Vanishing Worlds:  The Story of a Lake and a Cormorant Fisherman in Yunnan, China
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Vanishing Worlds: The Story of a Lake and a Cormorant Fisherman in Yunnan, China


The seeds of this project were planted in the fall of 2007 on a visit to Yunnan Province in China. Yunnan is “south of the clouds” in China’s Southwest, the home of many of China’s national minorities. One of the largest of these are the Bai, located mainly in the Dali prefecture, a plain of fertile rice land stretching northwards between Tian Cang Shan, the Celestial Azure Mountain, and Erhai, the Ear Lake. The area is a crossroads for trade, with an East-West caravan road to Burma on the southern end of the lake, and an ancient “Tea Horse” caravan route between Eastern Tibet and the tea growing regions of Southern Yunnan running North-South along the Dali plain.

It was on the banks of Erhai, not far from the ancient city of Dali, that I met Yang Yi Zhu, a Bai cormorant fisherman. He had a little wooden boat, rowed from the bow with long oars ending in square paddles. His cormorants huddled on the lakeshore; when he called they swam/flew to the boat with much fuss and flapping of wings. Cormorants ride low in the water, without preening oil they are not buoyant like other water birds. It is when they dive down that they come into their own, sleek and fast like otters or seals, to resurface with fish in their beaks. A straw inserted every morning in their necks keeps them from swallowing the big fish; the fisherman calls birds with big fish back to the boat, holds their beaks open and empties the fish into a bucket.

When I first met Yang, he was already in his fifties and looking to retire. He learned cormorant fishing from his father, who learned from his, the skills passed on through five generations. But his sons, he said, will not follow the family tradition. It has always been a hard living, and now the fish in Erhai are getting scarce. Adapting to changing times, he has begun taking tourists out on his boat, demonstrating how the cormorants work and posing for pictures. Often that earns him more than selling fish. He has had business cards printed up, one side in English, the other in Chinese.

Tourism, especially domestic tourism, is one of the most startling manifestations of China’s rapid development and the emergence of a middle class with money for travel. And Yunnan is a prime destination for Chinese package tours, with tourists looking to experience the exotic folklore of national minorities, and the spectacular scenery. This has transformed the ancient city of Dali, which just ten years ago was a rather low-key place, visited by a few back-packers from Europe and America.  

After my 2007 trip, I began musing about cormorant fishermen and vanishing worlds. What do you do when the world has changed and it is no longer possible to make a living as a cormorant fisherman? Cormorant fishing is an ancient craft that goes back in China at least to the Tang dynasty (between 7th and 9th centuries AD). Will these skills be lost? How do individuals and local communities experience modernity; how does economic development affect their ethnic and cultural identity; in the process what is lost (or gained) in local knowledge, material culture, and connection with the land and the lake?

When I finally got back to China in April-May, 2012, I called the cell phone number on Yang’s business card and found it still worked. He told me he was no longer working independently; he was part of a collective of cormorant fishermen that worked out of the town of Xizhou, putting on performances for tourists. I spent a few weeks in the Dali area and went to Xizhou several times to observe and participate in the tourist experience of cormorant fishing and to talk with Yang.

The cormorant fishing performance is organized mainly for Chinese tourists on package tours. They arrive in groups on tour buses, put on bright orange life jackets and crowd onto wooden benches in the open metal boats. The oarsman (all women) wear straw hats decorated with flowers and sit high in the bow, their feet braced. Often one boat has a young woman guide standing in the stern, dressed in a “traditional” white, pink, and pale green polyester Bai outfit, a wireless mic on her head.  She talks about the lake and cormorant fishing, sometimes bursts into song. Once the tourist boats are out on the lake, cormorants and cormorant fishermen come out in the same kind of boats from another direction. Close in, they put their cormorants through their paces, the performance culminating with displays of a cormorant with a fish in his beak, dangling from a pole held high. Back on land, tourists are offered a commemorative photo and join Bai singing/dancing girls in a raucous circle dance. Once when I was there I had the ultimate tourist experience, posed for photos holding two cormorants, one on each arm.

I went back (with a Bai-language assistant) to Xizhou to record a conversation with Yang Yi Zhu. He was dressed for the cormorant fishing performance, in a black velvet vest with gold embroidery trim and straw hat with flower. I and my research assistant went out in a separate boat, alongside several tightly-packed tourist boats, and we all watched as Yang worked and displayed the cormorants, his wife at the oars. After he was finished, we rowed over to a piece of land where the cormorants and fishermen hang out between performances, took a couple of benches out of the boat to set up under the trees, and sat down to talk.

I asked Yang how and when he and the other cormorant fishermen went from being independent to being collectivized. “Six families of cormorant fishermen in our village got together and each family invested some money. We organized like a small shareholder company. There was nothing directly from the government, but they helped us in ‘procedures’ and they gave us this land for free.” All this happened about three years ago (2009). About the same time, cormorant fishing was designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage at the prefectural and provincial levels (not yet at the national level) which gives the fishermen and their cormorants a protected status.

He gave details about finances: 35% of “lake protection fees” and 15% of ticket fees (a ticket costs 126 yuan=$21 dollars US) are refunded to the shareholders’ company and they usually get a “bonus” at the end of the year. Family members working in the cormorant fishing are paid a salary, 2000 yuan ($330) a month for a man and 1200 yuan ($200) a month for a woman. The company hires some others from the village to help row the boats.

