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    Karma’s a Fish: The Bizarre World of Tianjin Angling

    Photographer Wang Tianxi shares his fascination with the cat-and-mouse game between the city’s anglers and religious locals who are determined to release their catch.

    There are so many fishing enthusiasts near my home in the northern city of Tianjin. One day in the summer, I counted more than 200 people casting a line — retirees, teenagers, even delivery drivers. They often ride around with a camping stool, rod, and net stored on the back of their electric bikes.

    Since early 2019, I’ve been photographing the anglers every day. I’ve shot well over 80 rolls of film by now. It started as a way to relax, but since then it’s developed into a whole photography project. It turns out this stretch of river has a strange, rich subculture that many people aren’t aware of.

    I’m not actually from Tianjin, although people often assume I’m a local. I grew up in the northwestern city of Lanzhou — famous for its handmade beef noodles — then went to the United States to study photography. When I returned to China in 2017, I chose to set up a studio in Tianjin because of its laid-back pace and convenient transportation links.

    I quickly noticed the river in my neighborhood was special. Although the river is short, it contains an amazing variety of fish: perch, loach, and even several types of goldfish. Occasionally, you’ll see fishers pull huge bighead carp out of the water. There are also many other creatures, including Brazilian tortoises, soft-shelled turtles, and snapping turtles.

    The reason for this, I later discovered, is that many locals come to release fish into the river. According to local traditions, setting the creatures free brings good karma.

    Walking along the riverside each morning, I often meet people releasing fish. They kneel on the ground and chant, their hands clasped. In front of them, they’ll lay a bucket full of fish. Sometimes, people recite sutras for an hour or more. 

    Some “releasers” are very enterprising. They’ll pay fishmongers to drive a small truck directly onto the bridge, and then release their entire load of fish. The releasers will stand by the vehicle and chant as the fishmonger works.

    The massive dumping of fish always attracts eager groups of fishing enthusiasts, who’ll wait under the bridge, holding their rods and nets. But the releasers never mind: For them, the act of freeing the fish is enough.

    The fishmongers are the most low-key people hanging out by the river. They often sit in a corner, or stand under the bridge. But they’re clever, too.

    They buy the freshly caught fish from the fishers, and sell them back to the releasers. The releasers will then immediately throw the fish back into the water.

    Editors: Dominic Morgan and Shi Yangkun.

    (All photos are from the series “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.” Courtesy of Wang Tianxi)