Females in fishskin clothes

Hezhen used to live in crude birch-bark sheds. Nowadays, they live in stone houses with tile roofs or those with earthen walls and thatched roofs. In winter they have traditionally traveled by sled and hunted on skis. Some Hezhe people may still use dog-drawn sledges, horse-drawn sleighs, skis, birch-bark boat as their transport tools. [Source: Chinatravel.com \=/]

Embroidery is a highly developed art among the Hezhens — probably perfected over the centuries of long winter nights. Geometrical and floral patterns decorate clothing, shoes and tobacco pouches, They are also noted for their carved wooden furniture, birch bark boxes and utensils, which sport images of Buddha, plants and animals. They are also skilled at carpentry, tanning and iron smelting; but these are still cottage industries. [Source: China.org]

Among the Hezhen festivals are the God Deer Festival and Wurigong Festival. God Deer Festival is held on the third day of the third lunar month and the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, People dance to pray for the god to exorcize the ghosts, bring good luck and ward off calamities. They also pray for a good harvest for the coming year. The Wurigong Festival is held biennially in fifth or sixth lunar months and lasts for three days. Wurigong means fun day or the sports meeting. Competitive activities including swimming, boating, net casting, pushing and pulling and straw fish forking are held during the festival. The local people also hold banquets where they eat and drink together. See Sports Below. \=/

Hezhen Marriage

The Hezhen have traditionally been monogamous but polygamy was sometimes indulged in by the wealthier members of the tribe. Marriage partners had to be selected from among members of other clans, and early marriage, arranged by the parents, was normal. Though remarriage for widows was sanctioned, no marriage ceremony was performed. [Source: China.org]

Until the last years of the 19th century Hezhen society was relatively equal and there was no economic component to marriage. From then on, the influence of Chinese and Manchu transformed their weddings in a more complex process. Before, the bridegroom only needed to go to the bride's house and request her hand in marriage from her parents. If they accepted, the couple spent the night together, leaving the following day for the husband's house. [Source: Ethnic China *]

Under the influence of Manchu and Chinese, marriage for the Hezhen became more complex. Under the old system few presents were exchanged. In the 20th century, due to Chinese influence, wedding ceremonies became more important and the quantity of gifts increased. In the Chinese-influenced ceremony the bridegroom went to the bride's house, where she was dressed with a red dress, wearing a red veil. *\

In the past there was frequent exchanges of wives among different clans. In recent times, when the youth didn't agree their parent’s partner selections, they sometimes practiced kidnap marriage. Divorce has traditionally been rare because divorced people were discriminated against in Hezhen society. Widows have traditionally had the freedom to marry whoever they like after their husband's death but generally married widowers.

Hezhen Raw Fish — the Local Delicacy

in traditional non-fishskin clothes

The Hezhen have been eating raw fish since long before sushi was invented. They also eat fish skin, fish eggs, and soft fish bones in a raw state. According to Chinatravel.com: “Hezhe people live on fish as they live along Heilongjiang, Songhuajiang and Wusulijiang rivers. They have many different ways of eating fish. They not only cook fish but also eat raw fish, usually sturgeon and carp fish. When making raw fish dish, people cut off the heads, skin and bones of the living fish, cut the fish meat into thin pieces, dip the fish pieces into some rice vinegar until the fish pieces turn white, season the fish pieces with salt and other condiments, shredded potato, caraway and bean sprout. This dish tastes fresh, cool, refreshing and delicious, and it doesn’t have any unpleasant fish smell. Hezhe people also entertain guests with raw fish. They also cut fish into thin slices and toast them on fire, season the fish slices with condiments and make delicious fish dish. [Source: Chinatravel.com]

The most popular dish is "raw fish with greens", prepared with wild ginger, shallots, capsicum, vinegar and salt. If there is no vinegar, they season it with the chokeberry juice. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences]

There is a legend on how "raw fish with greens" was created. Long long ago, there was a newly married daughter-in-law, who was so smart and pretty that nothing was difficult for her. One day, her father-in-law brought her a difficult problem. He wanted to prepare a fish so that it seemed to be raw but was actually cooked. She chose two fresh carps, sliced the meat quickly with knife, and put the pieces of meat into a birch basin with vinegar. Then she broiled the fishskin over the fire, and shook it so that the scales shook off and the fishskin had a burnt color and was crisp and smelled delicious. She sliced the fishskin as well, and put the slices into the basin, then added the seasonings, and mixed them. A basin of raw fish was served up. Her father-in-law loved the dish and praised her over and again. Nowadays, the materials for this dish include cucumber, cabbage, spinach and potato, seasoned with monosodium glutamate, wild ginger, refined salt, capsicum oil, shallot, garlic and other condiments. It is tasty, smells delicious with an alluring color.