“It was hard at first,” Yang said. “All of us from the six families dug sand for concrete and went up into the mountains for bamboo to build a cormorant house. The first house we built was demolished by the government because we didn’t have the right permits. But we didn’t give up; we got the permits and we built the current cormorant house which cost several hundred thousand yuan. We also had to buy and build facilities for tourists near the parking lot. And after that it still took a few years for the numbers of tourists to grow.” 

I asked him how this collective arrangement compared to being independent. “Of course now is much better than before,” he said. “Before, we were dependent on just a few tourists. Now there are a lot of large groups.”

In his village nobody has land for farming; they are all cormorant fishermen or fishermen using nets. He (echoing others on Erhai who fish with nets) said there had been a big change in both the kinds and quantities of fish in the lake over the years. “White Cod, which used to be a major species, is gone. Cormorants used to catch 50-100 kilograms of fish a day; now they can only get about a half kilo. If cormorants couldn’t be used for performances for tourists they would be endangered; it would be very difficult to feed them.”

Yang Yi Zhou and his wife have two sons. The oldest is a fisherman (using small nets) and lives with them, along with his wife and a five-year-old granddaughter. The second son is in Shangri La (a Tibetan town in Northwest Yunnan, renamed Shangri La to evoke James Hilton’s romantic 1933 novel, Lost Horizon) where he has a small shop. The son who is a fisherman sometimes works with his father with cormorants.  “He has some knowledge,” said Yang, “but not a lot of experience. The younger son might also come back now that cormorant fishing has Intangible Cultural Heritage status,” said Yang, “but right now he is busy running his shop in Shangri La.”

We rowed over to the cormorant house, where some of the birds were laying, each sitting on 8-10 eggs. The eggs are nutritious, Yang told me, especially good for headaches. This year hasn’t been good for laying; too hot in the daytime and very cold at night.

His wife brought us ears of corn, cooked in their husks, the kernels red and cream-colored. They have a houseboat, tied up by the cormorant house, where they sometimes spend the night when it’s not convenient to go home to their village. Yang also raises (and trains) carrier pigeons and sometimes enters them in competitions.

He talked about training the baby cormorants: “The babies go out with the adults 100 days after their birth. They see the adults fishing and gradually learn to do it on their own. It takes about a month to train the babies; you have to be sure they’re not too fat and strong when you’re training them or they won’t listen to you.” 

We finished talking and Yang and his wife rowed out with the cormorants to begin their next performance.

Yang’s story is more about resilience and resourcefulness than about loss. Six families in a village of cormorant fishermen took the initiative in forming a shareholders group, in building the necessary facilities and in attracting tourists. They were encouraged by the government sometimes, and the Intangible Cultural Heritage designation gave them some support and protection, but they were the ones who figured out how to use that to their advantage. Without the families’ initiative, the cormorants would be “endangered” and within a generation the ancient art of cormorant fishing would be lost. In Yang’s family, he and his wife have good salaries plus a share of the company profits, and his sons have a chance to continue the family tradition of cormorant fishing instead of moving away or finding jobs in town.

I talked with a member of the Naxi minority nationality who used to do cormorant fishing on Lashi Lake, near Lijiang, northwest of Dali. The whole lake was once full of cormorant fishermen, he told me. One family had sixty cormorants, and he himself had twenty. “If the cormorant is good,” he said, “he can catch ten kilos of fish in one day.”  But then people came in and used explosives to catch fish; later they used nets where the mesh was so fine it caught everything. When they saw that the fish in the lake were all disappearing, the local fishermen got together and fought back to stop the people using these illegal methods. Now more and more fish are coming back, and some people are back to fishing. But it was too late for the cormorant fishermen. While his father also used cormorants and taught him those skills, his sons have good jobs at the university in Lijiang. He really misses the cormorants, he said, but there’s no way he would start up cormorant fishing again at his age (58). Soon there won’t be anyone left on Lashi Lake who knows how to train cormorants.    

Yunnan’s borderland location (near Tibet and Burma), its “exotic” minority cultures, and its spectacular scenery of snow-capped mountains, lakes and valleys have made it a prime destination for Chinese tourists and tourism, both domestic and transnational, constitutes a large part of the provincial government’s economic development plan. So the government is eager to promote cormorant fishing as a tourist attraction, and is willing to pay salaries, give land and other in-kind contributions. The government has also made some efforts to restore the lake and bring back the fish—the lake is “closed” to net fishermen for the first half of the year. (Cormorant fishermen at Xizhou are exempt, and the net fishermen and their families get a small subsidy—75 yuan per person/month—during the closed season.)

Cormorant fishing on Erhai may have been “saved,” but it has also been transformed. The cormorant fishermen are no longer using the cormorants to catch fish to eat and sell in the market, to make a living. Instead of roaming the lake with their cormorants to find the best fishing grounds, they put on their Bai costumes and show off the cormorants and the fish they have caught for tourists’ entertainment and photos. They have had to learn new performance skills. Cormorant fishing has been designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage. The question is whether it is being recovered as a living tradition or commoditized as a set performance piece, a tourist attraction for urbanized Chinese.        

If we stop worrying about the integrity of cormorant fishing as cultural heritage, and focus instead on the life and livelihood of cormorant fishermen, their families and communities, we see the considerable benefits of this alternative model of development. The six families have joined together to save cormorant fishing on Erhai and make it economically viable. The fishermen’s situation is now much better than before, and their children are much more likely to keep the skills of cormorant fishing alive in future generations.