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Struggling fishing community turns the corner with traditional culture and tourism
The Hezhe, an ethnic group living in Heilongjiang Province in northeast China explores new roads to prosperity
By Ji Jing  ·  2020-07-12  ·   Source: NO.29 JULY 16, 2020
People in Bacha, a village in Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, take photos with their new houses in the background on May 25, 2016 (XINHUA)

In May 2016, when President Xi Jinping visited Bacha, a small fishing village in Heilongjiang Province in the northeast bordering Russia, it rained continuously. But that didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the Hezhes, the ethnic group living in the village, who welcomed him with traditional songs and a tour of the Yimakan Institute.

Yimakan, storytelling in the Hezhe language, using both verse and prose forms, has been recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, an official acknowledgment of the artistic contribution of a group with a population of only around 5,000 people, one of the smallest ethnic minorities in China.

There was an additional reason for the warm welcome. Three years ago, the village had been destroyed by floods. Xi had a role in its reconstruction. On his visit, the villagers told him they had new houses built by the government and other means of livelihood besides fishing, once the community's traditional occupation, which brought in more money.

You Mingguo, chief of the Communist Party of China's Bacha Committee, told China Central Television Xi assured them that no ethnic group would be left behind when China completed building a moderately prosperous society in all respects. He also told them to nurture their environment as green mountains and clear rivers are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver.

You said the president gave the villagers confidence that their village was beautiful and could be a tourist destination. They listened to him and have been developing tourism by taking advantage of the natural surroundings and the unique Hezhe culture and customs. Since then, over 30 hostels have been opened. In the past three years, the village received over 40,000 tourists and earned nearly 1 million yuan ($142,500) of tourism revenue.

You Xiuyun, a resident of Jiejinkou, a township in Tongjiang City, Heilongjiang, demonstrates how to make fish skin clothes on May 25, 2016 (XINHUA)

A sea change

It is a sea change from the situation in the 1990s when the village solely relied on fishing. As competition increased and the catches decreased due to overfishing, vagaries of nature and pollution of the rivers, Bacha was on the verge of acute poverty. Then the local government stepped in, banning fishing periodically and allocating land to the fishing families to encourage them to switch to farming.

Li Jingshan, 41, is one of the many who have made the successful transition from fishing to farming. He has formed a cooperative on the 6 square km of land allotted to him and the crops and vegetables grown there provide him a far more steady income than fishing. Today, two thirds of the villagers have diversified from fishing, which accounts for less than one fifth of local incomes.

During the ban period, there are no fishing boats on the Songhua, Heilongjiang and Wusuli rivers, the main sources of the fish. As a matter of fact, even after the ban gets over, there are not too many fishing boats out either, with the villagers now engaged in planting, tourism and other pursuits.

Wang Haizhu makes fish floss, which sells for 160 yuan ($23) per kg. "The sale hasn't been affected by the novel coronavirus disease," she told People's Daily. "There are over 10 orders every day and sometimes we can't meet the demand."

Besides making fish floss, Wang is also an artisan. She was helped by the local government to form a cooperative, which sells fish skin painting and fish bone accessories, traditional Hezhe handicrafts. The cooperative has helped over 50 local villagers augment their income.

From 2015 to 2019, villagers' per-capita disposable annual income increased from 16,102 yuan ($2,295) to 22,150 yuan ($3,156). You told People's Daily that most have moved to new houses and almost every household has a car.

Preserving culture

The Hezhe have a rich culture. Wu Guifeng, the daughter of a Hezhe artist, recounted her father's fear, when he was seriously ill in the 1980s, that their culture would die out one day. Since the ethnic group has a tiny population and no written language, preserving its cultural heritage was a challenging task.

However, thanks to government policies, in 2006, fish skin art and Yimakan were recognized as national intangible cultural heritage. In 2011, Yimakan was listed by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.

Wu used to teach the Hezhe language in kindergarten. Though she has now retired, she continues to teach Yimakan three times a week at a local Yimakan school as an inheritor of the artform. The school has trained 45 students and is disseminating Hezhe culture online.

Wu is proud that Xi watched how Yimakan is taught when he visited. Xi praised the time-honored history and rich culture of the group and called Yimakan appealing. Since then, she said more people are learning Yimakan. She has become head of the village's folk art troupe, which has over 50 members. They perform for tourists too as tourism and traditional culture nurture each other.

You Xiuyun is another inheritor of Yimakan. The 69-year-old lives in Jiejinkou, a township in Tongjiang in Heilongjiang.

"I want to introduce the Hezhe culture to more people," she told People's Daily. On Xi's visit, she explained Hezhe customs and culture to him, wearing fish skin clothes she made herself.

"In the past, the Hezhe people had no clothes and used fish skin to clothe themselves. Although the clothes are not comfortable, we should not lose the technique because it's part of the Hezhe culture," You Xiuyun said.

Hezhe students learn to make fish skin painting on December 31, 2019 (XINHUA)

Better environment

As people's lives improve, they are paying more attention to environmental protection. More than 400 hectares of farmland near the village have been turned back into wetland. People no longer hunt wild birds and animals. Every year, over 100,000 migratory wild geese flock to the village. It is also visited by swans, roe deer and foxes.

Pollution control has made the water in local rivers clearer. The periodical fishing bans mean there are more fishes.

The change in the Hezhe community's lives reflects the social and economic development of Tongjiang. In recent years, Tongjiang has been dedicated to developing tourism featuring Hezhe culture, introducing the religion, customs, history and handicrafts of Hezhe people to tourists. In 2019, Tongjiang shed off poverty.

(Print Edition Title: Finding Better Fish to Fry)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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