"Frozen fish slices" prepared by the Hezhen is informally called "parings" by the Hans. It is made in winter, by peeling off the skin of the frozen fish and slicing the meat and, if you like, adding seasonings. "Raw caviar" is a popular dish. It usually comes from the soybean-size jacinth crystalline caviar of salmon or the grain-size greenblack caviar of the kaluga sturgeon (Huso dauricus). The Hezhen-prepared caviar is seasoned with salt, vinegar, ginger, garlic, capsicum and caraway. Unique Hezhen methods of having fish also include dried fish bar, dried fish trunk, and dried fish floss.

Hezhen Clothes

Traditional Hezhe clothing is made of fish skins and deer hides. The decorations of the clothes consist of buttons made of catfish bones and collars and cuffs dyed in cloud-shaped patterns. Women wear fish-skin and deer-hide dresses decorated with shells and colored strips of dyed deer hide in cloud, plant and animal designs. Bear skins and birch bark are also used to make thick boots which everyone wears in winter. Unmarried girls used to tie their hair in one braid, while married women wore two. Bracelets were common ornaments for all women, but only old women wore earrings. Since the mid-20th century, these styles have fallen out of fashion to a great extent. [Source: China.org]

Hezhen fish skin dresses are very unique (See Below) . Hezhe people also make clothes of deer skin or roe skin, and these clothes are usually sewed with roe tendon, deer tendon or skin threads. Men wear roe fur coats in winter and garments with buttons on one side in the front in summer. The wristbands and front of the garment are usually trimmed with colored cloth or dyed into colored graduated shade, and sometimes decorated with two rows of fasteners made of catfish bones. Women wear fish skin or deer skin clothes, which are decorated with graduated shade. [Source: Chinatravel.com]

Hezhen Fishskin Clothes

The Hezhen are famous their fishskin dresses—which show their talent for utilizing natural resources and adapting to their environment. To make fish skin clothes: 1) take the full skin of a silver carp or chub and dry it. 2) Then, remove the fish scales and hammer the skin with a wooden mallet to make the skin as soft as cotton cloth. 3) Sew the fishskin together with silver carp skin threads and make it into clothes. Unfortunately nobody realy wears fishskin clothes any more. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China ~]

Under the influence of Manchu clothing, the fish skin dress grew in long garment, mainly for women, with slim waist like a cheongsam. The length of the dress was below the knees. It was loose and had short sleeves but has no collar. The dress and trousers was edged with colored cloth, embroidered with patterns. Some were decorated with copper bells. ~

Fish skin trousers were made entirely different for males and females. Those for males were aligned at the upper ends, and the lower ends are edged with black cloth. In winter hunting, these trousers were surprisingly warm and endured the roughest wearing. In spring and autumn fishing seasons, the trousers were water-resistant and protecedt the knees. Today, modern living and the availability of other materials and designs has changed Hezhen clothes radically. The fishskin dress used by Hezhen women to wrap themselves, rather it exists as a kind of folk handicraft collected and ordered by museums, researchers of national culture, and tourists.

Making Fishskin Clothes

Fishskin garments are made from the skin of carp, pike and salmon. It takes around 50 fish to create a woman’s top and trouser suit, 56 for a man’s, and around two months to put it all together. When making the fish skin clothes from silver carp, the full skin of the fish is removed. After processing the fish skin to make it as soft as cotton cloth, people sew it with silver carp skin threads and make it into clothes.

