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
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
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
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
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