China's 'mermaid descendants' craft garments from fish skin
You Wenfeng, 68, poses with her fishskin clothes at her studio in Tongjiang, Heilongjiang province, China December 31, 2019. You, who belongs to China's tiny Hezhen ethnic group, is one of the few people in her community who can still make clothing...more
You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. She was not yet born when her kinsmen were thrown into labor camps during Japan's occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s. "Many Hezhen clans perished, but my mother...more
You Wenfeng plays with a fisherman's dog at a frozen river in Tongjiang. A Tungusic people native to Siberia and on the Black Dragon river, as the Amur is known in China, the Hezhen rebuilt its population to 5,000 from 300 after World War II. But...more
Few in the current generation are interested in learning the craft. Fish-skin clothing is also no longer a regular part of daily Hezhen attire. REUTERS/Aly Song
Sensing the end, You started to impart her knowledge to some local Han Chinese women in Tongjiang, a quiet city near the northeastern border with Russia where she now lives. Her disciples also learn the Yimakan, a storytelling genre that switches...more
You Wenfeng's Chinese Han students learn how to make clothes from fish skin at You's studio. The education is arduous, with You's acolytes committing to memory songs of fishing, hunting and ancient tribal conquests through phonetics alone. With...more
The sun sets over snow-covered river in Tongjiang. Hezhen hunters rode on canoes made from birch, or "swift horses", You said, smiling. REUTERS/Aly Song
Such is their skill on water that legend says the Hezhen descended from mermaids. "When the forests flooded to the treetops, there'd be fish everywhere," she said. "Just throw your spear into the water and there'd be fish." REUTERS/Aly Song
These days, fish are sourced from the marketplace. And instead of tiger bone and deer tendon, embroidery needles and cotton thread are used. A top and a pair of trousers for a woman require 50 fish, and for a man, 56, You said. REUTERS/Aly Song
She would de-skin the fish and dry the skin. It is then repeatedly passed through the wooden jaws of a rudimentary press to soften it. The process takes a month. Sewing requires a further 20 days. REUTERS/Aly Song
You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. Finding commercial functions for fish-skin might save the craft. Fish-leather has inspired some luxury fashion houses such as Dior and Prada to occasionally include it in...more
You Wenfeng poses with her fishskin clothes at a frozen river in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song
A Hezhen village is seen in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song
People walk across a snow-covered riverbank in Tongjiang. REUTERS/Aly Song
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