Making Hezhen fish skin clothing is a lot of work.First the fish are skinned. After the skin is dried the skins are kneaded by repeatedly passing them through the jaws of a rudimentary wooden press, softening the skin into a leather. The process takes a month. Sewing requires a further 20 days.

fishskin jacket 1875-1900

You Wenfeng, one of the last fishskin clothes makers told Reuters: "You don't discover anything about the fish skin if you are just eating it as food. […] If you dry it then you'll see, there's a kind of fiber at the back of the skin that looks like the criss-cross web pattern. So, it's the texture that keeps the skin from wear and tear." [Source: Ryan Woo, Reuters, January 21, 2020]

Liu Sheng, a Han Chinese woman married to a Hezhen, spent five years making a set of traditional Hezhen fish-skin clothes, 33 pieces altogether. She told Newsgd.com: "After the fish skins were sun-dried, I rolled a wood rod on the skins until they were as flat as paper. And then I used my bare hands to rub the fish skins thousands of times until they were as soft as a piece of cotton fabric.” She then sewed the fish skins together."It's exhausting work. My hands often blistered," she recalled. [Source: Newsgd.com, May 5, 2005 ***]

Goodbye Fishskin Clothes?

Reporting from Tongjiang, China, Ryan Woo of Reuters wrote: You Wenfeng, who belongs to China's tiny Hezhen ethnic group, is one of the few people in her community who can still make clothing from the skin of fish. 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. "Many Hezhen clans perished, but my mother survived to pass on her fish-skin knowledge to me," said You, 68.[Source: Ryan Woo, Reuters, January 21, 2020]

“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 their garments and accessories, but the fabric is still largely a curiosity. “"Look at the criss-cross pattern on the skin," You said. “It's stronger than most skins."

“It was You's mother who taught her the ancient technique. She's now one of the few Hezhen women left who are keeping this legacy alive. No one in You's family have learnt the special skill. And while she's teaching her craft to a handful of local women, this years-old tradition risks vanishing into the history books: "My mum tried so hard to bring it from old society to the new society, and the skill was preserved even when the Hezhen people were almost extinct. How can I not be worried? That's why I'll teach whoever comes to learn."

closeup of the collar of a fishskin jacket

Preserving Hezhen Fishskin Culture

In 2005, Newsgd.com reported: “Liu Sheng said she is the only person who still makes the traditional Hezhen fish-skin clothes. Her efforts paid off. In 2004, her entry, clothes made of salmon fish skins, won the gold prize at the "Mountain Flower Prize" national folk art contest, following local honors in 2002 and 2003. Hard labor was not the only challenge. Making the clothes and championing the "fish-skin culture" at folk art exhibitions around the country burned up much of her savings. She and her husband are not rich, living on their pensions, a meager 1,000 yuan (US$125) each month for Liu Sheng, and 1,700 for her husband. "I know our local government is not rich, so I didn't expect to get a single yuan of public money," Liu said. [Source: Newsgd.com, May 5, 2005 ***]

“Liu Sheng's crusade moved to new fronts when she was hired as visiting professor teaching Hezhen culture by the Humanities School of Jiamusi University in Heilongjiang Province. She was excited to learn that the fish-skin clothes making techniques have been listed by the Central Government in the Intangible Culture Heritage as part of China's efforts to preserve cultures of some ethic groups on the verge of extinction. Following the listing, the Heilongjiang provincial government has asked her to recruit apprentices to pass down the fish-skin clothing skills.” ***

Oral Literature and Songs of the Hezhen

Story telling and ballad singing are favorite pastimes among the Hezhe people, who have a wealth of folktales. Some of the longer epics and ballads can last for days on end, as tales of ancient heroes are narrated in speech alternating with songs. Short and lively shuohuli songs used to be sung by the elders to initiate the younger members of the tribe into the tribal lore. The Hezhes also sing songs with extempore words; typical are "jialingkuo" and "henina. [Source: China.org]

The Hezhen have a rich oral literature, with a large body of stories, legends and songs that are present in all activities of their lives. The main types of songs and stories are: 1) yimakan, or sung stories; 2) telungu, or legendary stories; 3) shuohuli, or stories; and 4) jialinkuo, or popular songs. Most of the history and tradition of the Hezhen people is handed down by "yimakan," which resemble folk song that has nearly died out over recent years. [Source: Ethnic China *]

There are more than ten kinds of Hezhen folk songs, whose context covers all aspects of life. There are sad songs, ancient songs, fishing songs, hunting songs, etiquette songs, love songs, cradle songs and narrative songs. Women prefer singing "jialingkuo" and songs like the wedding performance "Yimakan". Dagu (story-telling with a drum accompaniment) is associated with old men and are often retellings of ancient epics. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China]

In the fishing season, usually in the spring and autumn, Hezhen spend the night on the river singing their yimakan. They believe that in this way they can encourage the river deities to provide them with abundant fishing the following morning. Neighboring peoples have sung stories similar to the yimakan. Some scholars think that the existence of this literary genre harks back to the remote past of the Hezhen. *\

