Fishers Among Men: Lake Tai’s Catholics Bid Farewell to the Waters
Sept. 6 marked the first day of the fishing season for Lake Tai’s net fishers, or seiners. For many members of this insular community, it may end up being the last fishing season they’ll ever see.
Located on the southern edge of the Yangtze Delta between Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, Lake Tai’s 2,338 square kilometers are prime fishing grounds, especially for the famed “Three Whites of Lake Tai”: whitefish, silverfish, and white shrimp. With only a month every year open to fishing, the process is regimented: Each fishing team has a strictly delineated territory on which to fish, and incursions into territories belonging to other teams is forbidden.
It’s a way of life that has persisted, more or less, for centuries. But this year, Jiangsu province officials revoked the fishing rights held by fisheries along Lake Tai and instituted a ban on the practice — part of a larger campaign to restore the Yangtze River’s devastated fish populations.
Many of those fisheries were already on the verge of extinction. To prevent a total collapse, the central government ordered a 10-year ban on commercial fishing in the drainage areas of the Yangtze River, beginning this year, and rolled out subsidies to help the estimated 280,000 fishermen affected make the transition.
For those who fish the lake, the decision means they’ll need to give up their mobile, boat-bound lifestyles and find new jobs ashore; for scholars of religious studies such as myself, it means the end of an era.
That’s because Lake Tai’s seiner communities are home to one of China’s most unique populations of Catholic converts. Now they face an uncertain future ashore, with only the bounds of faith and family tying them to their heritage.
Conditions aboard Zhang Jida’s fishing boat are cramped. During the monthlong fishing season, he, his wife Wang Aiying, and three temporary workers spend every day on the lake, deploying their nets from the bow of the ship; sleeping nestled among the supplies in the cabin; and eating meals prepared by Wang on a gas range at the stern of the ship.
Despite the close quarters, Zhang found room in the cabin for two non-fishing-related items: a statuette of the Virgin Mary and a crucifix. Even during fishing season, he says, he prays the rosary every day.
“The priest blessed us before the start of the fishing season,” Zhang told me. “He’ll come on board to see us in a week.”
There are about 30,000 Catholics in the Lake Tai-adjacent city of Wuxi, according to official tallies. Of these, seiners like Zhang comprise roughly 90%.
Religious faith has been a fixture among the fishing communities of Lake Tai since antiquity, in part because of their unique lifestyle. Traditionally, fishers lived out of their boats and made their living by the water. This limited their interactions with the outside world and cemented their social customs. And because of the harshness of their lives — they faced exploitation, piracy, and other provocations — religion was an important source of consolation and hope.
Religion didn’t always mean Catholicism. Historically speaking, the seiners around Lake Tai were characterized by an intricate web of religious beliefs. In addition to ancestor worship, they also paid homage to deities ranging from the King of Yu and Mazu to Marshal Liu, Wu Zixu, Lord Huang, and the Black Tiger God. Sacrifices eventually gave rise to temple fairs, of which the most well-known is Jiaxing City’s Net Boat Fair.
Then, about four centuries ago, Catholicism slowly seeped into the Lake Tai area. The historical records of Catholicism in the region showed that fishers, known as “seiner church members,” were an important source of converts for early missionaries. In his “Histoire de la Mission du Kiang-nan” the French Jesuit Joseph de Servière wrote the following account of 19th century Wuxi seiner practices:
Sanliqiao, outside of Wuxi’s West Gate, has about 150 church members who are farmers and small vendors, as well as 2,000 more who are fishermen. They congregate here for every holiday and hold religious activities. These fishermen live on more than 550 boats and spend their entire year within the water channels surrounding Wuxi, fishing to make their living.
To help manage these fishermen, the priests have separated them into seven ‘branches.’ Each branch chose the disciple whose name they would adopt, as well as one among them to act as their clerk. The fishermen in five of the branches fish around Wuxi, rotating monthly to come back to Sanliqiao for Mass. The members of the other two branches work in more distant areas and thus congregate less frequently. But they all gathered together for the four holy days of obligation, with over 550 fishing boats encircling the small church and filling the rivers around Sanliqiao.
Although the original Sanliqiao Catholic Church was burned down during an anti-Christian campaign in 1891, it was later rebuilt by a French missionary. Today the interior of the church is a sight to behold, full of inscribed plaques and poetic couplets donated by seiners.
Guo Mandong, its priest, became interested in the lives of the seiners after being assigned to Wuxi. Aside from going to Lake Tai to minister his flock during the fishing season, he has also created an exhibition gallery inside the church dedicated to their culture and history.
According to Guo, Wuxi seiners have been relocating ashore since the 1960s. Taking up residence in government-assigned homes on land, they only go out to fish during the season, rather than living aboard full time. Most of their children have abandoned the fishing profession, preferring to work in factories or do business instead. The youngest seiner today is already 50 years old.
“Fishers like Zhang Jida are practically Lake Tai’s last generation of seiners,” Father Guo told me. “I have to leave something behind for them.”
But change came sooner than he imagined. In order to “protect the aquatic biological resources of Lake Tai and promote the effective improvement of its ecosystem,” the Jiangsu provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs rescinded the fishing rights of Lake Tai fisheries this year. Starting this October, the seiners will not be allowed to fish on the lake until 2030.
For 67-year-old Zhang Jida, the news likely means this was his last fishing season.
Going forward, he plans to find work dredging algae from the lake, a job that pays by the day. “Might as well just work until I can’t,” he said. “At my age, finding a new job is difficult.” His two sons both work in factories, so their family will no longer fish for a living.
As Lake Tai’s fishing communities slowly recede into the past, their faith will continue to comfort them, a symbol of their unique status and a reminder of a bygone era.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Zhang Jida (center) pulls in his fishing nets in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, Sept. 11, 2020. Courtesy of Zhu Yiwen)