Can China’s Fishing Villages Make a Comeback?
On the 23rd day of the third month of China’s traditional calendar, people along the country’s southern coast celebrate the birthday of Mazu, the goddess of the sea. In Dongshui Port, on the southern island province of Hainan, villagers ring in the day with thundering drums and gongs, inviting Mazu down from her shrine to bathe and change her robes. A banner of red silk is extended along the ground from the temple’s main hall to its gate and sprinkled with paper, rice, and money. The crowd then lifts Mazu’s palanquin and shakes it from side to side, reenacting the goddess’ mythical act of rescuing sailors from certain death at sea.
Fishermen have performed these rituals for centuries, eager to receive Mazu’s blessing and protection before their own journeys out to sea. More recently, the celebrations in Dongshui have expanded to include community initiatives such as visiting and caring for the elderly and the disabled, making donations in support of disadvantaged students, and song and dance performances. Though the cult of Mazu remains strong in Hainan’s 200 fishing villages, the villages themselves are withering, as young residents abandon fishing in favor of finding work in nearby cities.
In the 1980s, Hainan fishers were sometimes able to earn the equivalent of a farmer’s annual income from a single sea outing. Since 2000, however, declining fish stocks have made it more difficult for local small-scale fishers to make a living, much less get rich. Unable to see much of a future in the fishing industry, young residents have abandoned their villages in droves, leaving once-bustling fishing ports virtually deserted. Dongshui is one of the few remaining fishing villages in the province where residents continue to observe Mazu’s birthday ceremony in its traditional form.
Fishing helped Wang become one of the first people in his neighborhood to buy a motorcycle and a color TV. Now one of the only remaining fishermen in his village, he beams with pride whenever he mentions how his two children escaped the industry. “At least my kids won’t have to fish,” he told me. Previously a prized profession, fishing is now viewed as a last resort.
When communities are thriving, they tend to be effective at regulating and restricting behavior. For instance, the traditional practices of Hainan’s fishing communities — such as throwing back spawning and smaller fish during breeding seasons — were in line with modern concepts of sustainable development. On one visit to the region, our team came across a small temple in a coconut grove outside a fishing village. At the entrance was a decades-old sign inscribed with the couplet: “Don’t allow yourself to take more than you need, there’s no way to undo the consequences of greed.” It was a reminder from and for fishermen to resist their own selfish desires to plunder the ocean’s resources.
Nowadays, this sense of self-governance and restraint is fading alongside the fishing communities themselves, and fishers are pitted in competition over dwindling resources. What’s the point of throwing small fish back into the water, if someone else will simply scoop them up? Fishers no longer consider the common interests of their community, let alone marine ecologies or the long-term health of the fishing industry as a whole.
In the hopes of restoring a sense of community and traditional cooperation to Hainan’s fishing villages, my organization, China Blue, collaborated with a local video team to document and share the cultures, traditional rituals, living conditions, and fishing practices of traditional fishing communities across Hainan.
In the process, we’ve met plenty of people like Wang who are pessimistic about possibility of revitalizing fishing villages. But we’ve also found many local actors who are already attempting to affect positive change in their communities.
For instance, in a village on the outskirts of Danzhou City, we met a young village chief named Tan Xiyun. Tan has not only converted a shack on his property into a public space, but also built a library for village children, founded a soccer team, and organized regular concerts and film screenings. He hopes these activities will instill a greater sense of unity in the community.
He has also helped villagers form committees, which allow them to take part in the village’s decision-making processes. The equal and open exchanges that have resulted from these efforts have facilitated the implementation of new policies in the village: Even usually contentious environmental reclamation projects — which can require villagers to give up productive land — have won widespread support in these forums.
Zhong, a roughly 30-year-old fisher, has organized more than a dozen local fishing vessels to retrieve garbage at sea and send it to a centralized waste disposal site — all on a voluntary basis. Our China Blue team initially planned to set up a “Fishing for Litter” initiative according to international practice, but Zhong’s system was so developed that we decided to adopt his program with only minor adjustments.
Other fishers have taken it upon themselves to pass down the culture and heritage of their communities to a new generation. For instance, in fishing villages along Hainan’s southern coast, we met fishermen who continue to sing the traditional songs of the region’s water-dwelling Tanka people.
In the past, scholars and activists might have overlooked grassroots efforts to preserve and protect fishing cultures and communities. External stakeholders such as government officials and investors have tended to see all Hainan fishing villages as essentially interchangeable, an outlook that has shaped their responses to the current crisis. This only makes capturing and sharing each village’s unique elements even more important.
At the end of Mazu’s birthday celebrations in Dongshui, villagers stop rocking her palanquin and hold it still to symbolize the tranquility that comes after even the worst of storms. Hainan’s fishing villages are in the midst of a rapid transformation, but many have long possessed the expertise they need to survive and reshape their communities. They just need to be reminded of what they already know.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell, portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Villagers lift Mazu’s palanquin during a festival celebrating the goddess’ birthday in Dongshui Port, Hainan province, April 26, 2019. Courtesy of Wang Songzi)