sui, an official history of the Chinese Sui dynasty that was written several decades later in the Tang dynasty. Yet here’s the thing. The Book of Sui describes cormorant fishing in Japan, not China.
This isn’t actually all that surprising. This was a period of close cultural connection between the two kingdoms, and it is possible that one introduced the practice to the other via envoys at the imperial court.
Another possibility is that the domestication of cormorants took place independently in China and Japan, that is to say, people in each country had the same idea at roughly the same time. Ultimately, concrete evidence does not exist and we may never be sure exactly where this tradition began.
What we do know is that cormorant fishing was definitely taking place in China by the Song dynasty, and was widespread during the Ming a few hundred years later. Accounts from this time abound in the southern provinces, particularly Sichuan and areas around the Yangtze river.
It quickens the pulse to imagine medieval travellers navigating this faraway land of mist-wreathed hills and serene bamboo forests. The sight of local fishermen, birds diving for fish in hidden streams and river valleys, would only have added to this captivating scene.
These images, likely through the reports of missionaries that traversed China throughout much of the Middle Ages, spread to Europe and soon enough cormorant fishing became a proclivity of the European elite.
Accounts show that the kings of France and England enjoyed fishing this way for sport, so much so that the latter had a specialist Master of Cormorants to take care of his birds. Although cormorant fishing never caught on as a profitable industry in Europe, the indulgence of occidental royalty is testament to its enduring charm for western observers.
By the twentieth century cormorant fishing was booming in many of the places we associate with it today. Archive footage from 1931 shows scores of fishermen near Guilin, their cormorants churning the tranquil waters of the Li river.
Yet despite this recent heyday, cormorant fishing is now a dying art. As with so many traditional industries, competition from modern techniques has rendered it ever more obsolete. A decline in fish populations, especially on the Li, has made the situation even more untenable.
This 1,300-year-old tradition is now predominantly practiced for the entertainment of tourists, performed by an ever-decreasing number of elderly men who have been fishing this way their entire lives.
Hope for the future
In his 1926 article, Gudger continues: “Nearly everyone who has traveled in China (and his name is legion) has written a book on his travels, and practically every book of travels in the south of China especially contains an account of cormorant-fishing.”
Gudger could just as easily be referring to the Instagram feeds of travellers in China today which, along with photos of Zhangjiajie and the Great Wall, aren’t complete without a stirring portrait of these fishermen and their famous birds.
In Yangshuo, especially, they have become an iconic sight, bamboo rafts lit orange by lamps in the lucid blue of the Guangxi dawn. Domestically, too, they hold a special place in the cultural imagination. Look carefully at the back of the 20 yuan note and you’ll see, beneath the undulating karst hills, a cormorant fisherman upon the Li.
This increased interest from tourists offers a new sustainable future to cormorant fishermen in places like Yangshuo and Dali’s Erhai Lake. Motivated by the chance to make a living by following in the footsteps of their fathers, younger fishermen are starting once again to take up the craft.
It may be largely for our benefit, but the theater of these geriatric fishermen and their faithful birds is keeping alive a unique tradition which, without them, may already have faded into the semi-mythical realm of historical memory.
Journey to Yangshuo This Summer
Dramatic karst peaks, the sun-dappled river Li, jade-green rice paddies – the scenes of Yangshuo are like the brushstrokes of an unseen artist. Experience rural life in the karst backwoods, hike between villages, and learn to cook like a local on this 4-day journey.