Hezhen Yimakan Storytelling

Yimakan reflect the spiritual universe of the Hezhen, their myths, legends, customs, philosophy, religion, and history. These sung stories are regarded not only a means of communication between people, but also with the spirits. The Hezhen think that the gods like to listen to these songs. Singing them, they believe, will help them gain the favor of the gods and bring them good health, abundant hunts and good luck. The demons, on the other hand, don’t like yimakan. While listening to these songs, that sometimes narrate tales of the heroic Hezhen shamans, they get scared and don't dare bother the people. [Source: Ethnic China *]

The yimakan are always sung at night, accompanied by a dances, whose rhythms and movements bear a certain resemblance to the dance of the shamans. It is thought that dances and perhaps the yimakan originated in ancient shamanic songs and ceremonies. The sense of magic and spirituality found in this type of song, the Hezhen believe, allows people to communicate with the gods and demons. By imitating the actions of the shamans the Hezhen believe that they can produce a similar result among the singers. *\

Yimakan are important in the lives of the Hezhen. Any important event, such as weddings, funerals or the arrival of guests, is always accompanied by the singing of the yimakan. Their function is particularly important in hunting expeditions and during the fishing time. If a group leaves for a hunt, when they come back to the camp at night, it is necessary to sing the yimakan. The singer of the yimakan is the most important person in the group of hunters. *\

Hezhen Yimakan Storytelling on UNESCO Cultural List

Hezhen Yimakan storytelling was inscribed in 2011 on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. According to UNESCO: Yimakan storytelling is essential to the worldview and historical memory of the Hezhen ethnic minority of north-east China. Narrated in the Hezhen language, and taking both verse and prose forms, Yimakan storytelling consists of many independent episodes depicting tribal alliances and battles, including the defeat of monsters and invaders by Hezhen heroes. [Source: UNESCO]

This oral heritage highlights the defence of ethnic identity and territorial integrity, but also preserves traditional knowledge of shamanic rituals, fishing and hunting. Yimakan performers improvise stories without instrumental accompaniment, alternating between singing and speaking, and make use of different melodies to represent different characters and plots. They usually train in a master-apprentice relationship within their own clans and families, although today outsiders are increasingly accepted for apprenticeship.

As the Hezhen have no writing system, Yimakan plays a key role in preserving their mother tongue, religion, beliefs, folklore and customs. However, with the acceleration of modernization and the standardization of school education, the Hezhen mother tongue is now endangered. At present, only the elders can speak their native language. This loss has become a major obstacle to the promotion and sustainability of the Yimakan tradition. Only five master storytellers are currently capable of performing the episodes – a situation aggravated by the deaths of a number of veteran storytellers, and the departure of younger generations to cities in search of employment.

"Wurigong" and Hezhen Fish Sports

The "Wurigong" is a new holiday created in 1985. Lasting for three days, it is held biennially held in the fifth or sixth lunar month on the Chinese calendar. "Wurigong" means “fun day’ or “sports meeting.” Hezhen' communities take turns hosting the festival. Competitive activities such as swimming, boating, net-casting, push-and-pulling, straw fish forking, straw target shooting and archery. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China]

Among the sports, weed ball spearing is perhaps the most characteristic and unique. A test of fish spearing skills, it uses a football-size ball made wet weeds. There are two kinds of games. In one, participants throw the wooden spear, which is one to two meter long and has three prongs, at balls some distance away from them. The winner is the one who spears the ball. In the other game, participants are divided into two teams. Team one throws the ball into the air, and team two tries to spear the ball before it hits the ground. If team two does it successfully, they may walk forward by fifteen to twenty paces; if they fail, they have to walk backward the same distance. Then the teams reverse roles. The winner is the team that get to the finishing line first.

At night, people make bonfires by the river. They hold banquets where they eat and drink together, and sing and dance swan dances, shaman dances, osprey dances and dances performed to the beats of divine shaman drum and the melodies of folk songs. In March 2001, a Wurigong event was held in Beijing. In recent years, members of the Russian Nanai ethnic group been invited to the Wurigong Festival. Old Hezhen men who spoke Hezhen language could communicate with Nanai, who used their own language.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China website, Donsmaps, University of Washington, San Francisco Museum, CNTO

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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