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    Greater China
     Sep 24, 2010
High times for China's corpse fishers
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - Of all those around the world whose trades and professions are misunderstood and unfairly maligned, surely China's corpse fishers rank near the top. Since ancient times, these villagers have taken on the macabre task of salvaging human cadavers - victims of drowning, suicide and murder - from China's rivers and returning them to their families. For this lurid public service, they were traditionally thanked and appreciated.

Now that China has become the second-largest economy in the world, however, what once was considered largely a service has turned into a booming commercial business for some body fishers, provoking increasing anger among relatives who must pay exorbitant fees for the retrieval of their loved ones and prompting

 

alarmed articles in the Western media about this gruesome practice. Admittedly, the rhetorical temptation is irresistible. Here, surely, is the perfect symbol of the dark side of China's embrace of capitalism: Even anonymous corpses floating in the country's rivers have become a pricey commodity.

The latest story to cast aspersions on the sordid trade was published last week by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and syndicated all over the English-speaking world. Accompanied by ghastly photos of bloated corpses floating in the Yellow River that had been tethered to the shoreline by the body fishers who found them, the report focused mostly on a man named Wei Jinpeng.

Wei had run a pear orchard until 2003, when he realized that fishing dead bodies out of the river could provide a big boost to his income. Now Wei finds 80 to 100 bodies a year. His favorite hunting spot on the river is located about 30 kilometers from the city of Lanzhou, capital of northwestern Gansu province, because that is where a combination of a hydroelectric dam and a bend in the river causes bodies to surface. These bodies are young and old, male and female; some are bound; some are gagged; some, especially those of young women - probably migrant workers who had worked in Lanzhou - are never claimed and thus released back into the river.

For bodies that are claimed, Wei has a price system that is sensitive to the income level of his customers. He charges the equivalent of US$75 to a farmer who claims a body, $300 to someone holding a job and $450 when a company is the payee.

Other corpse snatchers are reported to charge $45 just to view a body (according to practice, bodies are kept face down in the river to preserve their features so that they will be recognizable to relatives) and nearly $900 for a claim.

The McClatchy-Tribune article may have reminded readers of Zhang Yi's award-winning photograph, "Holding a Body for Ransom," which quickly went viral on the Internet after it was taken last October. The photo appears to show a corpse fisher refusing to hand over the body of one of three university students who lost their lives while helping to rescue drowning children in the Yangtze River in Hubei province. The fisherman reportedly collected more than $5,000 - and heaps of media abuse - before finally turning over the bodies of the students.

These are grisly tales of greed and the base exploitation of grief. It is tempting to find in them a dark morality play about China's lost soul in which the corpse fishers represent the sick new avarice of the nation. But these stories are only part of a much broader narrative about what has been lost and gained during China's 30-year economic boom.

The villain of this bigger piece is not Wei or any of his fellow body fishers, whose services are still very much required on the country's rivers. After all, if they don't pull the dead out of the national current, who will? Forget the local police, who want nothing to do with water-logged casualties of 21st-century China. Provincial authorities are even more averse to the stench of death. And the central government would only choose to act if a river became choked and toxic with human cadavers.

With an increasing number of bodies to fish, China's much-maligned river undertakers are thriving in their business. Organized crime has been one of the big beneficiaries of China's economic rise, and the country's rivers testify to that: bodies bound and gagged are an important part of the average corpse fisher's trade.

The massive crackdown on triad activities in the southwestern city Chongqing - led by the sprawling municipality's charismatic Communist Party chief, Bo Xilai - provides just a hint of the gangsterism that is rife throughout China. Bo's campaign, begun in June of 2009, has put 2,000 people - including local politicians whose palms were routinely greased by triad bosses - behind bars. Party bosses all over China could emulate Bo's charisma and courage and launch similar campaigns with similar results. Unfortunately, most of them choose to ignore the status quo of corruption and collusion.

Stories about corpse fishers are also a reminder that 26% of the world's suicides take place in China and that suicide is the leading cause of death for rural women in the country. These are the women whose bodies - nameless and unclaimed - Wei finally cuts loose and returns to the long, winding, watery grave of the Yellow River.

Clearly, then, gory articles about the death merchants on China's rivers point to much bigger and more complex problems. Why are there so many bodies to fish? And why, by and large, do government officials ignore these grotesque reminders of the strains and corrupt offshoots of China's breakneck economic advance into the first tier of nations?

Although it is virtually unknown in the West, a recently released Chinese-made documentary presents a thoughtful portrait of those who make a living harvesting corpses along China's rivers. Director Zhou Yu's 52-minute film, called The Other Shore, shows how the ancient practice of body fishing has transformed from a public service into a private, profit-making business.

"Salvaging bodies out the river used to be a voluntary act of boatmen in olden times," Zhou told the Global Times. "They returned the bodies as a favor. That time is over, and younger people have developed it into a business."

While the documentary reflects growing public resentment of this profiteering off the dead, viewers may also wonder why no government department is doing anything to help.

As one member of the audience at a showing of the film in Beijing's 798 Art District was quoted as saying of corpse fishers: "I felt bad to see them fishing bodies like fishing boxes out of the water, but after all they are just simple people who try to make a living. If one day I need them to find someone from my family, I will be appreciative, even if I have to pay afterwards."

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing@netvigator.com

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